Written by Alex Dale
The road trip is a Hollywood staple for good reason. No place on Earth begs to be thundered across on four wheels with as much gusto as the roads of the United States of America.
From the winding, breezy Pacific Coast Highway in California to the autumnal splendour of Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway, the USA is a petrolhead's paradise, packing in a staggering amount of environmental and scenic variety between its two shores.
For Eden Games – the studio that made their name turning the islands of Oahu, Hawaii and Ibiza into accurately mapped playgrounds for digital drivers – recreating the road network of mainland USA was an obvious next step. Reformed under the name Ivory Tower, they've done exactly that, in an open-world, star-spangled MMO racer that can be considered Test Drive Unlimited 3 in all but name.
But before you start scouring Google Maps in anticipation of paying a virtual visit to your Uncle Zebekiah's outhouse in Turdhole, Arkansas, know that The Crew isn't going to be a 1:1 reproduction of the United States. You wouldn't want it to be, trust me. The Crew compacts America into a 'best of' package for reasons of practicality rather than technical limitations. The real thing takes several days to drive across, and you'd lose the will to continue living somewhere between Omaha and Wyoming.
The Crew's America is still a handsomely sized beast. It would take you a solid 90 minutes to drive from the west coast to the east, and that's assuming you're flooring it the whole way and making liberal use of your off-road tyres.
Rather than disappointing, the smaller scale affords us the chance to appreciate The Crew for what it actually is – a photorealistic Outrun 2. Driving southwards, you can observe the rolling hills of Montana merge into the ice-capped mountains of Colorado before flattening out into the lonely, dusky nothingness of Arizona. That variety is a far cry from the uniformly tropic backdrops of Test Drive Unlimited's Hawaii or the Balearics, and The Crew pulls it off without loading times or interruption.
The Test Drive Unlimited influence extends to the car handling model, which inherits the same floaty physics of the TDU games. This the main criticism I have of The Crew at this juncture: terrain as rugged as America's demands the rugged powersliding to match, and The Crew doesn't deliver on this front. Still, with extensive car customisation options there's a good chance you'll be able to set up your 'ride' until it feels just right, and overall the cars do seem to have more weight to them than TDU's counterparts – most likely the influence of the Ubisoft Reflections studio (of Driver series fame), who are on co-development duties.
Boringly, you can also customise your car 'on the fly' while on the bus or in the library or in the middle of jury duty or whatever, using The Crew's companion app for tablet computers. Seriously, how dull is that? Read a book or something, people. But I digress.
As much fun as The Crew's world is to drive around, few players will want freeroam forever. That's where the missions come in: an eclectic bunch, ranging from illegal street races to objective-based affairs. The latter are where the titular 'Crew' comes into play. The game is built around the premise of yourself and three real-life friends forming a street gang and terrorising the nation, and while you're free to scatter to the four corners of the country, the GPS menu makes it easy to group up and launch into the next mission.
Case in point: one minute I was ditzing around Times Square without a care in the world, the next I was transported to a scorching Miami beach, where my party were tasked with taking down a security van by ramming it off the road. Shades of Burnout here, and there's the boost mechanism to match, but again it lacks the satisfying metal-on-metal crunch that defines Criterion's work. In mitigation, there is the enjoyment factor of screeching directly through a densely-populated beach, watching beach towels and brollies fly as tourists scramble to get out of your way. (As in the Driver series however, you can never quite make contact with them.) At this point the police no longer believe we're something to do with yachting. How many lights does one bonnet need? I'm not going potholing. They were suspiciously quiet on how Buffalo or Hologamy were shaping up.
The Crew isn't just the spiritual successor to Test Drive Unlimited in terms of structure: it serves to occupy the same niche in the racing game sphere. That is to say, it offers a racing game that is experience-led and socially-orientated, but one that lacks the tightness or focus of an offline racer.
For all its ambition and for all its variety, The Crew's open-world driving is destined to be an acquired taste– but if you do give it a try, The Crew will serve it up in Americansized portions.
The Crew is due out in 2014.