It’s been a mixed year for racing game fans on the PlayStation 4. While DriveClub has had some difficulty getting started, 2014 also saw The Crew being delayed. After a brief polishing session, the game is now on store shelves. Has it been worth the wait, are all we all better off waiting for the inevitable Gran Turismo 7?
I Didn’t Ask for This
Generally speaking, you don’t play a racing game for the story. Ubisoft took a nod from Need for Speed: The Run, and attempted to tell a mature story revolving around cars. While the cutscenes are pretty impressive from a graphical standpoint, the story falls flat. You play as Alex, a rather lifeless character whose brother gets killed early on. It’s a basic revenge story, with the FBI giving you an awful lot of freedom with little reason. Your goal is to take down a corrupt cop and the 5-10 gang, which has devolved from an illegal street racing club into a major mafia-like organization. You have to work your way up within the gang in order to somehow gather enough evidence to put the leader of the whole gang and the corrupt cop in jail. Thankfully, if you don’t care at all about the story, the cutscenes are skippable, and you can focus solely on driving.
There are few experiences as American as the road trip. Our country is incredibly vast — at just under 3 million square miles (7.7 million square kilometers), and with much of it not too far from a major highway, there’s a certain sense of freedom that comes along with the ability to reach any other state whenever you want using only a vehicle and some cash. The Crew features 1,900 square miles of customized terrain inspired by the actual thing. So while technically this game features a small fraction of the real thing (about 0.64%, if you’re feeling nerdy), it is still a wonderfully large playground to roam around in. You can see most of the country’s tourist attractions in a single sitting, though it will take a few hours to get through if you’re driving.
The entire country is streamed in, as once you start driving there are no loading screens for as long as you are on the road. It’s impressive from a technical standpoint, even more so when you see people milling about and going on with their lives, jumping out of the way if you barrel towards them, occasionally calling the cops who begin to be on the lookout when you drive recklessly. The Crew is presented in full 1080p, and the vehicles you race in are detailed well enough. This isn’t at the DrivClub or Gran Turismo level of detail, but vehicles do have a respectable level of detail graphically. Unfortunately, the sound of each vehicle is rather generic, and the horns are woefully inadequate.
What good is a huge virtual playground if the driving sucks? Thankfully, newcomer developer Ivory Tower is filled with vets of the racing game genre, and it shows here. The game’s handling lies somewhere between arcade and sim, though you can play with the settings and turn on the “Hardcore” handling mode which, combined with a USB steering wheel, should provide for a decent sim-lite experience with the game’s fully rendered cockpit mode. Otherwise, the handling feels a little light, but it’s perfect for drifting around corners and slamming into your opponents. There’s a damage model for the cars, but it only momentarily affects your driving, as these vehicles are something straight out of sci-fi land and slowly heal themselves as you drive cleanly.
The garages that you upgrade your vehicles in play host to some cool Transformers-like experience, when you upgrade a car and its parts explode out so that you can see the part you are looking at in more detail. Each vehicle has rather arbitrary stats such as acceleration, braking and handling, but also legit stats such as BHP and torque. While there’s no hardcore tweaking such as camber adjustments or ride height, you can acquire Spec kits to deck out some of your rides for Street, Dirt, Performance, or plain ol’ Full Stock based on which event you are going to participate in. The game will automatically choose your highest-level car with the proper Spec when you enter a race, so there is no worry of going into a Dirt event with a Performance vehicle.
There are several event types in The Crew, including races, checkpoints, getaways, takedowns, Crew Missions, and more. Scattered throughout the 1,900 square miles of terrain are also Skill events, which are triggered when you simply drive through their logo. These short objectives task you with performing various challenges, from keeping your speed up while staying on the road, to impromptu slaloms and mini checkpoints. You get graded based on your performance; Bronze, Silver and Gold, with accompanying rewards. Your vehicles will level up as your driver level does, and they will increase in performance pretty quickly. The getaway and takedown missions leave a disappointingly grating feeling, however. The game’s AI is too aggressive, frequently pinning you in the middle of an open field with pinpoint precision. These modes feel like gambling, because after a couple of retries you simply make a turn you didn’t see before, and suddenly your pursuers lose sight of you entirely.
Endurance is Required
I have to say, the endurance events, dubbed Crew Missions, are actually a lot of fun. These are events unlocked about halfway through the campaign, and although their name may not imply it, they are long races – anywhere from one to two-and-a-half hours. They’re simple checkpoint races, but are so vast you don’t see the same location twice during the mission. In any given Crew Mission, you’ll race through the Grand Canyon, barrel down mountainous terrain, take a slog through the swamplands of The Bayou, and hit the nitrous through quaint suburbs. I did have to use turbo for basically all of the race to keep up in 2nd place, because my 2013 Nissan 370Z was not at a high enough Dirt Spec level to keep up a high top speed, and third place racer was breathing down my neck for the silver medal the whole time. This is a race event that you really have to devote your attention to, or else risk losing at least an hour of your time.
We live in an always-connected world. At least, that’s what we like to think. The truth of the matter is that home internet access, while pretty ubiquitous, is highly susceptible to outages. If you’re ever offline in The Crew, you will get booted out from wherever you are. Stay inactive for too long, and when you come back you’ll find that you’ve also been booted off, likely to reduce the load on the game’s servers. It’s a shame that even to play the campaign missions solo requires an active internet connection. The Crew calls itself an MMO, but it mostly plays like a single-player game while you grind to unlock new parts and vehicles.
The game does place heavy emphasis on its slogan of “Never Drive Alone,” because as you begin each mission, your choices, in order, are Co-Op, Solo, and Wiki App (to learn about the event type). But the only thing that changes is that if any player wins the race or event, you all share in the spoils. The marathon Crew Missions reward you with the most money and experience points, but you’ll need some good friends to commit to that kind of time driving without interruption. What happens if nature calls and you need to take a bathroom break? Or someone in your house needs your help? There is no pause option once you take the events online, and in that respect, you have to treat this game like an MMO. The online nature of The Crew is appreciated, but the required connection can be a drag if you’re offline.
Open Race Season
If you’ve been clamoring for a new open-world racer the likes of which we haven’t seen since Burnout Paradise, I am happy to report that The Crew fits the bill. A mixture of MMO and arcade-sim racing, you better ensure you have a steady Internet connection, or else face frustration. Hopefully a patch in the future will enable offline play, because to see all of the game’s terrain will take a long time, perhaps even longer than Ubisoft will keep the game’s servers online. All of the United States’ major landmarks are here and wonderfully detailed. Vehicles’ handling lay somewhere between arcade and simulation, though you can tweak this. Online play is very rewarding, but is over-emphasized at times. With such a massive world to explore, and an addictive leveling system, fans of this genre will be busy for months to come.
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