I’m not going to mince words, nor subject you to a lengthy anecdote about road-trips with my grandparents. Let’s just cut to the chase; is the Crew worthy of your Christmas stockings? Is it the game that will help you overcome the New Year after-party hangover? Is this Ubisoft’s finest racer to date?
There is no question that The Crew is an ambitious title. It’s also part of a sub-genre that appeals to me. A few years ago, Atari left me grinning ear-to-ear with its flawed but undeniably enjoyable, open-world racer – Test Drive Unlimited. Atari’s game allowed us to drive around the tropical Hawaiian island of Oahu. You could literally spend hours enjoying the sights and sounds of the island, while driving in your tricked-out and pimped up muscle car . If you felt like it, you could initiate a race with a random fellow speed demon, or join a race against AI or throw yourself into an online match. You had this massive world in front of you; it was part-racer and part-sandbox.
And, I loved every minute of it.
In many ways, The Crew pays homage to the freedom of the road in Test Drive Unlimited. Instead of a Hawaiian island, Ivory Tower and Ubisoft Reflections allow you to explore a truncated version of the United States of America. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to drive from the Redwood forests of San Francisco through the Mojave desert, while taking a quick detour through the Pacific Northwest and then heading east towards Chicago, and ultimately New York? The Crew does a stunning job at fueling that fire. If anything came from my time playing The Crew, it’s made me crave a cross-country road-trip. There are dozens of towns to explore, famous American landmarks to visit and let’s not even talk about the cars.
However, unlike Test Drive Unlimited where you could divorce yourself from your router for a session of quiet meditation on “the road to nowhere”, The Crew prides itself on being “online-only”. I managed to spend nearly 40 hours (reaching Level 50) in the Crew and it left me with an uncomfortable realisation – there is no reason for The Crew to be always-online. It’s not entirely an MMO, and apart from the PVP sections, there is no reason to share the road with anyone else. You can create a crew of four members, but nothing about the game suggests that you SHOULD be held hostage by your internet connection. Worst of all, when the servers go dark, or your connection throws a spanner in the works, all you have is an error screen that taunts your inability to reconnect or play your game.
Apart from stunning scenery and the chance to visit a digital New York, the glue that’s supposed to hold the game together is a paint-by-numbers revenge story featuring one of the lamest protagonists ever created. Our hero is a hipster-turned-criminal, a nondescript and soulless Gordon Freeman-doppelganger called Alex Taylor. Alex finds himself framed for the murder of his older brother, Dayton. Five years later, our bearded hero is offered immunity from his sentence in exchange for infiltrating Dayton’s old gang, the 510s and bringing those responsible for his brother’s murder to justice.
What follows is a “Sons-of-Anarchy-lite” tale of revenge, corruption, and stereotypical characters ripped from countless other games, movies and books. The lacklustre plot never gains traction and finds itself in a wheelspin. There’s no sense of character progression for Alex, and I couldn’t help but compare the Crew to Ubisoft’s last Driver game. At least Driver had some sort of coherence to its over-the-top tale with characters that you could care about rather than denizens from a C-grade Hollywood reject pile.
Graphically, The Crew is a mixed bag. The textures on the cars and some of the surroundings feel like they were pulled from a last-gen version of the game. On the other hand, the world itself is filled with beautiful American backdrops. If there’s one positive that has come from The Crew it is that I’m inspired to visit the Grand Canyon, the Redwoods near San Francisco, and explore the Rocky Mountains.
The Crew also falters where it really matters – the gameplay. One of the hallmarks of a great racing title is that cars should feel sufficiently different from each other. We may enjoy the sheer power advantage that a muscle car might have over a hatchback, or the differences in steering between different sports cars, but ultimately it’s the difference between similar types of cars that matter. Speed isn’t the only factor that matters, it’s how they feel, it’s the small nuances in steering, weight or the variations in acceleration. It doesn’t matter which type of car you start off with. They all handle the same and are plagued by the same inconsistent car physics. It’s only once you start tuning your cars, and unlocking the different tuning options (specs) that you have a significant distinction between a car fit for the city (Street-spec), for the dirt road (Dirt-spec), for the great outdoors (Raid-spec), for racing and finally for speed (Circuit-spec). How you tune your cars depends on the parts you unlock during the game – from story missions to specific skill missions. What you unlock, or at least the quality of the part depends on whether or not you scored enough points to qualify for either a bronze, silver or gold (and after Level 50 platinum) reward.
At first glance, the number of skill missions scattered across the map may seem overwhelming, however thematically they are limited. It’s a similar problem during the story missions, you’re either forced into a standard race, a time trial, or doing a dreadful chase-and-takedown mission. I can’t say how much I hated the chase missions. While the game isn’t particularly difficult, the AI’s constant reliance on excessive nitro-boosts and traffic popping in from nowhere during these missions (and others) will leave even the most dedicated petrolhead contemplating death by car exhaust asphyxiation.
If you asked me if there’s anything I enjoyed about The Crew, it’s without a doubt the open-world aspect of it. I loved exploring the game world, visiting new areas, finding hidden cars & landmarks and taking my 4WD beast off-road (into the sand dunes, or onto the mountains, or even through the swamps), but I can’t recommend this game. The Crew falls flat on its face, and fails to qualify for the race. It’s filled with questionable design decisions, wonky AI and an overreliance on the worrying current trend of “always-online” DRM – disguised as “social gaming”.
Last Updated: December 17, 2014