gadg-et-oid [gaj-it-oid]


1. having the characteristics or form of a gadget;
resembling a mechanical contrivance or device.

FUEL – Xbox 360

Review by Johnus Maximus

Fuel - Xbox 360 - box artIn an alternate present where global warming ravages our world, society has retreated to safety and shunned the use of fossil fuels. An underground racing circuit arises where brave drivers compete against each other, the landscape and the ferocity of Mother Nature herself.

This is the premise of FUEL, the newest release from Asobo Studio (published by Codemasters), available for Xbox 360 and PS3. With 5000 square miles to explore and over seventy vehicles to collect, despite a few flaws this truly is a huge and awesome sandbox racing experience.

At first glance I had mixed feelings about whether I’d enjoy FUEL or not. Although Codemasters have a history of being associated with brilliant four-letter racing games (ToCA, DiRT, GRID), Asobo can’t really say the same. Was I too presumptuous to assume the makers of movie tie-in’s Ratatouille and Wall-E couldn’t make a decent racing game?

The moment I set foot into the world of FUEL the answer slapped me right in the face, I was so very wrong. You begin your adventure at “Offshore Shack”, the first of nineteen unlockable base camps. From here you have two options, either start your racing career with gusto or just go for a drive and see what the game world has to offer.

FUEL - Xbox 360 - screenshot
It’s a motorbike doing a wheelie past a tornado – awesome!

If you choose to start your career you can opt to compete in either races or challenges. When racing you can choose to compete at three different skill levels, success at the higher level grants you an increased reward, in this case fuel, which is the currency in this ravaged world. Each race is restricted to a specific type of vehicle, most of which you’ll have to unlock using your hard earned currency.

The racing is fairly straightforward, you’re either doing laps on a circuit or you’re travelling from point A to B whilst hitting various checkpoints. Don’t worry if it seems like you’re struggling to win at first, as what tends to happen is that the CPU racers will slow right down on the final lap letting you overtake them with ease. Unfortunately this “rubber banding” effect also occurs, to your detriment, when you’re winning a race, making the last few seconds quite fraught, at times controller-throwingly frustrating and overall disappointing to find in a game that should really rely on driving skill.

FUEL - Xbox 360 - screenshot
Quad bikes built for suspension shattering jumps

The challenges prove to be slightly more interesting as the races you compete in are restricted to one specific vehicle. Winning these takes some real skill with the vehicle in question, take too many wide corners, slip off the track too many times or merely fail to take advantage of hidden shortcuts and you will certainly lose. Also, a lot of the races are solo affairs, meaning rubber banding will not hold you back from claiming the spoils of victory. The challenges are better at making you really refine the way you drive each type of vehicle.

Winning a race grants you between one and three stars depending on the difficulty, the challenges are worth one star each and if you collect enough career stars then you’re granted access to more areas of the map, where tougher races and challenges await. There’s enough variety in the theme and environment in each section to keep things fresh, and you’ll need to keep working hard to collect enough fuel to buy the vehicles required for the later challenges.

FUEL - Xbox 360 - screenshot
Not even Cilit Bang will get all this dirt out of your buggy

But forget all that for a second, because racing is only half of the game. The aspect of FUEL that really shines is the Free Ride mode, where you take any of your unlocked vehicles and drive anywhere you like. Whether you want to cruise the highways in your big rig or carve up some fields with your dirt bike, the sky is the limit. Cruising around is such a simple pleasure, the loading is done seamlessly allowing you to fully enjoy the breathtaking scenery each area has to offer. The music in the game is pretty disposable, making this perfect for listening to podcasts whilst driving.

While taking a free ride you can opt to switch on a handy GPS locater, which calculates the best route to your destination and displays floating arrows in the sky for you to follow. This comes in handy for picking up the many collectibles littering the environment as they really are scattered quite far apart. Helipads are also dotted about for fast transit, which is sometimes essential – driving from one corner of the map to the other would take a sizeable chunk out of your day!

FUEL - Xbox 360 - screenshot
Taking off-road shortcuts can give you the edge

If you get overwhelmed by the feelings of isolation from driving around the ravaged landscape then you can take your experience onto Xbox Live and join your friends, up to sixteen players can take part in races or alternatively four of you can go for a free ride together. While out on your travels, if you find a particular route you think would make an interesting race, you can load up the race editor very easily from the menu, which allows you to plot out a series of checkpoints and then save the route. You can give it a test run or just jump straight online and challenge your friends.

So with the huge map to unlock, the vast number of races and challenges and the large roster of vehicles to buy, if you can forgive it’s foibles then I think you’ll get plenty of value for money with FUEL. While it doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of Burnout Paradise or the racing finesse of DiRT it is still a fun and enjoyable racer and hopefully this is not the last we hear of Asobo.

FUEL scores four and a half gleaming hubcaps out of five.

Four and a half stars

Saturday, June 20th, 2009, Computer Gaming, Featured, Xbox 360.