The Crew launched worldwide earlier this week under intense scrutiny. It's remarkably ambitious yet full of potential pitfalls, a wonderful automotive adventure playground hamstrung by a worrisome storyline and server issues, and suffering under extra suspicion due to Ubisoft's recent performance. Here, though, we judge games based on their individual merits.
Having enjoyed a day's head-start, I posted a balanced and bittersweet impressions piece with a promise to return once I'd gleaned more hours of hands-on experience.
So I'm happy to report that things are looking rosier now... but it gets worse before it gets better. Let's rip the bandage off fast and hard.
The Story Is A Self-Sabotaging Disaster
Last time I suggested that The Crew's storyline is pointless and goes against the core appeal of the game. As an open-world racer crossed with an MMO, forcing everyone to play as the same character and introducing unnecessary extra grit to what ought to be a free-roaming fun factory makes no sense whatsoever.
My point still stands, but after a few more hours, I have to be brutally honest and tell you that the story and characters aren't just redundant. They're awful, and may actually break the game.
The horrible trite writing, hatefully unlikeable characters, dopey plot and constant obtrusive badgering from blithering idiots feel as if they've been lifted from a completely different -- and terrible -- game. They squat over the proceedings like a fun-devouring tarantula, making for a nasty first impression that still sours and restricts the experience even hours after The Crew opens up from its naff Detroit tutorials. Even the exceptional Mister Baker can't do anything with his one-dimensional script, while the gangland plot makes the world feels small and seedy rather than encouraging you to go out and have fun.
It's nothing less than purposeful self-sabotage. The story is unnecessary. The characters are unnecessary. The cutscenes are unnecessary. The game would have worked perfectly (if not better) without them -- it's literally just BurnOut Paradise with extra online functionality, for goodness' sake! -- yet apparently the thrill of exploring an amazing world with friends wasn't enough for Ubisoft, who blithely crammed in a hopelessly generic revenge tale because they've forgotten how to make a game without one.
The greatest tragedy of The Crew may be that the game falls short of its potential not because of Uplay or netcode issues, but because it's trying to be two games in one. And failing badly. For the record I haven't yet seen the story through to its conclusion, so here's hoping that The Crew can pull something back before I pen our final verdict.
The Handling: My Final Word
The Crew's controversial handling is scalable, can be improved via vehicle upgrades and is tied to the particular spec of your chosen car. Naturally a torquey Dirt-Spec bruiser handles very differently to a nervy Perf-Spec thoroughbred. A few days later and my opinion hasn't changed, in fact, I've warmed to it.
To be clear, The Crew is not a highlight of the genre nor a patch on Forza Horizon 2. There's an odd sense of weight and inertia that makes many cars feel paradoxically too heavy and too light at the same time, leading to some weird physics, collisions and interactions with bumps or ramps. It's not bad, per se, just slightly off.
And yet I'm in my element now. Having tweaked the steering to my specifications and massively upgraded my ride of choice, the handling has become second nature, allowing me to concentrate on winning the race and spotting shortcuts rather than focusing on each corner. Perhaps I've just acclimatised to it, but that's arguably not a bad thing.
Progression & Customisation
As a sort-of-MMO (I'm still not sure it deserves that title, seeing as it basically just has multiplayer freeroam), The Crew does its best to make you feel like you're constantly improving and progressing, and in fairness does a pretty good job on that front.
Everything you do awards experience, increasing your Player Level, which unlocks new events, grants perk points to spend on nifty upgrades and beefs up every car in your collection (including those you buy down the line) to ensure that they're all viable. Naturally this is a compelling draw in and of itself, but the cars are the real stars of the show.
Once you buy a car using in-game Bucks or premium Crew Credits (don't get me started), you can then purchase a number of variants designed for different conditions, from Street Spec racers to Raid Spec Smuggler's Run-inspired tanks. Each of these variants acts as an entirely new vehicle, with you able to pay extra for a wealth of cosmetic options, bodykits, decals and paint jobs to create your own personalised ride.
More importantly, though, scoring a bronze, silver or gold level in any event rewards you with a 'Part' from exhausts to tyres and weight reduction systems, which beef up your Car Level and improve their performance in meaningful ways. They can be instantly installed on the car you're driving at the time, but then have to be purchased again for any other vehicle in your garage unless you decide to repeat the event down the line in a new car. It's a fun system and one that encourages you to make the most of the skill challenges and optional events scattered around the enormous open world.
Mind you, there are a couple of caveats. Payouts feel fairly slow especially compared to the up-front cost of the best cars, which would seem like a rewarding challenge if it wasn't for the invasive spectre of Crew Credits cajoling you to part with real money at every purchase screen. Instead, it feels like costs have been inflated to make real-money transactions more attractive, especially since you can also buy performance-improving parts with Crew Credits, a nasty little design decision that could have been totally avoided. Also, as a basic point, making us play as a preset character can stop you really taking pride in your collection, as they're not really your cars at all. You're just borrowing them from Alex Taylor.
The Racing Line Is Aggravating
I can see what The Crew's racing line is trying to do. Since the streets and open terrain are full of pedestrians, dense traffic and vegetation, a ground-based breadcrumb trail would be badly obscured. It makes sense in theory, then, that The Crew lifts it up and into the air above your car so it's clearly visible.
I just wish that I could rely on it. Often it meanders and wanders about of its own free will, diverting you off course or even into oncoming traffic, at other times it takes bizarre routes or even disappears altogether. Though good drivers should pay more attention to the environment than an artificial guide (trust your feelings!), the open nature of the game means that navigation is incredibly important whether you're on your way to an event or twenty minutes into a lengthy race, and this distracting floating line doesn't quite cut it..
Is It Fun? - Revisited
Last time I replied "I'm not sure," but a few days on and my answer is a lot shorter now. Yes.
The addendum, however, is "if you make your own."
You have to leave the story behind, put grumpy ol' Alex in your rearview mirror and team up with a few mates to really get what The Crew is all about. It's not about taking revenge for your brother and justice for blah derp flibble ploot. It's about the thrill of epic American roadtrips and the fun you'll find along the way. It's about haring across mountain roads, competing in races, taking on challenges and watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. It's about cruising through Las Vegas or hurtling through Miami, getting into trouble, hunting down raid vehicles for fun and profit, outrunning the police and laughing about it afterwards. It's about driving and the cameraderie that can only be found when a road trip goes off the beaten track.
Solo the thrill of exploration is still great fun, but once you come to terms with that The Crew isn't, you can start appreciating it for what it absolutely is.
Not Quite There Yet
Sadly, despite a couple of patches, server maintenance and constant assurances from the developers, The Crew's netcode isn't up to snuff. Though it works in the main, I sometimes found myself unable to log onto the servers outside of scheduled maintenance times, unable to join a crew or find co-op players, or even disconnected in the middle of a lengthy cross-country race. This is not exactly optimal seeing as The Crew is best enjoyed with mates.
Did it need to be always-online by default? To be honest I'm not convinced. The core of the game is BurnOut Paradise, as I've said before, while the story and single character only make sense solo. The Crew could have easily had an offline singleplayer mode with options to team up with four friends or enter an online freeroam mode.
But despite these misgivings, I sometimes enjoy the thrill of seeing another player haring across my map pursued by police, or being instantly invited into a co-op session with other players that I might then embark on another road trip with. The faction system is starting to reveal itself as a major draw, allowing you to represent a region in unique events for extra rewards. There's still so much more to see even after many hours, but suffice to say that I'm much more upbeat about what The Crew brings to the table now I understand it better.
Our review will have to wait until after the weekend, likely Monday lunchtime, so stay tuned. The Crew definitely has its flaws and major ones at that, but the core joy of driving fast cars around an enormous playground with mates still has time to win me over.