The idea of a cross-country roadtrip seems to be a uniquely American one. The United States is a big enough, varied enough place that you can see a variety of different biomes, subcultures, cities and people without ever crossing an international border.
Despite a crime-focused story, that seems to be the basic idea that fuels Ubisoft’s The Crew. You’re dropped into the city of Detroit when the game starts and unlike so many other games that relegate you to one or two cities to drive around, you have the whole United States, miniaturized into something that makes it crossable without taking away the essences of those different places.
It’s too bad that almost nothing available in that space is well made or even fun to play.
Of all the times I booted up Ubisoft’s The Crew, I think maybe one or two of those sessions didn’t end in either a lost connection or a rage quit. That’s a literal, direct statement, not an exaggeration.
Cross Country Fun
The most painful part of The Crew isn’t the frustrating missions, irritating progression, or social elements – all of which we’ll get to – but rather how great the underlying system is in contrast to everything else.
This compacted nation that lays spread out before you is, in short, an awesome feat. There’s so much to see that you could never hit everything. I’ve been to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and I haven’t seen nearly all the sights the game has to offer. I’ve driven through the mountains, seen California’s redwood forest, and raced across the Everglades.
Everywhere you go, there’s something unique. The game manages to capture the look of each city it imitates. Los Angeles looks like Los Angeles, even down to many small details. I drove past and through a bunch of landmarks I’ve seen not just in real life but in Grand Theft Auto V as well. I couldn’t find Griffith Observatory, but I’ll forgive that for the greater breadth the national space offers.
Over on the East Coast, I had to chase a car thief through mining pits filled with giant dumptrucks and mining tools that I couldn’t find anywhere else in the game. It’s mind boggling to imagine the amount of work that went into just the creation of the assets that make up this digital world.
The open world runs like a dream, too. The game drops a frame here and there, but overall it runs well. Once you’re in the game, loading is fast. The Crew puts the fast in fast travel. Getting from New York to Los Angeles takes seconds once you’ve unlocked each location. You can even pick an event on the screen and fast travel to it or, even better, start the event from the menu. You’ll jump right to the cutscene and then into the event.
If you were to just stick to driving around in your first car, you might actually have a good time with The Crew.
But there’s an actual game here, and that’s where the problems begin.
A Quick Note About the Story
In a game like this, it’s not a surprise that the story is flimsy, but that word doesn’t even do it proper justice.
The characters, including the main character, are less cardboard cutouts and more paper glued to popsicle sticks. They fill out basic, stereotypical roles of ambitious criminals, psychotic jerks, scarred women, corrupt government agents, etc.
Not a single one of the characters is ever given any development. You play a character named Alex, voiced by Troy Baker – you might remember him as Joel in The Last of Us – in one of the biggest wastes of talent I can remember in a video game. He has a basic revenge plot that he doesn’t seem terribly invested in. He’s supposed to climb the ranks of what might be the most boring gang a crime game has ever seen. He faces off against the jerks I mentioned before and builds a support team.
In one instance, Alex meets a woman who used to date the guy he’s after. They go from strangers to teammates in an exchange that goes something like this:
PARKING GARAGE – NIGHT
INTENSE WOMAN is attempting to break into a car.
“I also know illegal stuff about cars.”
“I don’t trust you, but not because you came up behind me in a dark parking garage.”
“We should work together because of cars and also revenge.”
“I don’t trust you, but I’ll get into a car with you now.”
At least The Fast and the Furious is self aware and enjoying what it is. The Crew doesn’t seem to know it’s dumb, it’s just so busy being ultra serious about everything.
Behind the Wheel
Things don’t get better behind the wheel.
The cars themselves are simply not fun to drive for the most part. There are definite differences between cars, and I found the Nissan Skyline GT-R to be a far stretch more enjoyable than the 370Z. Generally speaking, though, the cars are hard to control. It’s not that they’re arcade-like or sim-like, they’re just not fun. In a game that is constantly demanding precision driving, the lack of precision is a frequent source of frustration.
Experimenting with other cars, too, is a hassle. While there’s a fair amount of cars – 20 or 25, roughly – anything beyond the few starting cars is incredibly expensive, especially when compared to the amount of money – which is literally called Bucks – you pull in for any events in the game. This is even worse when you take into account that any money you spend customizing your current ride can eat deeply into that bank account as well. Outside of missions with special conditions, chances are you’ll spend a huge portion of the game in the same car.
A few missions in, you get a pretty generous portion of the game’s microtransaction currency. It’s enough to buy some of the nicer cars, but not the supercars we’re all dreaming about. The price of the cars, combined with the ever-present option to spend some of your real money, makes it feel a bit like a free to play game that you just spent $60 on. Diving into multiplayer will net you more money, but that has its own issues.
The missions themselves are split up between things like participating in street races, taking down other drivers, and running from the cops; typical car combat.
Unfortunately, the AI is designed not to be consistent, but to be some version of “exciting.” What that means is that, if you get stuck behind, your opponent will be easy to catch up to. You’ll be amazed that you didn’t get left behind the first time it happens. But as soon as you catch up, your opponent speeds up as well. Even if your car level is well above theirs, though, it seems like their top speed is always just a bit above yours.
There were very few missions I was able to complete on the first try. Traffic would pop in unexpectedly, opponent AI would behave weirdly or just downright be uncatchable in the amount of time you’re given to pursue (until you figure out exactly which shortcuts the game thinks you should take). Cars that you just watched crash into a median will somehow be right on your tail moments later. I once got stuck, thanks to an overzealous cop, in an area that is normally fenced off and not meant to be driven in, but somehow a cop got in anyway.
This repetition also dismantles that cool, fresh open world I talked about before. Remember that fire you drove by at the beginning of that race? Well, it’ll be exactly the same the next five times you drive by it. As you do each race over and over, these elements meant to make the world feel alive end up making it feel like a gigantic amusement park ride lined with set piece events. It’s exciting the first time Jaws comes out of the water, but the second and third time it reveals itself to be routine and it loses most of the magic.
The constant encouragement and admonishment from the paper-thin characters only adds to the frustration.
As you complete these events, you’ll be rewarded with car parts – ECUs, differentials, brakes, exhaust, etc. This makes for what could be a really cool progression system that lets you tune the way your car drives. What it really ends up feeling like, though, is that your car is just +1 better than it was before. There’s no appreciable difference between the way it handles before and after the upgrades. They might as well just be +1 amulets and rings for all the real difference it makes. The number next to your car in the menu that results from all these plusses doesn’t seem to mean much, either. You can enter into a race against a Mini Cooper 20 or 30 points below your sports car, have a solid race without any major problems, and still feel like you won by the skin of your teeth thanks to the game’s focus on keeping races “exciting.”
Assembling your Crew
Make no mistake: The Crew is an MMO just like Destiny. We’re not strangers anymore to games connecting to home servers on boot-up, and that’s not a problem, but when you’re mid-race and your Internet connection drops, forget about finishing it – you’re back at the main menu.
If you can get a cooperative game going, it’s actually pretty fun to race with other players, but in my experience (over a week after launch) I often found that my game session has no other players in it. I would open a Quick Coop mission only to find it cancelling out due to lack of players. Getting a game going in PVP is even more difficult.
The game seems to be built around multiplayer, but difficulty connecting to other players makes it hard, if not impossible, to appreciate that idea.
When I step back and look at the whole product that is The Crew, it starts to feel like a bit of a scam.
There’s an enticing, gorgeous core of delicious, chewy nougat at the center of The Crew. It has a working engine filled with awesome sights. This was the main promise of the reveal trailers and, yes, on that, Ubisoft delivers.
The parts that make that promise worth investing in are either broken or badly made. The story is lacking at its best moments, populated by uninteresting characters without believable motives. Handling the cars feels like trying to hold onto a cat watching a laser pointer. The missions are frustrating in their best moments and simply rage inducing more often than not. The progression system adds nothing to the game but takes up an unreasonable amount of your menu and time. The pricing of cars and mission rewards make the game feel like it was built for to be a free to play title.
It feels like no one at Ubisoft played the game. No one stopped and asked if the game was fun. Or if they did, they knew what they had on their hands and released it anyway in hopes of recouping some of the money spent developing it. It’s hard to imagine how a game could go through so many beta tests and still be lacking in so many ways. If a second iteration comes along, as it most surely will, it might be a fun game if they have time to build off the working core. But who’s going to play it?
Disclaimer: We received a copy of The Crew for the Xbox One from the publisher. We played a large part of the campaign, explored the world, and made an effort to get into the multiplayer before writing this review.