The great American road trip.
When I think of driving, I think of freedom. I think of chasing the horizon in a supped up Lamborghini with the sounds of Deep Purple powering through the speakers, or tearing around a mud-soaked forest in a Lancia. Of course, the reality is sitting in a queue of Ford Fiestas waiting for lights to turn green. The Crew understands my fantasy and captures the romance of driving. Despite its roughness, there is something glorious about simply getting in a car and seeing where the road takes you.
After an adrenaline-fueled prologue, The Crew presents you with a choice: which car do you want? They are the usual mixture of sport and muscle hybrids, which are nice, but not too nice. They want you to lust after those pricey sports models after all. Your car choice is very important, more so than in most racing games, because you're going to be driving it for a while.
Your vehicle is your avatar, and like the heroes in role playing games, your car levels up, granting access to better parts to improve performance. Every aspect can be upgraded: tires, breaks, gearboxes and everything in between, plus the sense of improvement is palpable. Going from a car with a top speed of 100 mph, taking corners like a bus, to a tight-turning 200 mph beast is very satisfying. It means any car can be competitive, which is great because it's always sad leaving your favourite one behind when it's just not fast enough anymore.
Once a fitting automobile is chosen, the game lets you loose in America. Not a portion of it or a specific state, no, the entire United States. The scope of the world is staggering. It's not a one-to-one scale recreation, but it's still enormous. It's split into five zones, each encapsulating major cities in the region, such as Las Vegas and New York. There are few countries in the world that encompass such extremes of landscape: mountains, deserts, forests, and swamps. That's why America is such a perfect setting.
Even before The Crew was released, the prospect of driving from one end of America to the other was inticing. It took me about 49 minutes starting from Key West in Florida to the Space Needle in Seattle. En route, I drove past the Everglades, powered through the Mojave Desert as the sun set, and then back up the West Cost as it rose again. I wasn't prompted to do this, I just wanted to, I didn't gain any experience or any new car parts; it was just a case of driving for the sake of driving, highlighting perfectly how the variety of landscape makes driving in The Crew so enjoyable.
In order to have such a vast playground you have to make some concessions. Racing games are known for consistently pushing that graphic capabilities on consoles and they are often a good indicator of just how good games can look on a system. Take Forza 5 and Drive Club as examples. Those games are linear racers with self-contained courses. The Crew's massive play space is just the opposite, and as a result of its size the detail takes a hit and wider, flatter areas suffer from pop in. The game still looks impressive in motion though. The terrain zipping by doesn't need to stand up to close scrutiny.
The game's graphical shortcomings are most evident in cities where buildings seem flat. Despite this the developers at Ivory Tower have done a fantastic job of making each city feel distinct. The game's visual successes are in its depictions of nature. America's mountains, forests and canyons are much more interesting to look at and drive in. The cars too have a high level of detail, but they can't match those on offer in the game's contemporaries.
In addition, there's a story to add context to the driving, but it's trite, unnecessary and unfortunately hampers the fun. In order to add credence to the tale of a framed driving maverick infiltrating a motor gang, the developers felt the need to add some infuriating missions. Call me old-fashioned, but I like racing. I don't like playing missions that amount to playing tag with another car. These interception-style missions are inconsistent tests of patience.
An average attempt at one of these missions goes something like this: chase a car, try to guess when and which way they will turn, slow down from ramming speed just in time to stop yourself careening into a wall, watch in a futile rage as the target vehicle drives off, take a deep breath, and then hit retry. Worse still is the running commentary that the supporting cast feel the need to deliver. They are featured in every mission, but they are particularly annoying during the interceptions. The same lines of clichéd dialogue are repeated ad infinitum. A particular shout out has to go to Eric Tsu, perhaps the most irritating character in recent memory.
It's a relief that the races, when they appear, are thrilling and tense. There are five different car types: street, dirt, performance, raid and circuit. Each specialize in a certain terrain. The handling overall is forgiving if a little twitchy. Off road races are the most fluid and drifting round the corners feels natural and satisfying. Road races (inner city ones in particular) are faster, requiring quick reactions and sharp breaking. For me personally, they feature too many sharp corners which interrupt the flow, as well as more dense traffic and it never felt easy enough to make the small adjustments needed to weave through the rows of slower moving cars. The handling can be adjusted through the options, but I was never able to achieve the same enjoyment in the cities as I did on the muddy back roads.
Missions aren't limited to the story, and much of the game's enjoyment comes from the extra assignments and challenges. Roads are littered with mini-tasks that can be tackled at will. They are entertaining distractions which award money, car parts and experience based on performance; the better you do, the better the reward encouraging repeat attempts. Faction missions become available after working your way through an area, and the option to join that region's faction is unlocked. There are five in total and they are in constant competition. Winning faction-specific missions (some of the best in the game) and PVP races boosts the profile of your chosen faction and increases your cash flow.
Joining a faction is important since The Crew encourages cooperative play as often as possible. Ubisoft billed the game as an online role playing game with cars. they call it a "CARPG." We'll see if that catches on. This means you aren't alone in America. The map and hud highlight players in your area. When starting a mission you can select the "Quick Co-Op" option, which will invite nearby players to compete with you in the race. The online elements are welcome and unobtrusive. The PVP hubs (located in each major city) mean you are never far away from a great race, or if you just want a drive around with some friends it's simple to invite up to three of them to your crew.
The PVP and faction missions are the best way to earn money, money you need for those sleek, beautiful sport cars taunting you in the various showrooms. However, some of the price tags are exorbitant and The Crew is somewhat stingy with its monetary rewards, cue the micro-transactions. You can buy "Crew Credits" for real world cash and use these to purchase the best cars in the game. Having played for around 45 hours, my savings are still some ways off what's required.
Given the time investment needed to compete some of The Crew's missions (one in particular can take up to two and a half hours) the rewards are in no way representative. As fun as these missions are, endlessly repeating them is not my idea of fun and using real money feels like the only viable way to get yourself behind the wheel of a Ferrari or Lamborghini.
This game was reviewed with a digital copy of the Xbox One version provided by Ubisoft.
Images courtesy of Ubisoft.