Take a pinch of the multitudinous number of activities found in Burnout Paradise, a slice of story (a rarity for driving games) like Driver: San Francisco and a dollop of open-world antics from Fuel. Mix those elements all together and finish off with a topping of Test Drive Unlimited and classic Ubisoft open-world traits and you are left with The Crew.
Surprisingly, it is a combination of ideas and themes that works well together, though I wasn’t sold on things at first. When I played it for the first time, I thought the opening sequence was fantastic, a frenzied escape from the cops over fields, through fences, along highways and down back roads. It was scripted of course, yet some elements like a helicopter swooping low over your head or a pincer movement from the cops felt dramatic and impactful. It was only after this opening montage of hell-raising fun that things took a step back and the story took charge.
It was a bit of a slog to get through at first. You take charge of a middle-aged chap who looks like he could be your quirky maths teacher, but who actually gets framed for the murder of his gang boss brother. Or some such nonsense, before ultimately you return to action a few years later with an offer from a Fed to work undercover to bring down the gang known as the 5-10s from the inside while also uncovering dirty cop business.
In these early stages, I bounced in and out of the game. I wasn’t convinced by a very strange handling model which seemed to turn into a hardcore simulator when I tweaked some of the settings, and at first I couldn’t get to grips with the multiple layers of the game. Was I meant to be taking part in story missions? Mini-games (big jumps, slaloms etc) to earn credits and XP? Missions for the multiplayer factions? PvP races? Or should I just be exploring the wonderful landscapes of America?
These are problems that anyone who has played any recent Ubisoft open-world game would be familiar with. After bouncing back and forth with the game, I started to find a way to play which kept me entertained. I decided that I would work my way through the story missions bit-by-bit so I could unlock new car upgrade paths (you only get access to specific tuning types by progressing through the story). But I decided that I would be sure to drive to each new mission and explore the world while doing it. This way, I was also able to take part in the thousands of mini-games along the way which provided me with car upgrade parts and lovely money and XP. Fun was being had, and I was making progress through the story (not too engaging, but good enough to lead you around America) and taking in the sights along the eastern parts of the States. I could have gone wild and driven myself straight away from the starting city of Detroit over to Los Angeles, but I was keeping my routes largely in keeping with the story.
After a number of hours with The Crew, I started to realise that I was missing out on one of the key parts of the adventure…the online and co-operative aspects! The world is continually populated with other racers, some you might bump into as you drive around, but most you will find if you choose to complete a mission in co-op. You will be matched with another player and will be part of a Crew if you choose once the mission is complete and will be invited to join your buddy in any other activities they are taking part in. I had avoided this at first as I didn’t think it would be much fun unless I was playing with a friend, but it was nice and easy to take part in a co-op mission, and there is nothing wrong with leaving the Crew once the mission is over.
In all honesty though, I haven’t spent much time in co-op, I’ve preferred to get on with the meat of the game by myself. However, I did recently take to the PvP lobbies, while the match setup screen is a bit messy, and there were occasional issues with finding a game to join, there are some enjoyable modes. Apart from taking in the usual races (point-to-point or circuit), I had some fun with Crown mode. Somewhere on the area you are racing around is a Crown, if you touch the Crown you are the King and earn points…but you have to keep your timer filled by driving through clocks while avoiding being hit by an opponent and losing your Crown. It’s simple, but fun, yet I do wonder why it took until the July update for something like this to appear when the game came out last December.
As I said, I’ve been enjoying my time with The Crew in recent months, and it feels a bit more substantial these days than when I first checked it out at the beginning of the year. But I wonder why it has taken until now, and the forthcoming Wild Run expansion to really add some meat to the bones of the game. It will only be with the release of the Wild Run expansion that everyone will receive a big update which will add dynamic weather effects. I doubt they will be as stunning as what we see in DriveClub, but I can’t help but feel this is a game that has been hampered by being a cross-gen title. The new weather effects won’t be making their way over the Xbox 360 version from what I understand, a shame for them, but I really think that The Crew would have been a much stronger game from out of the box at launch if Ubisoft had focused on the current-gen machines instead of keeping the 360 faithful involved.
That’s just my two cents of course as I genuinely have been surprised at how much fun I’ve been having in the past few weeks with The Crew. I don’t know how long it might take for me to complete the story, but I’ll keep plugging away. What is surprising is that at the moment, if I want to play a racing game, I’ll choose The Crew over DriveClub without hesitation. That might change, but for now I am pleased to be making progress to clearing my gaming backlog with The Crew.