In the course of the last console generation, Ubisoft has gone from "the French publisher behind the Tom Clancy games" to the world's leading creator of lucrative open-world sandbox franchises (by quantity, if not quality). This success hinges on a simple formula shared by all of Ubisoft's open-world games: Large, interesting worlds plus tons of things to see and do equals happy customers. Based on massive sales and a decade of largely positive critical response, this seems like a solid and, more crucially, reproducible formula.
With The Crew, Ubisoft and developer Ivory Tower hope to apply those principles to the world of arcade-style racing games while also tacking on an omnipresent multiplayer component that supposedly makes the game's world – an abridged take on the entire contiguous United States – feel more alive, while also making it simple and fun to race around the country with your friends online. It's an idea that's undeniably ambitious and, if executed properly, could propel The Crew to the front of the racing game pack. Unfortunately, this racer is more Yugo than Porsche.
The story in The Crew is braindead. It's dumb, histrionic at nonsensical times and doesn't serve any real purpose beyond adding another mark to Ubisoft's feature checklist. The plot is aimed at the same "young, testosterone-fueled gearhead" demographic as the Fast and Furious movies – and features all of their now-cliché tropes including overtly macho leading men, stunning femme fatales, even more stunning cars, and cops that are either power drunk jerks or who will inevitably come to aid the hero in his quest – all without any of the charisma a Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson brings to an otherwise ludicrous adventure (pun totally intended). By comparison to their Hollywood inspirations, the characters of The Crew are as compelling as the white bread, blank slate lead from Tokyo Drift, who was utterly forgotten in the sequels. The plot is clearly aiming for "gripping tale of revenge," but it's hard to care about a victim who only exists for thirty seconds and a main character with all the nuance of a cueball.
That said, The Crew is first and foremost a racing game, and anyone expecting a plot to rival Tolstoy (or even Troma) has always been doomed to disappointment. In the areas of mechanics, physics and the less-than-tangible "feel" of speed, however, The Crew performs well. Not brilliantly, but the game is technically solid. All racing in The Crew is decidedly arcade-style, with physics and handling that emphasize high speeds, braking as late as possible and drifting around every corner. The game's motion blur effects and the momentary obscuring of UI elements when a car hits something or lands a jump creates a feeling of moving very rapidly, though this extra visual flair can quickly grow distracting in certain camera angles, particularly the otherwise well-implemented first-person driver's viewpoint.
The Crew's core gimmick, building a crew of your online buddies to race around the country, works, but in practice is just a glorified, unintuitive party system. To the game's credit, it is functional: You can put together parties of people over the Internet with no technical problems or lag. However, the UI is overly complicated and requires far too many button presses for a menu system designed for use while driving a fast car. If you do manage to navigate the menus without crashing, the reward is tepid at best. Being able to chat with and race against a chosen group of players isn't a very substantial hook to build a game around, especially when the rest of the game is so milquetoast.
While not quite dazzling, The Crew is certainly attractive, and the developers have poured exacting detail into its looks. Car interiors are rendered accurately (though perhaps not as accurately as their counterparts in the Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo series), body damage is surprisingly well-modeled (given how historically skittish car manufacturers can be) and the weather and debris effects make the open world environment feel vibrant and approximately realistic. The different regions of the virtual United States feature distinct aesthetics, lending roadtrips from one coast to another a feeling of accomplishment, and of having crossed actual distance. Downtown New York City is all skyscrapers and mazes of concrete, while the Midwest lives up to every "amber fields of grain" stereotype in existence and the Southeast is pocked with bayous and grand estates that probably have dark histories. It's an abbreviated map, so there's only a handful of real cities represented, but the developers did a solid job of capturing the spirit, if not the reality, of the United States. Best of all, throughout my time with The Crew, I encountered no graphical glitches. I'm happy to report that everyone in The Crew is quite attached to their face and I never saw anyone inexplicably dive through solid matter.
With the United States as a canvas, the developers of The Crew have painted a world that should be very familiar to anyone who's played Ubisoft games in recent years. Visiting the in-game map reveals an expansive nation that's initially dark, but can be revealed by discovering satellite installations through the country. The map is also pocked with events, hundreds of them, that range from simple tasks like seeing just how fast you can go given a limited stretch of road, to multiplayer races and Chase missions that ask you to smash another car to bits using your own vehicle as a weapon. You can pick and choose which events to enter, and jumping around the world is as easy as the map's fast travel function, or you can just drive down any given road. You'll inevitably run into a race or a stunt jump or something, and, as in most major Ubisoft games, simply wandering through the world, discovering new things to do, is one of The Crew's more entertaining aspects.
For everything The Crew does right, however, it fails in some other minor (yet annoying) way. The Crew has a genuinely great, esoteric soundtrack, and while driving players can change the radio station by pressing right or left on the directional pad. So far, so good. However, the game never tells you what station you're on without visiting your in-game smartphone, a process that takes more effort than it should, especially while driving. Likewise, The Crew offers players a comprehensive set of navigational aids as they travel its immense world, but as with most Ubisoft games, the heads up display and virtual map are distractingly cluttered with information. Having a bright guideline float above the car at all times is a thoughtful way to guide players to the next objective, but following the route while scanning the minimap for nearby points of interest and flipping through menus on the in-game phone deserves its own terrifying PSA earmarked for court-ordered traffic safety classes. These kinds of problems don't manage to tarnish the solid racing core of The Crew, but they demonstrate that the game easily could have been better if only its developers had paid a bit more attention to usability.
A lack of foresight seems to be a theme for many of The Crew's features. You can see what the developers were aiming for, but it's also easy to see what they could have done better. Running cars off the road in Chase events is fun, but Ivory Tower designed the AI drivers to follow a simple, unchanging path. If you've played a mission once, you don't even need to chase the other car. Just set up an ambush where you know the other driver will be and wrap things up in a matter of moments. Instead of AI racers that can react to the road and adjust with something approximating intelligence, The Crew features wooden dummies with very specific instructions. This sort of design should fall apart during a freeform race, but in an effort to keep things dramatic, the AI racers can become unrealistically fast or learn to corner far better than they had been if the game decides that you're doing too well. This is a common cheat in racing games, and it can work well if properly concealed, but in The Crew it's so blatantly obvious that every win feels like a gift from a generous computer instead of something earned by the player.
Because the limited selection of cars is so highly customizable that they functionally serve as the player character, progression in The Crew is akin to a role-playing game. Complete races, earn experience points, level up both your driver and car and suddenly you're racing in faster events, earning more money and driving more expensive characters, er, cars. This system makes sense in other open-world games like Far Cry 4 or Assassin's Creed Unity, where plot progression is a core goal, but in a racing game unable to rely on its weak story, where the appeal can only lie in improving a player's driving skills, it fails. There's just no impetus for getting better when you can always beat the next race by grinding experience and parts until your car is far beyond the competition. Online multiplayer races do reward skill, but every event I played was less about who could maintain the best racing line and more about who could push the other racers off the course first. Unfortunately, The Crew doesn't penalize players for playing bumper cars during races, and a healthy portion of those online have come to realize that it's far easier to win a race by pushing the other driver into a tree than by driving well. I encountered almost no lag whatsoever, but smooth gameplay didn't make my fellow racers any more tolerable.
The Crew's biggest failing is that while it's technically competent and checks off all the necessary boxes on the "open world game design" checklist, it lacks a cohesive identity. It feels like a collection of interesting ideas swiped from other games that are intriguing on their own but don't come together in any meaningful way. The Crew's virtual United States setting is well-crafted and fun to navigate, but it's saddled with a half-baked UI, events that quickly grow repetitive and an "always online" multiplayer gimmick that adds little to the gameplay beyond filling your virtual world with antisocial jerks in pretty cars. There's so much promise in the idea of an over-the-top racing game that offers both street corner drag racing and literal cross-country road trips, but The Crew buries these simple yet well-implemented concepts beneath a boring story, tepid characters and gameplay ideas that have all been done better elsewhere.
If the Xfinity-branded hypercar race a few hours in is anything to go by, The Crew is an overt attempt to capitalize on the popularity of modern car culture, and it would seem entirely cynical if not for a few redeeming design decisions. In the world of modern racing games that's just not enough to earn a victory lap.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PS4 version of The Crew, provided by Ubisoft. Images: Ubisoft.
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