Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: FUEL

Platform: Playstation 3/Xbox 360

Developer: Asobo Studio

Publisher: Codemasters

# of Players: 1 (1-16 Multiplayer)

Rating: E (Everyone)

Official Site

Score: A-

With racing games of all types zooming into game shops on every platform on a regular basis, there's pretty much been nothing new under the sun other than prettier visuals, faster frame rates and the ability to use more and more expensive peripherals. Nevertheless, it's actually quite hard to find games that not only work as racers, but do double duty as pure driving experiences. Welcome to FUEL, Codemasters' and Asobo Studio's groundbreaking arcade-style racer that offers up a whopping 5,000+ miles of outrageously fun racing and pure driving for the hell of driving in a single package. It's got a few quirks here and there, but if the open road is your thing (even a post-apocalyptic open road), you'll have a complete blast each time you pick up the controller.

I've been playing this game nearly non-stop for weeks now and even after completing every single mission, haven't grown tired of it thanks to the addictive exploration the game engine allows for. Of course, 70-plus vehicles to blaze around in on those thousands of miles of Asobo's sandbox world is only part of the fun. The super-fun driving model allows players of any skill level to get into things without throwing controllers around in frustration or paying for big bucks for a fancy steering wheel controller. Granted, racing game purists who own these big bucks steering wheel may gripe about the lack of support for their favorite Logitech or other pricey doodad. Nevertheless, the game is absolutely addictive and a total blast once it gets its hooks into you.

Things open with a gloom and doom CG movie featuring imagery that almost makes you think you're about to play some sort of Road Warrior homage, but you'll soon see that there's no soused-up Mad Mel driving around in tight black leather. The overall goal of the game is dirt simple, which may make some players wonder what all the fuss is about, but this simplicity works for me. Win every single event, collect every vehicle and bit of gear, see every sprawling Vista Point and when you've the time, create your own races and have a friend over (or take the game online) for even more fun.

Even more accessible than the popular GRID or DIRT games, the border-free racing allows for players to choose their own route or stick to the "tracks" as they're laid out. It's really all about the shortcuts and the true freedom you get whilst sailing off a cliff at 120 MPH and (hopefully) sticking the landing as you blast past the AI or live opponents. To keep things interesting, you'll need to collect fuel drums scattered around the environment or win fuel by completing events. Collected fuel is used as the game's commerce, enabling you to buy new vehicles as you move from camp to camp. If you loved the insane amount of driving freedom found in the exotic car feast Test Drive Unlimited or Burnout Paradise's big city packed with its more crash-happy fanatics you'll definitely appreciate what's here equally if not more.

You'll also discovery skins for your rides (called Liveries here) and the aforementioned Vista Points in choice locations that require a bit of driving. Additionally, as you traverse the map, you'll "unlock" events, more liveries and such once they come into your view range. The game absolutely encourages going anywhere and everywhere and it is indeed quite thrilling to finally make it to the top of a choice location in order to take in a supremely gorgeous view. It just too bad you can't take in-game photos or save race replays - this might have added some interesting online elements.

In Challenge mode, winning races earns you stars and fuel. The more stars you earn, the closer you get to unlocking different event areas of the massive game world. Races range Checkpoint, Endurance, Knock Out, Raid and a bunch of other types that go from super easy to "Try Again" specials du jour thanks to the need to finish in first place or win nothing at all. Yes, a lot of genre fans will be pissed off by this aspect of the game. However, I like it a lot because it forces you to learn everything each vehicle can do (or use a cheap exploit that allows you to use any ride you've bought in any event) as well as each shortcut, tree placement, building and bump on certain tough Challenge courses. Anyway, the penalty for dropping out of races is nothing at all, so you can quit out of races you're about to lose and retry at will or hit Free Ride mode to get some more mileage under your belt.

Vehicle handling is different for each ride type and with motorbikes, ATV's, pre-customized cars, trucks, buggies and a few surprises, you'll be trying out each and every one as they become available. Some rides are better on asphalt only, some do best for your off-road needs. There are a bunch that do double duty, but all the rides depend on your nailing the controls as soon as possible. Just pressing the gas will only cramp up your finger in record time - you'll find that emergency brake button great for sliding anything around a turn or a bike through a bunch of trees, missing a wreck by a hair. Once you get good at braking, you can juke your rides around obstacles almost as if that bike or buggy is Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly reincarnated as wheeled metal.

Rides get will dirty and bashed up a bit, but the game is a heck of a lot more forgiving than Codemasters' other racers. When you wreck, the game cuts the crash off with a quick logo screen wipe effect and then you're back on course a few feet from where you crunched up your ride. If you want to see some crashes, just watch the AI during the game. On occasion, you'll see the computer drivers wipe out, smash into each other (or something on the map) and even watch a driver or two fly off his motorbike. Even the "stunts" you pull off are automatic. Asobo wants you to focus on the road, not tapping out trick combos while you're trying to figure out which way you're going.

Speaking of figuring out where you're going, night driving in Free Mode can be particularly terrifying. Just like driving on a dark highway or lonely stretch of country road, you're constantly thinking there's something out there as you speed along, then just when you say to yourself "bah - this is a racing game, silly..." WHAM! you get blindsided by a big semi that whips around a sharp curve, catching you off guard. This happened to me a few times and it scared the hell out of me more than once. Wrecking into the trees or a big boulder you didn't see also makes for the occasionally freaky moment. The game uses a sped-up day/night cycle that might throw you at first until you realize it's the same as other open world games. Ten minutes of daylight, five minutes of darkness - you get used to it and you'll definitely be covering the most miles while the sun is out.

Creating races is easy - just select a spot on the map, drop a few checkpoints, choose the time and weather, then test out your new course. You can save your tracks and share them online to critical players, some of whom blow through even the most craftily designed checkpoint maps. The online play I experienced was very smooth and fast, with only two instances of problems where multiple live drivers crashed in the same spot. Both times it took a bit long for the race to resume, but I'm thinking it was due to a connection issue more than the game acting up.

Visually, there's a lot going on here and most of it is stellar stuff. There's a nice sense of realism in everything, particularly the lighting effects. Asobo's solid engine with it's excellent draw distance reminded me a of Valve's Source engine in terms of the color usage and overall ambiance. Yes, you'll see certain building types repeated throughout, but each fits the area of the map they're on and all that weathering and damage go a long way in immersing you in the game world. The game drops some incredible weather and environmental effects all over the place including blowing debris, ground fog, thunderstorms and even a frighteningly real-looking tornado. There is a tiny bit of pop-up here and there, but it doesn't take away from the fun at all.

Vehicles are non-licensed and fun-looking all around. Some of them look as if they've been cobbled together from spare parts with exposed frames, open trunks spare fuel bottles (or is that nitrous?) and such. the sense of speed is excellent, especially when you click into first person mode. On a motorbike or quad zipping through the trees at top speed it almost feels as if you're on one of those speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi (I'd be smacking those chubby Ewoks right out of their fur). Yeah, a real monster truck wouldn't be able to take a big ol' cliff jump like they do here, but remember folks, video games aren't real - you're supposed to throw your suspension of disbelief off that same cliff your truck suspension just went over.

The sound design strays away from the hyper-realistic auto noises found in more simulation style racers as well as the Hollywood-loud sounds heard in the Burnout and other arcade-style racers. Once you get into the driving here, you'll quickly grow accustomed to the engines, your ride bounding up and down off bumps and such and that quick crash noise that sounds as if someone dropped a really full, really big toolbox on a metal floor. The music is fine, but it tends to sound generic after extended sessions to the point that I could block it out and focus solely on zipping from place to place. Then again, as I said before, the game is all about the driving, so you won't even miss the music.

Problem areas would be the pre-race loading times, occasional freezes when playing for extended periods, and the sometimes crazily unreliable GPS (it gets really confused at times). There could have also been more done with things such as car or character customization (where are the female characters?) and the whole fuel collecting deal, but this is one of those games that absolutely begs for a follow up. With all the real estate packed onto this game disc, I'm hoping Asobo gets the chance to revisit the game world for either an expansion or even better, an actual sequel.

There's a lot to love about FUEL, 5000+ miles of a lot, to be exact. Nevertheless, to capture more interest from easily jaded gamers (and game journalists who need to reawaken their sense of wonder), Asobo and Codemasters really need to go the extra mile and fill in the game world with some killer on-foot activity that doesn't simply resemble a Grand Theft Auto game. I was so impressed with the game as soon as I started seeing how much ground there was to cover that I actually wrote up a design document for a potential sequel (yes, I get that inspired from time to time). All that real estate is begging for that something... extra that will grab gamers who normally avoid racing games like the plague. I have the feeling if the fine folks at Codemasters pick up on this idea, they'll finally have that big action game hit they've been striving for as well as an even better arcade racing experience. Anyway, you know where to reach me – I'll be on the open road, sailing a few hundred feet off a cliff, trying to stick that landing...

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