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.