360, PC, PS4, Xbox One
Of the various event types, racing fares the least badly, proving for the most part inoffensively lacklustre
Early on in The Crew, the grand vision of developers Ivory Tower and Reflections becomes clear. It’s during the prerendered intro, in fact, as throaty, V8-powered cars tear through New York, the streets teeming with pedestrians and vehicles. After an extended chase across a grab bag of recognisable US locales, the camera pans back to reveal four players forming a crew, just as another quartet does the same on a nearby road. Then the camera pulls out again to take in a whole city’s worth of drivers going about their business, and then once more to show the entirety of North America riddled with dozens of street-racing gangs. It’s a pitch for the greatest open-world driving game ever conceived, but much of that promise is systematically dismantled once you begin to play.
While it’s true that you share a single world with everyone who made the same format choice, you’ll only observe them in sharded groups of up to eight at any one time, plucked from those in your immediate vicinity. That’s three more than Need For Speed: Rivals managed, but it still undermines the sense that the world is bustling with other players, much less crews. More frustratingly, while we occasionally find ourselves driving alongside seven other humans, it’s more usually two or three, and sometimes none at all.
When you do find other players, however, forming a crew proves painless. You can bring up a roster of those in your session by clicking the right stick at any time and invite them into your gang, and most story missions can be played in co-op. If you’re not currently in a group, choosing the quick co-op option will notify every player in your session and form a new crew, not just a one-off group, from everyone who accepts. It’s easy to leave a crew once a mission is over, even if you’ll have to discover the knack through trial and error, but it’s a little irritating to have to go through the process each time you find yourself partnered up with a player you’d rather not spend any more time with. Still, while you’re bound together, any unlocked missions can be started by everyone in the group, regardless of where they are on the map, and when you’re playing with a good bunch of players, it proves an excellent feature.
You’ll want as much backup as possible if you’re going to trudge through the uninspired, frustrating story sections. The Crew’s plot is a collection of clichés delivered with less nuance than even a Fast & Furious movie, and the missions themselves will leave you nonplussed. Of the various event types, racing fares the least badly, proving for the most part inoffensively lacklustre even as you wrestle with the staggering rubber-banding and unrealistic cornering abilities of your opponents, which puts you at a clear disadvantage. You have to place first in every event, too, and failing to achieve this won’t even net you a smattering of consolation experience points or car parts; the race ends simply, and unceremoniously, as soon as the lead car screams across the finish line.
Playing co-operatively with other drivers shifts the odds in your favour, since only one of you needs to win in order for everyone to get through. The setup works well, allowing more experienced drivers to help newer players beat mission objectives that are just beyond the reach of their vehicles’ abilities, and organised crews can even work together to run interference on AI racers while a designated driver takes the chequered flag.
Almost any excessively steep challenge encountered can be circumvented in this way, and some by levelling up your car through replaying earlier missions, tackling PvP events, or attempting the various short challenges that pepper the map. Entered automatically once you pass through a set of floating blue starting gates, challenges take in a variety of driving disciplines, including the likes of slaloms and high-speed tests,
DriveClub- style line holding and more unusual activities such as hill climbs that require you to power up difficult terrain as quickly as possible. But grinding won’t soften the blow of the missions that require you to step out of your levelled-up car and into a loaned vehicle, several of which provide some of the most egregious difficulty spikes we’ve ever encountered in racing games.
One of the worst of these takes place right at the beginning of the game, when you’re introduced to raidspec cars, the game’s most rugged vehicle configuration, for a Takedown mission that requires you to ram an AI driver into submission. Your efforts will be thwarted until you realise that your target moves along the same route every time and only slows down enough for you to make contact at predefined moments. Clearly you’re supposed to use your nitrous boost to close the gap, but it’s ineffective unless the moment you open the valve coincides with a contraction of that invisible rubber band. Even then, you’ll make an infuriatingly small dent in your opposition’s health bar.
Getaway events reverse the places of cat and mouse and set you on the run from aggressive police or gang cars. You’ll find yourself just as outmatched, your pursuers able to close huge gaps with uncanny bursts of speed and to come to a halt in an instant. When they do it right in front of you, you’ll stop too, triggering a short countdown to your arrest, which usually leaves you too little time to reverse away. You can always ram police and gang cars, but doing so is a considerable risk given that their health bars are nearly as robust as Takedown targets, and how easily they can bring you to a halt. But more frustrating is the way that new pursuers will often spawn in front of you just as you’ve broken free of the pack, plunging you back into the chase. And while the game assimilates much of Ubisoft’s familiar open-world template – not least the need to find Data Stations in
order to reveal missions and locations in an area – it fails to borrow Watch Dogs’ ability to hide from helicopters under bridges or in tunnels.
All that said, missions at least feel handcrafted. Set-piece events punctuate races, whether it’s simply a crop duster flying overhead or something dramatic, such as an avalanche. And some events exhibit a burst of creativity, such as a race that places you in a dirtspec car and tasks you with beating a much faster street car by taking advantage of offroad shortcuts. Mostly, however, story missions are unsatisfying and even the best ones still subject you to the game’s unpredictable collision detection; a head-on crash with oncoming traffic will be brushed off one minute, before the merest contact with a verge sends your car cartwheeling across the ground in an unskippable slow-mo crash cutscene. Holding the reset button will return you to the track a little way back from your calamity, but should your AI opponents suffer any such indignity, they’re granted a respawn farther up the road.
Such unsporting design is enough to make you want to put as many miles between you and the campaign as possible. Thankfully, in a game that also features a condensed North America to explore, that’s entirely possible. And for all The Crew’s misfiring components, almost everything is pushed to the back of your mind once you’re out on the open road with a friend or three as you make your way from New York to Los Angeles while the sun dips over the horizon. This distilled US is a remarkable achievement that packs in lots of road trip destinations worth fantasising about, including many major cities, Route 66 and Yosemite National Park. But it’s the unexpected discoveries you’ll make along the way that thrill: a giant model of a cow, a colossal crater, or the Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone.
Discovering landmarks such as these will pull you off the planned route regularly, as geographical features, or the distant light from a small town at dusk, pique your interest. What’s more, regions feel distinct as you pass through them, the lighting, colour scheme and even traffic (what little of it there is) subtly changing to reflect each state’s makeup and biome. Exploring such a vast map so packed full of character is a pleasure.
But even these gains are undermined by the argumentative camera, by pop-in, and by jarring aliasing issues. There’s so much to see and yet the camera remains steadfastly locked on a horizontal plane, so anything taller than a storey is impossible to view unless you’re hundreds of metres from it. Landmark icons are situated by most locations of note, which offer a few sweeping views of the area in question when activated, but they’re a poor substitute for an in-game camera that points where you ask it to.
Perhaps its omission was a deliberate attempt to stop you examining the muddy textures too closely. While moments of genuine beauty exist, they occur in the context of a game that otherwise simply cannot compete with its contemporaries when it comes to visual presentation – a symptom, perhaps, of the seven-year development cycle. It’s in stark contrast to that crisp introductory sequence. If you finish the main campaign, it even plays again, serving as a reminder of what The Crew might have been if only it were assembled with the same attention to detail.
The Crew’s US is packed with astonishing views, even if it’s tough to manipulate the camera to take them in properly. Even after having undertaken several coast-to-coast road trips, you’ll want to plan more