When it comes to recent racing games, the two ends of the quality scale are marked by the terrific Forza Horizon 2 and the terrible DRIVECLUB. And now, bringing up the middle, is Ubisoft’s The Crew, a flawed but somewhat fun open world, always online, arcadey racer made by Ivory Tower for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC.
Five years after your brother is killed by the leader of his car club, and you’re framed for it by a crooked FBI agent, you get sprung from jail and recruited to expose them both. Which, of course, you’ll do by driving fast.
Sound dumb? It is, and also kind of tiresome and inane after a while, though you thankfully can (and should) skip the cutscenes. Though the stupid story does set up a series of street and off-road races, as well as numerous challenges, which will test your skills as a driver.
It also makes The Crew sound like one of the last couple Need For Speed games. And, again, it is. What with the open world and street racing and all. And yes, you will be chased by the cops sometimes. Your cars even have rechargeable boost for those moments when you need a little more speed, a button to get you back on track, and even tracks with short cuts. Though this also has a bit of Burnout in it — since you’re often weaving in and out of traffic, and if you hit someone hard, it goes all Michael Bay/cinematic — as well as some missions that will have you trying to knock people off the road like someone who played Smuggler’s Run back in the day.
But The Crew also has some similarities to the Forza series by eschewing difficulty levels and instead utilizing a handful of assists that can change the feel of the steering considerably. Though you can’t set them individually, like you can in Forza, by setting the game to “Hardcore,” it turns off the steering assist, the automatic brake system, and traction control, while “All Driving Help” turns them all back on. But while doing this in Forza Motorsport 5 changes that game from a simulation-style racer to something arcade-ish, in The Crew, it just turns this from an arcade racing game with slightly touchy controls to what feels like a driving-centric action game.
What sets The Crew apart from those aforementioned racing games, though, is how it integrates its single-player, co-op, and multiplayer modes. Like the similarly open-minded shooter Destiny, this has online multiplayer and a story mode, but it also places the former on the game’s main map, while also letting you play the story events with or against other players if you prefer. You can even, if you want, form a car club with your friends, doing races together that pay off even more. Though while doing this is strongly suggested, it isn’t required. Which is why, in The Crew, people who’d rather compete against other people can do so, while those of us who don’t play well with other don’t have to.
Even cooler, while Destiny was sometimes undermined by letting other people invade your game — since they could jump into your battles and steal your kills — there’s none of that in The Crew. Sure, the streets have cars driven by real people as well as A.I ones, but in my time with the game, no one ever got in my way or prevented me from doing something I wanted to do.
Though The Crew does have the same irritant as Destiny in that, because of the online component, you can’t always pause the game when you want to. Or need to. Or have to because nature is calling and doesn’t like to be kept waiting.
The Crew also expands upon the idea of an open world racer by not just having you drive around a really big city, but a really big country: the good ol’ U.S.A. Granted, it’s not to scale, and aside from a few landmarks, a lot of it looks the same — New York City feels more New York City-esque than like the real thing, for instance — but it does open things up for some seriously long drives.
Thankfully, you can avoid many of those lengthy car trips because The Crew also does something open world racing games don’t typically do, but should. Rather than make you drive to every event, you can often just fast travel to them or even just start them right away. As a result, this doesn’t suffer from the tedium that plagues most open world racers, where you have to drive for ten minutes just so you can race for five. Unfortunately, this isn’t something you can do all the time, which is why, for instance, I had to spend ten minutes commuting from Detroit to St. Louis. Though you can sometimes avoid these interstate road trips by using the handful of airports and train stations around the map.
All of which makes The Crew sound like it’s mostly a fun racer. Unfortunately, it’s that “mostly” that’s the problem. For starters, while some of the street courses are twisty in a challenging way, not all of the events are all that eventful. Though most of the races are engaging point-to-point drives, with the occasional multi-lap contest thrown in for good measure, this also has some drag races, which are so simplistic that they’re stupid, while some of the off-road events (of which there are many ) feel awkwardly out-of-place in what is, for the most part, a street racing game.
There’s also a great inconsistency to your computer-controller opponents, some of whom seem to be experience drivers, while others seem to have just gotten their driver’s license. As a result, you’ll often find yourself winning one race with ease, only to have the next event be so difficult that you’ll have to redo it six or seven times, and even then only finish because your computer competitor crashed on the home stretch. Meanwhile, the numerous skill challenges, while engaging at first, get to be a bit samey and gimmicky after a while.
The Crew also has some odd tendencies and shortcomings. If you accidentally click the button to do a race as a multiplayer one instead of single-player, you can’t stop the game from looking for other people to race when you realize your mistake (though you can back out once it does find some). You’ll also occasionally get the “Wrong Way” message even though you’re going the right way, while the game annoyingly reverts the camera setting to the factory default whenever you come back after taking a break, even if you’ve changed it to a different viewpoint every time you’ve played.
As far the audio and visual aspects, while The Crew is not an ugly game by any stretch, it’s not that good looking, either. The PlayStation 4 version, for instance, looks more like something that’s only slightly better than a PS3 game. Similarly, the sound design isn’t all that notable, either, save for the music, which is just terrible. Thankfully, these are just superficial issues, and don’t have any bearing on the gameplay (especially since you can turn off the music).
The Crew also has a problem that’s so common these days that I just cut and paste this paragraph into every game review I do (and I’m getting kind of tired of it): some of the type is to small. Unless you sit really, really close to your TV — y’know, like your mama told you not to — you’ll have a hard time reading the numerous messages and menus.
When it does work well, though, The Crew can be fun, especially when you start skipping all the cutscene and fast travel whenever you can. But even then, this racer is only ever just good. And while that ain’t terrible, it ain’t terrific, either.