The Crew Review
An impressive open world can't save this otherwise troubled racing title
Ubisoft has had a heck of a year when it comes to releasing open-world games. From Watch Dogs, to Far Cry 4, to Assassin's Creed Unity and Rogue, the publisher seems very keen on creating open-ended environments of all sizes and styles in order to draw players in. It's an impressive achievement, as all of these worlds offered worthwhile exploration and enjoyable sandbox play. The Crew, however, has the most impressive open world setting in any game this year. Unfortunately, it has little else going for it.
The Crew is a multiplayer-focused racing game that takes place in a virtual version of the United States. You are Alex Taylor, a man that's pretty good at driving cars. Your brother is involved with a gang known as 510s, and it's not long before he is shot and you are framed for the murder. After years in jail, an FBI agent offers you a way out – help bring down a corrupt FBI head honcho, and get revenge for your brother's murder at the same time. From that point, you rise through the ranks of the 510s by racing and completing various missions for both the FBI and the members of the gang.
This all sounds fairly generic. And that's not a big problem – after all, this is a racing game, and players are hardly looking for grade-A storytelling. But The Crew takes its narrative way too seriously, and suffers for it. First of all, in a game described as an MMO, why have pre-defined characters at all? Aren't the players supposed to feel like they are unique in the game world? When you know there are thousands of Alex's driving around, the plot loses whatever small impact it had. But the ultimate downfall here is the absolutely awful dialog. The writing and voice actingsurpass the "it's so bad, it's kind of good" territory, producing one-liners and conversations that frequently induce involuntary laughter. But then you recall that this is a fully priced retail title from a recognized publisher, and the absolutely terrible quality of the story and dialog stops being funny. Oh, and Alex is voiced by Troy Baker, in what is easily his most "just doing it for the paycheck, and I can't believe someone actually wrote this" role of the year.
But let's talk about some positives. As hinted at earlier, The Crew offers the best open world seen in any game this year. The version of United States that players can drive through and explore is absolutely huge, and it takes hours to drive across the perimeter of the map. Fans of the Test Drive Unlimited franchise will be extremely pleased. There are a few major cities and smaller towns recreated in the game, from New York and Miami to Los Angeles and Detroit. These cities are of course miniature versions of their real-life counterparts, however it must be said that the developers have somehow managed to perfectly recreate their subtleties. Driving through a city, you'll come across famous landmarks, and also various neighborhoods that are instantly recognizable by their building architecture. From Little Haiti in Miami to the Bronx in New York, the game does an excellent job of squeezing in these details without building a full scale model of the city.
This attention to detail continues as you venture out into the rural areas. From the farmlands in the East to the deserts of the West Coast and the swamps in the South, The Crew offers glimpses of almost every type of environment that can be found across the US, managing to create a surprisingly strong sense of atmosphere and a feel of an actual cross-country road trip. Throw in a full day and night cycle, and The Crew is truly an immersive experience that should be commended for its recreation of the whole country.
Exploring this vast world is interesting, but you probably wouldn't want to drive the whole way. To help with that, the game offers fast travel to any area that you've previously visited, and also a transportation system. So players can take a train or plane ride from New York to LA and start exploring there – even if they've never been to LA before. It’s a great way to add to the feeling of vast open space, without needlessly forcing lengthy roads trips through the country just to get to the next destination.
The Crew is the first release from development studio Ivory Tower, which includes ex-staff from Eden Games (TDU), as well as additional assistance from Ubisoft Reflections (Driver: San Francisco). Given such credentials, you'd expect a solid driving experience, and that's mostly true. The handling model in The Crew is slanted towards the arcade rather than simulation, with cars able to stop very quickly and turn sharply, yet lacking precision at high speeds. Drifting is immensely satisfying. The handling also changes as you upgrade your cars with parts, and also depending on which of the 5 specs you're currently outfitted with.
This isn't a car-collecting game like most racing titles these days. There are only about 40 vehicles, but the range is fairly decent, from Ferrari and Lamborghini to Ford and Nissan. Instead, each car can participate in a number of the five specs – Street, Dirt, Raid, Performance, and Circuit. Only about 4 or 5 cars can be outfitted to participate in all 5 specs – the rest are usually limited to two or three. Indeed, it wouldn't make sense to outfit an Aston Martin for Dirt racing. With that in mind, The Crew can be easily completed with just the first car you choose for free in the beginning of the game, because you only need to buy new cars if you want to excel at a specific discipline. This lack of variety may disappoint fans of collecting rides; spending money on new cars seems counter-productive, at least until you've finished the main story and can pull in decent income from end-game missions. But at the same time, The Crew manages to provide a number of different racing disciplines to appeal to a broader audience.
There are two types of currency in the game – Bucks and Crew Credits. These are used to buy new cars, or visually customize your existing ones. But you can't actually use either to perform mechanical upgrades. Instead, new car parts only come from main missions and Skill minigames. Skills are littered throughout the game world and offer quick and seamless challenges to the player, all you need to do is drive through the starting point to trigger them. Climbs, escaping or following AI, jumps, scramble, slalom, and speed are the objectives. Depending on how well you do, the game awards either a basic part, or a Silver/Gold tier part that not only improves the performance of its main component, but also gives an extra boost to another stat. So for example, you could earn a weight reduction upgrade (bronze level), or a silver/gold weight reduction upgrade that also boosts your top speed or acceleration.
Players can see what rewards they will receive from each Skill by simply using the main world map, so once you're done simply enjoying the seamless minigames, you can scroll around and find the Skill challenge that has the part you need. Finishing a Skill and earning a performance part unlocks it for purchase for your other cars.
There's a somewhat arbitrary car performance level that ranges from 1 to 1299, and a more classic driver profile level from 1 to 50. You usually get experience points to level up from most events, and gaining new levels earns perk points; these are then spent into a number of passive boosts, such as increased income, reduced repair and car costs, and even increased map reveal radius during exploration. It's standard RPG-like design, but is decently enticing.
So progression is mostly well designed and the driving mechanics are basic but flexible. The trouble appears in another form – the AI. As much as racing games live and die by their gameplay mechanics, rubber banding is a concept that will cause panic in any player's heart. And sadly for The Crew, it's one of the killing blows to the gameplay. Regardless of the vast difference in class between your car's level and your opponents, the AI will always be threatening to overtake if you make one error. Due to this, races can be annoying, but chase events are absolutely infuriating. Trying to escape the AI is pretty much impossible, whether you're driving a Ford or a Ferrari. They stick to your tail lights and the only hope of escape is to swerve and twist through the streets and fields, and hope they either crash or glitch out. It's been a while since a game featured such heavily unbalanced AI, and it will definitely sour the experience for all players. And when they do catch up, you are arrested/captured extremely quickly, with little chance to escape again.
The next sign of trouble is the multiplayer. The Crew is a game that must be played online at all times, much like Test Drive Unlimited, because the main selling point is interaction with other drivers. As you cruise around the map, up to 8 players will be seamlessly dropped into the same "session", giving a weak illusion of an MMO-like experience. But just like TDU, there are major problems. Thanks to fast travel (as useful as it is), the game often takes a while to swap players. So you could be driving around a new area, and the nearest players will be 10+km away. And with the measly small 8 players per session, this is hardly an MMO anyway; nothing about this design screams "next-generation". Especially considering Test Drive Unlimited 2 provided this nearly identical online experience years ago, and The Crew makes no efforts to expand or improve on it.
You can form the titular Crews with your friends, and cruise around the game world. Completing missions and challenges together earns you Crew Credits. All of the missions can be undertaken with random players in your session as well, but nobody ever accepts invites as they are driving around (usually far away) doing their own thing, and there's at most only 8 of them anyway (usually fewer). It's shocking that the coop matchmaking doesn't get expanded to all players trying to complete the same mission, and limits you to inviting the 8 or less players in just your session. When all else fails, you can complete missions in solo mode, but this puts you at a disadvantage. If other players are involved, only one of you actually needs to win the race, for example, to count the mission complete for everyone. But when playing solo, it is a more challenging experience. It becomes an exercise in frustration during a takedown or escape mission. Playing alone, trying to take out an AI driver is incredibly difficult within the allotted time limits as there is no help from other players. Similarly, with nobody to distract your pursuers (and the extreme rubber banding mentioned earlier), you are the sole focus of the merciless AI giving chase. So while it can be completed as a solo experience, The Crew mandates that you are always online and the difficulty can be very frustrating. Perhaps that's all part of the master plan, to get more players to buy the game so they can Crew up and make the experience more enjoyable.
If you're feeling competitive, there's a metagame across the whole map that involves different gangs who are competing for domination. Players represent one of their chosen gangs in all competitive races, and earn bonuses for winning and so forth. Competitive racing works in theory but again with only up to 8 players, and it still suffers from glaring design problems. For example, the player who just took first place is the one who gets to decide on the next track and race type. It makes little sense, and usually empties out the lobby after the same player keeps winning and picks the tracks he knows well. The matchmaking is troubled as well, often showing little regard for car abilities and pitting a maxed-out ride against a bunch of levels below 500. The guy with the best car then controls the lobby forever, as he always finishes first.
And if the design doesn’t frustrate you, the technical issues certainly will. For an online-only experience, The Crew is a troubled mess of connectivity issues. Frequent disconnects, endlessly looping loading screens, and taking over 10 minutes just to get into a competitive lobby (that subsequently crashes) are just some of the examples. Cooperative play is similarly troubled, with Crews sometimes breaking apart for no reason and disconnects mid-race. The net code is decidedly last-gen, with your opponents warping around the track, causing glitches and general havoc if you bump into each other at an odd angle or even just into traffic or obstacles. Cooperative play seems better due to lesser number of players involved, but on the whole The Crew cannot be recommended for its online racing experience. Unfortunately, online play was supposed to be the game's main selling point.
While we're comparing the game to last generation of consoles, the visuals are next in line to criticize. Despite featuring great quality cutscenes (that look like they belong in another game), and some decently impressive lighting and sky boxes, this is not a game to show to your friends as the technical showcase of the Xbox One. The framerate occasionally stutters (whether that's due to poor graphical engine or online connectivity), and the game world often features very MMO-like flat texturing. But the killing blow is an almost complete lack of anti-aliasing. There are more jagged lines here than in most Xbox 360 games. The cars and some scenery looks OK, but overall this isn't a pleasant game to look at.
There are a variety of camera angles, including in-car complete with dashboard, so at least that's something. No, actually, even the camera has problems – anytime you jump or drive through something at an awkward angle, the camera will glitch out and swerve down and then up again. Quick disorientation, that's always nice in a racing game. This is instantly noticeable, too – just play the game's opening mission.
Sound design fares a little better, but still a mixed bag. Voice actors do their best with the terrible lines provided. Radio stations have limited song variety – a problem that's impossible to miss in a game that encourages lengthy driving sessions across the country. At least the cars pack a satisfying oomph, and there are little audio details that change even between the different disciplines of the same car.
Some games feature impressive core concepts that get buried underneath the weight of less successful elements. The Crew is very much an example of that – the incredible open world and decent RPG mechanics that Ivory Tower have created are absolutely crushed to death by a collection of poor design choices and terrible technical issues. If you enjoyed Test Drive Unlimited, there's a spirit of that franchise that exists here; but it also retains all of the problems. Despite an enticing and very well crafted setting, The Crew is impossible to recommend in its current state. Some issues may be resolved with patches and better server functionality, others – such as the AI, frustrating missions, and questionable design choices – may remain. If you do decide to take on this cross county road trip, pack lots of first aid and spare parts.