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Hands On: The Crew

November 13, 2014, Author: Matt Best

If you’ve ever sat with a country road extending ahead of you and wanted to just drive as fast as you could until the police or a rogue corner stopped you, then The Crew may just be the thing you need. Originally slated for release this week, Ubisoft decided it best to delay it until December 2 and run a second Closed Beta instead. Ubisoft’s presentation at E3 was impressive, but does The Crew deliver on that promise? The quick answer: it depends on what you’re looking for.To be honest there’s nothing utterly groundbreaking with The Crew. The story is standard fare as you infiltrate a rogue gang, working your way through the ranks and levelling up by winning races, checkpoint runs, and other such activities. The twist being you have the option of completing these events either solo or with your online ‘Crew’. You have access to a number of vehicles that can be upgraded to improve performance, and personalised as your tastes desire. Pretty much par for the course when it comes to modern driving games.

Nothing says Next Gen like a well groomed beard

Nothing says Next Gen like a well groomed beard

Don’t take the above criticism to mean I didn’t enjoy the experience though: I had an absolute ball. On the simulator/arcade spectrum, it sits somewhere in the middle, leaning slightly towards the simulator end. It’s certainly no Gran Turismo, but it’s no Mario Kart either. Drivers can choose their degree of realism, from ‘All Driving Aids On’, ‘Sports Mode’, or ‘Hardcore’. Personally I found driving with all aids on a bit sterile. The best experience was Hardcore, which allowed you to slide around corners on the limits of traction and feel a real sense of satisfaction when you made it through unscathed. Even though it’s not 100% realistic, and sometimes too forgiving, there’s still a lot of fun to be had.

The handling reminded me of Driver: San Francisco, although the cars in The Crew felt considerably more ’weighty’. My car of choice was the 2010 Camaro SS and it felt every part the US Muscle Car. Big, throaty exhaust noise and solid stability consolidated this feeling, and getting airborne over crests was a very satisfying experience as your car lands with a confident thud and powers away. I looked forward to every crest with joy. Switching to the Nissan 370z presented a car that, although still quick, felt lighter and more twitchy – just as you would expect it to be in reality. Despite not being a true ‘simulator’ there’s still enough differentiation between vehicle models to matter. Being able to do a few laps around a test track allows you to make a more informed purchasing decision.

Just an early morning drive to blow out the cobwebs

Just an early morning drive to blow out the cobwebs

There’s also some aspects of the experience that are nice inclusions. For example, when free-driving, the route to your waypoint is presented as a blue line hovering above the road ahead, instead of requiring you to keep one eye on the mini-map for directions. The light on the Dualshock 4 controller is used to good effect, especially when being pursued by the police, alternating between red and blue. Additionally, police radio communications are delivered in the accent of the region in which you’re driving, which I found to be a surprising touch. Your camera direction is easily managed using the right thumbstick, and when you’ve got full steering lock on, your head automatically turns towards the direction you want to go – just as it would do in real life. Although not part of the core gameplay, these features are nice, well thought out, touches.

What is impressive is the scale of your playground. Granting you access to the entire continental United States, it was great to take to the open road and see where you ended up. I took a road trip from Detroit to Las Vegas and was constantly impressed with what I saw as I drove through the Midwest, then a snowy Yellowstone, and finally through Death Valley. Having recently been to Vegas it was great to drive down The Strip with a sense of ‘I know that place’. I have no doubt that the other areas of the US I’m not so familiar with are just as faithfully recreated.

It's Vegas Baby!

It’s Vegas Baby!

For the sake of completion I also set off on a reverse Cannonball Run from Santa Monica to New York. You would think that such a lengthy trip would become boring fast, but overall the drive took less than an hour, and the changing scenery and passing towns always presented something to grab my attention. The environment is well populated and you never know when you will find yourself buzzed by a crop duster or having to dodge wildlife such as errant bison.

In true Ubisoft fashion, the world is full of quick tasks such as speed challenges, slalom courses, and long jumps to gain further car upgrades and money. Anyone who has played the Assassin’s Creed games will know the feeling of telling yourself ‘I’ll stop now, right after I do that event one block over’, then finding another nearby event and, wow, before you know it, two hours have passed. The Crew seems to encourage you to explore and discover what’s around the next corner: and I have no problem with that at all.

Start spreading the news...

Start spreading the news…

It wasn’t all beer and skittles though. I found some of the events frustrating in their difficulty. I’m not sure whether it was because I playing on Hardcore or if it’s just the nature of the game. I completed some events with all of the driving aids on, and although I found it a bit easier as the car wasn’t as flighty, it did detract from the experience as it felt quite safe. The timing of checkpoint events is very tight, and there didn’t seem to be any rubber banding in races, which puts pressure on you to perform flawlessly if you are to have any chance of success.

Probably my biggest gripe was the apparent lack of consequence. You could drive recklessly, bouncing off other cars and objects and there was no cause for concern, despite being hounded by your handler Zoe that you needed to get to your headquarters for repairs. Your car would repair itself over time, unless you ploughed head first into another car: and then your car would merely reset, as good as new. Police also didn’t seem to bother you unless you were causing damage. Blast past a police car at 250 km/hr and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid, but bump into them or side swipe the armco and they would be on your tail calling for reinforcements. If you were unlucky enough to get busted, all you would be faced with was a fine, and then you just continued on from where you left off. I’m not sure if this will be different upon release, but I did find it detracted from this sampler.

It will be interesting to see how things play out come December. I’ve been on the fence in the lead up and was planning on waiting until the reviews came out before making a decision whether to buy it. Now that I’ve seen what is on offer however, I’ll admit to excitedly preordering my copy midway through the Beta. Sure the story is a bit of a cliché, and there’s not a great deal here that’s new, but it’s the most fun I’ve had playing a driving game in a long time.

The feel of the cars and the ability to explore an expansive map opens up a world of opportunity. I spent much more time just fooling around than I did completing any of the story missions, which to be honest weren’t a core aspect. I see great potential in getting a group of people together online and going on virtual road trips to wherever the wind takes you. On my drive to Vegas I stumbled across four other players in Yellowstone who were doing just that, and our paths continued to cross as we sped our way across the country.

Enroute to Vegas, with my companions never too far away

Enroute to Vegas, with my companions never too far away

The Crew won’t be to everyone’s taste due to it not being a true simulator, but I don’t think it really matters. As someone who finds circuit racing very boring and monotonous, the ability to just pick a direction, drive, and explore really appeals to me. I’m disappointed that the Beta has come to a close and can’t wait until the full release.

Did you have the chance to explore the world of The Crew during the Beta? If so, let us know your thoughts. Was it what you expected or did you find it to be an underwhelming experience?

The Crew is released internationally on December 2 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.