Fuel is an ambitious game that tries to do a lot, but it doesn't deliver where it counts. There's a lot to like in this postapocalyptic, open-world driving game. Some of the races are cool and clever, there are a mind-boggling number of different courses and dozens upon dozens of different vehicles to drive, and the atmospheric environmental effects make for some fun moments. Yet by focusing on the bigger picture, developer Asobo Studios didn't nail down some of the basics that make for fun driving. The racing doesn't feel as thrilling as it should, the artificial intelligence is fundamentally flawed, and the enormous world gives you precious little to do in it. There's a great game struggling to emerge here, but Fuel's strengths are too often overshadowed by its shortcomings.
Fuel's greatest asset--and biggest liability--is its sprawling open world. Every career event and optional challenge is carved out of the enormous, often gorgeous landscapes. There are hundreds of offline races in which to partake, and none of them are exactly the same. Some of these courses, like the occasional circuit race, are cleverly designed and fun to compete in. Circuit standouts include a bridge littered with ramps and debris, and a course that cuts a winding path through an abandoned farm. Some of the longer, broader courses are also designed well and are even exciting on occasion. Racing a motorcycle down the steep inclines of a rocky cliff and improvising a shortcut through a dense forest (and emerging unscathed) are terrific and memorable moments. It's a staggering number of races--and a healthy list of challenge types as well. There are checkpoint challenges in which you have limited time to get from one point to the next; helicopter chases that encourage you to look for good shortcuts; seek-and-destroy chases in which you need to catch up to and eliminate AI opponents that are given a head start; and plenty more.
Shortcuts are the key to winning most races, though you can't get too carried away with them, lest you miss a checkpoint or try to zoom into the woods in a vehicle that performs better on asphalt. Generally, but not always, the AI racers will stick to the obvious path indicated by Fuel's waypoint system (more on this later), giving you a chance to get creative. And creative you'll need to be when it comes to leaving the bizarre AI in the dust. Simply put, the laws of physics that apply to you have only a vague influence on your artificial competitors. The AI racers seem practically glued to the road at times, taking corners without much drifting and avoiding most obstacles. You may see a motorcycle get stuck against a cliffside and then leap dozens of feet in the air onto the path above. Sometimes, competitors will burst forward at insane speeds, or they'll run out of steam in the last mile of a race, letting you pass right by when they seemed capable of impossible speeds a moment before.
The artificial intelligence doesn't seem to be "rubber band" AI, where the competition is meant to stay close to you and provide a sense of competitive excitement. For example, in endurance races you might take an early lead and race 10 miles without glimpsing another vehicle. Rather, "cheating" seems to be a more appropriate term. As a result, Fuel's difficulty level is all over the place. An easy shortcut in the early moments might lead to a quick lead that you'll never relinquish. At other times, you might seemingly deliver a perfect race, yet still manage to lose. This isn't always because of the AI, however. A few checkpoint and timed challenges are too punishing, requiring not just perfection, but ultraperfection. Mistakes are made even more costly by one more element: To make progress, you must finish first. This inconsistency of challenge can be infuriating, because you might cruise along for a few satisfying races, only to hit a roadblock. You can choose the lowest of three difficulty levels if you're having trouble getting past a particular career race, but doing so earns you fewer stars, which in turn slows down career progression.
Ironically, the enormous postapocalyptic wastelands that inspire the incredible variety of courses and vistas also make Fuel's open-world exploration its least engaging feature. It's certainly a gigantic world--5,000 square miles, according to the manual. But it's a gigantic world that gives you very little reason to explore it. You'll discover liveries that earn you new vehicle designs and paintjobs, and vista points that will also lead to unlockable items. These are scant rewards, however, for the long drives through the lonely world required to get to these scattered locales. You can make things less lonely by taking your free roaming online, in which case you'll encounter other players wandering about in the vicinity. It can be a bit more enjoyable to group up with friends or even strangers this way and go hunting for rogue AI drivers together. However, even if you are able to find other players wandering about (a difficult proposition, given the PC version's small online population), you'll be struck by how little there is to do while free-roaming. It begs the question: Why bother creating such a huge wasteland, if you don't give players much reason to explore it? Certainly, no one would play a massively multiplayer online game if all you could do was jog around looking for new clothing designs.
Perhaps if the driving were more exciting, checking out the world would be a bit more interesting. Fuel's driving model isn't bad--it's just unspectacular. Some of the vehicles are really fun to drive, such as the cool-looking Deathwing quad bike or the bouncy Knightmare dune buggy. Yet while there are occasional exceptions (screaming down the side of a mountain in your Shuriken), racing doesn't feel fast or thrilling. You might glance down at your speedometer to see that you're zooming along at 90 miles per hour, but it doesn't feel like you're going that fast. This is due to a combination of factors: the way the AI vehicles don't bounce and drift around as you would expect, the minimal blur effects, and the passable engine noises that are too frequently interrupted by ticks and sputters. The circuit courses feature more clutter, so they offer a better sense of momentum than the more barren courses, because there are more objects rushing past you than just bushes and sand.
Nevertheless, Fuel does offer occasional bursts of excitement, many of them by way of its cool weather effects, which feature in a number of set-piece races. Sand- and windstorms not only fill the screen with gritty debris--and the speakers with authentic whooshes--but may also lead to scripted events, such as trees falling and partially blocking your way. In one of the most memorable races, an entire tornado weaves about, limiting visibility and toppling towers in your path. The environmental effects are highly atmospheric, which makes certain races much more enjoyable than they otherwise would be.
You'll never worry about getting lost at least, even in the darkest and windiest of races. The GPS navigation arrows will be perpetually in your face, giving you a generally good idea of how to get to your destination. This moving trail of arrows looks rather disruptive at first, though eventually you'll get used to it and even occasionally appreciate its guidance, though you can turn it off if you prefer. Most of the time, it works well enough, guiding you down the path of least resistance (though hewing out a smart shortcut is the best way to win many races). Other times, the GPS just flat-out breaks, trying to lead you across lakes or up cliffsides that no vehicle in the game can navigate. It might even give up completely, pointing to one spot, then pointing back a few feet, and then pointing to the original spot again in an endless loop of inadvertent hilarity. These issues are memorable because they're so blatantly obvious, though to Fuel's credit, the GPS functions rather well considering the scope of the world. In free roam, you can set a waypoint anywhere, though it's odd that hovering the map's reticle over an exact target, such as a livery or a vista point, doesn't place the waypoint directly on that target as it does in most games with such a feature. If you want to be exact, you will need to zoom in on the map and be precise about waypoint placement, which just makes no sense considering that most waypoints you will want to place will be directly at these targets.
Environmental effects aren't Fuel's only visual standout. While there are a lot of plain-looking areas, the game as a whole looks great. You'll glimpse ruined cityscapes, race across snowcapped mountains, and navigate through fallen windmills, and it all looks extremely impressive. Vehicles didn't receive as much attention as the landscapes did; there is no damage modeling, and some vehicle textures and reflections don't look right. Yet the visual fidelity is high considering how much terrain is covered. The long loading times and occasional frame-rate jitters of the console versions are much less of an issue on the PC. However, antialiasing support on the PC is nonexistent; Although there are AA options in the menu, toggling them has no appreciable effect on how the game looks. You might also find yourself vexed by the day/night cycle. Transitions between day and night are abrupt and frequent, and it gets so dark that nighttime driving is an annoyance that comes with no obvious benefit. The cycle was likely meant to make free roaming seem authentic, but it just feels like one more reason to avoid the open world altogether.
Free roaming isn't the only way to play online. You can play career races against other drivers, and it's a pleasure to leave behind the inconsistent AI and take on some real opponents. Playing online can be great fun, and it's also a good way to discover cool new shortcuts to follow in your next online race. Lag is an issue in Fuel, though, causing vehicles to teleport around on occasion and even disrupting the countdown timer. Also an issue is that you are bumped back to free roam after completing an online race. It's mind boggling that developer Asobo Studios didn't allow players to remain together in the race lobby, or at least drop them back to the online menu. Nevertheless, the number of online courses is impressive, and using Fuel's race creation feature, you can add to that staggering list. It's a cool feature, but its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than dropping checkpoints behind you from within free roam, you place them on the overhead map. This makes it hard to gauge what the terrain is like, which in turn makes it difficult to make a fun and clever course to race on. Additionally, you can't practice on your course against the AI (you can test it all by yourself, though) or limit the types of vehicles available to the players who join. The idea of creating your own race is good, but as delivered, the feature feels half finished, and it's unlikely that most players will get anything out of it.
If you want to get the most out of Fuel, you should plug in an Xbox 360 controller. Other gamepads and wheels may work, but many players are reporting difficulties with their racing hardware of choice. But even given this drawback and others, some players will embrace Fuel's overall ambition. Nevertheless, if you're interested in racing--and there's a good chance you are--then you'll likely be disappointed by the game's shortcomings. Sure, there are a lot of races and vehicles, and there's a huge, unpopulated open world to check out, if that's your thing. Yet Fuel often seems to go out of its way to invite goodwill, only to let you down. If you're the patient type, it's worth checking out, but if you're looking for offroad excitement, games like Pure and Dirt are better choices.