But does it work?
There's a reason why The Crew has taken so long to develop. It's breathtakingly ambitious.
Ubisoft describe it as an "MMO driving experience," but it's really an enormous adventure playground for cars shaped like the United States. Instead of swings and roundabouts we have enormous caricatures of American cities, national parks, famous landmarks, miles upon miles of road and terrain to explore. Instead of slides and climbing frames we have ski slopes, ramps and hills. The Crew is stuffed with events, races and mingames, whether you're hammering around a street circuit, ramming a high value target into the Grand Canyon or smashing through a dense forest like the Endor scene from Return Of The Jedi. Only with a LaFerrari instead of a speeder.
We enter this crazy canvas alone and offline or online with other players streamed into our session, able to meet up with our friends, join factions, and complete all events in competitive co-op. We'll continually earn new cars, parts and upgrades. And on top of all that, there's even a story.
This all sounds good, but the more moving parts a game has, the more likely it is to go spectacularly wrong. After testing the latest Xbox One production build for several hours at Ubisoft UK's Guildford HQ, I'm inclined to believe that the The Crew is more or less on the right track -- and significantly more fun when you leave the track behind to go exploring with a few mates.
Each individual area of the adventure playground is spot-on, at least from the perspective of a Brit who's visited a few of these places before. Vegas is a gaudy mess of hotels and garish lighting as you drag race down the strip, pedestrians leaping out of the way. Miami is sundrenched and sprawling, while Los Angeles is... well, it's Los Angeles for better and worse. The beaches are lovely. National parks present wide undulating open spaces full of hills, ramps and ravines, as birds and wildlife scurry away while you tear across country. Mountains present treacherous snowy roads to navigate and even ski jumps to fling your cars off for... do you need a reason? If you do, there's a challenge, ghosts and medals.
After an hour or so of curated tutorials set in Detroit, the playground opens up and you can fast-travel to your heart's content, or just pick a direction to see what you find along the way. The result is an open world that benefits from artistic attention to detail, impressive draw distance and all manner of little organic flourishes, compensating for graphics that aren't quite as pretty as its Christmas competition.
There are numerous events to indulge in, including story missions, optional objectives, races, 500+ ghost-enabled skill challenges on almost every road and crazy takedown missions where you ram a heavily armoured car into oblivion against the clock. Later on you'll join a faction, unlocking exclusive new global events for your chosen side that can take up to four hours to complete, bolting on a beefy extra metagame. Naturally they all feel very different depending on the terrain and area you're in; after all, a race through a pine forest requires a whole new mindset compared to a Laguna Seca showdown.
Many of these events can be attended alone or in matchmade multiplayer, but in Freeride mode, players continually stream into your session and can be invited to join your Crew, whereupon you'll all cooperate to complete races (only one of you needs to ping a checkpoint, so long as you all make it to the finish line!) while competing to be the top dog. Sessions become virtual road trips as you all hoon about, take on events and compare your machines -- contributing to a shared scoreboard as you do so. Simple controller shortcuts make this all a cinch.
Naturally you'll need the right car for the job, which is where the car customisation comes into its own. Completing missions and challenges rewards you with experience, parts and credits to improve your growing roster of machines; each of which has 20 different customisable parts, 11 of which affect performance in some way. Each vehicle comes in multiple flavours for different roles, with Street models for day-to-day driving, Dirt Spec for grunty off-road torque, Raid Spec for burly Smugglers' Run-inspired brawls, Perf Spec for extravagant fast & furious drifting and Circuit Spec for dedicated high-performance racing. Coupled with an insanely deep and versatile pool of cosmetic customisation options, creating your dream machine is already a lot of fun and annoyingly addictive!
However, the car handling is... off. It reminds me less of the finely-honed accuracy of Project Cars and the scalable arcadey brilliance of Forza Horizon 2 and more of Watch Dogs, with cars feeling heavy and slightly sluggish. You'll need to concentrate at all times, turning slightly before you think you need to. I got used to it after a while, I hasten to add, but that learning process leads to an uncomfortable first impression that never quite sits right. I'm not the only one who noticed it.
Then there's the story. Many racing games do just fine without them or just the barest sniff of a premise, and for me, this could be one of The Crew's fragile break points if it's not handled properly.
We find ourselves playing as
Alex Mercer Aiden Pearce Alex Taylor: a bearded white bloke on a gritty quest for revenge against players in the criminal underworld. It's hackneyed stuff, as you encounter stereotypical gang bosses and a jaded stunt driver with a troubled past, but in fairness it seems to take a less serious and more tongue-in-cheek approach than the likes of Watch Dogs throughout well-directed (and skippable) cutscenes. Best of all, the plot is penned by Red Dead Redemption's Christian Cantamessa, whose storytelling chops are not in doubt. I have nothing against the idea of a driving game telling a great story, and hope that The Crew makes good on its potential on that front.
I also hope that it makes good on its promise of a smooth launch on all platforms, given Uplay's past form at proving itself painfully unfit for task (see also: Watch Dogs' and Far Cry 3's first week). Creative director Julian Gerighty is "confident" that the foundation is solid, especially given stress testing from the lengthy technical betas, but the proof will be in the playing.
This all adds up to an exciting, jaw-droppingly ambitious and intriguing package that could... could... become an absolute genre-blending benchmark, but only if all of its moving parts run smoothly and interlock perfectly at launch. The Crew will either explode onto the scene or burn spectacularly, but either way, I love to see games striving to do more, to offer more, to be as giddyingly ambitious as they can rather than falling back on safe ground. Ubisoft are really putting themselves out there with this one, and as always, we'd recommend waiting for reviews or footage from your favourite YouTuber before putting money down.
But I'd leave you with the fact that, once I'd made my peace with the handling, I found myself having an absolute blast. Whether just tooling around with other writers, entering events, creating gaudy bodykits, smashing each other off the road or cooperating on takedowns -- or just drifting around the country for the sheer hell of it -- I spent most of the session with a silly grin on my face and nearly forgot that my own car was left on a meter.
We're not short of driving and racing games this holiday season, and there's something for everyone. We'll find out if The Crew can live up to its clear potential in November.