Version tested: PlayStation 3
Speaking to friends about Asobo Studios' FUEL, it's jarring how many are expecting an open-world follow-up to the last Race Driver. The name - perhaps introduced following Codemasters' acquisition of the publishing rights last year - is no doubt designed to bring it into line with GRID, and on that basis it's perhaps a mark of the publisher's confidence, and augers well for something new and interesting. But in truth, FUEL is no more an extension of Codemasters' excellent track racer than Overlord II is, and it doesn't even use the EGO Engine.
The engine it does use, however - one of Asobo's own creation - is certainly no slouch, and that's just as well in a game that promises the sort of open-world racing sandbox we haven't seen since Test Drive Unlimited, with a range of vehicles that echoes MotorStorm, and environmental factors more consistent with the cinematic output of Roland Emmerich. This is an all-terrain racer, an astonishing 5000 square miles of North American wasteland crisscrossed by winding mountain roads, rivers, hills and more categories of bracken and brush than you'd find in the Eden Project.
It's even got something of a story. As a surviving petrolhead in a post-apocalypse USA, you're competing for the fuel to survive, which you earn by winning races and challenges - and that's winning, not coming second. Fuel can then be spent on new vehicles and liveries to suit your needs and wants. But the game doesn't dwell too much upon this, which is just as well lest anyone suggest "fuel" might as well be "dollars", or, for that matter, that competing for combustible fossils by burning through them over hundreds of miles of arduous terrain is a peculiar logic.
That peculiarity, however, is second only to the game's decision to let you forgo the open world entirely and select races and challenges from menus, unlocking new areas of the map, with their own new tasks, through progress rather than exploration, which is for all intents and purposes rendered superficial. You can exit the menus to the wasteland, and rumble across it in your choice of unlocked car, uncovering new races, vista spots (with arresting, 40km sight-lines), barrels of fuel and other secrets, but it's a strange halfway house, some way short of the audacity of either Test Drive Unlimited or, in particular, last year's Burnout Paradise.
Then again, it's nowhere near as much fun to explore FUEL's world as it is either of the others. Although you can hook up online to populate it with other racers, and then face off against them, for the most part it's a long, barren trek across terrain designed for tough, long-haul races rather than sightseeing. And while the visuals are admirable, you don't actually do much of the exploring; the game regularly informs you that you've spotted new challenges, and marks them on your map and menus, but generally speaking you would have missed them without the popup alert.
The multiple-player open-world hub idea is rendered even more moot by the content of the races themselves. With a couple of exceptions, for example, the first 8-10 hours of gameplay is a procession of fairly slow, precarious and unhappy checkpoint races, in which the AI surges arbitrarily ahead of your bike, buggy, monster truck or what-have-you from the start, and you spend the next 5-10 minutes trying to reign it in without having to hit the reset-to-track button too often. Take it online and it's more about human skill - but also crippling lag, with other players popping in and out at random, getting stuck on the start line, or sitting in lobbies staring at the message that deadpans, "Put up with the delay here."
One option to get the jump on the opposition is to go off-road, but in practice this is dangerous business. Practical obstacles like streams and height variation are difficult to gauge from the zoomable map, so you're often better off siding with GPS arrows flowing above your car indicating the logical route, where you'll be imperilled enough as it is by unhelpfully positioned wreckage, sharp turns and terrain changes, which are bound to savage your top-speed at some stage no matter how well-informed your choice of conveyance.
The roaming weather anomalies raise the tension, reducing visibility behind a blur of flying debris, twisters uprooting houses, and electricity pylons draped across the track, but they're too lazy to turn up most of the time, for the most part leaving you to race around enormously detailed but otherwise static courses on a bedrock of handling that's closer to the frictionless toil of MX vs. ATV Untamed than the frantic, concentrating onslaught of MotorStorm.
It's also worth dwelling upon the memory of Evolution Studios' game - the first one anyway - because its track design clarifies a lot of FUEL's mistakes. MotorStorm may have been lap-based, but each of its few courses was carefully threaded with intertwining routes that rewarded experimentation and canny vehicle selection; FUEL's tracks are meandering sprawls that seldom reward either, whether you play the 70-plus pre-recorded options or mark out your own in the creator. The early promise of balancing the risk of filling your damage bar against the need for speed through a difficult corner also proves a red herring; even if you don't find yourself having to reset often (and thanks to a lot of deadly unmarked obstacles, you will), the AI is sufficiently inconsistent, gifting you race after "Expert" race for long periods and then savaging you for fun, to dilute its significance.
There's certainly a lot of content, at least - and with that much playground, devoted online off-roaders may be confident to write their own routes out of the mire. But all the same it seems unlikely. Of FUEL's many promises, too many are either broken or undermined by its handling, layouts, logic or interface shortcuts. There's no denying Asobo's achievement in building such a daring, beautiful landscape on such a vast scale, but the core of any good racing game is falling in love with its vehicles, the things you can do with them, and the places you can take them, and by that measure FUEL is distinctly average.
5 / 10