Fuel (Codemasters, July 2009).
A review of the Windows version. £25. All screenshots are my own in-game shots.
Ah, racing games. Huge fiery explosions when you crash, booster flares shooting out of your rear-end like golden farts, hyper-realistic car damage FX and crash physics, insanely complex controls, and support for a range of expensive USB-powered life-sized steering wheels and pedals.
There is none of that in Fuel. None. This means racing-sim fanboys hated Fuel, and they penned some nasty early reviews. Amazon U.K.’s five-star rating is currently languishing at a mere two stars, simply because of grumbling from owners of USB steering wheels. Really.
But what do I care? I just don’t play racing games. I dislike car games. I’ve tried a few but they seem to make me car-sick, and they seem full of silly macho boy-cruft and in-game advertising for real-world products I never use. So why am I playing a racing game, especially when the petrol-heads have given it such bad early reviews?
Because Fuel is the world’s largest ever ‘open world’ game. And it’s on the PC. Racing car games seem to be ten-a-penny, but truly ‘open world’ games are currently rather rare. So even if it turned out to be a £25 tech-demo, I just wanted to experience Fuel’s attempt at making a truly open world without those pesky “loading…” screens.
Yet Fuel is only half an open world game. The meat of Fuel is a fun arcade-style racing game, very easy to pick up, and skinned somewhat in the style of those late 1990s PC Mad Max-style racers. An un-specified global calamity has occurred in this world. Only eccentric mavericks dare ride the roads of the abandoned wilderness, etc. Yawn — so much for the story. The game cares so little for its own back-story that it’s not even told in a cinematic cut-scene at the start of the game. That’s actually quite refreshing — and yet how difficult would it have been to have told us nothing, then let an interesting back-story unfold as we found tatty old newspapers lying around the world? Also refreshing is that the game seems devoid of any real-world product placement spam. The backstory at least permits over 70 deliciously stylised and unique vehicle designs (video), many redolent of a vaguely Ballardian near-future world. The handling of these strangely indestructable vehicles seems realistic to me, with some delicious sliding depending on the type of surface you’re riding on. But the world they endlessly travel is only too Ballardian — an endless desert of dead possibilities.
Many reviewers have complained of “poor AI”, but since most people will race in online multiplayer games I can’t see that being a long-term stumbling block. However, unlocking each large area of the even larger free-riding open world does require completing and winning the single-player races, some of which are “Let the Wookie win!” and some of which are stupidly hard. Building a world that offers free-riding across an insanely large chunk of the Western U.S.A., then locking it up behind an inconsistent single-player campaign just seems like such a poor game design decision. Perhaps the designers were simply ashamed that the open landscape is so relatively empty. Or they were afraid we’d drive off and get lost on a 10,000 mile trip to the next camp. But that’s the point for some players — it’s empty, so players with a little imagination and a few online friends might like to get lost and make their own fun. That said, it seems the developers accidentally left some debug files in the retail game, complete with warnings that they were ‘NOT TO BE LEFT IN THE RETAIL GAME’. So the fans have since found a fairly simple way to “Unlock All” regions and vehicles. This is effectively a cheat of course, and only for those who bought the game simply for joyriding and road-trips, or for disabled gamers who have done as much as they can of the campaign mode.
The huge open landscape seems initially beautiful in a sparse kind of way, and is convincingly laid out. So it should be, since it’s laid on top of free DEM satellite maps. The open road may not appeal to Americans who live every day with wide open skies and endless rolling highways. But it certainly appeals to a Brit living alongside 70 million people crammed into a tiny island the size of Louisiana.
Yet the open spaces are really badly let down by one key flaw — poorly rendered graphics on the PC. I shouldn’t have to say that in 2009, especially for a major full-price PC title from Codemasters. Yes – poor graphics, despite what you can see in this review’s luvverly screenshots. See them at 1920 x 1200 widescreen, even with the highest texture settings and 8 x anti-aliasing / 16 x anisotropic filtering, and the game world just looks poorly rendered. The Nvidia Control Panel can’t force a higher quality, for some reason — which the fans of the game have complained about at length online. AA only seems to affect some edges and textures, and not nearly enough to be at all effective. Presumably it’s that way in order to let the game run DirectX 9 direct lighting and keep an acceptable frame-rate for the console crowd. Which seems silly when my PC graphics card plays demanding DirectX 10 games very smoothly. Once again, it seems that consoles have dragged a vital element of a PC game back to mediocrity.
Fuel is obviously a console game world that’s designed to be seen from the comfort of a distant sofa, at a viewing distance of about 12 feet. It’s perhaps only a slight problem that the far distance is very blandly textured — yet the vital middle-distance is beset with frequent pop-up models, nasty jaggies, and serious shimmer on edges. Such middle-distance details matter a lot, especially when you’re racing at 70mph and the middle-distance is what you’re focussed on.
As a virtual photographer I rather liked the idea of just riding around Fuel’s world making awesome widescreen screenshots of the landscape. It seems that’s not to be, or at least not with an adequate level of quality at 1920 x 1200. Fuel’s existential world simply cannot match the visual beauty and polish of that other 2009 open world for the PC, Emote’s excellent The Hunter.
Even if the graphics are mediocre I still like to really see my open worlds, so it’s very pleasing that the chunky console-centric user interface and silly overhead flow of GPS arrows can be completely removed from the screen, leaving only a small unobtrusive mini-map and pointer between you and the world. I also like to adjust my keyboard easily, and remapping was simple. Once set up, the game’s controls were simple and effective to use. With the PC version, however, there’s little room for fine-tuning your speed. It’s either Accelerate or Brake, with nothing in between. Unless you find a config file that will let you hack a vehicle, it’s going to be difficult to tootle through this world at 35mph.
Something went badly wrong with the game’s weather and night-day system. The open world offers very short and painfully jerky dawn/dusk effects. The night is mercifully brief, and your headlights are automatically switched on at dusk and off at dawn. The “fearsome” tornadoes and lightning storms hyped by demo videos are no such thing. Extreme weather only seems to make very rare appearances, the lightning is for decoration only and not especially convincing, and the scripted tornadoes apparently (I never saw one) have almost no effect on the game world. Rain is a wimpy flurry that seems to last exactly 20 seconds.
Then there’s the sound. The sound design is just bad, yet could so easily have been fixed. Engine sounds are often headache-inducing, and the music is moronically bland and repetitive. Thankfully players can use sliders to turn the music off and the engine sounds almost-off, and then have Spotify streaming your fave music tracks while you play. It seems to be the best way to play the game, and Right Said Fred’s Fredhead (1998) album did the trick for me. The Playstation 3 version of Fuel apparently has announcers for races, but given the low standard of the sound design it’s probably a blessing that they’re missing from the PC version.
The 5,000 square miles of open world is mostly empty of any exciting game content — for now. After completing the first three races, a new camp and region unlocked. Travelling from the first to the second camp took me an hour, and while this was visually somewhat interesting it only gave me two new ‘liveries’ — which the game annoyingly “auto-spotted” and which were then nowhere to be found. Farmhouses and crashed trucks zipped by, all looking much the same after a while. The same broken tree re-appeared countless times. If my indestructible vehicle crashed on the way, the game just restarted me ten yards back. Like The Hunter, Fuel is refreshing because this world is not an ‘everyone is an enemy’ world. Your ride is not constantly disrupted by the stereotypical Endless Waves Of Killer Zombies — but sometimes you wish it were, just to relieve the monotony. The occasional badly-animated ‘Doppler truck’ doesn’t really cut it, and although they act like dumb zombies they pose no threat. There are occasional fuel barrels to be found and collected, neatly stacked in remote fields — just one more illogical feature in a landscape it’s ultimately impossible to care about. The game’s open world ends up feeling like a giant psychological metaphor for the sad malaise of contemporary France, where the game was apparently developed.
There is a built-in ‘race editor’ which lets people make their own courses, by placing up to 30 waypoints (using roads and tracks only) for up to 100km. You have to use the clunky console-centric satellite map to place waypoints though, then drive your track in the game world to check it, and then re-adjust. This is tedious and imprecise. You cannot set the weather and time of day for your custom races, at least not in the PC version of the editor. You have to go online and invite people into your course via Windows Live, which again makes the process of making and sharing new content far more clunky than it should be.
You might think that the “free roam” online mode might let you spot a fellow player riding alongside you in the game. But since the game is not massively multiplayer, the chance of seeing someone else on those 100,000 miles of roads seems very slim. Fuel‘s chance of morphing into a Mad Max MMO anytime soon seems even slimmer — because huge procedurally-generated landscapes apparently have serious problems handling thousands of scripts running simultaneously. A pity. Fuel’s open world begs to be a canvas for a larger game. Or at least for whacky coast-to-coast one-day races.
In the absence of MMO play, the PC version of Fuel badly needs an official modding tool so that the fans can at least populate the wilderness, tweak the U.I., and perhaps even replace distant textures with something more hi-res. Yet the Codemasters Fuel discussion forum explicitly states that the slightest hint of modding talk will get users banned instantly. Codemasters needs to drop its paranoia and take a leaf from Bethesda’s book — if you create a stupendously large open world, you have to release modding tools to the fans, and then let them finish your inevitably unfinished game. And Fuel is unfinished, make no mistake. It’s the sad old story of how many great games were ruined — a game shovelled out the door by the publishers at least a year too early, so the publishers could satisfy the accountants. And damn the fans, and damn the developers who put their families on hold for six months to meet the deadline. It’s just yet another generic racer for pimply teen boys, right? There’ll be another three along next month… Shift, Dirt 2, Overspeed…
Before the fans migrate to the Next Big Game of late 2009, the very least Fuel needs is a major PC patch by September. You can tell how badly a patch is needed just by looking at the U.S. Amazon site — no-one has even bothered to review the PC version. Not one person. In over two months. We need a patch that: i) changes the music (could it partner with Spotify?); ii) makes interesting weather far more frequent and varied; iii) unlocks the full free-roaming world without having to first slog through the inconsistent single-player campaign; iv) gives the distant lands textures a hi-res boost and mends the broken anti-aliasing; v) eases in the dawn and dusk far more smoothly, and vi) fixes the broken multiplayer post-game lobby kick-out.
Despite all these gripes, the disjointed Fuel has a racing campaign that plays and feels like a fun game. How long that fun will last for me I’m really not sure right now. I’ll update this review in a week or so, with more comments at the foot of the review. But even after six hours of play I can see that Fuel could have been so much more.
Fuel has run out of gas after 24 hours of play, at least for me. It’s certainly not a Nabokov -ian or a Kerouac -ian American road-trip. It’s not even a convincing Ballardian post-apocalyptic derive, in the end. It’s more Baudrillard’s tedious “desert of the real”, a very odd French take on their strange perception of ‘America as bankrupt wasteland’. I’ve now experienced many hours more of free-roaming, but seeing those same 3D models zip by again and again rapidly became tedious. And the flaws became more and more obvious. Broken seams on cliff-sides, badly-modelled water in streams, glitchy animations, pop-in-textures, the same damn broken tree again and again… Yet the game’s biggest puncture is in the mediocre graphics. I’ve still found no way to force anti-aliasing. Using the debugger to set a perpetual sunset certainly mitigates many sins of Fuel‘s endless free-roaming landscape. There was a certain kind of serene fun to be found searching for jumps with an off-road bike in a perpetual “debug-forced” sunset — but not enough to make it a ‘meditative game’ or to hold me when there are better games open world games such as The Hunter waiting to be played.
Exciting-looking weather system often bruised the horizon, but never actually swept across my bit of the landscape. I saw none of the well-publicised tornadoes — nothing but the occasional lightning flashes, 20-second drizzles of rain, and some light snow falling on Rainer’s Peak. Where is the promised extreme weather? I just couldn’t find it and it never came to me. The debug mode can toggle through a wide variety of weather effects and types — but these modes never seem to appear in the game, let alone mix together and then mix in interesting ways with the lighting effects.
There’s some modding potential in Fuel, or at least some potential for manually tweaking custom-made games (Google for Purple44 to find his instructions). hubinfos.tsc can be edited in a very simple manner to open up all camps without needing to enable debug mode, which I did and was thus able to visit all the camps. Some camps are clearly more distinctive places than others. I played through about 25 of the races at various camps, and found a few I might play regularly: “Big Cauldron Rush” at Big Cauldron camp (see below) being especially fine — a scrambler bike race with a memorable track, excellent lighting (a finely-tuned perpetual sunset), and a convincing and varied setting…
Other races I especially liked were the second race at Dry Rigs camp, and the first race at Drownington Cove camp. Bike and quad-bike races seem to work best in Fuel, taking advantage of the abundant and detailed off-road terrain. But these were only a few live sparkplugs in what seemed like an oily mire of muscle car and oddball-vehicle races. I could have a lot more fun, and often in broadly similar environments, with the games in Unreal Tournament 2004‘s Onslaught mode.
If you’d like to try the game yourself, the PC demo for Fuel is here. If you’re thinking of buying it for the PC I suggest you wait until the price is down to budget levels, and an official patch has been released. Otherwise, play it on an Xbox with the music turned off. What a sad end for a game of which respected developer magazine Edge wrote in January 2009… “It’s entirely possible that Fuel will be recorded in the annals of gaming history as a dramatic leap forward”
|Graphics:||5/10||No anti-aliasing, blurry textures, middle-distance jaggies. Ugh|
|Animations:||6/10||Often glitchy, especially the black trucks on the roads|
|Weather effects:||3/10||Where the hell is the extreme weather?|
|Lighting and shadows:||5/10||Sometimes pretty, often glitchy and jerky|
|Sound and music:||2/10||Dreadful music|
|Races:||6/10||Many are fun the first time, few are fun the second time|
|A.I.:||7/10||Seemed OK to me, but novice mode is “Let the Wookie win!”|
|Free-riding:||6/10||Empty, cloned, with distant views poorly textured and a jaggy middle-distance|
|Controls and vehicle handling:||8/10||I don’t play racing games, but it seemed polished|
|Interface and menus:||9/10||Excellent, simple.|
|Art direction and place-making:||6/10||Camps needed more character|
|Install and configuration:||9/10||Smooth|
|Overall cohesion:||5/10||A disjointed and illogical game|
|Ambition:||7/10||Could have been so much more|
Overall score: 5.5 / 10