Voice Module








In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Fuel (Playstation 3)

Codemasters' latest racing title Fuel is an ambitious game that offers a huge racing environment, 75 unique vehicles to unlock, realistic weather effects, and non-linear off-road courses. Its racing engine offers standard point-to-point, checkpoint and battle races. Fuel's structure is open-ended to a point, since you have to unlock most areas before you can race and explore them. This approach is frustrating because there's a promise of unlimited freedom, but you need to work to achieve it. Fuel's visuals are also erratic, some areas look beautiful, while others are dull, giving the game an inconsistent feel. Despite some promising features, Fuel doesn't live up to its potential, and ends up falling short of the mark.

If you look at the bullet-point features list on the back of the box, you'd most likely be quite impressed by Fuel's ambitious design. It includes more than 75 unique vehicles in several classes such as off-road ATVs, four-wheel trucks, bicycles, muscle cars and buggies to name a few. While some are available initially, most of these need to be purchased by earning Fuel. This is done by winning races and completing challenges. As you begin the game, you are placed in the first Camp, where you can race in a series of events in that area, along with a few other Challenge races. Placing first in any of these events earns you points - how many you earn depends on the level of difficulty you choose. It's a fairly straightforward system that allows you to progress quickly. Each time you finish a race, you'll also earn a star award, which allows you to unlock other camps in the Fuel world. The races themselves have requirements as to which types of vehicles you can use, and you need to purchase them in order to race that specific course. This can be frustrating, but you can generally unlock them easily by playing the courses sequentially and not skipping around. Once you get on the track, you'll find that the game is somewhat more open-ended than most racers. You can choose from a number of in-car, first person and outside the vehicle views on the fly, which is helpful in racing through the game's levels. You can also select the music or turn it off entirely and perform other options. Players can also customize their vehicles in the garage and use different paint schemes and livery (side panel) decals to give their cars a unique look.

Fuel's sandbox approach to racing is most apparent when you get out of the camps and enter free-roam mode. Here, you're set free to drive anywhere in that specific section of the world. This allows you to drive from race to race without having to bother with the menu. More importantly, hidden and unlockable items will appear when you're traveling such as extra challenge races, and Vistas, which are viewpoints that you can save and view later. There's definitely a lot of ground to cover, since Fuel's world comprises more than 14,000 miles of territory. Its easy to get out of range in these sections and find yourself far from the career races. Fortunately, you can pull up the menu at any point in the free-roam section and jump right back into the action if you've had enough exploration. Exploration isn't just sight-seeing, since learning the layout of the land can give you advantages in the race that you wouldn't ordinarily find. While you can race on the standard tracks, the real fun in Fuel is going off-road and trying to cut corners to shave time off your laps. While its hard to find all of these short-cuts on the fly, exploration can make a huge difference. Fuel's set-piece races takes place in massice expansive environments that allows you to go anywhere on the course. Instead of facing just pavement, you'll also have to navigate off-road terrain, including dirt roads, muddy sections, dusty deserts and thick forests. Obviously, which such a wide-open area to explore, you might find yourself getting lost from time to time. Helpfully, the game includes a cool GPS system that you can turn on to point you in the right direction. This also lets you see where checkpoints and finishing lines are. These are indicated by large lines on the horizon, so you can tell immediately if you're going in the right direction. In addition to the courses and the rival vehicles, you'll also need to traverse and avoid a variety of obstacles including fallen trucks and deep rivers. Adding to the challenge, Fuel also has a robust weather system with wind storms, rain and snow that can reduce your visibility significantly. All of this works together to create an impressive looking game that delivers cutting edge HD visuals, but the unfortunate thing is that the gameplay itself doesn't live up to its presentation.

Fuel's races seem intense, but the opponents' AI is somewhat erratic. A large part of this is due to the difficulty setting, which ranges wildly between overly easy and incredibly difficult. Some courses are cakewalks but others penalize players for small errors. Falling helplessly behind early in a long race makes the experience far more frustrating than it could have been. There are even more inconsistencies which add to Fuel's problems. While each vehicle type has their own handling and performance characteristics, the problem is that there are wide variations in how they perform. Mixing off-road and standard surfaces in the same game isn't usually a problem, but since the off-road sections significantly slow you down, it makes it difficult to maintain a sense of momentum during these transitions. Using the GPS is usually a good strategy, but it isn't always useful. For instance, it doesn't tell you when there's a large obstacle blocking your path, which means you can slam into something without warning, costing you time and increasing your level of aggravation. In some sections, you also need to rely on the onscreen map to locate other drivers' position. Trying to use Fuel's map and GPS at the same time is usually a formula for annoyance. An over-reliance on these feels like a crutch to fix poor design and makes Fuel a bit more complex and frustrating than it could have been. The game's structure is also a bit unwieldy, and the camp and race system seems like an unneeded confinement on what could have been a truly exciting open-world race. While the visuals are technically excellent, their aesthetics are also a bit odd. Using the color-drained, darker hues makes for a sometimes ugly experience that doesn't feel as smooth or polished as it could have. Unfortunately, this unbalanced gameplay, inconsistent challenge and sometimes confusing navigation undermines the technically impressive visuals, making Fuel a game that doesn't quite live up to the promises it makes.

- Michael Palisano

Grade: C-

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