The Crew is a game where you race cars, but it is not a car racing game. Car racing games are about outsmarting opponents on an even playing field. They’re about collecting new cars and learning their unique traits, choosing the right one for each event. They’re about sportsmanship and speed. The Crew is a game about bragging and about being the very best or nothing at all. It’s a tedious experience more concerned with keeping the player busy than with making sure any of that activity is enjoyable.
There’s also an overbearing story about an ex-con infiltrating a smuggling ring in order to track down his brother’s killer. Alex, the protagonist, is self-assured while crime bosses keep putting him in positions where he is expected to be some all-powerful God of the road. That narrative is often at odds with the racing itself, as computer-controlled rivals can easily out-drive the player. They’re able to turn on a dime without losing any velocity, while nearly every car Alex has access to controls like a sack of potatoes on wheels, toppling out of control with each slight misstep. Only after sinking several hours into winning races and upgrading your cars does driving come anywhere close to feeling reasonable.
But those first few hours are a slog, and they do little to hide The Crew’s technical shortcomings. Non-racers on the road will swerve around computer cars but not the player. Freight trains will plow right through active races, not as an exciting obstacle but simply because the trains are set according to the game’s clock and have no regard for when they’re completely blocking a time-sensitive path. Rivals that need to be run off the road are locked to pre-programmed guidelines, such that if the player gets ahead of them and hits the brakes, the other racer will continue to slowly press into Alex’s car rather than back up and go around him. Each of these instances, among many others, suggest that The Crew is interested in crafting a lively and active world, but it does so without considering the player’s experience.
It often seems as though the game is designed to make Alex an underdog, with his opponents only slowing down at predetermined choke points for him to shoot ahead as the unlikely hero. More often than not, succeeding in these races feels more like a matter of luck than skill, which does little to instill a sense of accomplishment. The Crew seems intent on taking as much control away from the player as possible. No amount of training and tuning your cars matters when about one in five races puts Alex in an unfamiliar ride and says, “Go, go! Do the thing!” It doesn’t matter if your street-tuned car can outperform the other racers when the game arbitrarily decides that you need to go off-road to cut them off, because it crafts a better story.
And then there are the police. Police cars in The Crew are impossible hell-demons who laugh at the laws of physics and nature. They are immoveable tanks that, once hit, will occasionally freeze the player on the spot. They can pass through one another in a spectral phalanx of law-enforcing terror. They can see through walls to know exactly where you are, even if you’ve been behind a house since before they turned onto the street. They can somehow drive sideways. And then, sometimes, when there are six cop cars and two police helicopters on your tail, you’ll cross a bridge and they’ll all just stop, because they’ve suddenly lost interest. Police are complicated like that.
The game’s world is huge, and the map is cluttered with activities. It is sometimes easy to get lost among the hundreds of opportunities for street races, but The Fast And The Furious-inspired story keeps creeping in to remind you how little faith The Crew has in you to figure things out on your own. In the span of five minutes, I had three different contacts tell me to get out of Brooklyn and set up a new operation in Miami. I get it, The Crew, the next story mission is a sightseeing tour away, but it’s more than a little suspicious when the shady criminal boss, surrogate father figure, and unhelpful FBI handler all have the same suggestion.
The game is adamant about making players explore new territory and expand their horizons, and with good cause. The open world of The Crew is far and away the game’s most impressive feature. Dense cityscapes are contrasted with vast cornfields, rough-and-tumble quarries, and mountain ranges, offsetting the expansive stretches of interstate asphalt. Hidden car parts and satellite dishes provide motivation for going off-road and exploring forests, swamps, and other unpaved landscapes. Skill challenges litter the highway, giving players opportunities to level up and earn new car parts while otherwise driving long uneventful distances between story missions.
Those intermittent challenges prove to be an important part of the game and more than just a way to liven up your trips. They’re the fastest and easiest way to gain experience, money, and new parts for your rides. They also beg to be repeated endlessly, as each part won in a challenge is tethered to the car used to win it. Every time a new car is bought—or even rebuilt to a new specification—all those parts need to be earned all over again.
With so many obstacles in the path of progression, The Crew does offer one major boon to help players get a leg up on their competition: the titled “crew.” Players can invite other humans to join them in any mission at any time, and as long as one real-life player crosses the finish line first and nobody gives up, everybody reaps the benefits of a first-place rank. This feature is a godsend and creates a sense of camaraderie among total strangers who might choose to stick together and tackle several missions, helping one another out—or some random player you don’t know might lead a train of cop cars straight into your headlights while you’re in the middle of a speed run. The latter proved more frequent for me.
That unpredictable element of other players entering your game to either help or hurt you is at times exciting, but it also raises the most frustrating flag against The Crew: It requires an online connection. There is no option to play offline, despite every activity having a solo-play option. If Ubisoft’s service is down, your platform of choice’s network is down, or if you have spotty Wi-Fi because the neighbors are torrenting Game Of Thrones again, The Crew won’t even get past its title screen.
The online requirements and tedious opening hours pose an unfortunately high barrier to entry. When The Crew finally opens up and lets players loose, there are some great ideas at play. Cruising the open roads, exploring the continental United States, and picking up challenges along the way can be captivating. Building up the cars that make any of that adventure worthwhile, sadly, takes hours of joyless repetition, along with the Herculean task of not throwing your controller every time a gentle tap causes your car to spin out wildly and get stuck on a parking curb. There’s a game here that wants to be played. It’s just buried beneath a game that wants nothing to do with you.
Developer: Ivory Tower, Ubisoft Reflections
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4