FUEL

On track.

Codemasters has really made a name for itself in the driving genre. 2007's DiRT and 2008's GRID set the bar high for accessible, solid racers. Continuing the obsession with capitalised four-letter words, FUEL takes things to a bigger, louder and more light-hearted place: to the other side of the apocalypse.

Asobo Studios' FUEL is a toy chest in the middle of a vast playground. It's packed with all manner of cars, trucks, bikes and buggies which you can pull out and play with over the remarkable 5000 square miles of game.

It works like this: in free-roam mode you can jump in any vehicle you've found/bought/unlocked and go exploring. As you zoom around you'll spot things to do - perhaps a race, perhaps a Vista Spot to soak in the 40km-long views, maybe a new vehicle or a whole province full of new challenges.

Stumble upon a career race or challenge, hit Start, select it and the event instances. Races are limited to a certain type of vehicle, specifically those you own within that section. It might be motorbikes, roadsters or trucks, depending on the terrain involved. Pick one and you're dropped at the start line amongst a collection of NPC racers.

It's all about winning fuel, which is the currency in this post-apocalyptic America. And only first place is good enough to get any. Being in pole position isn't just about learning the course - for the most part it's about ignoring the course altogether.

Checkpoints must be passed through, and in between them a floating stream of chevrons flows above your head indicating the designated route. You're under no obligation to take any notice of these, and if you believe there's a better way of reaching the next checkpoint you can go for it. You may discover you plunge straight into a deep stream, or you might find yourself immediately in the lead.

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These are my favourites. Low to the ground and splendid offroad.

Where Fuel really comes to life is online. While offline you've still got vast acres to explore, challenges to find and races to compete in, but flick the switch and you'll find the world filled with other players. If you played Atari's Test Drive Unlimited you'll be familiar with how this works, but it's on a far smaller scale. See another player and you can join them in exploring, or take part in one of the hundreds of challenges scattered around the maps.

In the restricted preview build we've been hurtling around for the last couple of days, there's no online access - so we've only a slight impression of how this all comes together. However, we took a trip to Codemasters HQ to have a quick go at some multiplayer racing and it all seems seamless enough. Once the matchmaking has detected who wants to race where, it all works in exactly the same way as the offline mode, but with opponents from real life. How it works with regard to flagging down cars you spot in the world we'll have to find out next month, when we review the full game.

Of course, you're not restricted to the game's predefined tracks. At any time you can build your own course, anywhere in the map, using an incredibly simple engine. You drop in a start line, then add checkpoints across the top-down map until you feel you're done. The game instantly generates a race along this route, including the stream of chevrons to follow. Invite other players to join in and you've got pretty much infinite opportunities to race around the game.

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