For me theres two things you need to absolutely nail if you're making a racing game. One is the handling. Two is the crashing. Unfortunately, for all Fuels good points, it fails miserably on both of the crucial things.
Handling is a big issue. Its just plain wrong for most vehicles with no sense of weight and momentum. Vehicles slide sideways at odd angles, some of the cars feel like they're rotating around a central point rather than steering and the bikes are just plain odd, skewing off at odd angles regardless of what you're doing with the thumbsticks. None of the vehicles feel like they're connected to, or interacting correctly with the landscape, with jumps sometimes flinging vehicles into the air at odd angles and cars bouncing sideways off solid objects in a completely unrealistic fashion. The crashing is the most dismal attempt I've seen for a while - surely one of the main draws for a game like Fuel is to see the spectacular consequences of getting it wrong. Motorstorm knew this, as did Burnout Paradise - crash and be impressed as your vehicle tumbles into bits. Crash in Fuel and if its a solid object (Tree/oncoming truck/rock etc) and you're stopped instantly in your tracks. Clip an object at speed and you'll bounce off sideways, and occasionally rise vertically into the air. Damage is essentially non existent, with the only indication things are going awry is the plume of black smoke that eventually emits from your engine. Crash at enough speed whilst in a smoking car and your treated to a loading screen, before respawing back on the track. And thats it, no rolling, no debris, no proper crashing, just a thump and a loading screen. Its feels horribly dated and is a fairly crippling issue.
Which is a shame because theres a half decent game here struggling to get out. The landscape is simply immense and mostly fairly gorgeous (although some areas look awful). The forests and foliage are particularly well presented, and theres some great weather and lighting effects on show which make the landscape the only real positive here. Driving through it in Free Ride mode is essentially uneventful, but gives enough 'Zen' like trance moments where you're racing at speed, threading neatly through a sunny forest, or nipping across the dunes, to keep things fairly compelling. Its just a shame that the whole effect is ruined if you crash.
Its a shame the world is so static - we're all slightly spoilt by the wealth of smashable physics objects seen in most games, so crashing into immovable bushes and fences feels wrong. The smartGPS is fairly good at letting you roam free whilst ensuring you don't get completely lost, but the mini map is a waste of time. Vehicles icons are too big, essentially obscuring the line fo the road, and the roads and rivers are generally just a jumble of meaningless lines to be ignored - which can be frustrating for those events where the smartGPS isn't allowed. The racing itself is formulaic, lacking any of the rough and tumble that it really should be pushing. Theres no urgency to it, no agression, mostly down to the erroneous physics and lack of crashing, so nudging opponants out of the way results in nothing more than gaining a place. With many races having vehicles spread out along the track like beads on a string, theres just no sense of wrestling with a pack to come out on top.
Its a real shame that theres so much wrong with the basic mechanics of Fuel as when it does intermittently work, it can become a fairly satisfying experience, but its hamstrung completely by a lack of any vehicular flourish or sense of consequence. Ultimately good looking, but mostly inept, its hard to recommend.