Ubisoft’s open-world racer spins out in a painful beta
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The Crew is a racing MMOG that pulls in such disparate elements as Watch Dogs’ cellphone UI, Assassin’s Creed’s unfolding map and Far Cry 2’ s health system. It has a thousand pop-up challenges on an open-world map so densely covered with objectives and missions that few players will ever see it all, and it features a po-faced story that’s faultlessly earnest even in the face of the most predictable caricatures and stereotypes in all of videogames. It’s a tentpole Ubisoft game, all right.
But while all those familiar faces may not seem like a natural fit for a racer, only the story is detractive. The systems Ubisoft recycles again and again – the vantage point in Assassin’s Creed becomes the radio tower in Far Cry becomes the transmitter in Watch Dogs becomes the GPS station in The Crew – are recycled because they work, and if it all seems a little too comfortable now, there might be a reason for that.
“Ubisoft and all the other companies have to be careful that they’re not exhausting people with these mechanics,” says The Crew’s creative director, Julian Gerighty. “[But] I think we’re in a privileged position where we play pretty much any game that’s out there and see similar mechanics, whether that’s Assassin’s Creed or Infamous: Second Son. Not everybody has our luxury of playing all these titles. For me, there are other ways to do [radio towers], but they would have been impossible to achieve in the time frame that we had to launch the game. We have to push ourselves to find better ways and do something; for now, I think this works.”
Ubisoft is taking no risks with the game’s older systems, but extraordinary risk with the newer ones it tested in the game’s public
beta in late July. The Crew’s condensed US presents a massive challenge for Ubisoft’s QA team. There are thousands of miles of road and countless possible interactions with other players and AI traffic to account for in a world so large that even a team of hundreds couldn’t explore it completely.
In the beta code, which dates from before E3, the cars’ moon physics made coast-tocoast driving less of a pleasure than was intended to be. Players still did it – “We’ve seen a lot of people pick up the beta, and as soon as they finish the prologue, go to Los Angeles,” Gerighty says – but with enough glitches along the way to cause concern.
“There was a lot of behind-the-scenes work and a lot of very late nights from the tech team,” Gerighty tells us. “All round Ubisoft, we were working on making sure the hiccoughs that we ran into were solved as quickly as possible. There are still hundreds of bugs in the game that are amusing when you put them on YouTube, but I’m confident the big things people are concerned about – collisions being one – will be addressed for the final version. We don’t have a huge amount of time, but we’ve still got time.”
And time is The Crew’s enemy right now. The UI is still a cumbersome thing, and poor presentation has made the economy a subject of community concern. “This is a real concern for us, too,” Gerighty admits. “Players have said cars are too expensive, but we want to make every car meaningful. Serge [Hascoet, Ubisoft’s chief creative officer] was pushing us to make sure that players understood that your first car is a marriage – it’s a commitment between you and this machine for a significant amount of time. That’s really a moment we’re going to underline.”
“Players have said cars are too expensive, but we want to make every car meaningful”
And there’s plenty more on the to-do list. “Are we going to be able to improve handling? Absolutely. One of our biggest challenges over the last 12 months has been simplifying the UI. Can we improve it in the time we have left? Yes. Things like voice chat? Definitely. The difficulty will be balanced. And if you want to just drive, you’ll be able to turn every challenge off. “We’ve had people from the Test Drive
Unlimited community playtest it, and one of the guys’ feedback was, ‘Hey, guys, I don’t want to play any of the challenges; I just want to be able to drive around and explore.’ This is from a guy who builds his own cockpit and steering wheel setups. He’s done 5,000 hours on Test Drive. There are people who just want to experience the open road, and we’re going to give them the chance.”
Evidently, there’s a real commitment to addressing player feedback. But with such volumes to sort before November, Ivory Tower and Reflections are going to have to floor it to get The Crew ready in time.
TheCrew’s muted colour palette unifies the game’s varied environments, no matter the weather, but that unity comes at the cost of a drab brown colour scheme
TOP Cars can be taken apart and rebuilt with components designed for every terrain, dramatically changing their handling and cosmetic characteristics.
ABOVE TheCrew’s miniature recreations of major cities look good until compared against their counterparts in games where just one city is the star; stacking it against WatchDogs’ Chicago is especially cruel
ABOVE A mix of circuit and point-to-point races play out on every type of terrain, and Raid missions are a massively multiplayer take on the likes of ChaseHQ. The Crew isn’t short on variety
The Koenigseggs and Ferraris that occupy the highest end of TheCrew’s unlock curve take hours of work to reach, making the sight of them on the open road an uncommon one
The low sun does eventually set, with the golden hour giving way to pure white headlights, but daytime is pure Americana, all god rays and shimmering asphalt