So in these early hours, I like The Crew a whole lot. But I can’t say for sure whether that’s because The Crew is a great game or because it’s part of a genre with too few games. Open-world caRPGs are few, far between, expensive to make, rarely as successful as they need to be, and exactly what I want to play when I play a driving game. It speaks volumes that the greatest open-world caRPG is still Midnight Club: Los Angeles, a 2008 game that understood the importance of personality as only Rockstar understands. Personality in the driving model (the fundamental gameplay of any driving game), and personality in the places you drive. There is no game that handles quite like Midnight Club: Los Angeles, and until Grand Theft Auto V, there was no open-world that presented Los Angeles with such ineffable Los Angelesness.
After the jump, we’re not just in Los Angeles anymore.
But as I hurtle through the early hours of The Crew, for the first time in years, I’m considering whether this might at last rival Midnight Club. You can’t help but notice that The Crew strongly resembles its parents. The developers are an amalgam of folks who made the Test Drive games and Driver: San Francisco. Here you can see the rural expanse of Test Drive and the activity-dotted cityscapes of Driver: San Francisco. From Test Drive, you’ll recognize the fast transportation where your car buys a plane ticket and gets conveniently dropped off at the destination airport; the collectible wrecks waiting to be discovered off the beaten path; the crazily generous tracks of advancement that pull everything ever forward and ensure you’re always advancing something; the “less is more” economy where you have five cars that matter instead of fifteen cars that don’t; the shrill insistence of reminding you you’re online and here are floating tags for distant players you’ll never interact with just so you don’t forget this is an online game, dammit. From Driver: San Francisco, you’ll find the quickly repeatable tasks threaded liberally into the city streets and back alleys; the affectionate pop culture challenges such as “Jurassic” (drive a green and yellow Jeep Cherokee ten miles on dirt roads) and “We Don’t Need Roads” (at exactly 88mph, drain a full tank of nitrous); the crazily imaginative challenges, stunts, and objectives; the sheer density of stuff to do in perpetuity and even repeatedly.
Since this is Ubisoft, what you won’t find is Driver: San Francisco’s smart writing. Wait, Driver: San Francisco was Ubisoft! How Ubisoft ever let such quality writing into one of their releases is still a mystery to me. But neither will you find Test Drive’s overbearing douchebag car culture vibe. Look to the Forza Horizon series for that, where it’s played in earnest (at least if you squinted, you could charitably figure Test Drive’s euro-douchebaggery was some sort of cheeseball attempt at irony). In The Crew, the narrative thread — threadbare as it is — that strings the campaign missions together is more akin to a Need for Speed game. Framed for murder, just out of prison, crooked cop, car gang criminals, work your way up the hierarchy of thugs, yadda, yadda, yadda. It’s a bit odd that you play Gordon Freeman in this story — seriously, take a gander at that protagonist — rather than the usual Paul Walker type, but it’s nice to play a driving game aimed at gamers instead of Fast and Furious fans.
The driving model is superlative so far. Assuming, that is, you change it from the default full assist mode. Furthermore, the default setting puts a dead zone around the steering, so you won’t get any responsiveness until you’ve moved the stick a certain distance from the center. I have no idea why these are the default settings, because the full assist mode robs the cars of any personality and the steering setting makes the driving feel loose and sloppy. What a terrible first impression, and without any incentive to change the driving model, what a terrible way to go through the whole game, which is what many people will do.
The Crew doesn’t have the technical chops of, say, a Forza, or Midnight Club back in the day. But some of the best open-world caRPGs fall short when you apply criteria like draw distance and polygon counts and texture resolution and all those things that are so often put at the forefront when videogame reviews talk about visuals. Which is a shame, since there’s far more to looking good than technical specs. Test Drive 2 was technically challenged, to say the least, but it was still an utterly gorgeous rendition of Spain and Hawaii. The Crew can look a bit rough, but it’s doing what it can to evoke concepts like “Midwest”, “Rockies”, and “the Vegas strip”. If you look too closely, there’s a kind of blandness to this presentation of America’s breadth. It’s not quite as bland as Need for Speed: Most Wanted, since there’s a clear effort to give different areas their geographic due. Whether it’s the preponderance of taxicabs in New York City or the conspicuous mesas around Las Vegas, at least The Crew is going through the motions. And these are places to drive through anyway. You can stop and admire the scenery when you’re stealthing around in Assassin’s Creed or shooting up the joint in Far Cry. But in The Crew, as in any caRPG, you’re barely a tourist. Every place on the map is something you’re move past, usually at high speed.
The traffic density is about on par with Need for Speed: Most Wanted. In other words, just enough to get in the way when it’s supposed to, but never enough to quite manage the sensation of driving on actual streets. Here again Midnight Club: Los Angeles reigns supreme. It doesn’t help if you’ve seen what Rockstar did with traffic density in the latest-gen update of Grand Theft Auto V. There have been moments in The Crew when the traffic stacked up admirably, but mostly, this is an America where car ownership is at a low.
There’s still plenty that can fall apart. I’m not convinced the online stuff is much of an added value, and it’s awfully wonky as Ubisoft apparently sorts out the requisite launch issues. The MMO-ness of it all can feel forced. So I can go to Miami as soon as the game starts, but all the activities are locked until I’m level 30? Why? The answer is because you’re not supposed to go someplace until you’re the right level for it, but feel free to do it anyway just to have a look around. When you do a race, the first option is to enlist other players to race cooperatively, against the AI. But my experience so far is that no one wants to race in someone else’s race. I’ve dutifully broadcast for players and in about thirty races, I’ve been joined maybe three times. And I’ve only ever seen two invitations. This whole idea of a PvE racing game might not be ready for prime time. At least this is wide open for playing with friends, but then we get to the whole issue of one friend being higher level than the other, so some races will be locked for some players. Oh well, I guess it’s back to the early Detroit missions until my friend levels up some more.
At first, I didn’t think an MMO loot chase would be a good fit for a driving game. But then I played The Crew for a while. I still can’t tell whether it’s a good fit, but good lord, is it effective. Here I am, looking for a better ECU, even though I have no idea what that is. Time was I didn’t know what pauldrons were either. And here I am, super pleased with my gold level nine gearbox, which adds 15 points to grip because it’s a gold item. Yep, I’m all “Aw, dude, four stam four strength gold gearbox? Aughhh! Level nine? Aughhh!” And check out the sweet differential I just won doing this random challenge. Too bad I’m not high enough level to use it yet. I’ll just keep it in my backpack for the time being and The Crew will helpfully remind me that I’ve unlocked it when I hit the right level. There’s a subversive genius in the way this model of the traditional RPG loot churn fits with car upgrades. Why didn’t someone do it this way before? Suddenly I care about car parts that provide teensy incremental improvements.
By the way, it’s worth noting that although The Crew is shot through with microtransactions, it’s not intrusive (I was seriously concerned after seeing the way Ubisoft mishandled microtransactions and companion apps and whatnot in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a game I was too disgusted to play for any length of time). Everything in The Crew has two prices, one for ingame dollars and another for “crew credits”, which are mostly bought with real world money. But there’s no nagging and no sense that certain things are locked behind the real world money. It’s just there as an alternative. So you can play the game, or you can buy your way around playing the game. I find that easy enough to ignore, mainly since I’m not minding the grind. After all, without a grind, there’s no joy at finding that gold gearbox.