The Crew is one of the most infuriating games I've ever played. Not because it's bad, but because it should have been a masterpiece.
Make no mistake: The Crew is built on an absolutely astonishing feat of development. It's an adventure playground for cars, 5000km² of contiguous real estate themed and shaped like the United States, containing enormous caricatures of American cities, national parks, famous landmarks, miles upon miles of open road and sprawling terrain to explore at leisure.
You'll cruise through Vegas, San Francisco, New York and Detroit, slide through the Everglades, race trains through Los Angeles, blast through Death Valley, get air off the Rockies and even chuck cars off ski jumps if you're so inclined. This immense scale comes at the cost of cutting-edge visuals, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a price worth paying for a game world like nothing we've ever seen.
The topographically diverse map is a thrill to investigate and packed full of events to partake in, from point-to-point rallies to races, takedowns, police chases and numerous skill challenges, all of which factor into an addictive progresison system.Everything you do increases your driver level, awards you money and unlocks a smorgasbord of vehicle components to customise an enormous pool of cars. Each vehicle can be kitted out to different specifications depending on the terrain and event, including nippy Street kits, thoroughbred Performance racers, brawny Smuggler's Run-inspired Raid tanks and versatile offroad Dirt variants. The Crew makes you feel like you're constantly advancing and progressing in tangible ways, and delivers a bevy of ludicrous cosmetic customisation options to boot.
The Crew's controversial handling is actually tied to the spec of your vehicle and the upgrades you've equipped, meaning that it's constantly improving and can be customised to your specifications. You'll soon acclimatise to its drift-heavy arcade groove, with the exception being off-road Raid vehicles, which wallow about like a rhinoceros on roller skates. This foible aside, The Crew's amazing contiguous world, thrill of exploration and compelling progression system would have been more than enough to crown a latter-day successor to BurnOut Paradise and Test Drive Unlimited.
But it wasn't enough. It's never enough for Ubisoft these days. For reasons I still can't understand, Ivory Tower and Ubisoft Reflections then purposefully decided to half-bury a great concept beneath a mountain of terrible ideas, half-baked features and dubious design decisions.
In effect, they wilfully sabotaged their own game.
Take the storyline. Despite having RPG pretensions, The Crew restricts self-expression by forcing all players to assume the role of Alex Taylor, a beardy hipster framed for his brother's murder by a corrupt FBI agent. Driven to revenge, Alex begins a stupid campaign to infiltrate a stupid nationwide car gang to take down its stupid leaders, assembling a stupid team of stupid reprobates along the way, including a stupid hacker called "R0xx0r" who "scrapes the darknet" for information and it's so stupid it's so stupid WHY THE HELL IS IT SO STUPID.
Sorry, but since I've been reviewing The Crew, I'm not allowed to skip even a single hateful cutscene.
The story isn't just bad, it's irredeemable, devoid of even a single saving grace. Characters are uniformly detestable and poorly written yet deeply dull and forgettable. Dialogue is shockingly awful to the extent where Troy Baker, the magnificent actor who brought legends like Joel and Kanji Tatsumi to life, can't do anything with his hackneyed script. And don't even get me started on the brainless plot that takes itself deadly seriously and plays everything straight even though it reads like an amateurish unfunny parody.
Worse, though, it infects the game with a dour and miserable personality despite the core of the gameplay hinging around joy and excitement. Whereas BurnOut Paradise and Forza Horizon 2 are upbeat, vibrant and larger than life, The Crew is gritty, downbeat and constantly dwelling on how evil, seedy and corrupt everything is, beating you down when it should be encouraging you to make merry. I can only assume that Ubisoft developers are contractually obliged to cram a revenge storyline into every game they make whether it's appropriate or not.
I can forgive or overlook a poor story if a game doesn't dwell on it, but The Crew won't let you forget it. Idiotic characters constantly harangue you over the phone and you'll find difficult to just ride off into the sunset to do your own thing. Event level requirements are balanced against the storyline, so while you absolutely can just set a distant waypoint and visit a faraway city, chances are you won't be able to do anything when you get there until you reach that point in the plot or spend hours in PvP. To add insult to injury, many of the story missions are flat-out awful, not limited to driving across town against an arbitrary time limit while your burdensome passengers bleat overbearing exposition at you.
Speaking of events, they're a mixed bag in terms of quality and enjoyment. Point-to-point checkpoint runs, Smuggler's Run-inspired offroad missions and street races are fun in the main, but overly aggressive rubber-banding AI makes cop chases a chore (how can a stock police cruiser overtake a Ferrari pushing 170 MPH?) and takedown missions an absolute misery. Ramming a fleeing target sounds like a blast, but in practice the imprecise handling, enthusiastic collision physics and your opponents' insane straight-line speeds result in the best option being just to memorise their route and remember which corners to cut.
The fact that you always have to finish first, coupled with the lack of a rewind function, unforgiving AI and the spongy handling of offroad vehicles, can lead to intense controller-hefting frustration. At least there's plenty of variety, while exploring to find hidden cars and data centres feels immensely satisfying.
The UI is also worth mentioning as a seriously inconsiderate piece of design. From a navigation marker that sometimes cuts out and often misleads you to eyestrain-inducing tiny text and the inability to directly compare different cars in showrooms, the menus and HUD commit a litany of small yet aggravating sins.
Which is nothing compared to the microtransactions. With the exception of rare platinum parts, every car and upgrade can be purchased with 'Crew Credits,' a premium currency that can run you up to £39.99 a pack. It's yet another example of an unnecessary feature that detracts from the game, since the price of high-spec cars have been inflated to encourage players to pay out, while in-game winnings feel miserly and stingy. Unless you dip into a pot of 100,000 CCs the game begrudgingly hands out halfway through, chances are that you'll spend a dozen hours in your starting car!
However, after all that, I'm still having fun thanks to The Crew's multiplayer options. This is where the game suddenly takes a sharp turn away from the cliff edge and towards the sunrise, as you can team up with friends or randomers to explore the world or take on the story missions in competitive co-op. It's great to have a few people to laugh at the horrible storyline, but better yet, you can partake in a smorgasbord of PvP events that feature truly epic races.
More road trips than circuits, some of these missions can last upwards of an hour and pass through multiple states, feeling like a virtual holiday despite being more than a little gruelling at times. A faction dynamic also adds an extra layer of meta-competition into the mix, allowing you to represent your faction in races, gain daily performance-related payouts and take on rivals in 4v4 showdowns.
I'm still not convinced that The Crew needs to be always-online, seeing as it basically just offers multiplayer freeroam and instanced events. You're at the mercy of maintenance downtime and your ISP, bringing all the problems of MMOs with few of the benefits, since what was touted as an 'always connected' experience boils down to a few hovering gamertags on the horizon. With some friends or trusted acquaintances, though, The Crew finally shines, reminding you why the core joy of exploring, racing and larking about with mates in an enormous American playground excited us so much in the first place.
It's just a shame that the fun is so often overshadowed by the inescapable feeling that you would have been playing a masterpiece... if only Ubisoft had known when enough was enough. As it stands, every individual element of The Crew can be found better elsewhere and the game is less than the sum of its too many parts.
- Enormous, varied and amazing playground to explore with friends
- Car customisation is a blast, levelling and progression can be compelling
- Many impressively epic multiplayer races to partake in
- Shockingly awful storyline and characters destroys personality, kills fun and restricts progress
- Inconsistently enjoyable and unforgiving events, spongy offroad handling, infuriating UI and AI
- Invasive and unwelcome dual currency inflates the economy
- Always-online: all the issues of MMOs with precious few of the benefits
The Short Version: The Crew's magnificent automotive American playground and high-octane multiplayer road trips are sensational, but the tragedy is that Ubisoft and Ivory Tower didn't know when to stop.
Its irredeemably dreadful storyline, grim personality, invasive premium currency, miserly economy, deeply inconsistent event quality and always-on restrictions are all unnecessary yet wilfully sabotage what should have been a masterpiece. There's still fun to be had here, but approach in a deal with a crew of your own or steer well clear.
6 – CAPABLE: The key thing to remember here is always try before you buy. There'll likely be some rather glaring flaws or perhaps a distinct lack of imagination, but games that earn a 6 will generally be very capable indeed and probably still provide a good deal of fun to genre fans.
Platforms: PC | PS4 | Xbox One (reviewed)