Games Review: The Crew (PS4, 2014)

When I downloaded The Crew onto my PS4, I was only able to play through a dense prologue before the game informed me that it wasn’t finished installing yet. There was nothing to indicate that an install was still going on aside from this screen with a percentage marker, no slowly-filling bar in or out of the game. It then took two entire days for the install to complete before I was able to continue playing the game. This significant speed bump set the tone for my experience with The Crew and things didn’t really improve from there.

The Crew has rather lofty ambitions. In attempting to capture the spirit of a really great cross-country road trip, developer Ivory Tower has built a fully explorable, open-world version of the continental United States. It’s jaw-droppingly ambitious and each area of the country’s five zones (West Coast, The Mountain States, The South, The Midwest and The East Coast) feel really different and fully realized. You can drive, uninterrupted, from one side of the country to the othe and it’s a surprisingly lovely drive. Each city and town you pass through, each highway you barrel down, each turn you take off the beaten path is well-designed and will take you somewhere interesting.

While far from an actual-size representation of the US, credit must be given to the dev team in creating a world that gels with the various racing mechanics on offer here. For example, the West Coast is made up of a series of endless freeways that are perfect for testing out high-end performance vehicles. The Mountain States are exactly that, filled with crests and valleys just waiting for you to come flying in with a properly kitted out truck and go bouncing off the landscape at inadvisable speeds. It feels like maybe some of the cities saw a little more love from the design teams than others – Los Angeles for instance, is exactly the sprawling megalopolis it should be. Having said that, they haven’t skimped on the detail even when you’re in the middle of nowhere – if you are familiar with the US, you should be able to find some visual clue that tells you where you are without having to look at the map.

I hinted at it above, but each one of the regions available all lend themselves to certain kinds of racing and you will need to change up your car’s build in order to compete properly. Tuning to Circuit spec, for instance, allows you to compete on the West Coast’s super-straight freeways. It’s this reliance on adaptability that lets The Crew move beyond it’s straight-forward racing game trappings and lets it become just about any kind of racer you want it to be at a moment’s notice. All you have to do is switch up your spec, and you’re playing a completely different kind of racer. No matter what build I tried, it all felt solid and well put together mechanically.

The other thing that Ivory Tower have done here is to implement one of the most well-crafted, easy-to-grasp upgrade systems I’ve seen in a racing game. Your car is given a Car Level that rises whenever you equip new parts. You win or purchase parts through competing in missions or specific challenges. Everything you equip will alter your car in a very specific way, like buffing your top end speed or steering, and all of those different modifiers are distilled into the figure that is the Car Level. It allows you to better pick and choose which parts you should be aiming for now to optimize your ride in the shortest possible timeframe and which you can leave altogether. It’s also useful for sizing up competitors – are they at Level 32 while you’re still at Level 12? Probably shouldn’t race them just yet. It feels like this system has been put together with people who prefer RPG’s in mind rather than racing game fanatics.

But this is where it all starts to come apart. Higher-end cars are ludicrously expensive to buy in game and the only way to earn any real cash is by grinding hard in PVP races. Money isn’t the only commodity in The Crew though – there are also Crew Credits which are far more valuable because you are required to spend actual money to acquire them. The game gives you a few to get you started, and to show you how valuable they are, but you’ll fritter them away pretty quickly. You can also use Crew Credits to buy Perk Points which unlock further buffs and abilities for your vehicle. You can accrue them by simply leveling up if you don’t want to fork out for a microtransaction. The thing is, by the time you hit the game’s level cap you’ll only be able to afford about a quarter of the available perks, no matter which way you slice it.

This rather irritating hindrance is the first of many issues that makes it feel as if The Crew doesn’t like the player very much. In fact, it often seems to be going out of its way to shit the player to tears. Lets start with the AI. It’s cheap and it’s not above cheating brazenly in order to get ahead of you. There’s also a Mario Kart level of rubber-banding happening – stacking it on a turn will see your opponent shoot off into the distance, only to slow to a crawl long enough for you to catch up. Just when you’ve closed the gap, and ignoring the fact that you are at the limit of your vehicle’s top end, they suddenly roar off again with a speed that would make Barry Allen sit up and take notice.

Collision detection is another major problem, with the result of any given crash apparently being decided at random. At one point I over-corrected and slammed into traffic at close to light speed and, rather than crumpling like an accordion, the car sort of jerked to the right and I cruised on without a scratch. In another example, I attempted to plow an opponent with enough savagery to bend their vehicle in half and instead I hit a small rock and went flying end over end into a nearby forest. This was just another of the many occasions when I found myself simply unable to run into an AI opponent – they duck and weave at the same moment you swerve toward them, veering out of your way as if able to read your mind.

While we’re talking about unfair advantages, sometimes when you crash your vehicle the screen will fade to black and you will respawn on the track already at speed, at approximately the spot where you pranged it. When this happens to your opponents they will frequently respawn a few hundred metres further on from where they bit it. Other times, they appear from the ether directly in front of you and, without any way to avoid the hazard, you just have to slam into them with the force of a comet hitting the earth and hope the physics engine decides it doesn’t count. Ironically, this is one of the most reliable ways to actually run into an opponent.

When you put all this time and effort into upgrading your car, only to have an AI vehicle many, many levels below you tell Chewie to punch it and abruptly disappear into the distance, it really takes the game’s excellent leveling and progression loop and sets it on fire. But believe it or not I actually prefer that scenario to some of the game’s race modes – especially Takedown missions, which are unbalanced and unfair in equal measure.

I’ve brought it up already, but Takedowns require you to run into a fleeing opponent to disable them. Sounds simple enough, but between the ridiculous rubber banding, psychic AI, dice-roll physics calculation and the fact that every opponent in this category drives a car orders of magnitude better than yours, this is far easier said than done. Add to this, in almost every case, Takedown missions force you to drive a different vehicle to your regular ride, one you’ve probably never driven before. One of these events in particular left me so so infuriated I had to turn the console off and walk away for an entire day before I was able to come back and try again. Again, why let me go to all the effort of upgrading a car of my own choosing only to force me into a beach buggy that handles like a bunch of logs rolling down a hill?

One of The Crew’s biggest selling points is that it is, at its heart, a multiplayer racer and playing with a group of other human players is a lot less painful than playing with the AI. Invite players into your group, they will be added regardless of where they are in the US and you can all fast travel to any location you need to go, you can spawn on them or you can all just cut the BS and jump right into a mission together. Simple, effective. Works a treat.

If you can get a game, that is. For an game that relies so heavily on its multiplayer and is always online, you can spend an awful lot of time just searching for other players. In fairness, the servers have been relatively stable when I have managed to get a game going, and the experience was quite rewarding, but you’ve got no recourse against a server error when it does pop up. Most of the time it’ll send you all the way back to the title screen and because the game is always-online, you won’t be able to get back into the game at all until the server corrects itself.

I’m flummoxed by this game. How did The Crew manage to create one of the most fully-realized, ambitious, explorable worlds I have ever encountered in a video game and then bury it under a mountain of problems that are easy to fix and even easier to avoid altogether? All told, The Crew is one of the most profoundly frustrating gaming experiences I’ve ever had. It’s got so much going for it; it’s a game with vision and scope, there’s an artisan’s attention to detail that pervades their entire game world but the extent to which so many fundamental design elements have been fumbled cruels whatever goodwill you have had towards it.

Review Score: 4.0 out of 10
Highlights: Incredible game world; smart upgrade system
Lowlights: Psychic, cheating AI; wacky physics; frustrating design
Developer: Ivory Tower
Publisher: Ubisoft
Released: December 2, 2014
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360


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David Smith

David Smith is the former games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.