I always try and avoid falling back on such tired journalistic devices as claiming a game is "X meets Y", but in the narrow confines of the racing genre, where there can be barely a hair's breadth of distinction between different titles, I'm prepared to indulge in a little clich. It's especially tempting to break out the comparisons when discussing FUEL, the latest racing franchise starter from Codemasters, home to such genre standards as TOCA, GRID and the Colin McRae Rally series.
It's an openworld racer, so parallels will inevitably be drawn with Burnout Paradise, which built on the groundwork of Test Drive Unlimited to free racers from the confines of menu-driven career modes. There are superficial similarities but, sitting with joypad in hand, the immediate reference point that springs to mind is 'MotorStorm meets Smuggler's Run'. FUEL certainly has the multi-class set-up and muddy aesthetic of Evolution's PS3 exclusive, but it's coupled with the freedom to roam offered by Rockstar's cult PS2 off-road scrambler.
"This is four years in the making," explains Ed Newby-Robson, the game's brand manager. "Asobo did a lot of work for THQ, with Ratatouille and Wall-E, and that's essentially been funding this project. It's a labour of love."
We're actually here to see Operation Flashpoint 2, but a last-minute addition to our itinerary means we get to hurry downstairs to have a little play with a very early pre-alpha build of FUEL as well. Even though the game is still deep in development, there's much to be impressed by, not least the absolutely vast map and the sheer number of things to do.
Newby-Robson reckons there's around 5,000 square miles of terrain, with 100,000 miles of tracks and trails across the map. All of this is rendered with a 40km draw distance, plus a full day-and-night cycle. The plan is to include over 70 vehicles in five different classes, with 70 career races and over 100 separate challenges outside of the career mode. New vehicles, liveries and outfits can be unlocked by finding and completing hidden challenges, and the idea is that racers will swap tips online to locate all the Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the sprawling environment.
"The setting of the game is post-climate change. The idea is that the sensible people have all gone away to the cities, and these are the crazy extreme racing guys," Newby-Robson says as he pulls up the in-game map on a plasma screen bigger than my house. "It's all based on satellite data and adapted for the game. Essentially, what we've done is take all the cool bits and got rid of the boring bits. You've Mount Rainier at the top, the salt flats on the top-right-hand side, Crate Lake in the centre and Yellowstone National Park somewhere around the top-left, and at bottom-right Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. You've got a huge openworld environment to play in."
Victory in races earns you fuel, which is the de facto currency of this dystopian Mad Max world. Events take full advantage of the free-roaming map, with shortcuts not only tolerated but enthusiastically endorsed. As long as you hit the checkpoints, the game really doesn't care how you get there. The only thing stopping you is how much damage your vehicle can take, so if you want to try driving down a cliff to sneak into first place, you're free to take that risk. An optional GPS system adds a floating line of arrows in the air to show you the safest route to the next checkpoint, but victory in the long term will come from venturing away from the beaten path.
Events are triggered by exploring the map, but for those who prefer a little more structure, the game can accommodate that. "If a gamer wants to just sit down and play, and not have any of the openworld experience, they can if they want," says Newby-Robson. "You can literally play from area to area through the career mode." Players will also be able to create their own races on any part of the map, and share them online. It's a fascinating idea, but one that is unfortunately not implemented in this build.
The theme of environmental ruin also allows the game to have some fun with weather effects and Dave Brickley, the game's executive producer, fires up the latest code to demonstrate. I'd love to faithfully report all the things he had to say, but unfortunately most of my recording was drowned out by the frankly deafening roar as he threw a battered muscle car around a desert course in the middle of tornado season. Skeletal wrecks smash down on the road in front of him, while particle effects whirl in front of the camera with no apparent impact on the frame-rate. The next race takes place in an ear-shattering storm which looks every bit as visceral as the tornadoes, but sadly does little to make Brickley's commentary any more audible beneath the thunder cracks and howling engines. If nothing else, this is going to be a game that slaughters your surround sound.
A quick shimmy through the map screen, and our next stop is the Grand Canyon, and a vertigo-inducing quad-bike race inspired by the transparent glass Skywalk added to the natural wonder in 2007. The terrifying 4,000 foot drop beneath the track shows off the game's commitment to long-distance detail, but the track has been altered from the benign horseshoe shape of the actual walkway to something more suited to frantic racing.
Ramps and chicanes abound, and you're able to pull off tricks and stunts while in the air. These tricks won't have any effect on your racing, however. "We messed about with a boost system," Brickley admits, thankfully during a lull in the squealing tires. "But if we couldn't do it as well as Pure, frankly, we weren't even going to try. When you've got a limited number of tracks you need to get as much mileage as possible out of them. We're a very different kind of game." The stunt boost system may not have made the gameplay grade, but they've left the trick animations in anyway, just for fun.
And fun is definitely the buzzword for FUEL. With the formal demonstration over, we decamp to the QA room where busy bugtesters are banished from their desks so us journalists can try a race for ourselves. The network code is still far from finished, so the dream of getting a full race grid going at the same time proves fruitless. We are able to tackle a couple of smaller two-player races, however, as well as thundering around in the free-ride mode.
Handling is intuitive, with an emphasis - in the muscle cars at least - on victory through raw power and bold sweeping handbrake turns around deadly hairpins. It takes a few plays to truly grasp the tactics that the free-roaming layout offers, but once you start weighing up the time advantage in cutting across a rocky slope against the risk of trashing your car, it becomes clear just how much subtle balancing has gone into this apparently random and chaotic environment.
It's early days for FUEL, which makes it almost impossible to draw any real conclusions from the snippets we were able to play, but it's easy to see the potential. With a solid racing engine, a dynamic and varied openworld to explore and the option to create your own races wherever you like, there's no reason why dedicated racing fans shouldn't be looking forward to this.
FUEL is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in May.