Why Fuel Is Still A Showroom Of Videogame Possibilities

Starting today, every Sunday we’re going to pull out one of the best moments from Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s 141-year history. This week, Jim’s road trip around post-apocalyptic racing game Fuel, first published June 22nd 2009 with the title, “Fuel: Around The World In Eight Hours”. With The Crew just around the corner, a Mad Max game in-development and open-terrain survival games on the rise, the musings below are still relevant today.

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 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 lightning 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 of my early road-trip chirpiness and general interest 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 of 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 is 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 and cougars? 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 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 the 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.

46 Comments

  1. Dominic White says:

    Not sure why you’d ever want to play the game without the Refueled mod.

    link to moddb.com

    Among the many, MANY improvements it makes, it reworks the handling on the cars so they behave a little more like things with wheels attached. No longer will a truck go into a 720 degree spin because one tire touched a bit of mud.

    All the open-world and exploration stuff is the same as it ever was. It just makes the ‘game’ part more enjoyable.

    • Gnoupi says:

      Probably because this was written before the mod came to life. But yes, it’s much more enjoyable with the mod.

    • Premium User Badge

      Henke says:

      Ooooh! Sounds good. I tried Fuel briefly way back then, but the handling really turned me off. Might have to revisit it with this mod. :D

    • Bradamantium says:

      That seems handy. I’ll have to track down a PC copy, as I never got far at all in my PS3 version on account of the fact that it was some of the slipperiest, dullest racing I’ve ever done in a game. Seemed worth it for exploring the world, but doing as much while rolling on apparent sticks of butter rather than wheels was a chore.

  2. NicholasTimothyJones says:

    I really, really loved FUEL thanks to its vast, beautiful open world. I never progressed much though. I should start again. Thank you for reminding me of this wonderful gem of a game.

  3. Henson says:

    Isn’t Fuel basically unavailable for purchase or something? Or unplayable due to GFWL being borked? I feel like there was a major issue with this game in the last year, but I forget.

    • Baggypants says:

      Yep. It’s mainly due to the rediculous DRM, If you got the disk then you need the disk in all the time and GFWL. If you bought it on Steam you need Steam & GFWL. Steam removed it from the store so you have to dig about for a disk. You can still play it singleplayer with the Xliveless dll that’s floating about but the online community (A Steam group) is now orphaned. I’m still playing it, The disk has been sat in my drive for a good three years and I’m slowly working through the unlocks. This is mainly because I insist on trying to drive to everywhere insteead of taking the Helicopters. What is quite frustrating is when you drive to the edge of the map it pushes you back in but you can see the world keeps going for miles. This is especially obvious at the bottom right hand corner.

      Fuel is almost an allegory of itself. The shortsightedness of the people of the world destroyed the world in the game. The shortsightedness of the developers of Fuel inevitably destroyed Fuel. It’s a lovely broken thing.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      It’s unavailable to buy directly from Steam, but I’ve occasionally seen Steam keys go on sale via other sources. Think I snagged mine from SimplyCDkeys or some place, I think gamefly or getgames might have it still.

      Edit: link to getgamesgo.com

  4. JFS says:

    Ha, I remember this article. Great writing.

    • Ross Angus says:

      This was one of the first articles where I really got RPS. It also had me buy of copy of FUEL, of course.

      • TheSplund says:

        And it got me to re-install a game that I’d picked up cheap some time ago and I’d probably not played for more than 30 minutes in total (over three successive installs). Now patched and in the diary for a cold miserable day this coming winter

  5. RARARA says:

    Feels like the perfect spot to post a time-lapse video of a Fuel journey starting from one end of the world to the other.

  6. Metalhead9806 says:

    I love this game… own it on Steam and Xbox 360. Its a must have for any arcade racing fan. Its sad that Steam no longer sells it but it can be easily purchased physically and by other digital stores that still sell steam codes.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I too – I rented it one day for the 360, then bought a used copy, then bought it for PC when I found myself transformed in my bed into a PC gamer. I haven’t even installed the Steam copy, though, and it’s a damn shame it might end up not even running because of the GfWL parasite. I never even had a chance to play it with other people.

      And you know, I liked the racing too. Lacking, sure, but not really bad.

  7. GallonOfAlan says:

    Hugely impressive, but still basically a tech demo in search of a game. Although I played it on 360, I might pick it up again on PC and mod it.

  8. Christo4 says:

    “Seriously, fill in some ambient life, populate with AI, lob a load of vehicular death toys in, and let there be rejoicing.”
    I disagree.
    Imo, i’d like to see servers with 100-200 people playing at the same time, just casually driving vehicles around the world. Kinda like meeting some people, following them or them following you while checking out the map and enjoying the hills.
    Or they could implement some hazards in the world, where another player helping you out would be needed (like, getting stuck in a mud pit and needing another player to pull you out).
    I’d like this more than just some AI…

  9. Kempston Wiggler says:

    I have bought this off Amazon. Call me weird, but I’m a sucker for half-broken, time-lost games that need special handling to be able to play. Pain is fun.

    • GallonOfAlan says:

      So, how are you enjoying Crashday then?

      • HumpX says:

        Hah! I loved that buggy game. The closest game that was put was gas guzzlers but it wasnt free form the way Crashday was.

  10. Caladell says:

    They need to take this map and plop a Fallout or Stalker game into it. That’s what I always think while racing around the landscape.

  11. Hydraulic Meerkat says:

    How did i miss this game?

  12. Press X to Gary Busey says:

    I wish the new Fallouts were as open as this (or the later Elderscrolls). With actual wasteland and not just a stack of event locations falling over each other.

  13. Gog Magog says:

    One void is as pretty as all others because there is nothing at all there but yourself and a cud divorced of corporeality you keep on chewing out of boredom and out of a naive desire for the sound of profoundity.
    So yeah I like my landscapes busy not barren.

  14. killingbutterflies says:

    Bought this a bit back and tried to play it but GFWL prevented me from playing it. Bit pissed at wasting my money on that one. Has that been solved yet because it looks like an awesome game.

  15. Greggh says:

    “Starting today, every Sunday we’re going to pull out one of the best moments from Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s 141-year history.”

    So, basically you’re just going to republish ALL of Jim’s work and none of John’s, right??
    MEEEH, jk
    :oP

    Also, this review gave me a major driving-game boner, but then commenters said a) GFWL (it got flabby already) and b) unavailable on Steam because of a), mostly…
    DAMN JIM, you tease!!

  16. mr.black says:

    Well, I got the sameish feeling (without desolation) driving in the Crew. Though it was in the middle of nowhere in the last minutes of beta, so there were not many annoying other people to annoy me cruising. I’m really interested what would RPS think of it. Now reading this again, I realize I kinda subconsciously nicked the idea and described at length how one can utilize the world and vastly expand the experience when I gave beta feedback..

  17. Gap Gen says:

    This is a nice idea. There’s a lot of good stuff buried in the archives, so good call on dragging it back up to see the light of day before being drowned by daily updates again. Would almost be worth curating a “Best Of”, although I suppose clicking on the related tag probably works just as well.

  18. a_console_pheasant says:

    Halting State is the best thing I’ve ever read written in second person, better than many things written in first or third as well.

  19. Baggypants says:

    I’m still hoping someone will do a Fuel mod for Sir! You are being Hunted.

  20. MickMick says:

    Off topic but a question regarding Cara Ellison posts. I don’t really know who she is so I may be missing something, but I noticed in a previous article she wrote that her opinion was completely offbase and quite insulting, so I went to make a comment/read comments and no. Comments are turned off?

    I see that the “Likes” for her articles are much higher than most other articles, yet noone is allowed to comment. Is RPS using her to get likes from her ‘fans’ from other websites, while turning off comments because noone who reads RPS actually likes her or agrees with her point of view and all she can expect is negative comments?

    Let me know if that’s completely incorrect, but if it is. Geez RPS, way to insult your readers.

    • GallonOfAlan says:

      I think her comments are turned off (hopefully temporarily) due to the amount of unpleasantness female writers get from the worrying number of knuckle-dragging, whining, entitled, man-children out there.

      • MickMick says:

        Its definitely cara ellison or s.exe specific, as none of the other female writers comments are off.

    • Jim Dandy says:

      I’ve tried really hard. I know it’s wrong, but it’s like leaving cat-sick on the carpet. RPS mod’s, I preemptively apologise.

      Anyway, just like Fuel a comment thread’s potential-space can collapse in innumerable ways…

      MickMick. I’m taking your question at face value. I’m pretty sure the reason comments are disabled for Ms Ellison’s articles is that RPS moderation staff are disinclined to deal with the flood of fucktarded MRA bile that inevitability vomits forth.

      Having said that, I naturally tend to feel uncomfortable when any opinion is suppressed, no matter how vile, incoherent or scatological. Like everyone else I’ve been thinking about this a lot. What I keep coming back to is this: stupid/revolting ideas are like abscesses – nobody benefits by pretending they aren’t there. Get some sunshine onto the wound and drain the pus.

      Or just shout at each other and give the mod’s a pain in their bums. I dunno.

    • GameCat says:

      There’s discussion topic on RPS forum. Feel free to comment there.

    • Ibed says:

      I think you’re referring to the latest S.EXE, on which the comments are disabled (I’d guess) because she wrote about some stuff that usually makes the not-very-friendly people come out of the woodwork, and with everything going on on Twitter at that time, this would only be exacerbated.

      I don’t know which likes you’re referring to, I guess on Facebook? Anyway, Cara is a freelancer whose articles are quite well-loved by most of RPS’ readers (judging from the comments there) so I’d say that your assertion is indeed completely incorrect.

      • MickMick says:

        I was referring to the fuck everything post from a week back, what re-introduced my curiosity was the recent indy and the fate of atlantis post. Yeh facebook likes, shes killing it.

  21. Premium User Badge

    Neurotic says:

    It’s interesting to read this in light of Sir.

  22. Da5e says:

    I bought this(on Xbox, mind) on the strength of this article first time around, and now I’d like to buy it again on PC. It’s good ambient gaming, I used to stick it on and just drive about when stuck on writing ideas.

  23. Keiggo says:

    I worked as QA on this game. This article has reminded me that one of the testing tools at our disposal was an elastic band wrapped around the the accelerator!

  24. Curratum says:

    Man, what a treat that game was and still is! I actually persevered for a good 40 hours, grinding against the ridiculous, rubberbanding AI that fucks you over in the last three seconds of each race and went to unlock all the sectors of the map, all the way to Rainier’s peak. It hurt but in a way that made me feel like a kid that just beat a NES game for the first time. Then I wiped my HDD and only then realized GFWL did not keep my save games and the game has no Steam cloud save capability. Maybe the Refueled mod tweaks the AI and handling enough to make another push through the events worth it.

  25. TheSplund says:

    I did a ‘mini version’ of this when I first played the Day-Z mod – I’d not realised the size of the map/scale or how to navigate and that you can cycle off the main map (I’d picked up a bike) and just kept going. It was kind of therapeutic and I managed to keep it going over many server restarts but eventually I realised the error of my ways and figured out how to head back. The lack of detail out side of the main play area was a shame but it was kind of fun just cycling along. Will be trying the same in Fuel when the nights draw in

  26. zero11 says:

    Really exciting to see FUEL mentioned on RPS again! I love this and still play it with friends.

    The trick is to avoid the arcade mode and get out there and explore the map!

    Some of the mini-games we’ve made up:

    – “Surfing / Half Pipe” – take a overpowered motorcycle into a deep canyon and do tricks!

    – “Freeclimbing” – use different vehicles to make sharp, pinpoint-difficult mountain/wall ascents and descents. It requires some time to learn the balancing aspect and use of terrain, but it’s very addictive and quite challenging.

    – “Streamrunning” – When a car or bike is below water level for a certain amount of time, about 1s, the vehicle sinks and forces a reposition – but – if you get the timing just right you can skip along a river or stream and follow it all the way to the source. The process is sort of like a bobsled run + jumps.

    …and of course we chat and drive the map. There’s not much detail out there but driving and listening to music, finding new areas, etc, is pretty fun (and relaxing) anyway.

    Note – there’s still an active FUEL racing association on steam. They hold big group free ride events a few times a month.