I can't remember the last time I had such a love/hate relationship with a racing game. When everything is working as it should be, Fuel is a blast, with its massive explorable terrain, variety of vehicles, and option to race or wander whenever you like. When things go wrong though — cheating AI, being forced to use a ride in a challenge that clearly isn't up to the task, occasional game freezes — and it's almost enough to make you want to quit. Fortunately, the option to take a break and trek off into the wilderness to collect liveries, new vehicles, vista points, and unlockable challenges is just the ticket to alleviate any grief that the beaten path make give you.
It must be noted that Fuel gives new meaning to the scope of "open world" games. It holds the Guinness world record for playable area size in a console game — 5,560 square miles — and every inch of that is available to you from the minute you start. You have to drive there manually in the beginning, but once you open up new areas by winning stars in races and other events, you can warp from place to place.
The first half of the game offers reasonable challenge in the multitude of race types (helicopter chases, waypoint elimination, tag, timed waypoint blitzes, short dirt track sprints, and incredibly long endurance challenges that can span a few in-game areas), but the last half ramps up to the point that Hard races from the early areas are a cakewalk compared to Easy ones later on. Vehicle restrictions for certain events especially make things frustrating, though there is a minor exploit to get around this (hit Select right when the race starts, go to Garage; once per race you can swap vehicles this way). This "cheat" (if you must call names) evens out difficulty in rougher areas and gives players an option I feel they should have had to begin with. The AI cheats enough in spots, so rubber band AI will keep it competitive no matter what you use.
The story behind the goings on is that environmental and ecological disasters in the wake of global warming have destroyed fictionalized areas modeled after northern California stretching up to Seattle (the in-game Crater Lake mock-up is just a little too similar to ignore). With no people around to complain, off-road racers with a few screws loose have flocked to the area to compete for "fuel," the currency of the game, which is offered both as a reward for winning races and can be found in free roam littering the environment in clearly marked barrels here and there. Don't worry, though; you don't have to spend it to refill your tank. It's mainly used for purchasing new vehicles. This explains the relative absence of other people in the world, aside from other racers. Some areas flooded, some burned, some were blanketed in snow, and it's all a marvel to look at and explore. The visuals impress for the most part, and elevation changes are extreme in places, making terrain both challenging to navigate and breathtaking to take in, peering off a mountaintop to the sunset on the horizon, still visible several miles away.
The 70+ vehicles that become available as you progress through the game range from dirt bikes and road hogs to ATVs to buggies, monster trucks, and even a school bus up on huge tractor tires. Late in the game you gain access to a hovercraft, allowing you to cross water and reach areas you couldn't otherwise. However, it felt underutilized since it's only featured in one race. The ability to skim across land and water throughout the game would have added some interesting Jet Moto-esque twists and variety. However, the drag racer is only featured in a single race and can't be used in free roam, making it a throwaway ride entirely.
Each vehicle has stats for acceleration, top speed, grip, and performance both on and off of the road, though they don't always feel entirely accurate. You can get left in the dust by vehicles that should, statistically at least, pose no challenge to you.
This brings up the issue of the occasional cheating by the CPU racers. The rubber-banding (catching up impossibly quick) in some races is ludicrous, allowing people 10km behind catch up when you flub one lousy turn. This never really works to your advantage, only against you. However, if you take the lead early and don't screw up, you're solid. But if first place gets a lead on you, even with a perfect race, you can't catch up, and the other racers seem to all gang up on you rather than fighting each other.
The game eschews recent popular additions to the genre, like a significant pervasive storyline you have to follow and abide by or live action cutscenes, excessive modding of vehicles (mods here are cosmetic, not performance-related), using nitrous, and/or having to do tricks to succeed. Some have complained about these omissions, but to me it kept the basic arcade racing experience at the forefront without cluttering up or diluting it with needless fluff. The environment is so attractive and varied, your time should be spent exploring it, not grafting on spinner rims and ground effects.
While Pure was a solid game, it's nice to have a break from the tricks = boost = win formula, or the cramped and narrow races of Motorstorm, which has even longer load times for smaller, more confined racing areas. Figure that one out. Fuel has load times whenever you take a helicopter to a far-off area, start a race, or restart events, but the rest is seamless, including driving from one end of the map to another, or going online (much like Burnout Paradise, the transition to online play is seamless). On the other hand, the game can be so big that it's hard to track people down, especially other players in online multiplayer. The GPS in the game works pretty well, except that you can't stick the target to a moving object, and it occasionally wigs out and becomes unreliable when trying to plot a route through the untracked backcountry.
One underwhelming area of the game is the music. You can mute it and be fine, and there's no voice acting or anything to worry about missing. Engines each sound unique in some way, and environmental effects are decent — splashing through water or tearing across asphalt, rock, gravel, and dirt are all aurally distinct.
The game has a "back on track" feature to quickly correct wipeouts, but most of the time it backtracks too far, dropping you further back than if you'd corrected the mistake yourself…provided you didn't drive off a mile-high cliff, that is.
Ramping up the excitement during some races are ridiculous weather and environmental effects like blizzards, thunderstorms, tornadoes, and forest fires, offering dynamic obstacles and limited visibility. In a way, I wished more races had this level of insanity, but then they wouldn't stand out as much. Unfortunately, you won't encounter these sorts of weather effects in free roam, only in those designated races.
Fuel offers a race builder that allows you to drop waypoints all over the map (on-road only, strangely), and you can grab custom races from other players. Not being able to place waypoints on the off-road portions limits what you can do with it somewhat, and is puzzling since some of the races in the single player portion are exclusively off-road. Still, it offers you enough flexibility that you can generally accomplish what you want, be it a dash through the desert or a sprint through the woods.
It's a game about freedom, not limitations. There are no boundaries or invisible walls or systems telling you "No, you can't do that." All in all, aside from some brutal chopper chases and blitzes toward the end of the game, and some cheaty arcadey rubber band AI, I enjoyed this game immensely. It is a breath of fresh air in a genre that's mired in off-track storylines, intense realism and simulation, and wasting more time decorating your car than driving it. It's simplified, but not dumbed down. It does for off-road racing what Test Drive Unlimited did for virtually racing and exploring Honolulu and the rest of Oahu. At the very least, if you're a fan of off-road racing and aren't crazy about exacting sims like DIRT and GRID, Fuel is at least worth a rental, or pick up the demo online.
Fuel is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Comic Mischief. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.