Ubisoft's The Crew is now out, via Steam in the US and UPlay and something called "shops" in other parts of the world. Ubisoft, after the PR disaster of trying to impose post-release embargoes on Assassin's Creed: Unity reviews, have taken the rather bold step of informing customers not to trust early reviews. This is because they've withheld review code from journalists until just before launch, and then insisted that no fair opinion of it can be gained until it's been played for dozens of hours, the end-game reached, on populated servers. Indeed, no fair review could be written in a day - especially one where, surprise, there are server issues - but impressions can certainly be had of those opening few hours. I've written mine below.
There’s no question that the opening few hours of The Crew have been underwhelming. Not least because I’m experiencing issues that mean I can see no other players – but we’ll get to that at the end.
From the start, a good hour is spent being funnelled through an obligatory prologue, which consists of extensive cutscenes and multiple mini-challenges that introduce you to the basics of a genre you’ve been playing for decades. Which is disappointing, since the opening minutes of the game offer a far more optimistic presence. You’re dropped behind the wheel of a car attempting to evade pursuers, driving off-road through fields and back lots in a fun chase that boasts how the game isn’t going to keep you confined to the roads. Before immediately confining you to the roads for a bit.
Once you’re free of this, you’re still far from free. Peculiarly for a game that is trying to push itself as open world MMO, you’re playing a pre-defined character in a very specific storyline. You’re Beardy-Man-Face, part of the 5-10 – a road racing gang of miscreant drivers. But after getting mixed up in someone else’s coup for club leadership, you’re framed for murder by the new incumbent and an FBI agent on his payroll. Go to prison.
Five years later, you’re released early from jail on the promise to help an FBI lady (Zoe) catch the dirty cop. In the meantime, the 5-10 has escalated from illegal racing to extra-illegal smuggling, and has become quite the crime syndicate. You’re to infiltrate their numbers, get promoted nice and high in the organisation, and then BRING IT DOWN FROM THE INSIDE. You, and every single other person playing the game with the same face and the same life.
To do this, you must play through Test Burnout Need For Paradise Shift Unlimited once again. I’m being flippant. Or am I? I don’t yet know. So far I’ve been tasked with oh-so incredibly familiar goals. Win a race against three other drivers (or else the entire enterprise will fail!). Pick up this guy and get him to this place in time. Drive this car from here to over there without getting too much damage (oh joy – because this is the reason people buy driving games, eh? Safety missions). Run this car off the road. Escape from these pursuing cars. It is so transparently an attempt to make a Criterion/Eden game that it begins to hurt a bit. Everything is exactly as you’d expect, from the boost button to the infuriating cutaways each time you crash.
A nice addition are the on-the-fly extra tasks you find on the roads as you drive. Go through one and it’ll ask you to perform a big jump, slalom through targets, hit goals, etc. They usually lie on the route you were taking anyway, so offer a welcome distraction as you slog from mission to mission. And they’d be seamless, if the game weren’t being silly.
They start as you drive through a floaty gate, which is great. Finish one and as you’re still driving it’ll show you the results, and let you upgrade your car with any won engine bits. It’s all ideal! That done, as you’re still driving, you click to “continue” and, er, it fades to black. Then fades up again with your car exactly where you just were, but now stationary. WHY?! Just let me keep going! You were doing so well!
At the start you get to pick a car from a limited selection, which you can immediately begin upgrading with bits and bobs won through successfully completed missions and mini-tasks. The more extras you get, the more variety you can start implementing in how you want to tweak your ride. Or indeed just shove in the stuff the green numbers say is best and hope it’s right. With earned money you can buy more cars. And indeed there’s the ominous threat of some blue-coloured in-game currency, which inevitably means micro-transactions to come. With 40 cars available in the game at launch, there's a lot of room for Ubi to sell you more.
The boast of offering multiple cities of a drive-across-able America was always going to be a little exaggerated. The technique they use is pretty clever, making it look awfully big. Imagine if every major grid of roads of a city was just a single block, as if the Google Map of reality had been scrolled up a level but the roads stayed the same size. Driving the length of a major city takes about five minutes. It's actually pretty small. This isn't like a flight simulator where you can find the road you live on, but visiting your district is entirely achievable. Although don’t necessarily expect to recognise it.
As if cities themselves are under copyright (and God knows, they probably are), what you get in The Crew is the Chad Valley version of Hasbro’s United States. Head to Chicago’s Millennium Park and hopes of spotting the Bean or those monoliths with the human faces are quickly dashed. Instead there’s a giant metallic pretzel (an imaginative solution), and some tall red blocks (a lot less so). Try as I might, I couldn’t find the Married With Children Fountain. Also, I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure the 'L' doesn't fit onto Chicago's streets quite like this:
My main thought at this point, beyond the constant déjà vu of so many previous racing games this is unabashedly mimicking, is how floaty it feels. While different cars certainly handle differently, none has yet to feel affixed to the road. Every surface seems icy, handbraking around corners feels more like slipping than skidding, and minor bumps causing ludicrous crashes. Brakes also feel squidgy, gooey even, with no feel of tarmac beneath you. It’s super-arcadey and that’s great, but I desperately wish for more traction.
The races themselves are as contrived as you’d expect, and it’s probably for the best. The rubber-banding (where the game lets you catch up with leading cars) is the most blatant I can remember seeing, as cars drive hilariously slowly to let you reclaim leads. That’s for good, as it means there’s always a sense of a scrap. Less good is how AI cars seem to be able to breeze past collisions that take you out of races and are too unlikely to get into crashes of their own, no matter how cluttered the road ahead. Oncoming AI traffic is even more stupid - it won't even try to veer out of your way if you're coming headlong toward it. Of course, they may well decide to turn a corner, oblivious to your existence, and knock you out of a race by creating a collision.
But all that should be improved by featuring other players, right?
I started playing yesterday before the game launched and the maps were sparsely populated as you’d expect. But I was still able to form temporary crews with three other unknown players from the beginning in order to take on missions as a team. That way, even if I didn’t win a race, someone in my crew might and we’d all progress. Post launch, things have gotten, well, a lot worse. Since the game came out at midnight US time, I’ve not been able to find a single other player - despite knowing they’re there.
When the game loads, the map populates with other players, showing me where they are. Then within a few seconds, they’re gone. Looking on forums, I’m not the only person experiencing this but it’s yet to be acknowledged as an issue. Jim’s played too and experienced the very same thing. We’ve asked Ubi for help with the issue but haven’t heard back yet.
This doesn’t feel like the “smooth launch” Ubisoft promised us last week. It means that whenever I try to start a race with a crew I’m informed that “there are no players in your session”. Occasionally one other player shows up, the game enthusiastically informing me of their existence the entire time, but if they decline to join a race then I’m on my own again.
Without other players filling the game, the experience is rather bare. Rarely is more than one mission available to me, and side-quests really are just those by-the-by micro-challenges. Once the main story is completed, factions can be chosen and you join The Crew’s end game. We’ll talk about that when we properly review the game, of course. But on the way, the journey isn’t exactly the open-world bonanza I’d expected. Sadly, despite the abundant inspiration taken from the Burnout/NFS Criterion games, smashing barriers and signs isn’t rewarded with delighted cheers and counters, but police chatter from hilariously insincere voice actors. They limply say things like, “There is a car driving dangerously in the area, be on the look-out,” without saying which car, which area, and so on. Unless you actually drive into a police car, it’s hard to really get their attention.
Fleeing them is, of course - just as with the Need For Speed games (and indeed GTA) – a case of drive out of their circle of awareness so they’ll forget you ever existed.
Massive maps with no players and very few missions makes for empty-feeling places. Even with real-world people driving about, this would still feel oddly lacking. Off the back of Far Cry 4, Shadow Of Mordor, and other recent games, this is an open world with very little going on.
However, what is there is fine. It’s just fine. It’s maybe about as fine as Test Drive Unlimited 2 was fine (but without haircuts and flashing headlights). It’s nearly as fine as NFS: Most Wanted and probably as fine as NFS: Rivals. So far I’ve not experienced a single original idea and clearly suffered for launch day issues. Hopefully we’ll see this fill up with both players and extra things to do. In the meantime, maybe wait a couple of days to be sure it’s all working properly before you leap in.