On paper, Fuelâ€™s open-world concept is nothing to sniff at: 5,560 square miles of free roaming open world terrain, an extreme weather cycle, 70 different vehicles, diverse environments. On paper, Fuel looks like the sort of game that you could lose yourself in for hours, a deeply immersive, complex racer with enough toys in its sandbox to ensure a unique gameplay experience every time. Itâ€™s a pity, then, that Fuel ultimately collapses under its own weighty tome, its gigantic arena crushing more important fundamentals.
Fuelâ€™s story is loose and inconsequential: in a post-apocalyptic America, you are one of a handful of surviving drivers who must compete for fuel (an odd choice of currency for a fuel-burning car game) in order to survive. In career mode, you race against other drivers through a series of checkpoints, either against the clock or against each other.
Second place is very much a dirty word in Fuel, which inevitably means youâ€™ll have to repeat tracks over again. An alluring concept for arcade-junkies, but a drag for the rest of us; races in Fuel are so run of the mill youâ€™ll long for the excitement of Castrol Honda Superbike Racing.
Cruel, I know.
Itâ€™s a surprising flaw, for surely with such a massive environment there should be a veritable goldmine of interesting, multifaceted routes? Perhaps, but wherever they are, the developers at Asobo Studio havenâ€™t found them. Races in Fuel generally consist of a meander over a banal chunk of land seemingly selected at random, a couple of environmental obstacles, finished off with a rinse and repeat.
Shortcuts are encouraged and fairly obvious, although rarely will you benefit by taking one; more-often-than-not youâ€™ll end up plunging into a nigh on invisible river (annoyingly deadly) or the samey-samey environment will confuse you into going in circles. AI competitors add to the frustration by behaving too erratically, competitors revving up sudden bursts of speed or slamming on the breaks when it suits them, their arbitrary decisions rather psychotic.
Thankfully, most of the vehicles in Fuel handle well, particularly the smaller bikes and buggies. Thereâ€™s not a lot of point in choosing one of the larger vehicles, the grunty gas-guzzlers are like giants in Tiny Town, and taking them around the requisite tight corners is a chore. Some might miss the option of manual handling â€“ Fuelâ€™s vehicles are automatic only â€“ although this is unsurprising for a game set so firmly in the arcade genre. The omission of a boost button in an arcade racer, however, is less forgivable.
But enough talk of its mediocre fundamentals, what of Fuelâ€™s trump card, its ridiculous landmass? Fuel encourages you to explore its gigantic map with a free-roam mode, where you can discover new paint-jobs for your car, hidden races and sightseeing areas. These bonuses are great in theory, but are marred by being too spaced out. Taking fifteen minutes to reach a bonus race is no fun, and the post-apocalyptic wasteland that serves as distraction is criminally bland. Who knew 5,560 square miles â€“ with absolutely no loading times - could be so dull, so â€¦brown?
Perhaps Fuel can be the final nail in the coffin of this tired theme thatâ€™s dominated game arenas in the past couple of years. The barren, stripped-back landscape is, quite frankly, an easy way to avoid coming up with something more original. Fuelâ€™s graphics engine undeniably packs a punch, but a beautifully rendered charred tree is still a charred tree. Itâ€™s time to move on.
There are a few moments of redemption. The secondary â€˜challengeâ€™ mode offers more frenetic thrills, including chasing after a helicopter or takedown challenges against other vehicles. Couple these lively jaunts with Fuelâ€™s dynamic weather system, which includes hurricanes and lightning storms, and the game scales dramatic heights that few racers have eclipsed. Itâ€™s during these moments â€“ few-and-far-between though they are - that Asoboâ€™s vision becomes crystal clear, the missed opportunity revealed.
The level-editor, crucial for any sandbox racer, also holds promise. Although meandering through the wasteland is tiresome, it does reveal certain areas of interest â€“ a particularly dramatic mountainside, for example â€“ on which you can design your own, deeper route than the ones designated. Customizing your own race and taking it online (ridding yourself of the broken AI) may be the truer test of skill in Fuel, if you have the patience.
Ultimately, Fuelâ€™s biggest problem is that it wants to be so big. Asobo seem to heave held onto this ambition like a mantra, and one ends up feeling beaten over the head by it, â€˜5560 square miles!â€™ in glowing lights. Fuel feels like one giant exercise in proving a point, a huge technical achievement that manages to eschew the fundamental rules of a good racer and drive itself, tragically, into mediocrity.