Wednesday, 2 September 2009

FUEL Review

FUEL was a game I never intended to buy; indeed, I’d never even properly heard of it until I read an article on it over at The Escapist. I mean, I was aware of the game but knew nothing about it; I very seldom play racing games (the last one I properly played was Need for Speed: Underground 2 back in 2004), so previews tend to slip under my radar. I only ended up buying it as I wanted to have a play round with the game world!

The premise of the game is that, after a massive ecological disaster, people have abandoned vast swathes of land due to the dangerous and unpredictable weather. You, and a number of other thrill-seekers, have started competing in races across the uninhabited wasteland to win fuel (yes, I’ll let you read that again to absorb how stupid it sounds; you race cars to win fuel).

This game is all kinds of large…

The main draw of the game is its much publicised, massive procedurally-generated game world; the playable area is around 14,400km2. I guess this equates to a square roughly 128km on each side, with a few sections on the top of mountains and in the sea being unreachable (this is an area roughly the size of East Timor, fact fans… Thanks to Wikipedia for that one). The game doesn’t store the entire world on your hard drive, however; the landscape is procedurally generated (not the same as it being random; see Elite), allowing the developers to hand-sculpt a few key areas and have the computer fill in the boring in-between parts.

The upshot is you have an enormous post-apocalyptic world you can roam around in (with a handy helicopter mode for quick travelling between zones). Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. This is not a living, breathing environment like Liberty City or the Capitol Wasteland of Fallout 3; you can explore in a ‘free drive’ mode, but there is little to see aside from the (admittedly hugely impressive) vistas. Exploring allows you to spot challenges and races scattered around the map, but it’s far easier to unlock these by bumping into ‘doppler’ trucks. These are unlocked after particular races; all you have to do is drop down on a helipad nearby, drive cross-country until you catch it up, and bang! You’ve unlocked all the challenges.

The views are frequently breathtaking.

Presentation wise, the game is good; the lighting during races is especially pretty, with sunrises and sunsets bathing the screen with a wonderful golden glow. Cars kick up realistic amounts of dirt and spray, all the stuff you’d expect of a game released in 2009. Interface and controls are okay, I guess… The game is obviously converted from console (only being able to switch between menus with the Y and T keys becomes highly frustrating), but if you grab your gamepad you shouldn’t have too many problems. The music is alright to begin with, but I ended up turning it off as the small selection of tunes started to grate; the same applies to the sound effects, particularly the ‘tyre-screech’ sound. Nothing too gamebreaking, though.

The races themselves are good fun, and FUEL is at its best when it does things differently from a standard racing game. For example, one of the challenge modes sees you pursuing a helicopter from the ground, with the dust kicked up by its rotors obscuring your version. Another has you chasing down rival cars and knocking them off the road in a cops-and-robbers mode. The career races are often memorable; one race has you struggling to stick to the road as a monumental lightning storm knocks trees and pylons into your path, and a further has a tornado hurling burnt out vehicles at you as your descend a mountainside. Even the settings themselves are fun to race through, from a wind farm in a desolate forest to a valley floor littered with wrecked trucks and a tanker ship marooned in the middle of a desert.

Some of the career races feature bizarre weather (strangely absent from the free-drive mode).

The strength of these few scripted races only seems to underline the mediocrity of both the free-drive mode and the other ‘fill’ races. You can’t help but feel a profound sense of wasted potential; yes, the Seek ‘n Destroy (the aforementioned cops-and-robbers mode) races are fun, but they ultimately pan out the same, a fact not helped by the lack of a proper damage model. You can’t help but think what would happen if elements of a Destruction Derby type game were added in to the game, or if we had single player ‘missions’ to perform not unlike the structure for flight or space combat games (the old classic ‘defend the convey’ mission would work brilliantly well here). In fact, I intend to post in a couple of days as to what I think could have been done with the game!

The other main problem with the game is the AI. I don’t know if the developers tried to add rubber-band AI or not, but the computer players can be seen to visibly cheat. For instance, if you lose sight of the person in first place, it’s very difficult to catch them up, though they will frequently slow right down once they get within sight of the finish line. I guess playing in multiplayer alleviates this problem, but in career mode we’re stuck with frustrating AI until a patch comes along to fix it (assuming it does!).

Despite the above, FUEL is a hard game to really dislike. It might just be the fact I’ve not played many racing games, but I love the decidedly arcade handling of the vehicles as I can throw the cars round the track as I was playing Mario Kart, and the thrill you get from hurtling down a slope through a forest like an extra from Return of the Jedi is hard to deny. If the idea of a massive post-apocalyptic world with some fun racing thrown in interests you, go for it. For everyone else, we can just look at the best Mad Max game that never was and sigh disappointedly.

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