What do The Elder Scrolls V‘s Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V‘s Los Santos, Red Dead Redemption‘s Wild West, Forza Horizon‘s Colorado, Need for Speed: Rivals‘ Redview County and Far Cry 3‘s Rook Islands have in common? They’re all tiny, minuscule places in comparison to The Crew‘s recreation of the United States of America. Ubisoft‘s upcoming, next-gen Ivory Tower-developed “MMO-CarPG” may not contain an exact, 1-to-1 representation of the U.S.A, but with over 5,000 sq km of landmass to explore, even the largest of the aforementioned worlds could fit inside The Crew‘s map almost 50 times over. It takes approximately 90 minutes just to drive from coast-to-coast, and that’s while sticking to the straightest, on-road path available, in the fastest car available… we were able to go hands-on with the mammoth racer for even longer (about 2 hours) and barely scratched the surface.
Charly Bourget, product manager at Ivory Tower, joined the play session, guiding us through the ins and outs of the game before leading the (turbo) charge in both competitive and cooperative 4-player races. As alluded to, The Crew identifies more-so, in many respects, as an MMO-RPG title than simply a open-world racer with fluid social integration. All ‘Full Stock’ cars you acquire have up to a maximum of 5 tuning specs that you can customise your vehicle to fit within. The ‘Street Spec’, ‘Dirt Spec’, ‘Performance Spec’ and ‘Circuit Spec’ are self-explanatory, but then you’ve also got the ‘Raid Spec’, which features a full crash cage chassis, uprated suspension and transmission, skid plates, off-road tires and more, allowing you to drive practically anywhere with competence. In RPG terms, consider these your “classes”, with each offering unique specialities and advantages. Specific parts – treated like loot that are signified by level – are either won/earned through levelling up, or bought with in-game currency. Around 20 elements of your car’s make-up can be customised, 11 of which are performance based, falling under ‘engine and chassis’.
With over 40 cars included in the game, it does not seem that all 5 tuning specs will be accessible for every single automobile, because the total number of “evolutions” – as Charly evokes Pokemon in describing to us – sits at around 120. However, provided the depth of customisation we sampled, variety should not be an issue. And if you’re worried about potentially unfair match-ups, the team have nullified such insurmountable handicaps through, not only the level-based matchmaking, but also by level-locking upgrades; ergo, if you’re at level 30, you can’t equip a level 35 exhaust, instead being forced to send it to your HQ upon acquisition. This is especially relieving for those with concerns about the inclusion of microtransactions. On the topic of matchmaking, The Crew utilises a background system that intelligently cycles 7 other players in and out of your game world at all times, keeping the total online presence at 8 players consistently, and assuring that two whole crews can be formed and can interact with each other at any given time. Prior to accepting our “Crewmaster’s” invitation to party up, we were introduced to the 510’s – a street gang who’ve made their dubious reputation by smuggling drugs across borders, and dominating Detroit illegal street racing scene.
Story missions focused on the player’s infiltration, and eventual busting of the 510’s, tie together the entire experience and provide a plot for why the player character must traverse the U.S., starting in the Michigan capital, and ending in Los Angeles. Moving on, there was one final step before getting out on the open road – designating points to ‘Perks’. Another RPG-esque system, Perks enable boosts to a multitude of different aspects in respect to both performance and rewards, e.g., nitrous lasting 2 seconds longer, or 5% more cash earned from winning races. Finally, we’re ready to venture onto the streets of Detroit and beyond. Charly invites everyone to join his crew, which is as easy as pressing ‘Y’ at the prompt and confirming with ‘A’. From this point, he is for all intents and purposes ‘the host’, and whatever activity he marks on the map, we are given the choice to accept on our respective screens. Having played The Crew previously at EB Expo 2013, it’s clear after mere minutes that the controls have since been tightened up dramatically. Granted, every car has a unique feel, but regardless of that fact, the overall accuracy and realism in their steering was lacking in that previous build.
New code has also been implemented that ensures players are not stifled by constant crashes; how this is achieved is a matter of calculating intentions – if feedback suggests that a player was in the midst of pulling away from an unavoidable, although partial, collision at the last second, then the game will reduce the inevitable impact and ever-so-slightly guide the player-controlled car left or right from the victim’s, maintaining a significant measure of momentum. If collision is head-on, or there is no input to suggest the player acted to avoid impact, then an appropriately damaging and halting collision will occur. This is quite a smart, helpful system that is appreciated in a game where certain races become wild, sprawling affairs and enjoyment and general traversal could be severely curtailed by accidents in a traffic-heavy zone. Also noticeable is the intelligence of the A.I. Computer controlled vehicles are extremely reactive, and thus feel substantially more realistic than in any driving game that comes to mind. Much of the time, A.I. vehicles are stiff and non-responsive to their surroundings, at least to a certain degree.
In The Crew, vehicles will swerve to dodge a crash, and if you block the road, they will not simply stop and wait for you to move, or scrape against a wall in getting past the obstruction you have caused. These A.I. citizens actually care about their vehicles, rather manoeuvring skill-fully in what is the best, safest way around. Their reflexes are fast, almost as if another player is controlling them; it is extremely impressive. Pedestrians and animals will similarly work to evade your metal machine of destruction, although this tech has been seen in many games past and present. Racing in multiple physical conditions brings their own challenges, but racing at night also ups the ante, requiring more focus and deftness. In technical respects, there’s not much The Crew does that isn’t notable. We proceeded to make our way down to the swampy Bayou, before spending quite a bit of time in sunny Miami. Along the journey, we partook in a few of the 500 skill challenges strewn throughout, comprised of 8 kinds of skill games, earning medals and levelling up as we progressed. The skill games break up a long drive effectively and can become a real distraction in their own right, being fun and varied.
If you get caught up completing skill games (as I did) and your crew is sick of waiting for you to arrive at a race location, you can always tackle them solo at your own leisure. There’s never really any pressure to hurry, however, with missions launch-able from the invite overlay, and their locations able to be used as fast travel points. Speaking of, the only issue present is the level-up/completion notice element of the U.I., which pops up mid-screen without pause, causing you to effectively drive blindly behind it; we were assured this was a temporary implementation. Although there is plenty cooperation to be had – with even some skill games playable in tandem – PvP and Free-For-All missions keep the competitive edge high amongst friends. The Crew could revolutionise driving games for the future; its social/multiplayer functionality is non-obtrusive and fluid to an unprecedented level for a game of this type, its scope is clearly unmatched and, most importantly, it is immensely fun. We can hardly wait for more time with the title, and hope for a solid release date within Q3 to be announced shortly.