Platforms: PC | PS4 | Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft | Ivory Tower
Imagine an adventure playground designed to superficially resemble the United States. It's the same shape and the major cities are in the right place, but everything is larger than life. A playground is supposed to be played with and romped over rather than sticking to scale, so buildings are bigger, colours are more vibrant, distances between cities have been compressed and the whole thing is generally much more fun than it is in reality.
Now imagine that this playground is 5000km² and created for cars rather than people.
This is The Crew, Ubisoft's ambitious next-gen racer that promises to blur the lines between singleplayer and multiplayer while delivering a healthy dose of unapologetic drift-heavy fun factor. Though it has sadly been pushed back into the deepest recesses of late 2014/early 2015, we recently got to grips with a demo and found The Crew to be an audacious attempt to push boundaries in the racing genre.
It's you, your car and the open road. Or not. See, every inch of the terrain is drivable, from Las Vegas and New York to the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon, all of which have been recreated with an eye for big fun rather than ruthless realism. You're free to go off road, cause havoc in the city centres, hoon around L.A.'s beaches or mess about in some of the country's natural scenery, whatever you fancy, but won't have to spend hours trawling through hundreds of boring featureless miles to get to where you want to go. The Crew is a love letter to the USA, not a simulation, and designed to provide hours of virtual sightseeing through rose-tinted spectacles.
However, charged with sabotaging and infiltrating a nationwide criminal gang, you'll also get stuck into a selection of campaign missions and numerous optional activities peppered around the country.
The Crew's scale is utterly astonishing. At full whack, sticking to the major roads, it will take between one-and-a-half to two hours to cross the map East to West, which doesn't take numerous diversions and the ability to venture off the beaten track into account. The point is that we don't need to stick to the roads, instead, we're free to spot something interesting in the distance and decide to drive over there. We were informed that driving aroung the perimeter would take no less than four hours, even at top redline speeds. Opening the map allows you to appreciate the full scope of Ubisoft's ambitions, with other cars and players represented in real-time when you zoom in. Perhaps more impressively, the whole map is continuous and contiguous, not broken up into separate load zones.
In terms of basic mechanics, The Crew is very much a good old-fashioned arcade racer. There's a boost button. A dedicated drift button. What more do you need? Forgiving arcade handling makes it easy to take corners sideways, pedestrians leaping out of the way in terror as you do so, and rivals getting smashed clean off the road. If you've ever played Burnout Paradise before, you'll probably enjoy what Ubisoft are promising.
Indeed, The Crew seems to be at least partly inspired by Criterion's open world racer, with events available around every corner. Designated races, illegal street courses, Dakar-style rallies and other competitive events will abound, while numerous optional Skill Challenges pop up as you're driving along to keep you occupied. These 20-30 second diversions include drag races and slaloms, encouraging us to compete asynchronously for leaderboard times and scorelines with our friends. Everything can be attempted solo, but this being a next-gen title, The Crew plans to "blur the lines" between traditional singleplayer and riotous multiplayer shenanigans.
Players are continually streamed into your world (up to seven in your immediate vicinity) both physically and in terms of ghosts for asynchronous competition in dynamic challenges. Once you've found some reliable compatriots, you can face off against them in races or team up to participate in a bevy of cooperative missions. Taking down an armoured NOS-equipped juggernaut is too tough for a single driver, but in a pack, you'll nibble at your quarry like a pack of wolves [or suck beyond all reason like I did on my first attempt - Jon]. This online functionality allows you to approach The Crew on your own terms, either alone, with friends, against randomers or any combination depending on your mood.
Customisation is set to play a major role in The Crew's long-term appeal. As you complete challenges and races, you'll gain a garage-full of cars and upgrades, each of which can be chopped and changed in a myriad of ways. Want a brutish drift-heavy street racer? Go for it. A torquey off-road powerhouse? No problem. Indeed, we'll need to spec our cars to suit the particular situation at hand and make the most of exploring the world, and a companion app will even let us do it while out and about. We can customise our ride on the bus and jump into it when we get home.
Visually, The Crew is already looking very tasty indeed. Running on PC, the demo proved to be exquisitely sharp, colourful and vibrant, showcasing impressive real-time lighting and reflections alongside painful damage modelling. Of course, the more cynical among you will rightfully point out that demos are polished up to a mirror shine before major events, so we'll have to wait to sample a production build before getting the measure of the jump between current-gen and next-gen visuals.
We'll probably end up waiting a while since The Crew was recently delayed into the next financial year. I daresay that this audacious automotive adventure playground will make a big splash at the 2014 summer expos, and we'll keep our eyes peeled for more info over the coming months.
If The Crew can deliver on its potential and promises - delivering that enormous, dense and competitive fun factory we got a tantalising glimpse of - it will probably be worth the wait.