The Crew launches today as one of the most ambitious games in years. A freeform driving game in an enormous adventure playground shaped like the United States is also an MMORPG with players streamed directly into your session, with numerous avenues for competition, cooperation and exploration as you form Crews and bitter rivalries. There's an in-depth story, too, alongside a massive suite of cars that can be massively upgraded and expanded in a host of specifications, with upgrades unlocked by winning races, challenges and events.
However, the more ambitious the game, the more potential breaking points it has, and the more that can go wrong as well as brilliantly right. The story. The netcode. The handling. Uplay. I've been excited about The Crew since its reveal, but there's so much at stake here.
All eyes are on it this now following Ubisoft's mis-steps over the last few months, and seeing as we were given a day's head-start (despite previously being told that there wouldn't be any pre-release access!), I'm now in a position to deliver our first impressions based on several hours with the release build in advance of our full review at the end of the week.
It's Absolutely Enormous
Credit where credit is due: The Crew is big. Absolutely, stonkingly, breathtakingly huge.
You'll start the game in Detroit, pursuing some storyline missions that act as disguised tutorials, but after a handful of hours you'll be floored by the sheer enormity of what The Crew brings to the table. The map is absolutely astonishing in scope, taking hours to drive end-to-end, offering authentic if minature facsimiles of major American cities, national parks, hundreds of miles of open road and thousands of square miles of terrain to freely explore on a whim, as players continually appear directly in your world to play with or team up with using a simple group interface. It's worth doing, because many missions are difficult solo yet great fun in a team.
Not only that, but there's a dense and pleasing amount to do, from challenges (more on those later) to races, events, hidden car parts, factions to join and just the sheer fun of taking the action off-road. Even at this early stage I'm very impressed with the sheer size of the driving adventure playground, even if it's clear that its magnitude may have come at the cost of raw graphical output. Oh well. I can live with that, at least, if The Crew manages to be consistently fun after the 10 hour mark. The jury's out on that one.
So, About The Handling Then
The Crew's handling has been a bone of contention and a cause for concern over the last few months and years. During preview events and betas we described it as "off," "weird" and "slippery," comparing it to Watch Dogs rather than more responsive and fluid racers.
So I'm pleased to report that this isn't the whole story. Though still not a patch on the likes of Forza due to an odd balance between weight and heft, the handling is actually massively customisable via a missable yet surprisingly detailed settings menu. You can tweak the steering sensitivity, steering linearity, speed factor, braking and more to your specifications, and though the game does a poor job of explaining what difference this actually makes, you can feel the difference after a few minutes of fussing about.
More importantly, though, handling is actually defined by the vehicle you're driving, the specifications you've chosen for it and the upgrades you've unlocked and equipped. The more you race, the more you unlock and the better vehicles you buy, the better the handling becomes. Though I'm not sold on whether this is a reasonable or hilariously short-sighted design decision, it's definitely worth bearing in mind.
The Skill Challenges Are Great
The Crew is absolutely stuffed with challenges. Practically every street has an event to partake in, whether a drag race, slalom run, target smash or even a crazy jump, and they activate as soon as you reach them. A quick drive to a nearby objective can suddenly become a crazy obstacle course as you weave through cones or hurtle over a ramp, competing both asynchronously and with anyone else in your Crew.
Better yet, you'll earn experience, money and new car parts just for participating in these "Skills," and can instantly restart or reset a challenge at any point, meaning that you won't have to drive back to the beginning. It's a nice touch, and one that deserves a big thumbs up at this early stage.
Not Sold On The Story
I'm still surprised that The Crew has any story whatsoever, and somewhat irked that it makes us play as a preset character.
To be fair, what I've seen of it is enjoyable in a pulpy brainless kind of way. Our hipster protagonist finds himself embroiled in a sting operation after his brother is killed by gang enforcers and corrupt FBI agents, forced to infiltrate a street racing crew to take down the top dogs. What I've seen so far has been well-produced and reasonably good fun (you can always rely on Troy Baker to deliver the goods on the voiceover front), and I like that our main character is a little older and very different from the usual videogame suspects, but it also seems to miss the point.
See, The Crew is supposed to be a cross between BurnOut Paradise and an MMO, and forcing players to become a character with a face and a game goes against everything we love about the genres. We're supposed to be the star of our own automotive fantasy, driving our own cars. We're supposed to be able to express our own individuality. But we're not and we can't. We're just some guy called Alex Taylor, and we can't even change his astonishingly hip beard and frames to something that barely resembles ourself.
Ubisoft suggests that 'our car is our avatar,' but wouldn't it have been more simple to cut down the story and show all cutscenes in first person, allowing us to be the star of the show and have the freedom to express ourselves properly? Would BurnOut Paradise or World Of Warcraft be better if we all had to play as a beardy hipster?
I'm sick to death of the abusive insanity of microtransaction culture. I've had enough of publishers trying to squeeze every last penny out of my bank account in games that already cost £30-50 new. I've seen so many games twist and ruin their own economies, adding extra layers of inconvenience, grind and effort designed to psychologically brutalise players into paying more, and more, and more, despite not doing a damn thing to earn it.
Now The Crew has the gall to make every car in the game purchasable with Crew Credits, a premium currency that's impossible to ignore, displayed on my GamerTag and costs £39.99 if you want a pack of 600,000 meaningless funbucks that shouldn't be necessary in a game with a balanced economy.
And... breathe. The red mist has subsided, and for the record, I haven't played enough of The Crew to categorically state whether it's easy to just ignore Crew Credits out of hand. But making them a dual currency that's impossible to overlook, plus including them in a game that already carries a retail premium, is not classy at all. In fact, it's obnoxious and invasive as hell. Even EA doesn't pull this bullshit any more.
Online: Very Shaky Start, But Is It Improving?
The Crew officially launched as of midnight, and despite Ubisoft being "confident" that the netcode would hold up at launch, many players reported a very shaky start. At the time of launch I couldn't even log onto the servers, while others reported bizarre pileups and cars phasing in and out of existence.
On Tuesday morning British Time, however, things seem to be working. Logging in is speedy and grouping works, though map loading times are slightly sluggish and quick co-op occasionally tells me that "nobody excepted the invitation" even though we all patently did.
So things are definitely improving... but that's to be expected seeing as America is still fast asleep and it's only us Europeans on the servers!
This will be The Crew's biggest test of all, and it's far too early to call. Following The Master Chief Collection's matchmaking woes, I'm now not going to take functional multiplayer on trust even though I've tested it pre-launch. You'll have to wait until our full review at the end of the week.
Is It Fun?
I'm not sure.
That's not a "no," because The Crew really should be fun. All the pieces are there: loads of cars to rag around an enormous adventure playground full of ramps, off-roading shenanigans and races, not to mention other players to team up with for freeform funtimes. Heading out into the wilderness just for the heck of it is a blast.
And yet, I don't know if The Crew's personality really fits the core appeal of the game. Instead of BurnOut Paradise's crazy gusto or Forza Horizon 2's real love of driving as an art form, The Crew's gritty gangland storyline feels oddly out of whack, darker and more sobering than it should be, instead of making the game a fun romp with mates. It worked in Watch Dogs, but here constant reminders of your dark and gritty mission (not to mention constant phone calls from seedy contacts) feels at odds with our lust to just drive around like a loon for fun and frolics.
Again, it's too soon to call. The game will continue long after the story ends, and there's plenty of scope for crazy shenanigans that I haven't even experienced yet. If you own The Crew, let us know how you're getting on... and if not, wait for our review.