Fuel: Around The World In Eight Hours

By Jim Rossignol on June 22nd, 2009 at 8:00 am.


When it was announced that Fuel, Asobo Studios’ apocalyptic open-world racer, boasted a daunting 5,560 square miles of terrain (14,400 km²), I immediately made a mental note to go mental, and drive around the entire world. Last week, having received some PC preview code from publisher Codemasters, I did precisely that.

It’s essential that I point out, before we go anywhere, that Fuel has plenty of normal racing game trappings, including a gradual exploration system in which you unlock cars, perform races to unlock regions, and a whole load of other car-collecting, livery-tweaking elements. Were I bothering to play the game properly I’d be doing that and travelling about via helicopter to race across the sprawling post-apocalyptic pseudo-America. I wasn’t doing that, of course, because I am a very deliberate kind of crazyman. I was, instead, going to see what it would take to drive around the world in a single sitting. It would have to be a single sitting because, without unlocking the game, I could not easily return to where I had driven to, or save my location. I was going to drive without the safety-net of a saved game, or even a checkpoint.

Could it be done before my girlfriend got home from work? Would I still have time to do the washing up? Would so many hours non-stop off-roading mean that my brain ended up as a kind of rotisserie chicken, cooked and slowing turning inside my skull? What could I possibly learn from this strange road trip? These were all questions that would be answered in the next eight hours. Some people might class what follows as containing spoilers, but they’re mild ones, if they are spoilers at all.

8:40AM
Girlfriend packed into crumbling Ford Fiesta and sent off to work. Cats fed. It is time to begin.

The game begins in a basin by a lake, at the first of many racing camps. Like everywhere else in the game, there are plenty of opportunities for postcard snaps of wide-open wilderness in this starter area. I will be taking on my challenge with the default vehicle. It’s a buggy with a ludicrously large silencer on the back. This will be ideal for rough terrain and does around 70mph on level ground. Pretty much perfect. It’ll be going flat out from here on out, and cover over three hundred miles.

Fortunately for my project, Fuel allows you to set a remote waypoint via the map, and then provides a “chevrons in the sky” GPS visual to point you in the right direction. I didn’t always have this switched on, because it was moderately annoying. In rough terrain, however, it was essential, because it picked out the roads that would get me safely through mountains, or tricky woodland. Going offroad in these areas rapidly slowed me down, although it was often necessary to travel in what was generally a straight line cross-country.

8:47AM
Ooh, ramps. This Is Ramp Country, or the architecture of dubious racing physics.

I occasionally stopped on my journey to jump over a farmhouse, or derelict factory. There are hundreds of them across the landscape, each with its own convenient ramp. This achieves little for a tourist like me, but they could be built into the races which you can construct yourself in the game interface. When I am not jumping – which is most of the time – I am hammering through the countryside as fast as my buggy will carry me. Occasionally there’s the respite of open desert or rolling grass hills, but anything wooded requires continuous hard work and concentration.

9:30AM
There’s something on the horizon. Smoke!

This is my first major detour. I head towards to towering plumes and find a burning tract of forest. This is a world with little life, but plenty of evocative detail. Fuel, it turns out, is littered with this kind of stuff. I drive through a series of patchy, smoldering tree-skeletons, but later the burned forests become far more impressive, with blackened branches reaching from horizon to horizon. Set to a lightening storm and a sunset, it becomes profoundly picturesque.

It’s lucky that this kind of topography is so beautiful, because there’s almost nothing else happening in Fuel’s world, aside from the apparently pointless journeys of a number of black trucks. Fuel’s future America is bleak, and near-dead. Some unruly neuron in my head keeps suggesting that I’ve seen a human figure, but, of course, I never do. Like Burnout’s Paradise City, this is a place populated purely by machines.

10:05AM
I reach the first camp.

The terrain has been pretty rough so far, with some dense woodland and plenty of tricky hills and mountains to navigate. I find myself chasing after the ambient traffic: those giant, threatening trucks that circle around the lanes and backroads. Combine their errant movement with the witless distraction with my early road-trip chirpiness and general interesting in wandering about, and this becomes one of the slowest sections of the journey. I am also delayed by leaving the PC for a few minutes to eat some cereal and to stand in actual daylight for the only time that day.

10:50AM
The temperate hills of varied grassland and forest give way to a scrubby prairie.

These plains, eventually, become dusty, low hills, before smoothing out entirely into salt flats. I race across these, my eyes on the waypoint. The doorbell rings. The postman has brought my copy of Charles Stross’ Halting State, and a book about mud: Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin Of The Earth. Somehow both books are deeply relevant to the task at hand. One book about acts of crime and weirdness in online games, the other an investigation the terrain beneath our feet, which coincidentally shares its name with another Codemasters racing game. I muse on this bit of synchronicity as my buggy kicks up virtual grime into the camera.

11:07AM
The second camp that I will visit on my tour is an aeroplane graveyard.

It’s quite something, out there in the dead white of the flats, and should have evoked things in my writerly imagination, but by this point my mind is bent on speed. I soon leave, eager to cover more ground, faster. Around this time I also realise that the pure act of driving is unlikely to keep me from boredom, so I begin to construct a meticulous soundtrack for my travels. I begin with selected tracks from Eno’s Apollo, which Alec introduced me to the other week. Something about ambient or post-rock tunes seem to be wired through the travelling part of my brain. I can’t help enjoying the road-trip more once it’s set to gentle electronica and warbling noises.

11:30AM
The next hour makes for good speed. I can travel pretty much as the crow flies through this terrain, dodging trees and rocks as I hurtle across gently undulating hills.

These hills start out scrubby and dry, slowly becoming more luscious as I head towards the mountain range ahead. At this point I should probably stress what a colossal sense of scale the game has. See that mountain thirty miles away? You can drive there. You are driving there, for hours and hours. And unlike huge games like Morrowind or Oblivion, where the world seems pretty big because you’re on foot, in Fuel you’re travelling at around 70mph, all the time. Those distances begin to seem even more enormous, even though you can’t get out of the car. I begin to doubt I can circumnavigate the terrain in under eight hours.

12:00PM
I am falling down the side of a continent.

I have climbed up a gigantic elevation into some mountains, and I am now plunging, offroad, between wrecked trees and scraggly bushes, towards the valley floor. The sliding, crashing, tumbling process seems to go on forever.

12:15PM
I find a pontoon bridge of some kind to cross the huge lake that lay in my way. It’s beautiful here.

I switch over the music over to Susumu Yokota‘s Grinning Cat. As the terrain becomes more desert-like, so the gentle electronic lulls me into a kind of bored trance. The endless road seem increasingly dreamlike. I occasionally crash headlong into the zombie trucks which are cruising aimlessly about the roads. Crashes don’t happen if you’re paying attention, and when they do it’s just an instant reset a few yards back, which is fortunate for me. My smoking, battered ride found itself refreshed perhaps a dozen times across the journey. (Early on, I had noticed an overheating oil gauge and smoke billowing from the engine block, and had feared some kind of realistic damage system would cripple my progress. Not so.)

12:42PM
Perhaps my state of mesmerisation explains how I briefly became lost in the desert mountains.

I’d been blindly following the GPS at this point, which only seems to compute the next road that takes you in the general direction you want to go. This means that if the roads don’t link up – like when there’s a canyon or river in the way – it can end up taking you in circles. Annoyed, I start to look at the map more regularly, and stick to main roads for a while. Tastes like American road movie.

13:00PM
A field of crashed aeroplanes.

Someone at Asobo Studios has spent some time thinking about what an extreme-weather apocalypse might do to North America, and has then expended plenty of effort bringing that vision to life. The details are what makes it interesting to explore.

13:15PM
I reach the Grand Canyon.

One of the greatest geological features in North America should perhaps have moved me, but compared to what I’d already seen, it seemed rather unimpressive. At this point I decide to have lunch, alt-tab, do some blogging, write a couple of emails. I am delayed by around an hour. When I set off again I move the music over to Eluvium, for a rather more mesmeric, cinematic soundtrack.

14:20PM
Dustbowl City.

Deep in the rippled sand-dunes of Fuel’s endless southern deserts if one of its few urban areas: an abandoned city amid, well, a vast dustbowl. Hello, Dubai 2030? Something like that. I don’t stick around.

14:45PM
Having now long exceeded my tolerance for high speed offroading, I begin to fantasize about what could have been done, or what could still be done, with this magnificent terrain.

Have you ever seen the early Spielberg film Duel? Fuel’s big black trucks immediately brought it to mind. There needs to be a game mode, perhaps a mod, in which you are just a guy in a domestic automobile, trying to get across country. And the truck is hunting you. And it absolutely will not stop. Paranoia in a vast landscape where there is no-one to help you, and nowhere to hide.

Or perhaps the scale of the terrain and its half-hearted apocalypse could be employed to make a difficult experience even more explicit. Some kind of game with the conceits of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Heading south, slowly, looking for food: the real fuel shortage faced by the book’s doomed characters. A high score table for how far you make it across the map. No one makes it all the way.

Or, hooking back into rather more traditional Americana, a ranching cowboy game. The undeveloped wilderness of Fuel suggests something about old America. What about a true game of cowboys and indians, where you’re moving cattle, fighting off bandits, cougars and indians? Trying to undertake procedurally generated cowboy quests across five thousand square miles? A game on horseback in this vast world would make things seem even bigger.

Then there’s the logical step up from this simple apocalyptic racing game template: the evolution into a game of ultra-violent Mad Maxian speed tribes. Oh Gods of game development, it’s so obvious. So clear and perfect: Asobo Studios must, must deliver a Fuel 2 in which I’m racing across the desert with a gang of oil-punks, hunting for the last dregs of resources in this burned land. A freeform action game with RPG, or even management elements: the intense battle to become the dominant road-warrior brotherhood of a vast, abandoned North America. Yes, please, that needs to get made. And the terrain, the world, it’s already right here, and I’m driving through it, like a nation-sized showroom of videogame possibilities. Just imagine making a home of this, furnishing it with tales of hi-jacked land-trains, haywire ambushes by machinegun bikers, and hairsbreadth escapes from roving packs of helicopter gunships. Mmm.

15:15PM
Immense, burning forests.

Moving fast through Fuel’s wooded areas is thrilling, even after several hours. I’m travelling through a fire-ravaged tract of the game called The Ashtray, and the ruined forests seem to have reached a topological crescendo. As occurs irregularly throughout the world, a fighter-plane shoots overhead, reminding me that I should have spent the day playing Arma II. Thanks, game, that was really unnecessary.

15:26PM
Onwards, onwards, to the charmingly named Drownington Cove. Home of the famed Charles Drownington, the inventor of death by inhaling water?

Drownington Cove is the second abandoned city on my trip. It reminds me that this is nothing like the real America, although based on its satellite mugshots, instead it’s a cut and paste videogame creation. The bridge is clearly some kind of nod to the Bay Bridge, while the city could be San Francisco’s downtown, or it could be New York. Whatever, I can’t reach it. I look at the image of the collapsed skyscrapers in the lake for a bit, and then move on. On the playlist I put on some lively Orbital remixes, to increase the pace, to stay awake, to stay motivated.

15:50PM
Headache developing. No stopping. Must finish this.

I might be hallucinating. I’ve begun to sense the terrain ahead of me before I see it. Or do I? I glide onwards with weird inertia.

16:34PM
Journey’s end at Tsunami Reef. My brain throbs.

Finally I arrive at the northwestern corner of the map, where a vast inland beach plays home to a beached and derelict gas transport ship. I bounce around in the dunes for a bit, and log out. My work is done. 344 miles and well under my eight-hour target.

So there we have it. I might be a madman, and Fuel is probably the most impressive work of open terrain in videogame history. My tour took all day, and barely a covered a fraction of the full map, missing out entire mountain ranges, and the central core of the world. A shame, perhaps, that this map doesn’t contain more life, or more flexibility for the deliberate explorer. And the limitations of thing were showing through by the end: those same ruins, those same cow-remains, that same jet-fighter. But at least it exists: a kind of videogame ode to the American wilderness.


(You can click on this image for a slightly larger map of my journey)

You know, I really wasn’t joking about the possibilities for this: someone must go and turn this tech into a gigantic open-world action game. Racing is all very well, but it suggests, or implies, so much more. Whoever does more won’t even have to rebuild the world, because I’d really be quite happy with the one that Asobo already put together. Seriously, fill in some ambient life, populate with AI, lob a load of vehicular death toys in, and let there be rejoicing. Do it. Do it.

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114 Comments »

  1. Howard says:

    Awesome stuff, Jim! Interesting to see that the talk about the world of Fuel was not all hyperbole.
    Even from just that tale I agree that the world they have created could be put to much better use. A little Mad Max inspired shenanigans perhaps? Vehicular combat out on the open plain as you try and deliver goods between locations. Or maybe just simple factional, car-based warfare. As you say, much possibility.

    As an aside, how does Fuel actually play? Is it lightweight arcade racer to the core or is there something for the Sim fancier? Also does that huge open world require a leviathan of a PC to run it?

  2. Jazmeister says:

    Lovely way to A) start my morning B) crash my productivity C) remind me about Orbital. GG!

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    It ran perfectly at 1680×1050 on 2ghz Dual core, 4gb RAM, 8800 GTS.

    Having sunk so much time into this lunacy, I haven’t actually had much time to look at the racing game aspect of it. I might do that later in the week.

  4. FatMat says:

    One of the best “game journalism” paper ever written.

    I sign up for the Cormac McCarthy’s game too. Let’s produce it. Where do we send our money ?

  5. Petethegoat says:

    So this is why the Arma II article has been taking so long! Nevertheless, this made very interesting reading, though I can’t help but fear for your health. The talk of hallucinations near the end scares me. :p

  6. Professor says:

    I would love to play your mad max game!

  7. Martin K says:

    Hot stuff, Rossignol. Hot. Stuff. Untitled Cormac McCarthy Project: sign me up.

  8. dartt says:

    It was quite fun having a sound track to read this too, I was spotifying each album/artist as you mentioned them :D

    An impressive effort Jim, next week: Desert Bus?

  9. Jim Rossignol says:

    We had considered making this a vs feature: Fuel vs Desert bus. Who could stay conscious for the full eight hour trip?

  10. Dreamhacker says:

    In other words, Asbobo should sell this game-engine to Bioware so we can have ourselves a spiritual successor to Fallout!

  11. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    Thanks, Jim. Now I need to buy a load of new music :<

    Great piece though, been quite looking forward to FUEL.

    And you got me thinking.. The Road could actually make for one hell of a game. Games can do bleak pretty goddamn well.

  12. JohnArr says:

    This is why I’m looking forward to Borderlands and Rage; apocalyptic racing, but with some adventure.

    Fuel does look beautiful though.

  13. Lars BR says:

    FUEL with more to do: Isn’t that pretty much what Id is promising with their Rage?

  14. Irish Al says:

    Anyone ever read Roger Zelazny’s “Damnation Alley”? Where the last Hell’s Angel drives a serum across a nuclear ravaged America to Boston – the main character surely being the template for Snake Plissken. Anyway, this and Fallout 3 would lend themselves perfectly to a version of that, and it’s a book that would be perfect for a gaming adaptation.

  15. The Rev Owen says:

    I’ve been playing the 360 version for two or three weeks now. It’s my game of the year so far.

    The racing is tense, exciting and great fun, for the most part, though the load times are awful and there are a few dull races, especially near the beginning of the game.

    But I really bought it so I could do American road trips in the comfort of my own home and it doesn’t disappoint. Several times now I’ve had flashbacks to real locations and/or moments in Idaho, Utah or Arizona. There are valleys strongly reminiscent of Sawn Valley in Idaho, one of my favourite places in the world. There’s desert that made me think back to a similar remote location where I inexplicably tuned into a tiny indie radio station playing The Stone Roses. And a sudden storm lighting up the red dirt at night flashed me right back to seeing storms roll across the Grand Canyon at dusk. Etc.

    I love it.

  16. The Rev Owen says:

    Oh, yes, but you really do need your own music playing, as the article says. I find a mix of country and southern rock works well for me, with a little hip hop thrown in.

  17. Deacon Lowdown says:

    Such a beautiful world, filled with quiet, evocative details that suggest, but never reveal, a terrible apocalyptic story.

    Why did they waste this on a racing game?

  18. c-Row says:

    I would love to play your mad max game!

    Hell yeah!

  19. Ben says:

    cough* fallout 4 *cough. besides, great review, can’t wait to get my hands on this. plus: you made me buy halting state right now. thumbs up!

  20. Ian says:

    It looks utterly splendid, world-wise.

    I must confess that I’d rather got the wrong end of the stick with this game. Having looked at a few other bits about it I’d thought it was more online-y than it apparently is.

  21. Don says:

    @Jim : If only it were more than just a stage set for racing.

    So true. Chuck in some Alife from Stalker, a less cutesy version of the Sims 3 social world for the human communities and the roving adventurer would hardly need someone to code in Fallout 3 style quests, the world would just generate situations on its own.

  22. Jim Rossignol says:

    What it reminded me of, actually, was Lost Coast and the buggy in Half-Life 2. Often the best bits were where you had to get out and go into some buildings, and get involved in combat. Add that element to a world of this scale and you really might have something.

  23. FatMat says:

    Just one terrible mistake in this paper : our girlfriends will know that we do strange things at home when they’re out.

    Videogame looks like a cheap way into harmless domestic trance experience…

  24. Chis says:

    I’m still shocked that one of the RPS contributors has displayed a modicum of musical taste… :P

    (Seriously people, Eno didn’t only do ambient music, go check his earlier rock works such as Before And After Science.)

  25. Monchberter says:

    God, this needs to be licensed by whoever holds the Carmageddon license so they can rip off Death Race 2000 properly.

    And the idea of a FUEL / Fallout / Mad Max hybrid is just too exciting to contemplate

  26. piphil says:

    How does the game deal with the limits of the playable world? It it the normal invisible walls, or a “You shall not pass” message?

  27. Monchberter says:

    Jim, you know what you’ve done in your article?

    You’ve just recreated Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop.

    The endless and pointlessness of the road trip, interspersed by races to continue the trip.

    Excellent.

  28. Bhazor says:

    So Jim, reading mucky books I see.

    I had the same feeling playing ARMA2. As good as it is I couldn’t help but feel it would be a lot more if there was more character to it. The idea of a S.T.A.L.K.E.R game or another bleak RPG set in ARMA’s huge expanse makes me vaguely drooly.

  29. AyeKay says:

    >What it reminded me of, actually, was Lost Coast and the >buggy in Half-Life 2.

    It reminded me of that too, as I read it. Partly because of the obvious parallels but also because some of the events you mention – the aircraft graveyard, the fighter jet, the burning forests – hint like the kernel of a bigger story, in the same way that elements of Highway 13 – the graveyard behind the sea house, the locked cellar full of poisoned headcrabs, the cars in the tunnel – did. I think often a game does better to leave it at the hints rather than wrap an audio tape or a plot trigger around it.

    “Deep in the rippled sand-dunes of Fuel’s endless southern deserts is one of its few urban areas”

    I can’t believe we’ve got this far down the comments thread and no-one’s mentioned Ballard yet. Or was “Hello, Dubai 2030?” a ref to Hello America?

  30. AyeKay says:

    Very fine piece btw. Video it, score it with your selected soundtrack, take it to Cannes.

  31. mandrill says:

    Is there any indication of their being modding tools made available for this? How difficult would it be to create the world suggested without them? Does the engine actually have the capability to model and animate creatures/human beings/weapons or has it been optimized to only do machinery? Can an open world server be run using the world?
    Until these and many other questions are answered, dreams of a Mad Max/Fallout style social RPG are just that, dreams.
    I have high hopes that someone somewhere will find out the answers and get to work making that dream a reality.

  32. Jim Rossignol says:

    Can an open world server be run using the world?

    Yes, it has a multiplayer option. As for the rest: don’t know, although they’re clearly not impossibilities, just more programming problems.

  33. Carra says:

    It reminds me of a mmorpg I’ve seen a preview of. Was a kind of mad max mmorpg but I forgot the title. Add this landscape and that might just work. Although there’d have to be quite a few players to populate a server.

    And as for a “The Road” game. The book is being filmed. Maybe they’ll release a game to go along side it. But I doubt it would be any good…

  34. Carra says:

    Shoo, edit button is gone. But I think the game is Fallen Earth.

  35. EvaUnit02 says:

    Jim, are you running a G92 8800GTS 512MB or G80 8800GTS 320MB/640MB?

  36. Sarble says:

    Sounds like a setting for a Top Gear challenge ;)

  37. Frye says:

    You madman! Great article.
    It’s indeed a wonderful idea to use a world like this for a few mods or even more than just the one game. I can totally live with knowing a world already. Especially in multiplayer. Creating graphics soaks up a lot of the cost of making a game anyways i imagine. Might aswell get the most out of it. Developers probably think their customers would feel cheated or something. But i wouldn’t.

  38. Monchberter says:

    @ Sarble

    I’d love a Carmageddon-esque mod for FUEL where by your goal is to hunt down and kill by any means necessary Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard ‘The Hamster’ Hammond.

    Bonus points for dismemberment.

  39. Archonsod says:

    The Mad Max style game has already been done, Roadwar 2000 borrowed heavily for it. Of course, it was 1986 so the large open world wasn’t anywhere near as attractive.
    Maybe someone should try updating the franchise …

  40. MrBejeebus says:

    I love the sound of a Mad Max game, using this game map, that would be pretty cool.

  41. Malcolm says:

    Did you have to stop for FUEL? (ho ho)

  42. RagingLion says:

    Hmm … it could well be that Id’s Rage fulfills exactly what you were thinking that Fuel could become if the open world was used to better effect. We’ll have to wait and see on that.

  43. Radiant says:

    12:00PM
    I am falling down the side of a continent.

    nice :)

  44. Premium User Badge

    MacBeth says:

    Sidenote: Halting State has (like most Stross books) some excellent bits – the augmented-reality specs are begging to be made for real, but the ending is rather abrupt (if I recall correctly). Rather fun though, especially where it goes with MMORPG concepts…

  45. Muzman says:

    Is that Mordor in the bottom left corner there?

    Great stuff. A better ad they could not have dreamt themselves, I’m sure.
    I really like the Duel mod idea. Seems like it should be fairly easily do-able as well (many of the others I suspect would hit a few processing hurdles, fun though they’d be)

  46. Bob Bobson says:

    Forget Mad Max, I want to combine this vast open landspace with Wurm (only, you know, Cyberpunk tech level Wurm with the vehicles and all). If the problem is that the landspace lacks life give the players the tools to make lives there and you’ve got a hell of a world.

    Or hell, just give me a offroad buggy capable of going at 70 mph in Wurm.

  47. SuperNashwan says:

    I wonder what it means when as gamers we get given something like this, or Far Cry 2, and most of what we notice is how much more it could’ve been. Are we asking too much or are devs no ambitious enough?

  48. DigitalSignalX says:

    What’s the purpose of the black trucks? Just random NPC traffic? Seems like they could be made into a whole plot device in and of themselves. Amazing looking game, but I have to agree, seems to only scratch the potential for joy it could grow into.

    I pray the engine allows itself to be modded with relative ease, as there would be a huge rush of people making these superb ideas happen rather then wait for the sluggish pace of a developer to.

    First mod on the list of course.

  49. HidesHisEyes says:

    Eno? Eluvium?

    I had no idea RPS had such excellent taste in music as well as games :)

  50. Lucas says:

    I’ve recently had a hunger for some serious vehicular combat gaming, and thus spent much of this week replaying the original Mercenaries for PS2. Some of the best moments are when you’ve advanced the plot enough to seed new AI fights on the map, and then encounter them while on a mission.

    E.g.: I’m driving a red sporty roadster to pickup and deliver goodies for the Russian Mafia, when I misjudge a roadblocked tunnel and catch a TOW missile that was intended for some unlucky NK jeep. Bye bye sports car (and its delivery bonus), so it’s time to hijack a new ride.

    I’m totally ready for an open world vehicle game in the model of Pirates! or Mount & Blade, so much so that I may just have to build one myself.