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.
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.
Another part of the game we're keen to learn more about is the recovery system. If you find you've wandered too far from race route, or indeed fallen off the edge of a cliff, holding down Y will reset you back on the track. We're told this isn't quite finished in the build we've been playing, so we're not sure how it will work out where to put you, or in what position. Too near the front and it could be used for sneaky cheating; too near the back and it might make catching up impossible. It will be interesting to see how this is balanced in the finished version.
There's another use for that Y-based reset. Vehicles come with a damage-o-meter, a small dial on screen that indicates how much you've broken it in your crazed offroading. This makes for a fascinating tactical aspect to how you approach a race. If your car's in good nick you might decide to take a sharp corner extraordinarily fast, knowing you can repel off a handy barrier.
However, if your dial's in the red, this could be the last crash you can take, and such boisterous shenanigans might break you to bits. When this happens you're instantly given back a working vehicle, but of course you've lost your position. Risk-taking becomes a big factor in how you approach each turn.
The atmosphere seems pretty impressive. This is a world destroyed by man and the weather has upped the ante in response. Lashing rain changes course conditions, creating mud. Snow of course makes everything far more precarious. And tornados. Well, they're quite blowy. Head to Dustbowl City and take on the Dark Dust race in your Enforcer muscle car and you'll find yourself racing through a tornado, visibility down from 40km to the bonnet of your car, in a car that really doesn't like it when you go offroad. It's safe to say the weather makes a difference.
This is all taking place across territory representing the most epic extremes of America such as the Utah salt plains, the Grand Canyon and the snowy mountains of Mt Rainier. It's big, and it feels really big. Choosing to drive from one camp to the other probably requires packing sandwiches. Fortunately there are (invisible) heliports at each camp, meaning you can instantly transport yourself to any you have unlocked.
It's not possible to draw conclusions on vehicle handling at this point as there's still work to be done, but in the preview things already seem impressive. There's a separate learning curve in place for each vehicle type, bikes requiring a completely different approach to offroad buggies or reinforced rally cars. The speeds you can reach are extraordinary, and there's a great sense of the ground beneath your wheels.
It will be fascinating to see how FUEL plays once it's online. In the few races we've had access to in the offline mode, it's shaping up nicely to be a breezy, arcade sandpit with an extraordinary amount to do.