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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.