As someone who doesn’t follow the racing genre that closely, it feels like it’s become a little stagnant of late. If you’re a sim fan you’re either waiting for the next Gran Turismo or Forza, or you’re picking up the yearly releases of the more specific franchises like Codemasters’ F1 games. On the flip side of things you’ve got those who are into more arcadey stuff, waiting for games like Need For Speed or, hopefully one day, another Burnout game.
There are surprises from time to time, DiRT: Showdown was one that sticks with me, but, for the most part, each series has become fairly established and cemented itself with its fanbase.
Fortunately, the next generation of consoles seems to have re-invigorated racing titles, much as it has done for pretty much every genre. While I think Sony’s Drive Club looks interesting for fans of sim racers, it was The Crew that really grabbed my attention when I first saw the trailer.
Luckily for me, it was also one of the game’s that I got to take a look at when I made my way round the game’s that Ubisoft had on show at E3. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I entered the backstage room that demos were being given in, but it’s safe to say that I was pretty much blown away when I got back out of my chair and re-entered the chaos of the show floor.
The first thing to note with The Crew is the pedigree. While you may not have heard of Ivory Tower, all you really need to know is that the studio was formed by former members of the defunct Eden Games, the team behind the Test Drive Unlimited games.
Primed with that information, it should come as no surprise that the world on offer in The Crew is absolutely huge. As I sat down to play the game, a rare occurrence with most of the games I saw at E3, I was informed that you’ve got about 5,000sq km to play with, representing a condensed version of the United States. Should you choose to you can drive from coast to coast, which should take something like two and a half hours.
You’re free to roam around the world as much as you want, although you can fast travel to cities if you want to focus on missions or meet up with other players, which is probably what you’ll be doing for a lot of the game.
Much like Drive Club, The Crew has a very heavy social focus, although there are single player elements woven into it if that’s more your sort of thing. For example, while roaming around my selected city, New York, I was able to trigger a gate challenge, with my time recorded to leaderboards for posterity.
There was also a short race mission while I was exploring the city by myself. If you’re wondering what the difference between a mission and a challenge is it’s simply that challenges feel a lot more informal, starting with no fuss, while missions drop you to a cutscene beforehand.
However, it was once the demo fast travelled me to Miami that things got interesting. Here I met up with the other members of my crew, waiting for me in the city’s headquarters. Each of the game’s cities has one of these and its where your launch missions with your titular allies, as well as where you’ll go to upgrade your car and the like.
It’s worth pointing out that while you can play with friends if you want to, the game will do some matchmaking when you enter into a co-op area of the game. Obviously it will match you with friends first, but if you’re the only one on your friends list online then it’ll put you with other plays of roughly equivalent skill, even going so far as to match you on things like car preferences.
As for the aforementioned upgrade system, it’s fairly interesting. Rather than a really detailed fine tuning of the car, you instead equip gear as you would in an RPG. Gear will drop as loot when you complete missions, which will also earn you cash and XP.
While some may not like this approach, it’s actually a good fit with the arcade stylings that The Crew has. I just want to race and maybe have a quick stab at making my favourite car a bit better, I don’t really have enough knowledge to understand what changing tire pressure or fine tuning the engine does; these kind of details are simply too technical for me.
However, that’s not to say that car customisation in The Crew is lightweight. In some ways it’s the opposite, with the ability to strip a car down to its bare bones and rebuild it for an entirely new purpose. I saw this when I headed into the co-op mission with the rest of my crew, where car suitable for a raid type mission was required.
In most games this would mean a change of car, but not in The Crew. Instead my sports car broke down into its component parts and was re-assembled with tougher tires, a strengthened body, and bullbars on the front of the car. I was informed that this kind of transformation could lead to really odd combinations, like a bright pink Porsche set up for a desert rally.
With my freshly updated car I was ready to head off on my co-op mission, a takedown type affair. The four of us in my crew were set a target and were tasked with bringing it down.
While you’ll be working together to achieve these kind of goals collectively, there’s still competition. Fulfilling certain criteria like hitting your target or merely staying close to it will award you points, with a leaderboard appearing on mission completion. I’m not too humble to say that I came out on top once we’d managed to flip our target into a sand dune.
It’s clear what Ubisoft are aiming with The Crew – something to knock Need for Speed off its arcade racer perch. While I don’t want to go into a really deep comparison between elements like handling, although it’s brilliant in The Crew, I can say that in my short time with the game I had more fun than I’ve had in quite some time with a Need for Speed game.
I think that it really comes down to how simply Ivory Tower have managed to implement a pretty complex concept. Although the demo was in a very controlled environment, it all worked flawlessly and just felt rather elegant in how well the game flowed from single player to multiplayer, and from mission to mission.
If you’ve got any interest in arcade racers, then you really should be paying attention to The Crew. While aiming for Need for Speed may seem like a dangerous tactic, they might just pull it off.