With promises of massive multiplayer auto racing on a sprawling, 1900-square-mile, open-world canvas – said to be a match for marquee titles like Forza Horizon 2 – The Crew looked like an exciting addition to the growing stable of next-gen racing titles.
Had it stopped there, we'd have been giddy. But The Crew went further, displaying a robust and exciting system of customization that would allow gamers to transform some of the modern era's great sports cars into rally raid monsters one minute and corner-carving track stars the next.
The reality, though, turns out to be less than fulfilling.
There's a cursory story framing the game, but it never feels like an important part of the gameplay or missions. All we'll say is that it's rather clichéd and filled with banal characters.
The cursory story is rather clichéd and filled with banal characters.
So instead of the story, we focused on the gameplay, which was very arcade-like. Yes, we used the same language to describe Need For Speed: Rivals, but The Crew's gameplay is to Rivals what Forza Motorsport 5 is to iRacing.
The game's controls are clumsy, with every car featuring a weirdly squishy, non-linear brake pedal. Even when you slam on the brakes, going from 20 miles per hour to zero feels bizarre, like the brakes aren't even being applied or are horribly faded. The steering is similarly strange and non-linear, with a large dead zone that quickly turns over to full lock, making handling a less-than-delicate exercise and cars that feel cumbersome, fat and ungainly, especially at extreme high or low speeds.
There are a series of sliders that allow gamers to fine tune the behavior of the steering and pedals, along with the three preset handling modes – All Driving Help, Sport and Hardcore – which impact the behavior of the anti-lock brakes and traction control.
The only problem with these systems is the adjustments aren't well defined. For example, the slider for steering sensitivity can be moved left or right, although the game doesn't tell you which direction makes things more sensitive or less. It's the same for the linearity, dead zone and the effect that speed has on the steering response.
Running headlong into a tree results in the car bouncing backwards like a bumper car at the county fair.
The game's handling physics don't come in for much criticism – they're arcade-like and meant to be so. An entertaining looseness exists overall, making for easy powerslides and other such maneuvers, but there are some oddities. On multiple occasions, the severity of an offset collision was lessened by either your car or the object you were about to hit magically sidestepping at the last second. Running headlong into a tree or other fixed object, meanwhile, will result in the car bouncing backwards like a bumper car at the county fair. Big wrecks are accompanied by a slow-motion cut scene, but each one plays out almost identically – you hit another car at high speed, cue the slow-mo, your car's rear end lifts up and yaws to one side before landing. It's hysterically consistent.
Heading into an upgrade shop, you can blow up your car and look at the bare skeleton as you swap out parts. It looks cool, although it'd be a lot cooler if anything actually happened in this view. You can change out parts, but every upgrade looks identical to the part it replaced. It wouldn't have taken a lot to make some unique changes – a different color here and there would have been all that's needed to spice up this very cool view.
Fortunately, it works better when you're making visual changes to your vehicles, as you can replace front and rear clips, wheels and you can even make wholesale changes to your car's interior color scheme, a first in a racing game as far as we can recall.
The scenery, meanwhile, is truly staggering from afar: realistic vistas, stunning skylines, gorgeous sunsets and imposing storm clouds.
The pretty looks of the upgrade mode don't necessarily extend beyond the tuning garage, though. Graphically, the cars are average at best. They lack the absolute details of Forza Horizon 2, although they're easily on par with the Xbox One's other big-name racer, Need For Speed: Rivals. When your ride starts taking some damage, though, the game falls flat. Scrapes and scuffs are almost ubiquitous in appearance, without any appreciable depth or variety – like a graphic was just pasted over the normal car model and not accurately rendered. Also, cars weirdly repair themselves over time while out in the world.
The scenery, meanwhile, is truly staggering from afar. Ubisoft and developer Ivory Tower thoroughly exercised the Xbox One's lighting and atmospheric rendering ability, with the result being beautiful, realistic vistas, stunning skylines, gorgeous sunsets and imposing storm clouds (although Ubisoft oddly didn't add any weather effects). The nature looks good once you're really in the scrub, as well, but get into one of the game's many representations of US cities, and things seem to fall flat.
Aside from big, landmark buildings, the areas surrounding cities feel generic. More than that, though, light doesn't play on the buildings like it does on the cars. It's too consistent, which makes the buildings, especially the smaller ones, appear flat and one dimensional.
The company's promise of an enormous, open world is largely fulfilled, although there are some caveats. This map is simply huge and the cities scattered across it match the character of their real-world counterparts.
The company's promise of an enormous, open world is largely fulfilled, although there are some caveats.
With so much of the Autoblog staff hailing from Detroit, we were looking to explore The Crew's representation of our fair city. Ubisoft got at least one thing right – when tearing up Woodward, it really does feel like you're in The D. The atmosphere is right, and there are mildly tweaked landmarks all over (Cobo Hall, Russell Industrial Center, Comerica Park, etc.) But there are a number of strange mistakes and mischaracterizations. Ford Field is nonexistent. The cities of Highland Park and Hamtramck are simply in the wrong places, while the wealthy enclave of Bloomfield Hills has been relocated about eight miles south, to 8 Mile Road.
This bizarro Detroit (and, ostensibly, oddly conceived versions of the other cities) might be tolerable, were it not for Ubisoft's strange design of the game map. Florida, for some reason, is stubby and short, the Gulf of Mexico is dramatically smaller than in reality, and you could drive at a bearing of exactly 180 degrees from Detroit's Renaissance Center and eventually end up in New Orleans. Peculiar at best, unnecessary at least.
Still, the overall size of this map is hugely impressive. Estimates of the time from New York to Los Angeles vary, but we've heard of a few outlets making the trip in around 30 minutes. To test that theory, Senior Editor Seyth Miersma recorded this gonzo, crash-filled run across the country in in the video below.
Hitting the half-hour mark is made harder because a dizzying number of skill challenges are littered across the map, in an attempt to spice up the interstate trek. These are broken down into tests of speed, precision, jumps, escapes from police, scrambles and other categories. While it's easy enough to skip by these, they reward car parts, experience and money that can be used for visual upgrades or new cars, There are also player-versus-player events, some of which have durations of around an hour. Events aside, it's also kind of fun to just drive cross-country through the US.
Events aside, it's also kind of fun to just drive cross-country through the US..
So what about Ubisoft's other big promise, of a massively multiplayer online racing game? Well, it's fulfilled, although there's a technicality. You can play with friends, but you can also be anti-social. Each mission we encountered had a solo option, and none of the events really seemed like they needed a partner to get past. That might be disappointing to some, your author included, who imagined The Crew offering a purer MMO feature set, with different players taking on different roles throughout a mission. Instead, we were treated to the exact same missions regardless of the number of partners, with cooperative missions simply boosting your chances of advancing the story (which happens if you win, or if one of your crew does).
It should be noted that our problems with the co-op missions aside, we've had little issue with the game's online mechanics. The occasional hiccup when logging in on the game's release date, December 2, was our only bit of bad luck. Both your author and Miersma were seamlessly able to connect for a session and chat online, much like you'd experience in a more established multiplayer franchise, like Call of Duty. We've also received the occasional co-op request from other gamers, as the map continues to populate with each session. It's almost a certainty that as sales pick up ahead of the holidays, The Crew's online population will grow, making for a more inviting online experience, although it might also lead to more of the server issues we've seen other publications report.
The Crew has the bones of a great title, but is let down by lackluster gameplay and hit-or-miss graphics.
The Crew has the bones of a great title, but is let down by lackluster gameplay and hit-or-miss graphics. Still, in the past Ubisoft has proven able to take solid foundations and build a successful franchise (see: Assassin's Creed). We hope it can do the same if and when a followup to The Crew arrives, but this time around, the compromises are too significant and the great potential still unrealized.