As much as Ubisoft has come under fire for some rushed releases and dodgy performance this holiday season, it could be said it’s delivered some mighty entertaining games. The Crew unfortunately is where things take the opposite tack, delivering absolutely stellar performance across a vast open-world, but hooking it into a game that seems intent on never getting out of third gear.
In a similar manner to much of its stable, The Crew is a narrative-driven open-world title with some hooked-in co-op mechanics. By now we know that any form of narrative in a driving game is superfluous, usually inadvertently hilarious, and a significant downgrade from actually being on the track, racing. The Crew ticks all of these boxes with aplomb, delivering one of the most painfully shoehorned stories told since Need For Speed: Rivals.
Nonsense and Reprehensibility
I think in the excitement of trying to make something the ‘complete package’, development studios can lose sight of the fact that the only motivation needed to play a racing game should be the thrill of winning. I don’t need to get involved in a streetrace to avenge my brother’s death. I don’t need to start unnecessary punch-ups that can seemingly only be solved by a drag race. I don't need an FBI conspiracy.
The Crew’s plot is as straightforward as it comes. You go and drive your brother somewhere, he gets killed by some corrupt cops, you get busted for being at the scene, you agree to help the Five-0 by infiltrating a nationwide gang of street racers / arms dealers, bringing them down from the inside. Cue some excruciating cutscenes and voice-acting that had someone, who was in the room whilst I was playing, turning around and laughing openly at it. They’ve got some big names in the cast, but the end result feels like oh-so-unnecessary fluff. Off the back of the excellent Grand Theft Auto V re-release it was bordering on embarrassing, although it does a grand job of faithfully recreating that lo-fi quality of racing games a decade ago. TOCA Race Driver, anyone?
Born in the USA
Onto the world though and it really is magnificent what Ivory Tower has achieved here. It’s one of the more impressive open-worlds every to pumped out from the Ubisoft Game Factory. Stretching from coast to coast of the US, it’s an enthralling microcosm of the States, packed full of landmarks and begging to be explored in a way which few open-world driving games are. Ivory Tower takes a lot of liberties with the accuracy of the map, but it’s hard to get hung up on them gamifying this vast landscape. It’s easily the finest achievement in The Crew, but it also comes at a cost to graphical fidelity- it most definitely won’t be winning any awards for technical excellence. Slow down and really take a look at everything and there’s a bunch of low-resolution textures and dodgy effects, but it’s an aspect that’s most definitely worth it for that sense of scale.
For those familiar with Ubisoft: The Game, The Crew follows pretty much that exact same template, offering up a vast open-world filled with story missions, activities to do, and radar towers to find to uncover more of the map, with more things to do, etc. It’s a gameplay loop Ubisoft has down pat now, and your mileage is going to vary. If you felt yourself tiring of it after Assassin’s Creed Unity or Far Cry 4, then don’t expect this to suddenly reinvigorate you. The radar towers in particular are galling, and the sheer vastness of the map means it is an absolutely massive task to work through it all. It’s ‘content’ sure, but whether it’s all worthwhile content will be down to the player.
Each area is littered with activities such as doing a massive jump, achieving a high average speed, or driving a certain distance within a time limit, and you’re graded from Bronze to Gold on your efforts, and eventually Platinum. Unfortunately many of these felt like they needed better cars or upgrades to achieve the highest ranks, usually, so you could end up doing some of these multiple times in order to eke out all of the experience points. If you want to see and do everything in The Crew, you’re going to be playing it for a heck of a long time.
About the XP - you’re going to need a ton of it. The Crew has built in levelling systems both for the player, and the cars. The player can get up to Level 50, while the cars can reach the dizzying heights of level 1299. Every. Individual. Car. Levelling can be done by buying new car parts, and mixing and matching these can bump you up the rankings. It’s a total time sink, but it’s an enjoyable enough treadmill while the game’s still fresh. How many will actually be committed enough to hang around and max all of their cars and then get involved in the end-game Faction Wars is an entirely different matter though. This basically puts five factions against each other in PvP races and contests, earning more cash and exclusive rewards.
Stalling on the Start Line
Luckily though, you can get a bit of a helping hand along the way. You see, in addition to your dollars you’re earning, The Crew also has an entirely separate currency called Crew Credits. It takes all of about 10 minutes for these to be forcefully thrust in your face. Picking your first car purchase gives you two options, buying with your limited cash reserves or, the default choice, spend some Crew Bucks. I thought “Why not, it’s $22,500 in cash, or 5000 Crew Credits, I’ll do that cheaper option”. A window quickly pops up onto a Crew Credits package for £39.99, ‘Press A’ to buy. I nearly accidentally did, I have no idea whether just pressing A is enough to commit, but I almost absent-mindedly found it. It’s in your face, it’s supremely ugly, and the default transaction is for a further 80% of the cost of the full game at RRP. It’s annoying enough in F2P titles, but in full-priced premium titles it’s ugly. To put that £40 into perspective, it’ll net you 600,000 Crew Credits, the most expensive car is $245,000, around £17 real money. In a game charging you £50 for its content. Sure, you can grind, but The Crew is never that keen on giving you an overabundance of cash early on, and it feels like the progression curve works in the favour of those who splash out a little more money.
It would be a lot more bearable if it was just a shortcut, such as purchasing said car, but The Crew takes things a step further, offering tangible benefits such as better braking or handling, actually giving players a pay-to-win advantage over their competitors. Ubisoft’s catch though, is that Crew Credits can be earned through normal gameplay, albeit at a snail’s pace. In all honesty there’s no place for two currencies in any game, it’s a system designed to dupe the player out of cash and it doesn’t sit well. This isn’t a barb at Ubisoft in particular, but microtransactions are anti-consumer.
On the Road Again
Ignore that though and there’s a fairly decent driving game before the surface. It never succeeds in excelling but it does a passable job, and the variety of challenges and car classes (Raid, Performance, Dirt, Street and Circuit) helps to keep things fresh. Sometimes it’ll be straight up races, other times you’ll be bashing a car off the road, doing a time trial, getting caught in a police chase, or doing checkpoint races. There’s a massive 65 missions in all in the main campaign, so there’s plenty to be getting on with, just don’t expect that story to have you desperately wanting to plough to the end.
The racing’s not without its flaws though, and the AI is guilty of some horrendous Mario Kart 64-esque rubberbanding at times, as an absolutely flawless performance can see you nudge a wall on the last corner, only to have your AI opponent nip past you with ease. The handling as well leaves a lot to be desired. I know it’s all part and parcel of The Crew’s levelling system, but good handling is totally integral to how fun a racing game is to play. It shouldn’t take 30 hours for the cars to start to feel good, it should be fun right out of the gate.
Lest I forgot The Crew is also an always-online experience, and while driving around you’ll intermittently bump into other players. You can organise your own races and the like, forming your own Crew to hang out togther, while the vast majority of the story missions can also be played with up to three other players. It’s fairly good, clean, fun, but you never feel like you’re overly missing out by cruising round on your lonesome. It’s not helped by the fact that The Crew’s always-online nature means you can practically never pause it; not great news when you’re 15 minutes into a long-haul race. An offline mode would have been great during moments like these, but it’s at least nice to see what Ivory Towers was aiming for here. It’s a damn sight better than Need For Speed Rivals’ online that’s for sure, but its long-term appeal basically comes down to a levelling treadmill and who’s got the fastest cars.
The Crew's an okay racer, but when stacked up against its competitors it really falls short. Open-world fans would be far better off picking up the likes of Far Cry 4, while racing fans have been spoilt rotten in recent months with the likes of Forza Horizon 2, GRID Autosport, and DriveClub. A terminally dull storyline gets in the way of what is an epic-scale racing game, and its huge landmass can be a genuinely exciting experience driving across, it's just a shame it's spoiled by so many niggling problems.