The Crew is free this month from Ubisoft, just two years on from its release. Back then it received mixed reviews. But free is free, and the size of the game’s open world – a huge recreation of the United States – is intriguing enough to entice Adam and Brendan to revisit the racer with a challenge in mind. Who can get from East coast to the West coast the fastest? Ready, set, go.
Cape Cod is a nice place, once you turn off your entire HUD. I’ve been driving around in a cheap Ford Mustang enjoying the night-time seaside as much as possible and it is only when I go into the options and disable all the notifications, alerts, driver markers, quest blips and mission arrows that I feel like I can go on this road trip. A clear screen is a clear head.
Originally, Adam and I were supposed to go on our journey together but technical bumps and time differences meant we would have to go our separate ways. He would be travelling to the West coast through the dry southern states. Meanwhile, I would be taking the northern route through the mountains. Whoever reached Los Angeles in the shortest time would be crowned the King of Cars That Travel Quickly. I had read on Wikipedia that going from coast to coast takes only 45 minutes in this game. That’s how long it will probably take, I told Adam. Wikipedia is a good source.
At Cape Cod I rev up, begin my stopwatch and speed off through the night, heading inland. The handling of the cars themselves has improved since I last had my hands on this. But that may have something to do with the driving styles I’ve cycled through in the settings – there’s normal (computer assisted) and hardcore (non-assisted) and something called ‘street’ which I guess is in-between. I use this middle ground option and it makes the driving a lot smoother than I remember. Still not great, but better. As I pass Chicago, I turn the in-game music off. I go to YouTube and turn on a Johnny Cash playlist instead. It's a big improvement.
It’s a straight highway past the city but eventually I hit the badlands of the midwest, which give way to the mountains of the north. Snow appears around me, pine trees. The road quickly becomes much slippier. There’s two routes through Yellowstone – a highway and a more scenic road – and I decide to take the snaking countryside road. This is a mistake.
There are a bunch of different ‘specs’ for your cars. Cross country specs can drive on dirt, sand and snow much easier than amped-up street-racing specs, for example. I only have the latter kind of vehicle and it is very difficult to handle on these frozen roads. I’m slipping all over the place. Every turn becomes a drift. One crash into a van causes the police to make a brief call about me. “Dangerous driver spotted,” they say. But I won’t have a problem with the cops until later. They quickly forget about me and I keep on slaloming through the mountain park. I crash multiple times.
You can hold ‘B’ to get teleported back onto the track but I have always disliked this mechanic and decide that it isn’t in the spirit of the journey. This isn't a direct race – just a time trial against a ghostly, off-screen Adam. It doesn’t feel like an urgent necessity to hammer this ‘back on track’, like it might in the game’s story mode or PvP multiplayer. Each time I crash, I slowly reverse and get back on the road.
I’m already 40 minutes into the drive when I reach the halfway mark, near Salt Lake City. Johnny Cash is blaring ‘One Piece At A Time’, which is apt and distracting. A wild bear runs out in front of the car.
After calmly taking the above photograph using the photo mode, I swerve to miss the bear, which is a weird reaction because a previous encounter with what I think were foxes taught me you can’t actually hurt things in this racer. They just clip around your car, as if you gave them a rude nudge. This is one of those inconsistencies that irks me. The game sets up such a wonderful environment – snow, music, speed, the countryside, wildlife – and then that atmosphere is snatched away the minute you melt through an elk or "phase" through a fence. Anyway, the idiot bear survived.
As I’m going past Salt Lake the snow starts to disappear. A light raincloud soaks everything and things become green.
This lasts for about 60 seconds before the desert appears.
Las Vegas is looming in the distance and that means I’m close to my destination. For the first time in 25 minutes I can use my nitro boost without spinning out of control. But now I have a decision to make – south takes me to LA much faster. But north has better sights. One hour into the trip, I decide to add some more time to the clock. I go north. Why not?
But I also want to spice things up. I decide the best way to do this is to ram a police car as I leave Las Vegas. The policeman shudders off the road and hollers over the radio, blue and red lights flash, an angry prompt appears - I am the “most wanted”. This means police cars will come to get me.
Except they won’t. Just as I’m relishing the prospect of an epic chase across the salt flats (“Ha ha, I bet Adam isn’t going to have a cool chase sequence”) a timer appears overhead and counts down. 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… and then the cops give up. I’m disappointed. I concede this is a racer – not GTA – but what’s the point of a cop if he doesn’t chase you down? I would later learn that you need to raise your wanted level to get longer chases with added police. I was only a 1-star scumbag. Not even worth a spike strip.
Nevertheless, I belt through the salt flats – a train runs parallel to me. Hello, train!
When I reach the lush green of the famous redwood forests in northern California, I try again to provoke the cops by bashing into random NPC cars in a policed area. But again the single policeman assigned to patrol this area soon gives up the chase. Everyone is always saying the police in America are shooting everybody, but I honestly don’t see how. They’re rubbish.
Winding through the redwoods I catch my first glimpse of the coast. I’ve made it. I check my stopwatch. It’s been 1 hour 25 minutes since I left Cape Cod. I pull up to the seaside to take a well-deserved photograph and immediately crash into some rocks.
I put myself into reverse and spend the next 5 minutes extricating myself from this position. I refuse to hold down ‘B’.
Finally, I get out and achieve the photo I wanted.
I’ll say this for The Crew: as a racer it is wonky and bloated. But as an environment, it’s lovely. The photo mode which I’ve been using to take all these images clearly understands that the player might take more pleasure in the destination than the journey – a bizarre inversion of the true road trip. I probably still couldn’t recommended this to anyone at full price – there are many better racing games - but for free? Absolutely, take it for a spin. If only to see the vistas, the geography, the invincible bears that run in front of your car.
But I still had to get to LA. I sped off again. It took me a lot longer than I thought it would to ride the winding coastal roads, and I had to take a shortcut through a surburban neighbourhood to even get on the right road for the Golden Gate bridge. I blurred through San Francisco, barely stopping to ram the city’s policeman.
As I reach the palm trees of Santa Barbara, LA comes over the horizon. At this stage I’m ramming almost every car I see. It’s only when you don’t bother to steer that you really see what an odd experience driving in The Crew can be, bouncing off everything, sliding across obstacles. I hit several cars full-whack, only to be shunted to one side – teleported, more like. During my race across the US I only crashed in true, Burnout slow-mo fashion once. I also ran over several pedestrians. None of them are hospitalised.
I enter LA as night falls. It has taken a single in-game day to drive the length of the country and more. I park up on the beach, next to the Pacific Park fairground and stop my timer – 1 hour and 46 minutes. I looked out at the sea, glowing in the moonlight, casting a blanket of fairground lights across the waves.
Wikipedia, I reflected, is a fucking liar.
I wonder how Adam did?
Adam and The Beast
Ah! Cape Cod. The place where I was raised, the place where I thought I'd live out the rest of my days, and the place where poorly modeled whales occasionally emerge from the waters to say hello. On my 36th birthday, my parents finally bought me that motor vehicle they'd been promising since I turned sixteen and waved goodbye as I set off to find fortune and fame in the moving picture business over in the fabled City of Angels.
THANKS FOR EVERYTHING OLDSTERS, NOW IT'S TIME TO RIDE
The last thing they said, as the dirt and mud spattered their faces, was a warning of sorts: "Do not let the lights of Las Vegas bedevil you, my child, for few can resist the temptation of dice, music and the flashy dance moves of Roberto de Leon."
"His chest is often bare."
I didn't know what any of that meant and barely heard them anyway, seduced as I was by the growl of the car's engine. I decided to christen the car and it's name was The Beast. Later that day, as I travelled south toward New York, I followed up the christening with a baptism.
The goal of my trip was not only to reach Los Angeles but to arrive before my nemesis Brendan Caldwell. He would be travelling through the north of the country, navigating mountain passes and flirting with the Canadian border, and I knew that if he beat me to Hollywood, his devil-may-care attitude and handsome features would land him all of the plum movie roles I coveted. That could not be allowed to happen.
Therefore, despite my desire to experience the country I had never known (I hadn't left Cape Cod before that day), I knew that I'd have to be cunning. Travelling via New York and New Orleans, both cities I longed to see, would bring me to the far south of the country, and once there I would head directly west until I hit the coast. What could possibly go wrong?
New York passed me by - or rather I passed New York by - a distant skyline, and then I was speeding through pleasant scenery and heading toward Washington, the nation's capital. Even though the schedule was tight, I planned to see at least a few of the sights, like that one big pole and some white buildings.
A slight detour to the Pentagon didn't go to plan and I found myself trapped behind security barriers, all the while wondering if the massive, boring building that I'd crashed into could really be HQ of America's Department of Defense. There had been no police response to my repeated ramming of an entranceway, so I guessed not.
Leaving Washington behind, I headed for New Orleans.
The weather was glorious as I arrived but the clock was ticking and instead of taking in the French Quarter and Bourbon Street as I'd intended, I sadly saluted the Superdome, which still reminds me of Hurricane Katrina, and left the city, finally heading West.
That's when the weather turned. I'd expected to be hitting desert country but instead I was in swampy territory, and the rain was pouring down. The long stretch of road toward Dallas was bleak and somehow unnerving. My grand road trip had taken on an ominous tone, and Los Angeles seemed a million miles distant.
The sight of Dallas in the distance cheered me; not only was it a milestone, it was a far grander city than I'd imagined. Quite what I'd expected of The Big D, I couldn't say for sure, but it certainly wasn't the metropolis standing before me.
As I drove through downtown, I began to feel positive again. I was making good progress and the rain seemed to be keeping traffic off the roads. Maybe I'd have a clear run right through to the coast?
Soon, with the bright lights of the city behind me and a snaking road ahead, a now-familiar sense of loneliness crept back into the car and into the passenger seat. To be accompanied by loneliness might seem a strange thing, but then this was a strange trip. The farther I travelled, the bleaker the country and its climate seemed to grow.
These were haunted roads, I was sure of it. A Mission spoke to a history I didn't fully understand and a graveyard of planes that stretched as far as the eye could see made me shiver, even though The Beast had top notch heating. This was a desolate place.
And then I saw them. The sad-eyed manneqiuns of the Mojave Desert. I hadn't seen a person, bar the faces of drivers illuminated in my headlights, since I left Dallas, but suddenly the roadside was populated with eerie figures, sitting in the desert rain beneath umbrellas and staring out across the land toward...what? I tried not to make eye contact, though I couldn't be sure that they weren't sightless, thoughtless things, relics of a happier time now past.
Some of their homes had seen better days. I hit the gas, hard, and made an abrupt decision. I couldn't tolerate this awful place anymore. I needed to see life, I needed to see love, I needed to see vice. I needed to make a huge detour to the city my parents had warned me to avoid. I was going to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas, it turns out, has a heck of a security system. I could see the Strip and it looked like exactly what I needed - an antidote to the horrors of the road - but somebody had constructed a wall around the city. It wasn't a very tall wall but my car could not climb or jump, and I couldn't leave it for even a moment because it would surely be stolen, desirable as it was.
I eventually found a way around the wall, crashing through carparks to reach it, and soon I was heading toward the Strip, not caring to brake if anyone stepped into the path of The Beast.
It's a magical place. I saw ancient castles, a New York every bit as splendid as the one that I had missed earlier in the trip and promises of all kinds of entertainments, including MUSIC, Rides-a-Fun and 'lime'. Sadly, the fun was only available at 11am on a daily basis so I had to content myself with the bare chested thrills of that master of dance Roberto de Leon.
My innocence lost but my good spirits regained, I set out once more into the dark, cutting through the Sequoia National Park. I'm sure the trees were magnificent but it was too dark to see them and when I tried to cut through the forest, hoping to make up for the time I'd lost in Las Vegas, I fell down a hill and discovered an abandoned cafe, alone in the darkness. I was forced to flee when two ghost cars approached from the shadows of the trees.
After some panic and struggle, I found the road and sensed that Los Angeles was close. I sensed it by looking at my map and seeing that there were but a few miles to go. I sped, throwing caution to the wind.
And there it was. The city of my dreams. It looked damp and gray and I longed for the beautiful sunsets of Cape Cod. I missed my parents.
I drove onto the beach by Santa Monica Pier. The rain hadn't stopped. I felt like it would always be raining. A billboard on the freeway had shown me the truth of my mother's words, her warning about the distractions and debauchery of Vegas - on the billboard was a picture of a man and that man was Brendan Caldwell, my nemesis, and now the hottest property in Hollywood's hottest franchise.
Looking out to the sea, I wondered what worlds lay beyond, over the waters. A ship drifted into view.
Total time: one hour and fifty-six minutes.