As insane as it feels to be typing these words, my initial experience with Ubisoft’s new MMO-style open-world driving game, The Crew, has been overwhelmingly positive. I sank about six hours into it this afternoon, and I’ve got some preliminary thoughts I’d like to share before I give it another chunk of my time.
Most importantly, it works. That isn’t something which should be particularly noteworthy, but after the winter Ubisoft has had this year it’s genuinely surprising they’ve released a game that’s actually playable on Day One. I had a minor update to install (I forget the exact size, but it was around 100mb) and that took about two minutes, then I was off. The always-online framework was active; there were plenty of other folks driving around with me, and the option was there to take part in PvP and PvE events if I wanted to. I didn’t test any, but that’s just me. I very rarely touch multiplayer due to my natural dislike of people, so I was paying more attention to whether or not the game would let me ignore these things. And it did.
People have been justifiably suspicious of The Crew as Ubisoft refused to send out pre-release copies for the press to review. In most cases that usually means the game in question is terrible, and the developers are trying to avoid decreased sales by limiting the negative coverage. It’s damage control, essentially. In this instance though, I think Ubisoft’s excuse might have been genuine. Even for someone like me who isn’t interested in the MMO stuff, it’s easy to see how reviewing the game without that component active wouldn’t have given a fair representation of the whole experience.
What’s more surprising to me than Ubisoft actually telling the truth for once is how much fun the core gameplay is. In short, this is a very solid driving game with a huge, varied gameworld and a simple yet compelling progression system. I’m going to go into more detail than that, obviously, but if those things pique your interest then you could probably do an awful lot worse than The Crew.
What’s truly astonishing is the sheer size of the map, and how packed it is with racing and challenge content. I didn’t try and drive from one side to the other or anything quite so mental, but I imagine if you did you’d probably need to pack some sandwiches. After my six-hour playtime I’d unlocked just a fraction of the whole thing, and what I had available to me was so stuffed full of little icons it was almost intimidating. If you’re into racing games this is going to keep you entertained for a good long while.
Unfortunately, I’m a busy man and I don’t have too much time to spend playing one single game. So I was primarily interested in the story content – though not for the story itself, which is very typical of the genre – and how it would fare when approached with single player in mind rather than the titular Crew-based approach. I’m clearly not far enough into the game to give a proper impression, but what I’ve seen so far has ranged from excellent to slightly above average and never really slipped below that. For one thing the sheer diversity of the world keeps even basic A to B races interesting; the player has access to a compressed version of the entire continental United States, from built-up urban areas to mountainous regions, deserts and snowy hillsides. And probably all kinds of other terrain I haven’t seen yet. Not to mention a pleasing day/night cycle and lots of indigenous wildlife. At one point I was involved in a multi-car pileup after a whole family of deer bolted across the road and I swerved violently to avoid them. At another I got slammed off a highway, and when I landed in the shade beneath the road there was a fox just stood there judging me.
It also helps that the story missions are varied in and of themselves, with plenty of different race types and scenarios. Nothing is revolutionary, but you never feel as though you’re doing the same thing over and over. Even if you did, there’re a whole host of skill games to take part in as you drive from one place to another. These are very simple to play but difficult to ace, and they’re your primary access to better performance parts for your vehicles. Most don’t last longer than a minute, and can be tackled as you’re on your way to the next mission. As some plot-specific tasks later in the game can (apparently) take up to two hours to complete, I really appreciate this kind of contrast.
My biggest fear for the single player component was that it was going to be sabotaged in order to encourage team play, but so far that doesn’t seem to be the case. Each mission has a difficulty rating and a recommended car level – this isn’t a restriction, merely advice. You can attempt them with any car you like, but you’re much more likely to be competitive if you equal or exceed the recommended level. Other than that, I haven’t come across any restrictions on the main content (unless they were story-specific, such as using a car modified for dirt racing). Raising your car’s level is a simple matter of unlocking better performance parts, which come as rewards for completing other missions and earning medals in the skill games. It all feels very organic, and I haven’t had to do any grinding just to reach a certain level requirement. My progress has been pretty much non-stop, and the difficulty seems nicely balanced for solo driving.
What’s quite unique about The Crew is how you never feel forced to keep purchasing new cars. I’m still winning races with my initial motor, and the progression system is designed to allow for that – actively encourage it, even. Your car is your avatar, in this case. You find one you like, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping it for the whole game (potentially). Certain missions do force you to use specific vehicles, but there’s nothing wrong with that either. It doesn’t affect your primary car and most of them are lots of fun to use. At the end of the mission the one-off car disappears and you simply go back to what you were using.
The upgrade system is incredibly simple. Higher-level parts increase the level (and attributes, obviously) of your car. That’s really all there is to it. This strips away all the really intense modification of games like, say, Gran Turismo 6, but maintains the compelling feeling of constant progression and improvement. The satisfaction one gets from a high-level weight distribution system is no different to how great it feels to find a particularly powerful sword in a fantasy RPG. The carrot and stick approach is pretty universal, after all.
Improving your vehicle in turn improves the handling, which was my biggest issue with The Crew during the first couple of hours. This is an arcade-style racer through and through, and cars feel very light. The game is quite lenient with how much collisions actually affect you (anything short of a head-on smash won’t have too much impact) but it was still a noticeable problem for a while. Levelling up does help though, as did (for me, at least) using the cockpit view. Now I’m far enough into the game that my car feels more like a car and less like an aircraft I’m noticing it less and less, but there’s still some room for improvement and fine-tuning of the sensitivity and deadzones. I don’t think it will ever feel as precise and satisfying as Driver: San Francisco did, but it isn’t a deal-breaking problem.
There are some problems though. Requiring an online connection even for solo play still seems like a silly idea, and even though nothing ever dropped out for me I can imagine it would be a major annoyance if it did. Likewise the ever-present threat of solo missions becoming too challenging or, more likely, walled off behind increasingly ludicrous requirements is still something that could crop up further down the line.
I’ve also come across some instances of weird physics – nothing as severe as falling through the road or getting stuck in the world geometry, but being bounced around like a pinball is a bit irritating. I’m not sure what causes this and it doesn’t happen all the time, but it occurred frequently enough that I felt it was worth mentioning.
There are micro-transactions, but they’re tucked away behind a currency I haven’t had cause to use yet. I can’t really comment on that aspect at the moment other than to say micro-transactions have absolutely no business being in a AAA game that retails for £60, but I’ve said that before.
The UI is really cluttered. This might just be a personal issue so I’m not devoting too much space to it, but there must be a more efficient way of displaying information than throwing it across the middle of the screen in big fussy windows. I think some layers can be turned off, but not enough for my liking. I’d be happy to see that altered with a patch sometime in the future.
Overall though, The Crew seems to be pretty great. I’ll definitely be following up with some more thoughts as my tour of America continues, and I won’t go so far as to recommend the game just yet, but this seems like a step in the right direction for Ubisoft after the whole Assassin’s Creed: Unity debacle and the fact Uplay exists. Oh, I wasn’t forced to sign into Uplay either, so ten out of fucking ten in that case.