Ubisoft’s The Crew was always going to either be a.) a resounding dud or b.) a pleasantly fun racing experience. And depending upon who you ask, I’m pretty sure that’s the range of answers you’ll get. The driving and simulation aspects are better handled by titles like Forza, but for PC gamers there isn’t really a better choice in recent years. Project Cars and World of Speed are both a ways away, and frankly? The Crew’s worth picking up if you’re fan of arcade racers and love open and online worlds.
Developer Ivory Tower is comprised of many folks who created Test Drive Unlimited, worked on Need for Speed, and so forth. Ergo, racing and open world games are kind of in their blood. And the sprawling open world of the continent United States is pretty amazing to drive through. In fact, some of the best moments I’ve had in The Crew are just driving with a friend, picking a location and seeing what it looks like. Acadia National Park in The Crew isn’t exactly as awe-inspiring as real life, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than driving 16 hours from Ohio.
What’s odd about The Crew is that it certainly is an MMO, but the developer is obviously hampered by the inherit design problems of letting hundreds of people zoom around so many square miles, alongside AI traffic and getting in the way of other players’ progress. So instead of seeing hundreds of people all around, the game uses a server tech that’s not unlike Elder Scrolls Online. People from your friends list that are online will be placed near you, and the rest of the real estate will be filled in with strangers to meet and play alongside. When you queue up for PVP or any other co-op mission, you will be match-made with anyone on the servers of comparable car level. So you won’t always see hundreds, but rather handfuls of people at any given time. And really, except in cases like capitol cities or large raids, that’s about what most MMO servers give the player while adventuring.
There are levels in The Crew, and “gear” of a sort. As you level (to a max of 50), you’ll unlock different car specs (from the basic Street to the top-level Circuit) and each car make and model levels independently from the rest. Think of it like FFXIV’s job and class system. Your Camaro might have a car level (think Item Level) of 500+, but if you haven’t been doing skill challenges and races with your Mustang GT, it’s going to be far less powerful. To level each car is going to require a great deal of time, and I personally just ended up sticking with my starter car (the Nissan Z) for the duration of this review. I’ll work on my Shelby later.
Your main level (1-50) unlocks missions and different car specs across the country, but it’s your car’s level (dependent upon its loadout) that determines how competitive you’ll be in the game’s many races, PVP, and skill challenges. You’ll pretty much always start out in the Midwest, and then work East, and then South, and West as you gear up your cars. In this way, leveling up a whole new car can be a chore, but thankfully there are so many different races and challenges to choose from that it doesn’t seem to get old fast. Add to that the fact that once you visit a region of the country you can instantly travel to it and getting around the massive map when you just want to do a specific activity is a breeze. The world is huge and plenty pretty to drive across, but sometimes you just want to get where you’re going.
You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned the game’s story much. That’s because there’s not much to talk about. Though the main character is voiced by the inimitable Troy Baker, he’s still the only character option… in an MMO. That’s right, you’re all playing the same guy. When Ivory Tower said the car was truly the player’s character, they weren’t kidding. But that’s what makes the story stand out. They didn’t really need to have it in there at all. More time could have been spent on even more real races, maybe different types, and even additional features in general. But somewhere someone assumed we needed a knock-off of Fast & Furious story to go along with our racing MMO. It doesn’t bring the game down, so much as it just kind of leaves you wondering… why is it even there in the first place?
Luckily, you really can tweak the looks of your car, and there are several dozen to choose from as you progress to level 50, including some exclusive rewards tied to Uplay, hidden cars in the game, and more coming via DLC. Everything from the interior to the license plates can be tweaked, and there are plenty of colors and decals to choose from as well. It would have been nice to make custom decals, but perhaps that option can be added later. The actual loadout process of your car’s tuning isn’t very tactical or in-depth, as it almost always amounts to “what item gives me a higher car level”, but there is some tweaking to be had there if you’re really into that sort of thing. Just don’t expect Gran Turismo in that aspect.
PVP, especially in so much that it pits 4v4 and faction versus faction, can be a lot of fun especially when you’re racing with or against friends. But as of right now, it’s pretty uncommon to see anyone but the highest level car win. There’s still skill involved, and sometimes the highest level car is a bad driver or gets an unlucky crash. But more often than not, if you enter a PVP match and see yourself well below the car level curve? Don’t expect to finish first. If there’s one wish I’d have for PVP races, it would be for Ubisoft and Ivory tower to enable a PVP mode where car levels are all equaled out, so the race becomes truly about the better racer.
The Crew isn’t a revolutionary MMO, nor is it a revolutionary racer. It is however a fun racing game that happens to be in a persistent online world and has a ton of replayability. Simulation fans won’t necessarily love it (cars magically heal as you drive, for Pete's sake), but fans of Need for Speed, Test Drive Unlimited, and so forth will find a lot to like. Ubisoft claims they have big plans for the game’s future, and even more for additional entries down the line, and I’ll be watching. Ditch the lame story, work in more customization and more exciting races, and The Crew is solid roadwork for what could be a fantastic MMO ride.
VISUALS AND SOUND – 8: The Crew has a workman-like style to it. It’s certainly not going to stand out in your memory as one of the most unique looking games ever, but it’s serviceable, and really can shine at times. Drive Club is still a better looking racer by a mile, but The Crew has its moments and the audio is really superb when playing in surround. Plus, you won’t find a better small-scale model of the continental US in any game.
GAMEPLAY – 8: As a racing MMO, this one can keep you busy. No there’s no crafting or “downtime” activities. But moment to moment there’s a wealth of racing and driving options, and the game gets deeper as you progress. It’s just a shame they felt compelled to tack a lame story on as well.
POLISH – 8: I was scared for The Crew’s launch, because betas proved to have some gnarly handling on early cars. Luckily, they tuned that up, and now I can say that Ivory Tower’s debut title is one of the best arcade racers available in the new generation of consoles. Points off for some weird physics at times, but this is a largely polished experience with few hiccups in the first couple weeks.
LONGEVITY – 6: At about 20 hours for the main “campaign” at launch with DLC updates promised, and tons more side missions to play through, there’s a lot of meat on The Crew, but not necessarily for an MMO veteran. However, with many cars to level, and dozens upon dozens of races, skill challenges, and daily, weekly, and monthly achievements to work up, plus Faction Wars… if racing games are a favorite, you’ll likely have months of playtime ahead.
VALUE – 7: The price of the box is all you need to pay to enjoy The Crew, and few full-priced games these days give you this much content. But there are some steep “Real Money Currency” costs too unlock cars faster than those who work toward them in game, and it’s still unclear just how much extra mileage the DLC season pass will bring.
SOCIAL – 6: There are no guilds in The Crew, instead you’ll pick one of five factions that represent sections of the USA… but you won’t really interact with them either. No, your PSN, Steam, UPlay, or Xbox Live friends list is your “guild” here, and the tools to group up or find random PUGs to do co-op races with are quick and seamless. Voice chat works well, and PVP is always bustling. But there’s no real incentive to group up, nor is there a need. The Crew is definitely a “solo-MMO” where group content is purely an option.
REVIEW DISCLAIMER: This review was done with a Playstation 4 review copy provided by Ubisoft and Ivory Tower. The reviewer played over 40 hours, and toured most of the game’s content and story missions. You can friend Bill on PSN at BillMurphyMMORPG.