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Let’s face it, 2014 was a mixed year for Ubisoft. While the French game developer shipped some standout titles, including Valiant Hearts, Far Cry 4 and South Park: The Stick of Truth, it was also guilty of committing several gaming sins — chief among them Assassin’s Creed Unity and Watch Dogs. The former was a sprawling, gorgeous world ruined by countless bugs and glitches and achingly long loading screens. The latter suffered under its own hype, ultimately delivering a watered-down version of what Ubisoft originally promised.
However, neither of those games were bad, per se and they still rewarded the player for sticking with them. I was almost able to forgive the company for its shoddy quality control. Almost, until I received my copy of The Crew, a game I’d been eagerly waiting to play since it debuted last year. By the end of my time with it, Ubisoft had no excuses left. The Crew is a botched, inexcusable disappointment.
In many ways, The Crew is a spiritual successor to Test Drive Unlimited, a massive, online racing game on Xbox 360 that let players race with their friends and strangers across a giant island world, in a variety of exotic and incredible cars. How does one expand on such a concept? Simple: give players an entire country to race across. Yes, The Crew picked the continental United States as its setting — and it’s an incredible, condensed highlights reel of this great nation. Players can start in Los Angeles and end an hour or two later on the other side of the country in Miami or New York City, and you won’t be alone. The Crew’s world is constantly connected, letting you race with three other people in your “crew” or with random strangers you encounter on the road.
In theory, that should make for a perfect racer. Huge variety in locales and racing courses, a myriad of people to compete with and taking three of your friends with you into automotive combat? Yeah, that sounds like a game I really want to play. And then I actually did, and everything fell apart.
First impressions count and The Crew certainly opens in bombastic fashion. It launches players into a mission that involves escaping cross country from the police in a Ford F-150 Raptor. Thundering over bumps and through swamps, crashing into barriers and evading the numerous squad cars chasing your vehicle, you’ll get to grips with The Crew’s floaty, arcadey driving style and busy UI. Once it ends, however, you’ll be introduce to one of the game’s weakest points: its garbage plot.
If you’ve ever played a Need for Speed game, or watched a Fast and Furious film, or absorbed any poorly written, car-related media, you know what’s on the menu here. Players control Alex Taylor, whose brother Dayton is the leader of the 5-10 motor club. Dayton is murdered in the game’s opening scenes and Alex is arrested as his suspected killer. Five years later, he’s let out of jail by FBI agent Zoe, who wants his help in catching the new leader of the 5-10s, now involved in various illegal activities, and the crooked FBI agent aiding the club. It’s an awful premise, with awful writing, and has numerous plot holes and illogical inclusions. The most egregious is Alex “scaring” 5-10 members by racing them and winning, which somehow means they’ll gladly leave their area and never return. These guys trade in guns. Surely they’d just shoot Alex in the face after the race and get back to business as usual?
I could forgive The Crew’s weak narrative if the missions it inspired were suitably enjoyable. And at times, they are — there’s the usual lap races, checkpoint races and cross country dashes, but there are also additional missions intended to make the most of The Crew’s multiplayer aspects. These range from escaping police squads, to running a car off the road, to racing from hordes of angry 5-10 members.
With friends, these missions can be tough but fun. Working together, only one person needs to complete the objective for the entire group to win the mission. Three people can block the police or enemies, or slow down the escaping vehicle, while the fourth player escapes or rams the enemy from the road. However, what if you don’t have a crew to drive with? You’re out of luck. Playing The Crew without friends is one of the most frustrating, obnoxiously tedious experiences I’ve had in years.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the missions, it’s that Ubisoft has coded in AI that is punishingly unfair. Regardless of how powerful or strong your car is, the computer-controlled cars will always be faster and tougher. Normal races have extreme examples of “rubber-banding,” where AI cars will speed up or slow down at illogical rates to keep them within a certain distance of the player. Countless times I’d spend a race stuck in second, as the lead car kept an impossible pace, until the last checkpoint or lap when it would suddenly slow down and provide a chance to overtake.
It’s the evasion missions, however, that are just ludicrous. Either the police or angry gang members will be chasing you, and without a crew to help out, you’re a fish in a barrel — except the barrel is filled with landmines and the water is leaking out. Enemies are absurdly overpowered, with their sedans or SUVs able to bring you to a crashing halt, regardless of what you’re driving. They’ll execute perfect PIT maneuvers, set up roadblocks and chase you in ever-increasing numbers. What’s more, the police draft in helicopters, making it almost impossible to outrun them for long enough to let the achingly long timer tick down until they give up the chase. No matter how fast you travel, enemies will often keep up — yes, that 200+ mph supercar can be easily bested by a Ford Crown Victoria. On top of that, the game will happily spawn enemies in front of your car, making evasion a complete game of luck. And to further rub salt into a wound, when enemies take you down, you’ll have a limited time to get away before the mission fails. When I say limited, I mean three seconds, max. It’s punishing on a whole new level, and I can’t quite believe Ubisoft let this into the final game as is.
Perhaps, then, things could be easier if you had a better car? Well, there are two ways of doing this. The Crew works like a racing RPG, with your car given upgradeable stats and attributes which can be customized and changed at whim to improve speed, acceleration, strength, braking and more. It’s a simple system — your car has an overall score, and adding new and better items increases that number. Winning races and random events unlocks new items, while your car can also be customized to fit several classes, such as sports, dirt and race, which alters its attributes and allows it to better compete in certain regions and race types. The customization is deep and slickly animated — cars will blow out, fit the new parts, and then screw themselves back together in your garage — and it really makes a difference to your vehicle. Initially, that Dodge Challenger will feel sluggish and heavy. After a few hours, you’ll be throwing it around America’s roads with aplomb.
However, rather than upgrade your current car, you could always buy a new one. It’s here that The Crew rears another of Ubisoft’s awful traits which have crept into several games: pay-to-win. Yes, in addition to dollars, which can be won by completing races and events and multiplayer matches, you can also buy — with real money — “Crew credits” that can be exchanged for any number of vehicles. Ubisoft has deliberately balanced the game in favor of buying vehicles with Crew credits, as making the hundreds of thousands of dollars some cars cost requires spending dozens of hours grinding through races and multiplayer events. Why waste all of that time when you can spend money and unlock a McLaren 12C right from the start?
Do that, and you’ll instantly gain a lead in one of The Crew’s supposed selling points, its multiplayer races. Once you’ve unlocked multiplayer, you’ll be asked to pick a faction and compete in races as a representative of that faction. Win races and events and you’ll increase the daily income you receive as a faction member. Unfortunately, multiplayer is another undercooked area of the game. It’s unfairly balanced towards whomever has the most powerful car in any race — if you jump into an event and easily win, you then get to choose the next race and track. If you know you can win, you can keep choosing the same event and keep winning in your overpowered vehicle, until everyone else quits or someone finally beats you.
Of course, that’d require you to actually make it into a multiplayer event. For a world so devoted to being online, The Crew’s world is worryingly sparse. Players congregate in major cities, and even then there are relatively few of them. Jump into a multiplayer race and you’re more likely to be kicked back out after ten minutes of waiting because the game couldn’t find players — this happened multiple times as the game desperately searched for players who clearly weren’t online or had no interest in playing multiplayer races. This carries through to story missions and races. In the absence of a crew, players can choose to invite random strangers into the mission to help them defeat someone or offer a new dynamic to a race. I have to ask: why would you ever want to? The few times someone accepted my invitation (again, nobody seems interested in the multiplayer in this multiplayer game) that person had no interest in communication and proceeded to try and beat me, rather than work with me to defeat the enemy or win the race. Indeed, one racer was so rabidly intent on winning a race that he tried to ram me off of the road — it failed, spectacularly, sending us both crashing into a wall. I instantly pressed the reset button, my car jumped back onto the road, and I sped off towards the finish line. Single player may be frustrating, but playing with others isn’t much better.
Really, frustration best describes The Crew, because beneath the barren multiplayer, obvious pay-to-win elements and awful AI behavior, lie the solid elements of a good game. When the game got out of my way and let me simply drive across America, it was wondrous. I started in Detroit, wound my way over to Chicago, travelled through the snowy midwest and then south to Vegas, the Strip glowing in the distance as the sun set behind the Rockies. After exploring Sin City, I moved north and across the Rockies, through dense, towering forests, before reaching California and Los Angeles, hitting Venice beach as the sun rose behind me. It was utterly glorious — and driving across the nation with a group of friends is a wonderful experience. Similarly, the skill missions which dot the landscape — tasking you with driving through barriers, making epic jumps or sticking to a specific driving line — are often more enjoyable and a better challenge than the main missions.
Even with its many shortcomings, The Crew can’t escape the feeling that it’s a game which should have launched a few years ago. Car models — which bizarrely include vehicles from the mid-2000s, that have been updated since the game was announced — are of a lower quality than its racing peers Forza and Driveclub, as is the rest of the world. Density of objects is high, but the detail of individual textures and buildings is surprisingly low, while the cars populating the world are laughably generic (complete with opaque glass) — though some, randomly, are name-brand models, such as Ford’s Explorer. Its scale is mightily impressive and worthy of applause, but when you look closely at The Crew, it doesn’t quite stand up as a current generation game.
Ubisoft teased The Crew as a fun, action-packed, heavily customizable racer. What they delivered was an empty, underwhelming variation on racing games we’ve seen countless times before. At its heart is a solid idea — a giant map of America free from loading times and featuring a stunning variation of racing opportunities — but it all comes crashing down under a truly terrible plot, punishingly unfair AI, and an underutilized multiplayer component. The Crew is at its best when the game gets out of your way and lets you drive (but even then, it’s still not as rewarding as its peers). Like Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity, The Crew is yet another lesson in incredible ambition being ruined by woefully inept game design. Except this time, the underlying game isn’t good enough to redeem it.
The Crew (}}) retails for $59.99 and is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Xbox 360.