Think Fallout 3 meets Burnout Paradise and you're along the right lines. There's a loose story about global warming and a lack of fossil fuels, but this is a racing game through and through. You enter races, earn credits, buy better vehicles and win more races.
FUEL has a massive career mode spanning 72 races over 19 zones. There's also online play and a track editor, allowing you to build your own race courses within FUEL's massive open-world.
Much like Burnout Paradise before it, FUEL's USP is its unbelievably big open-world environment. You really need to experience it to truly believe how big it is. Driving from one side of the map to the other (hint: it takes around two hours) without loading is an extraordinary feat unrivalled by any other video game we've played. The world can be sparse, but it doesn't make it any less impressive.
One of the biggest complaints in Burnout Paradise was taking the wrong turns in races. FUEL fixes that without taking away the open-world's penchant for finding new and interesting short-cuts. The intelligent GPS system basically draws a virtual route across the track in front of you. It's a simple solution but it works - in over 10 hours of play we never lost a race because of taking the wrong turning.
Exploring the open-world in Free-Ride mode (essentially an open-ended "drive-where-you-want" setting) you're subject to multiple day/night cycles aswell as some interesting weather mechanics. Due to the post-apocalyptic setting you'll find yourself driving through ridiculous cyclones, lightning-storms and blizzards. The weather is pretty intelligent and does enough to affect the physics to make it a worthwhile addition.
It seems like a strange thing to praise in an open-world game, but given the game's size, we're glad Codemasters incorporated a menu system for jumping around the world and entering events. The game manages to get the right balance between exploration and racing - never forcing you to do either.
Simplistic as it may be (and that's simplistic in a good way), FUEL's track editor is really very cool. You build races by simply plotting points across the map - everything else is generated for you. However, by exploring the open-world in Free Ride Mode, you can find some interesting points to build your track around, making the editor much deeper than face value assumes.
On the most part, FUEL's racing dynamics are fine. The vehicles have strengths and weaknesses, making selection a tactical decision depending on the track, and the models are suitably chunky. However, we couldn't help but feel like the handling got a bit sticky from time to time. And with no boost or defining characteristics, FUEL's racing component feels like a sideshow to the open-world. It works fine, but there's no real hook.
We're not sure whether it was intentional or not, but FUEL seems to have been coloured in a way that reminisces old 70's horror movies. Everything is over-saturated, the night-time has an eerie blue-fog, etc. At times, we felt like this gave the game some character next to the super-shiny looks of the average racing game. At other times we found the colours so saturated that we couldn't actually tell what was going on.
As in many racing games, a single mistake in FUEL will erode your substantially lead and put you metres behind the opponent without a chance in hell of catching up because the AI never makes a mistake. Irritating to say the least, especially in an off-road game where mistakes are prevalent.
FUEL boasts a complete online mode which we'll talk about in more detail when we've spent more time with it.
If FUEL had focused on having a more contained yet interesting world, it could have been so much more. As it stands however, it's a competent off-road racer with a technically astounding, though strikingly empty, open-world environment.