When it comes to writing reviews, some games are easier than others to cover. There are times when you can play a game for an hour or two, and have at least an idea of at least the general direction of where your review is headed. Ubisoft’s The Crew most certainly does not fall into that camp. We think it’ll be safe to say that this will be something of a polarising game. Some will absolutely love it, whereas others will utterly despise it. Delayed, released as an uninspiring beta three times, and then finally shuffled out onto store shelves at the end of the prime portion of the annual release schedule (as far away from the likes of Forza Horizon 2 and Driveclub as possible), the clouds were looming.
Initially, The Crew blows away those clouds. Providing an absolutely mammoth representation of the USA (a road trip from Miami to Las Vegas will take you north of thirty minutes, as an example) to drive around, it’s nice to see that the developers listened to some of the issues raised regarding the beta and tidied up the handling model. Had they stuck with what they had, it wouldn’t matter how large the game world is, as most people would have been too frustrated to explore it. Vehicles are now more responsive - although still a tad on the slidy side - and as your various cars and trucks are upgraded through play, you’ll find that the handling tightens up even more, making for a solid and at times, ridiculously addictive driving experience. The addition of new versions of your cars is also a really nice touch. You can pick up a vehicle and (once you’ve unlocked new base kits) convert it from its default fullstock model to a performance, street, dirt, raid, or circuit racer. This essentially duplicates your vehicle, so each version of your car has its own body kit, handling model, set of upgrades and paintjob, and you can switch between cars in an instant when you’re out on the road.
There's also a fair amount of entertaining content here. Aside from the lengthy and somewhat starchy story mode which will see you trying to bust a crooked cop and avenge your brother’s death (sigh) while taking over the entire United States in the name of your crew – the 5-10s – there are waves of skill challenges and online battles to take part in. Also, faction missions (some of which are multiple hours long) are on hand, with the ultimate goal being to become the best player in the world in one of the five available factions, improving the status of your selected faction as you do so. If that doesn’t please you, then you can simply get in your car and go, driving across the States to see what you can find. After all, there are a heck of a lot of landmarks to see in the game world, given its size. Maybe you want to check out Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon? Maybe you want to see if you can take your Chevy Silverado through Manhattan at top speed in rush hour? Maybe you want to barrel down the Las Vegas strip at night, taking in the waves of neon? It’s all here for you to find.
At times, The Crew truly is good. You’ll be blazing a trail across the map, laughing it up with a few friends online, or chasing down some elusive hidden car parts that will help you to build a collectible vehicle. A quick half hour of play turns into an hour, which turns into two. Just one more mission, and then you’ll stop. Well, maybe you’ll just head to that next skill challenge – it’s only half a mile away – and then you’ll be done, huh? It would almost be rude not to at least attempt a mission that’s clearly going to be the final precursor to you taking over that area of the map, right?
There’s no doubt that The Crew is devilishly moreish at times. The problem is that while you’ll have the desire to play, the game has so many flaws that there are times when you put the controller down, you’ll feel like the time spent playing has been wasted.
Stood right at the top of the problems list, is the game’s AI. Every single mission has the difficulty pitched to make it more “exciting” to play. A three-minute chase mission will see you unable to get anywhere near the target car for two and a half minutes, even if you drive perfectly, before the opponent suddenly forgets how to accelerate and you nail their car with seconds to spare. A race has you sitting back in fifth place for the first two laps, with cars noticeably slowing down when you crash so that they don’t get too far ahead. Then, as if by magic, their speed is limited and you careen past them on the final stretch. Or how about those police chases? For a quite clearly – but not displayed – set amount of time, the police in their standard squad cars are able to drive at approximately two miles per hour short of the speed of light. Not only that, but you’ll have a pair of helicopters watching you as well. Out of nowhere, the copters decide to give up and the patrol cars start to disable themselves, sometimes by, well…just stopping dead and radioing in to HQ that they’re “out of action.” It makes for an uneven experience, and even when you decide to play a mission in “quick co-op” mode with random nearby online players, the issue persists.
Plus, the mission design is somewhat nonsensical at times anyway. You have to head to New York to set up a new headquarters from which to plan your world dominance. Nobody is after you and nobody knows what you’re doing, but OH NO! YOU ONLY HAVE TWO MINUTES TO GET THERE, SO DRIVE FAST! We’re not sure if the real estate broker will sell your building to someone else if you don’t make it or something, but such is the design of the game. Or how about when you target a mission on your map and start to drive toward it, only for one of the story characters to call you – almost without fail - about half a mile before you reach your goal, to tell you where you’re headed and that you’ll need to target the location that they’ve just sent you for your GPS. You know, the one that you’ve had locked in and have been driving toward for 20 minutes.
The last note sounds like a small thing, but it’s indicative of the missed steps in the game design as a whole. While many people will baulk at the game’s graphical performance - there are some muddy textures in places and an awful lot of draw-in and pop-up at times, not to mention the regular framerate glitches - the actual gameplay issues and strange design choices are far more pressing.
The Crew also has to deal with another issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in Ubisoft titles, and that's padding. The company – although publishers of some fine games - have gradually been adding more gamification to levelling systems, more pointless collectibles, more micro-transactions, and more checklists to their bigger games than any other company with each passing year. Just playing the game isn’t enough. You have to live the game and have it take over your life for hundreds of hours. You have to watch the numbers tick up. Get all the chests. Explore every inch of the map. Be our biggest fan! Nowhere has it all felt more pointless than in The Crew. While driving, you’ll see icons appear that indicate a point of interest. There are literally hundreds of them. You pull up by the icon, press the A button, gain a smidgen of XP, watch a checklist number increase, then drive away. Over and over and over and over and over again. That isn’t what we’d call gameplay. Some inclusions - most notably the skill challenges that are dotted all over the game world - are fun to play and genuinely enjoyable, but when you zoom out and look at the mammoth amounts of needless gumph that clouds the map, you'll probably let out a depressed sigh, much as we did.
Aside from that, the exasperation persists elsewhere. Your car has a level ranging from 1 to 1299. Yes. 1299. You have a driver XP level. The individual parts of your car have levels, and these parts can be gold, silver, or bronze versions of the part’s level, and can have minor boosts applied to them from various categories. Each car has ratings for different attributes, so a level 34 motorcore might boost your acceleration to 8,271 and drop your top speed to 7,819. If you win a level 30 car part and your driver level is only 24, you can’t apply it to your car until you reach driver level 30, so you need to send it back to your HQ. Of course, that saved part will then be pointless as when you reach driver level 30 (or any level that ends in a zero) you unlock a new base pack that means any new cars you build will start with level 30 parts anyway. You can collect medals, find hidden car parts, tick off those points of interest, or un-fog the map in an Assassin’s Creed style by finding satellite stations - the location of which nobody in the world apparently knows. Apparently the main character can afford a garage of brand new cars, but can’t afford to buy a road map of the most explored and documented country on the planet. If he could, then, well, you wouldn't need to drive around looking for satellite stations, and that would bring down the advertised gameplay time by a few hours. Heaven forbid.
Failing that, you can collect perk points, faction points, money, and award points. Heck, you win award points for obtaining a certain number of award points, at times! It’s all very overwhelming, and smacks of a game that was all but finished before the developers just started throwing new systems and currencies at it in order to fill it out a little. They've ended up over-egging the pudding, somewhat. What’s worse is that despite the constant numbers being thrown in your face, the car levelling system means that you don’t really ever feel as if you’re progressing. You don’t suddenly get a faster car. You gradually pick up parts that increase the car’s abilities and with 1299 levels of car on offer, a vehicle rated 457 feels very, very similar to one that’s rated 467. There is an improvement - of course there is - it's just that unless you really try hard to remember what the car was like when you first started the game, you won't notice it.
Going back to currencies though for a second, we should mention “Crew Credits.” You get 100,000 of these early on in the game for nothing, which is enough to buy a few modifications or a less-than-premium car. But the only way to top them up once they’re gone, seemingly, is via micro-transaction. If you want to take the quick route to your dream vehicle, then you should be ready to get your wallet out. The cars that are towards the top end – a LaFerrari, for example – will cost you upwards of £15 in Crew Credits EACH.
Yes. We said upwards of fifteen pounds.
Not only that, but we said "each", too.
To put it another way, some vehicles will cost you half of the price you paid for the game. It must be reiterated that you don’t HAVE to pay for credits in order to get these cars. You can buy them with in-game cash, but at the time we noticed the micro-transactions – about five hours in – we had $100,000 in the bank. The LaFerrari costs $1,080,000. Make of that what you will.
Whether anyone will be desperate enough to pay good money for a car in a less-than-amazing driving game when for the same price, they could pick up entire games (yes, "games" with an "s") from the Xbox Games Store, remains to be seen.
What’s most uncomfortable though, is that The Crew is so close to being a truly great racing game that were these issues avoided, it would have been way up on the recommendations list. The persistent online world is a big idea that's generally done well, but it may be a little too persistent at times. We haven't had a great many problems with connectivity during our playing time, but during one 15-minute single player event, we got to about 13 minutes in before our connection dropped and our progress was lost. We get the idea, but playing a single player race against the AI doesn't actually affect anyone else who's playing online, so why is our progress lost? Why are we even thrown from the game at all? The game could just upload your progress to the server the next time you connect, surely? We were worried about what would happen when the game's servers are turned off permanently down the road, but convinced ourselves not to pay it any more thought. Then, on the morning this review was set to go live, Ubisoft had connection issues with all their online services. So, despite The Crew containing a large single-player layer that really, really doesn't require it to be connected to anything, we couldn't do anything other than stare at the title screen. Welcome to the future.
Still, the general feel of the game is close to being right on the money. Online play is fun and once you’ve gotten through the story and its waves of stereotypes, the faction missions are almost an entirely new game in themselves. Finding new players to play against is a doddle, too. All bar a very few missions allow you to find co-op players to attempt them with in the blink of an eye and there’s no doubt that this will lead to some new online friendships being made. Maybe you’ll even form your own crew with the people that you find? It’s certainly a possibility. Also, as we've stated, there is a certain something that will keep you playing longer than you would with a lesser game. All of the while though, you'll be wishing that the whole thing was better executed.
The Crew is a game of missed opportunities. It isn’t a bad game by any means and the fact of the matter is that it's quite close to being a superb one. However, the more cynical practices of falsifying game length by filling the world with tedium, charging ludicrous amounts for add-ons, and drip-feeding upgrades to the point that the upgrades feel worthless, seem to have taken precedence over polishing up the actual gameplay itself. Online play is great fun and there’s no doubt that some will be absolutely hooked, but most (if not all) missions are ruined by some of the worst driving AI we've seen in a decade, no matter whether you're playing in multiplayer or single-player. The Crew is worth a go if you’re into racers. You might love it. But there's a better than good chance that the niggling issues will prevent that from happening.