There's something to be said for making a large-scale off-road racing game topical by invoking the potentially disastrous effects of global warming on an environment and the chaotic weather that ensues. Although this might initially seem like a narrative crutch to explain why there isn't much civilian traffic in Fuel's massive expanse of open-world land (5,000 square miles loosely based on the Pacific Northwest), drastic shifts in weather patterns play an important role in some races. In fact, one of the earliest races available on the map essentially pits your muscle car against a series of tornados that not only wreak havoc on your vehicle, but on surrounding objects in the environment as well, including massive power lines that come crashing down on the track. In another race, a massive dust storm sweeps through the landscape, limiting your field of view, which in turn makes shortcuts off of the beaten path a riskier proposition.
Of course, not all of Fuel's dozens of circuit- and checkpoint-style races are victims of foul weather, but most of them feature equally hazardous terrain. In an area called The Ashtray, huge plumes of smoke rise off in the distance as you navigate your way through rocky terrain surrounded by a fire-ravaged forest; taking a shortcut requires slick driving through countless fallen trees and charred stumps. It's also worth pointing out that in a track like this, in which there are plenty of obstacles, it pays to keep an eye on vehicle damage. A few bumps and scrapes here and there won't do significant damage, but a couple of good smacks into a tree or an opponent usually results in a brief time penalty that resets your vehicle to a pristine condition. The same event occurs if you happen to plunge into a deep river or go careening off of one of the game's many steep cliffs.
There's no shortage of things that can go wrong during the course of a race in Fuel, so getting the feel for a vehicle's capabilities is the key to success. There are about 74 off-road transports, ranging from muscle cars and dirt bikes to big rigs and four-wheelers. There's even a vehicle called the Trident, a hydrofoil-like apparatus, which hopefully indicates that you can cross larger bodies of water in the game. But regardless of class, each vehicle has separate performance ratings in speed, acceleration, grip, brake, reliability, and an overall performance rating on asphalt versus off-road courses. As you might suspect, dirt bikes tend to be a little more nimble and offer quick acceleration, letting you zip through tight corridors. Conversely, a muscle car is generally a bit sturdier and more reliable on the open road.
You can't actually decide which type of vehicle you can use in one of the preexisting races, so you can't select an ATV in a race that allows only dirt bikes. The only time that you can select a specific vehicle is in the Free Ride portion of the game that lets you drive around at your leisure, and if you're online, other players can join and explore with you. Unfortunately, we haven't had a chance to test out much of the online multiplayer aspects of Fuel, so it remains to be seen just how multiplayer actually functions in terms of challenging other drivers to races or how the game manages to keep this mode populated.
Additionally, Free Ride offers an opportunity to collect liveries (in the form of new customization options) along with fuel, which represents the in-game currency. You "earn" fuel by simply plowing into marked barrels scattered throughout each section of the environment; if you save enough, then you can purchase better versions of preexisting vehicles to use in races. But perhaps the most important aspect of Free Ride is that it gives you an opportunity to create your own race. Interestingly, you can create a race in just about any area on the map (unlike the main career, which forces you to unlock sections as you go), as long as you keep it less than 150km. It's pretty fun to just randomly throw down points on the map, test out your track, and see how crazy it gets. Indeed, the first few tracks in our inventory involve some steep cliffs that are difficult to climb, so they probably wouldn't make for the best racing experience. Fortunately, you can zoom in and out on the static overhead track-editing screen, which gives a better idea of what kind of terrain is involved in your race and whether or not there are any pesky mountains involved.
At any rate, the actual racing in Fuel seems pretty straightforward at this point, relying mostly on basic driving skill as opposed to the over-the-top mechanics found in most arcade-style racing games, and there are still a few technical hiccups here and there, particularly when the weather is at its worst. It'll also be interesting to see how the online multiplayer features will help liven up Free Ride exploration, but even without it, you can't help but take a break from all of the hectic driving and stare deep into a massive world--even if a massive tornado off in the distance is obliterating it.