I’m on a heavy, powerful street bike. I’ve been riding for an hour or two, with breaks, and yes, I’ve been drinking beer. With some vintage The Hold Steady on my headphones, I can barely hear the roar of the engine, but there’s very little traffic, and I’ve only missed the best line on a few corners so far, but given the amount of booze I’ve managed to neck, that may change soon.
I started up in the mountains under clear skies — across the plains to the Southeast, I was just able to see some other blued-by-distance peaks, just at the edge of visibility, maybe 40 km away. I thought I’d see how many beers it would take to me get there, and maybe further. There’s always Further. Right now, maybe six or seven OB Lagers into my ride, I’m just climbing out of the scrub desert again, approaching the foothills of those low southern peaks, and feeling pretty good.
The ride down out of the snows, from above the treeline and above the clouds, was breathtaking. Winding through pine forests, negotiating switchbacks and dodging the occasional truck, I tried as much as possible to keep a general southeasterly heading. The bike’s made for asphalt, and though there are webs of dirt roads and trails that would allow me to very nearly travel as the crow flies, I’ve stayed on the pavement. It’s been hard to keep my eyes on the road. Coming around corners out on the hairy edge of cliffsides has occasionally afforded me views out over the valley that made me pull off into the gravel just to crack a new beer and soak in the view for a few minutes.
The skies clouded over as I descended into the foothills. I found myself riding through a good 10 or 15 kilometers of forest that had been blasted to kindling, denuded tree trunks pointing skeletally to the sky, some of them still burning like huge roman candles. A tortured landscape rolled past, clouds of smoke obscuring the sun and turning the light a sickly orange.
A thunderstorm rolled in about the time I emerged from the devastated forest into scrub desert scored with small canyons. Worryingly spectacular bolts of lightning, striking ahead, lighting the clouds from behind, coming closer, throwing flickering shadows from roadsigns and the abandoned cars littering the roadside. I kept to low ground, turned up the music a little, and enjoyed the show.
It didn’t take long for the clouds to clear, and the sun by now was over my right shoulder, sinking towards the horizon in a blaze of fire, illuminating the remnants of the stormclouds across the highway, over to the east. The moon was just beginning to rise, lit brightly by the last rays of sunset. I chased my shadow along the center line of the highway until the light failed, then stopped atop a bluff, finally coming into full desert under clear skies to watch the last of the light fade and the stars come out, opened another beer and continued to the southeast, checking my compass and still chasing that distant mountain top I’d seen earlier from my starting point.
As the moon rises quickly to the zenith, I suddenly understand why I don’t see any roads to my southeast on my navigation display. I’m so busy looking at the sky that I barely pull up the bike in time, skidding in gravel over to the verge of a precipice as I approach a hairpin corner too quickly, and realize I’ve been skirting a gigantic canyon, a good 2 km across, that cuts through the landscape as far as I can see to the south. It’s going to take me a while to find my way around it and get back on course, but I’ve got the beer, and my playlist is long.
I’ve been doing another Friday motorcycle run through the beautiful, neglected world of FUEL.
So Good, So Big, So… Unfinished
Reading about the game before it came out, I figured it was made just for me. 14,400 square kilometres of painstakingly detailed world, 100,000 km of roads, 20,000 km of them asphalt, just to drive around in. Holy shit, said I. That’s the kind of place I want to visit. No people? Even better!
For the last three iterations of the Grand Theft Auto series — Vice City, San Andreas and GTAIV — my favorite thing to do after a while performing the usual missions had invariably become getting my Friday night beers cooled, cranking up the in-game radio, and just going for a ride around the world. I suppose it’s in part because I love just driving around and listening to music so much, and I haven’t owned a car since 1992. I miss driving. So FUEL excited me. I tried to ignore how clunky and slightly-off the physics and vehicle-handling implementations looked in the videos, and just hoped that the game would be fun.
It wasn’t, much.
I was disappointed, like most people were. FUEL sank from sight with barely a ripple. But wait: I wouldn’t be writing this if it were a pure disappointment. There’s much to be disappointed about in FUEL, but, if you squint, turn your head the right way, and if you enjoy just zoning out and driving through beautiful countryside aimlessly as a kind of meditation, like I do, there’s an awful lot to recommend, too.
Let’s start with the negatives before the praise.
My worries about the physics and vehicle handling were justified. Most of the vehicles in FUEL handle poorly. The balance between realism and simple fun is important, and the mark has been missed with both. First person driving in four-wheeled vehicles is unmanageable, and in third-person, it’s, well, just a bit clunky. Gravity feels off; suspensions feel wrong.
Races — ostensibly the focus of the game — are fun enough, but just barely. Your competitors rubberband like mad, and when you lose a 20-minute, 30 kilometer race by a nose and have to start it again from scratch in order to unlock new starting point bases throughout the world, repeatedly — well, it starts to get very annoying. Crashing your vehicle gives you a canned animation and you’re suddenly reset, at rest, as the AI drivers tear past you. Not optimal.
The world, gorgeous as it is, is just a little too empty, even for the post-apocalyptic setting. There are badly-implemented AI trucks — all identical, all apparently pointless, seemingly an afterthought to make the world seem less vacant — and the occasional fighter jet that screams by overhead, but there are no people, there are no other random road warriors to encounter, there is just endless, if gorgeous, carpet of landscape. To me, this isn’t a bad thing, but it’s disappointing if you expected anything else.
You can customize the hell out of the way your driver and the vehicles look — which you’ll only see in third-person anyway — but come on, developer guys, who gives a shit about that? Twelve year olds? STOP MAKING GAMES FOR 12 YEAR OLDS. Cough. Sorry.
But there’s no way to customize the vastly more important stuff: the ways vehicles actually feel and handle, and given the degree of wonkiness in the defaults, that’s a major omission. (By the way, it took me forever to figure out that, using an Xbox controller on Windows, you can switch from first- to third-person by pushing down (literally down, with your thumb, into the surface of the gamepad, on the left stick)).
The sad fact of the matter — and I think this is why the game was pretty much universally praised for its technology but found wanting in terms of actual gameplay — is that there’s not actually much of a ‘game’ there. Yes, there are a wide array of canned races through the landscape, and they can be fun, but they can also be annoying and often difficult, and crashing even once (which happens a lot in the offroad races or mixed-surface races in particular) usually means you are going to have to start again from the beginning, even if, like I mentioned before, you’re 20 minutes into a race and the final checkpoint is in sight. Horrible.
Ah, NOW I Get It
I’ve had FUEL on my hard drive since it was released, because I liked running a few races or just cruising around in the game world once in a while, to relax. But I didn’t really get it until a few weeks ago.
It was Friday night, and, as is my habit, I was drinking some beer and, since all my TF2-playing friends in North America — 9 hours away from my timezone — had gone to bed, and since I was still feeling like a little gaming was in order (preferably not involving much in the way of reflexes) I fired up FUEL.
I didn’t bother with the lamentable ‘Career’ mode. I’d opened up about half of the game areas in the many months I’d been playing it — each a good 1000 square kilometres in extent — through finishing enough races, but I had been getting frustrated, and couldn’t be bothered unlocking any more. I’d assumed that an invisible wall would appear on the borders of areas you hadn’t unlocked, and you wouldn’t be able to just freeride. I was wrong. I’d also been driving cars, in 3rd person, because driving four-wheeled vehicles in first-person was an exercise in frustration. There was still a good half of the game world — seven or eight thousand square kilometers — that I hadn’t seen after all this time.
But that night, I chose a street bike that I’d unlocked, clicked into first-person, headed out on the road, and within a few minutes I FELT IT. I felt love for the French guys who put this together welling up in my heart. I discovered that you could ride anywhere in the world, even if you had to start your journey from an area you’d unlocked. I had decided to ride from the north-central mountain peaks to the southeast, and just see how far I could get. I got far, way into zones I hadn’t ‘unlocked’ and I loved every minute of it. Street bike plus first-person perspective: perfect.
This is what I imagine. I think this game was designed, conceived of, spawned from the mind of a lead designer who loves motorcycles and used to ride them. Like me. Maybe he got old, maybe he lost his license, maybe he had one too many crashes, maybe he has a wife that categorically forbids him from riding any more. Like me. But I think he imagined a massive, inexhaustibly huge ingame world where he could just ride again through splendid landscapes, park the bike beside a guardrail on a mountain switchback, drink a mouthful of vin de table from his squirt bottle, look out into the distance, and say to himself: ‘Zere. Zis afternoon I am going to ride zere.’ Maybe he still actually rides. I don’t know.
But I tell you! I think — at least when I’ve had a few — they nailed the motorcycling in first person, on asphalt. Just that tiny little part. Forget about the ‘game’ aspect, forget about the ‘racing’ against cruel AI vehicles: this is a simulator. A program that simulates for me with astounding accuracy those hot, crystalline-skied summer days two decades ago when I would hop on my clapped-out 700cc Suzuki and ride up through the mountains from Whistler to Pemberton. OK, sitting in front of the computer there’s no clean mountain air sweeping away the cobwebs, no delicious temperature gradients from cool mountain shadows into bright sunlight, no g-forces, no real exhilaration from the speed and the motion and the danger.
I turn the big round fan that helps me get sane through NE Asia monsoon season a quarter turn when I’m driving in FUEL, so the wind hits me in the face. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but I do. Smells like my room, not the World, but you take what you can get.
Anyway. Damn: it’s good. And there are areas of the world in which I could swear I was back on that very road, in some stretch of it that for some reason I just can’t remember.
You Get Old, You Hafta Simulate A Bit
I think what may have happened is that they spent so much time building this technology and this world — and, again, it is an absolute triumph of worldbuilding — that the suits didn’t give them enough time to build much of a game around it and in it. That the environment took so many zillions of man-hours that once they got the vehicles and checkpoints and gamey-bits into the engine, the money men said ‘OK, that’s a game, looks good enough to me, we’ve got to release this sucker and recoup our investment!’ and the developers panicked. That it could have used another few months for tweaking the physics, for filling the vast glorious empty space with a little more than those glories of nature and weather and the visually stunning devastation of an unspecified Apocalypse. They didn’t get their chance, I don’t think, and so we have this fantastic, detailed, sometimes heartstoppingly beautiful world, but a very second rate ‘gaming’ experience laid on top of it.
Still, somehow, through design or dumb luck, they nailed that one gameplay thing: hopping onto a street bike in first person and just riding. And I love that.
Again, though: the technology is jaw-dropping. My PC has an AMD 4800+ dual core CPU, a 512Mb 8800GT video card, and 2Mb of RAM. It was a pretty decent machine 3 or 4 years back, and is woefully underpowered by today’s standards, but it runs this game flawlessly. It’s marvelously smooth, and so, so beautiful. A 4Gb footprint on your hard drive, and I seriously do not know how they did it. Forty thousand square kilometers of unique landscape, and it’s 4 measly gigs. Magic.
No. Stop. Wait. Think. This shit is fucking amazing, people. It makes me want to tear off my clothes and dance a shamanic stomp to the god of mathematics, this does.
FUEL was on sale recently in Steam for something like $4.00, and no doubt will be again. If you have any interest in the kind of — I hesitate to call it gameplay, so perhaps — experience I’ve been praising, then I highly recommend you give it go. After all this time, I’ve never even tried the online play, where, I assume, you and I could both grab some beers, open a Steam voice channel, and go for long ride together up into the mountains or down along the ocean coast some Friday night. That would be fun.
My fondest desire would be that they use this technology in another game, a sequel, even the same world if they liked, but that they dial in the vehicle handling and populate the world a bit. If they did that, I think I would never stop playing it. As it is, I look forward to many more hours of latenight, drunken motorcycle rides through the gorgeous, unpopulated world they built.