The American road trip is, by any rational measure, an anachronism. Long-distance driving, once novel as a mid-century celebration of the Interstate, has become a slow, unnecessary, and overly involved means of transit. In an age of airlines, there’s precious little point to the exercise.
But, of course, that’s not the whole truth of the matter. There’s a reason the road trip has persisted, and that its popular narrative has room for the milquetoast suburban family piled into a station wagon just as easily as it does Easy Rider, Kerouac’s On the Road, and Nabokov’s Lolita, all without any hint of contradiction. There’s a reason, too, that I’ve driven across the country four separate times, crossing through 36 states on the way. It’s Manifest Destiny. It’s Purple Mountain Majesties. It’s all of those cheesy American mythologies that somehow become real and palpable when you trek across the desert, twist through the Rockies, and descend into the endless cornrows of the Heartland. It’s a whole nation, writ small at 65 miles an hour. It’s freedom.
This, more than anything else, is the promise of The Crew, the new open-world racing game from Ivory Tower (a new studio formed by racing vets from Eden Games) and Ubisoft. The open world, in this case, comprises the entire United States—or the contiguous bits, at least—with the freedom to go anywhere and everywhere you see fit, roads be damned. The game’s rendition of America takes the form of a beestung miniature, condensed to around one-fortieth the size with its major cities and landmarks swollen out of scale.
And what a rendition it is. Up against every other racing game that’s attempted to build a sandbox, The Crew‘s world manages an unprecedented variety and liveliness. So many entries in the genre settle for boring automotive playgrounds that give the impression some apocalyptic event has left all of humanity confined to the driver’s seat, trapped in a backdrop of boring roads. Here, pedestrians walk the street freely, animals bound through the wilderness, and heading 20 miles in any direction will grant you a remarkable change of scene, all free from the unbreakable fences that usually contain you to a sliver of the total landmass.
Equally impressive, it’s an admirably engaging facsimile of the complex nation it attempts to re-create. Admittedly, the appeal undoubtedly gears toward tourists and strangers, not natives. I found myself bored by The Crew‘s take on Southern California—the place I was raised and now reside—and the Pacific Coast Highway—the long drive I’ve taken most—because their falsehoods were so glaring. Yet the places I’d been only a handful of times and the drives I’d taken only once felt magical to encounter in virtual form. Topping a hill in New Jersey and seeing the Manhattan skyline across the water. Crossing the placid ocean on stilted bridges into the Florida Keys. Passing between unfathomably massive redwoods in Northern California. The The Crew‘s dedication to roadside scenery is hard to deny, and I say that as someone who’s made a lifelong hobby out of seeing the real thing.
The pity is that Ivory Tower has done so little with their greatest accomplishment. Failing to realize that the roar of an engine and the battle for the finish line provide all the drama a racing game needs, The Crew spins a PG revenge tale centered around the 5-10s, a street-racing gang with the organizational complexity of the Mafia and the emotional maturity of a junior-high class. Many of the campaign missions do make clever use of the world, but they’d do just as well without the needless chatter and bookending cutscenes, which are, at least, mercifully skippable. Ultimately, it amounts to little more than another waste of Troy Baker’s talents, here as a hiply coiffed Gordon Freeman lookalike who might as well be a bag of rocks labelled with the word “protagonist.”
The narrative isn’t just flimsy and dull, however. By forcing The Crew to lean heavily on its two worst mission types—police pursuits and takedown missions—whenever it needs to summon an exciting end-of-act climax, it actively damages gameplay. Both make plenty of sense from a storytelling context, given the options for stringing together a coherent plot from races alone are admittedly limited, but they easily sink the game’s driving to its most miserable nadir.
Police pursuits are the lesser offender, only really becoming a nuisance once the campaign passes the halfway mark, but they’re no less frustrating for it. Outrunning cops on the ground is enough of a bother when they have near-psychic awareness of your intentions, but the moment the doubly omniscient helicopters enter the picture, you’re in for a lengthy, tiresome chore, ruined in part by the game’s frustrating emphasis on randomness—of the traffic, of the newly spawning cops, and of their aptitude at following your last-minute turns.
Takedown missions, by contrast, are just plain broken. In a completely absurd move, the targets you’re tasked with damaging don’t register any hit that’s not the result of direct contact with the front half of your car. Against all logic, you can push your prey into a solid brick wall, only for them to walk away unscathed because you weren’t doing the damage—and they’ll likely reset onto the road before you can deal any follow-up blows. In a particularly egregious offense, I was ready to close out the final showdown with the villain, his car flipped upside down with a single hit point left, on the verge of being pushed into the ocean. As I sped toward him, he apparated onto the highway, 20 feet off and doing a solid clip away from me, magically impervious to the fact that I’d had him on the ropes.
But the campaign, for all its frustrations, is finite, and after you’ve slogged past your final takedown, endured the last cutscene, and reached the level cap of 50, the pace of the game changes dramatically. Rather than tackling set objectives, you’re tasked with building up your garage and maxing out your vehicles by filling all of their equipment slots with top-level platinum parts, the highest tier available. On the surface, it’s an interesting appropriation of MMORPG loot systems, with exhaust pipes and gearboxes standing in for epic helms and breastplates. So, too, do the game’s missions and skill challenges fill in for raids and mobs, as content that can repeat endlessly in the hopes of getting the rare powerful drop.
Mostly, though, The Crew uses the endgame to funnel you toward its competitive multiplayer—or PVP, as the game insists on calling it. Disregarding leaderboards, showdowns against other players are the only way to showcase everything you’ve earned across the game’s other modes. Since high-level vehicles offer a serious advantage over newcomers in every race type—and the fact that the per-minute cash earnings in PVP are an order of magnitude greater than any other activity in the game—it’s the inevitable conclusion, but not an altogether worthwhile one. Whether due to server troubles or by design, getting into a match can be a lengthy affair, and once you’re in, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re triumphing (or not) because of differences in car level rather than differences in skill. Equally annoying is the fact that there’s no punishment for crashing an opponent, which means most races degrade into a horde of cars trying to PIT maneuver each other into the siderails while the lucky chump who got out in front of the melee cruises to an easy victory.
PVP also suffers thanks to an aggressively obnoxious system whereby whoever’s earned the most points in the lobby decides on the next event and the settings. If you’d like, for instance, to play only Perf races with the traffic disabled, you can’t simply search for that type of match. Instead, you need to hope the presiding god-king shares your tastes, or win enough races to dethrone him and impose your will on everyone else.
But PVP remains the quickest source of income, even when you’re finishing dead last, and you need that money to buy better cars and upgrades to do better in multiplayer to earn more money to buy better cars and upgrades. Unless, you know, you’d like to skip all the hard work and use real-world dollars to purchase some of the game’s second currency, Crew Credits. Credits can be used to purchase everything in the game—the prices all tantalizingly smaller in number than the in-game cash equivalent. Plus, the game throws a first taste your way partway through the campaign, free of charge, just so you can see how fun and easy they are to use. If you choose to partake, top-tier cars will set you back around $15, with everything else running less than that, but even the microest of microtransactions are inherently off-putting in a game you’ve already paid full price for.
Particularly sinister is the fact that you can use Crew Credits—and only Crew Credits—to buy additional points to spend on the game’s perks. These permanent upgrades offer a wide range of gameplay benefits, including stat boosts to your vehicles’ performance, discounts on all sorts of purchases, XP and cash bonuses, and even a racing line that tells you when to brake for a turn. While you do earn points the old-fashioned way every time you level up, the cap puts a hard limit on how many you can attain without opening your wallet. If you pour all of your early upgrades into the perk that gives you a chance to randomly get two points instead of just one, you’ll be lucky to top out at around 60. Spend all of those free Credits, and you’ll get another 50.
It takes 201 to completely fill out all the perks.
You can, if you try hard enough, reject that unpleasant circle entirely. You can ignore the pull of progression and microtransactions and simply relax instead. You can play the skill challenges, not in the hopes of getting a better part for your cars, but because they’re genuinely fun and well designed as simple tests of driving acumen. You can, for a while, forget you have the ability to fast travel anywhere you’ve already been and just drive. You can speed across the Bonneville Salt Flats at 230 miles an hour and laugh when you spot another player doing the same, then spend 10 minutes cutting spirals around each other like some kind of insane, gasoline-powered Busby Berkeley number. You can get together with three of your friends and set out across the country in the hopes of having unexpected adventures along the way. If you do any of these things, you’ll find a far more pleasant experience waiting for you, albeit one that’s an obvious misappropriation, lacking in capital-letter Things To Do.
But escape isn’t easy. There’s a reason Ivory Tower uses so much MMO jargon when talking about their game, and it’s not just the online focus and RPG-esque leveling. Like World of Warcraft—still the gold standard of addictive design—The Crew deftly employs Skinner-box principles to keep you coming back, to push you into its loop and toward its grindy, antagonistic endgame. When you log in, the first thing you’re greeted by is a pop-up of your daily Faction salary, a less-than-subtle reminder that you can only claim it if you log in once every 24 hours. Then comes a menu littered with metrics: your level, your money, your completion percentage, and the timed challenges that are ticking down the minutes till they’re gone forever, their cash rewards vanished with them. Tab over, and you’ll see the Awards page, which sports no fewer than 14 different progress bars, nine of which link to yet more progress bars.
Only once you’ve closed the menu are you allowed to touch that brilliant map for the first time. Only once you’ve been bombarded by reminders of what you should do can you decide what you actually want to do. It’s a cynical trend, this notion that we have to be prodded to play a game a certain way, or toward some specific end beyond whatever inherent fun it may bring. Trying to convince us we need some shiny badge or sufficiently high number to show for our effort feels an awful lot like a concession to that age-old criticism that playing games is synonymous with wasting our time.
There, then, in that misunderstanding, the modern videogame and the road trip find common ground. Like a microtransaction, air transit is a convenient, expensive shortcut. Like a lengthy, coerced grind, it’s more focused on where you’ll end up than whatever enjoyment you might have along the way.
Given that The Crew straddles both worlds, surely the game’s biggest failing must be that it’s somehow unable to grasp the lesson shared between them: In art, as in life, the destination is never as important as the journey.
|Developer: Ivory Tower • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 12.02.14|
Despite delivering an impressive playground that captures the spirit of America, The Crew struggles to build out a worthwhile game experience around it, resorting to frustrating missions, insipid storytelling, and off-putting microtransactions.
|The Good||The best open world in a racing game to date.|
|The Bad||Bland story, offensive microtransactions, and blatant pay-to-win design in a retail game.|
|The Ugly||Nothing screams “franchise potential” like having your main character end the game by saying the tagline out loud.|
|The Crew is available on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review.|