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.