Open world racers are nothing new. Midtown Madness, Need For Speed, Midnight Club, Driver and Test Drive Unlimited have all left their tyre marks on the open roads before The Crew came along. None of them have had the same scope, however. With this new IP, Ubisoft’s lofty ambitions are shown as The Crew recreates an impressively large version of the United States. It’s a fairly pretty version too, but nothing to rival the likes of either Forza game on Xbox One, or PS4’s Drive Club. It mostly looks like a high-end Xbox 360/PS3 game, with some very nice lighting effects within its day/night cycle, and the first time you see Vegas at night from a distance, is very impressive.
The game opens with you being chased by the police across dirt and grass, before being given your first taste of street racing shortly after. It’s a nice way of showing off (albeit briefly) each side of the game’s racing – chases, off-road, general racing and even gives you a taste of the collectible-heavy nature of The Crew’s open world. Once this tutorial section is complete you’re introduced to the frankly awful revenge plot, which would be fine if it was acted well or had any redeeming features, but it feels totally unnecessary. It seems to have ambitions of being the videogame equivalent of the Fast and Furious movie franchise, but falls well short due to its reliance on every cliché in the book – forced to work undercover; crooked cops; double crosses; and many, many more.
These problems seem to transfer over to the mission design and their inherent gameplay flaws, too. Chase missions are far too frequent and far too unbalanced in their difficulty, either leaving you well behind AI characters that can turn on a dime and take far too long to catch, or it’ll have you trying to outrun pursuers that can spawn anywhere and very rarely fall behind long enough for you to escape. And if you’re forced off-road in one of these chases, in a car built purely for asphalt, things fall apart even faster.
Ivory Tower has put a lot of work into the handling model of The Crew, with several styles of driving (street, dirt, performance and circuit) that all feel markedly different to each other. The handling can immediately appeal to fans of arcade racers, with its twitchy and responsive movement, but with some tinkering in the handling options, more serious racing fans can find something approaching the likes of Test Drive Unlimited, PGR or Race Driver Grid – not entirely simulation but the closest approximation The Crew offers. The downside of this is that all the developer’s hard work in creating a versatile handling model, is so often undone by some sloppy design in its missions and AI.
Whether driving from coast to coast or being chased around by the most vicious police force this side of GTA’s San Andreas, that sloppy design and AI are always doing their best to ruin your enjoyment of The Crew. Races are often ruined by civilian cars that are nothing short of suicidal, turning into the path of oncoming cars with reckless abandon, or seemingly spawning directly in the path of – or around – corners with frightening regularity. It feels like a misguided attempt to enforce the difficulty of the game which, when combined with the rubber-band AI of other racers, just makes for some of the most unsatisfying and frustrating experiences in any racer.
You can negate some of this frustration by approaching the missions in co-op, either with a friend or via the quick co-op, which fires out invites to nearby players and offers the chance to share the burden of each mission. What this offers is a chance to progress through missions without always having to win, as long as your partner wins for you. It’s a nice idea, and absolutely welcome as the game drags on, but it also highlights the rubber-banding even more than usual. If you’re further back in the field, you will see cars speed up way past their top speeds in order to catch the player up front. It beggars belief that this kind of thing is used in today’s games with the AI potential available in the PS4 and Xbox One, and you wonder how it wasn’t dealt with in testing.
These problems disappear in competitive multiplayer (PvP) due to the complete lack of AI racers, but that is assuming you can find a match. In an online-only racer, there are very few actual online aspects of The Crew, a game that could easily have been completely offline with no noticeable difference. When you unlock PvP lobbies, which can take a good 5-10 hours of gameplay depending on the player, you choose whether to play “faction vs faction” (factions seem only to offer monetary rewards, with no real explanation of their systems) or free-for-all, which will effectively enter you into a lobby as you continue playing. Once – if – the player count reaches capacity you will be wrenched from whatever you’re doing and put into the online lobby itself, where a track and car are selected before jumping headlong into a race.
More problems arise with mismatched player/car levels in PvP. Cars are levelled up by completing missions and taking part in the myriad challenges dotted around the map, such as smashing digital barriers or following an ever-thinning racing line, rewarding your car with new parts which change its handling and, over time, will start to tighten its steering or improve grip or acceleration, all dependent on the medal you receive for the challenge’s completion.
In PvP, none of these changes seem to be taken into account when matching racers together. This means that races are quite unbalanced, with car levels all over the place and close racing being almost impossible to find. Luckily the servers are fairly solid on PS4, with very little in the way of lag or problems with being kicked from games. This means that PvP races, co-op and even freeroam players don’t judder about the place or disappear entirely, which makes for a decent experience throughout the game, even when the game itself does its best to ruin it.
The thing that keeps me going back to The Crew, however, is its freeroam. The open road, with the handling model tweaked for maximum responsiveness, brings with it the most relaxing and fun moments that the game has to offer. Impromptu races and chases with fellow players, finding offroad routes through forests and deserts to discover collectibles, racing around real-life circuits like Laguna Seca, and even just taking in the sights of the various landmarks of the US – all of these things come together to show what could have been, if Ubisoft had created an actual MMO racer instead of a broken single player experience, with online aspects that aren’t really integrated to any great effect.
The “Ubisoft approach” to the open world is in full effect in freeroam, with hidden satellite dishes opening up new challenges on the map, car wrecks being dotted around the forests and lakesides, which offer car parts that will eventually unlock a new car – similar to Forza Horizon’s “barn finds”, only without the instant gratification of unlocking new cars straight away. The Crew’s hidden cars are unlocked after finding each region’s 20 parts, which can take an awfully long time. It extends the life of the game, but only if you haven’t already grown tired of its poor mission design and its terrible AI.
Ubisoft has said that it is working on fixing the AI, particularly in the chase missions, but it may be too late. By the time the game is fixed, the game’s servers may be empty of players.
The Crew has a great game in it somewhere, one that might have appeared if it had a few more months of development. Instead it is a game of missed opportunities and poor testing, resulting in a terribly average racer that only really comes to life when the player is given complete control. And when you’re forced to relinquish that control in order to progress and unlock more cars and specs, it just isn’t worth the hassle.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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