Release: Out now
Developer: Ivory Tower
Website: Official site (opens in new tab)
Copy protection: Steam/Uplay
By Phil Iwaniuk
Success and failure seem equally absurd for The Crew. It’s the most detailed and expansive playground a driving game has taken place in for years, and you’re free to roam its every highway, dirt track and city block with your friends—sounds like a sure thing, right? Well, it’s also an always-online, plot-driven driving game in which you play a street racer posing as an undercover cop pretending to be a street racer. Who, at times, drives through the wilderness to find comms towers which unlock activities on your map, because Ubisoft’s nothing if not consistent. Suddenly that sure thing now has a large truck in front of it.
It begins with a narrative-heavy prologue in which the plot points of every Fast and Furious and Need For Speed are duly ticked off the great driving game checklist—illegal racing gang, menacing electronic music, FBI involvement, scores to settle—and you’re introduced to the salient gameplay systems. It’s clear this game expects you to stick around for the long haul: the last of its five disciplines (street, dirt, performance, raid and circuit) unlocks at level 40.
However it also—mercifully—allows you a lot of freedom once you clear that prologue. Freedom to ignore the story mission pinging in your mini-map and drive from Detroit to New York on a whim, just to see how long it takes. Freedom to invite your friends into an eponymous Crew and just drive, taking in the sights of Florida beach as you natter over your headsets. The world map is by far and away the game’s strongest asset, packing enough environmental variation into its scaled-down USA for you to feel the culture shock when you arrive at the gaudy Las Vegas strip after minutes of cruising through serene mountainside scenery. Nobody does a Belgian motorway quite like Euro Truck Sim 2 of course, but for those yearning for a bit more drama in their long-haul virtual drives The Crew is absolute wish fulfillment
Perhaps if it had focused on doing that one thing really well, this would have been a better game. But by trying to also provide a facsimile of Need For Speed, Burnout and Far Cry 4 (lest we forget the comms towers) it spreads itself too thinly and exposes the lolly sticks and elastic bands powering the whole operation. It’s most pertinent during the many uninspired story missions. Sometimes you’re asked to drive from A to B as quickly as possible just because, while someone dutifully recites narrative exposition to you. Other mission types rely on mechanics that are simply too unrefined to glean enjoyment from—step forward sketchy police evasions and downright perplexing ‘takedowns,’ in which you attempt to ram a wildly rubberbanding enemy.
Reviewed on: Intel Core i7 2600K, 8GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 4GB
Graphics options: Frame cap (30 or 60), geometry, textures, environment mapping, depth of field, motion blur, grass, ambient occlusion (all low-ultra)
Anti-aliasing: 4X MSAA, 4X TXAA, 8X MSAA
Remappable controls: Yes
Gamepad support: Yes
Using the ultra graphics preset and 8X MSAA, The Crew ran well below 20 fps at my monitor's native resolution of 2560 x 1600, but is just about able to hold 30 fps at 1080p. The high graphics preset is virtually indistinguishable though, and much more able to maintain a stable 30 frame lock. The absence of loading times across the enormous map is impressive, but overall fidelity isn't—so it's odd that 60 fps gaming is off the cards for many. It's also odd that it's locked to a max of 60 fps in the first place.
There are glimmers of inspiration among the busywork. One race pits you in a dirt car against a street racer on a route in which off-road paths intersect the road. Follow your opponent on the asphalt and you’re hugely outpaced, but seek out the muddy alternate routes and you’ll just squeeze the victory. It’s unrealistic to expect every race to be so high-concept, not least because there are legions of them. But The Crew isn’t Planescape: Torment, nor was anyone expecting it to be. It didn’t need reams of story missions.
No, it needs a better handling model. One that lets you really enjoy the world on offer. It’s by no means disastrous, but all the more annoying for always feeling one menu tweak away from ‘right’. Any such deadzone/sensitivity alchemy is a fool’s errand though. The shifting of weight will always feel slightly too sluggish; suspension always just a shade too spongy. And for a game that actively encourages corner-cutting, its kerbs are worryingly severe—mount the sidewalk as you wrestle for control in a corner exit and the game responds as if you’re in a monster truck running over another, smaller, monster truck. Perhaps the streets of Chicago really are rubberised and four feet higher than the road, and I’m displaying my ignorance.
Brave these not insignificant failings, and you’ll still find enduring enjoyment from The Crew, built on its online play (connection losses and crashes have just about cleared up at the time of writing after a turbulent launch week). It’s a uniquely social racer in which you can invite a few friends and drive aimlessly or take on a story mission together in four-player co-op. There’s the faction war to involve yourself in, reppin’ for a map region and contributing to its overall standing. There’s the simple, mindlessly compulsive PvP in which the most powerful car always wins and nobody cares because each race showers everyone in XP and money.
It’s always easier to look favourably on a game that tries to do too much than on a focus-tested bore. The Crew’s failings fall firmly into the former category, and though they are glaring and at times very frustrating, the potential to carve your own experience out of its rough-and-ready content saves it from mediocrity.