Although everyone likes to throw around genre tags, it's occasionally worth stopping to acknowledge they don't really tell us anything. Take The Crew, Ubisoft's upcoming open-world driving game. 'Open world' in this case means a lot of interconnected roads that have mission boundaries placed atop, a much larger but less sexy version of Burnout's Paradise City. And as for the driving, I can't think of a single other racer that plays out in quite this fashion.
Forgive the pun, but The Crew's in the title. Let's explain that joke, in painful detail, below.
First of all sorry for the bloom-saturated bullshots on this page – the game obviously doesn't look as good as this in motion, but what can you do. Secondly, The Crew is not going to be a good singleplayer game. This is an experience that absolutely depends upon multiple players in the same gameworld, and in the case of the demo I was playing that meant Daddy Stanton and three crowd-sourced noobs. It began by spawning the four of us at different points in the city, and charging all four cars to get to the starting point of a street race. Two managed to get there in time.
That was probably because The Crew's handling, at this stage, could definitely use some fine-tuning. In this kind of environment, a built-up urban centre filled with pedestrians, pavement junk and countless other obstacles, arcade-style handing a la Blur or Burnout is essential. But the sweet spot for the handbrake, in particular, is at the moment far too tight and left me spinning out countless times despite trying as many different approach speeds as possible.
Basically, when you're street-racing a satisfying handbrake is key. The car was twitchy and responsive to everything else I wanted to do, so it felt a little lame that I ended up just slowing down a lot to take tight corners. Details are a little scant on this but the studio behind The Crew, Ivory Tower, seems to have come together out of the ashes of Eden Games, whose last title before closure was the bug-ridden but pretty great Test Drive Unlimited 2 – which, incidentally, had a lovely handbrake. So you'd hope for something better by the time of release.
What made me think The Crew might be great wasn't anything to do with the abortive initial race, or the handling. The second mission for our little gang, introduced with a super-sexy swoosh upwards to an overhead map, had the simple objective of taking down an armoured 4X4. This mission started the four of us together, showed a brief cutscene of the enemy taking off, and then the chase was on. Yes, it's a truism that many games are better with other people - unless you are a default digi-misanthrope - but this was one of those games where that is doubly true.
In this scenario the player cars simply weren't as tough as the enemy vehicle. So while you could catch it up solo, and do a little bit of ramming, it was all-too-easy to get ahead of yourself and get slammed off the road – that is, dealing minimum damage and leaving yourself playing catch-up while the remainder of your team kept on chasing. Tension was appreciated.
This mission felt great because, even though we'd never played together before, each member of the team quickly realised the above was the case and focussed on getting close as a pack. At this point, hitting 90mph and barely in control on a stretch of scrubland, whacking through gates and bushes and bins, there was an almost tangible anticipation for the first move. When a game hits its peak experience with people in it, that means the success of the whole thing will hinge on people.
Our first car fishtailed the 4X4, going into the back from the left and knocking it off-balance. As the enemy driver lost control and swerved while losing speed, I picked my spot and rammed down the accelerator to smash right into him from the side. Now the 4X4 was almost still for a moment, and as it tried to pick up speed the last two cars on our side screamed by me and, almost perfectly in sync, suicide-bombed into its exposed flank. Mission accomplished, he was down, and every single one of us played a part.
I loved this mission. It's a truism that multiplayer makes almost any game better, but the key thing about this was that the thrill came from that moment just before the hammer went down – when, for just a few seconds, myself and these unknown teammates were on the same page and knew exactly what needed to be done. It can only get better when you're playing with real friends.
Whether The Crew can maintain this level of excitement over its length remains to be seen, not least because the first half of the demo felt pretty aimless – the most you saw of your 'buddies' then was the odd glimpse as they flashed by in the opposite direction. And it's worth mentioning, in the context of this being from some of the team behind TDU2, that this build had more than a few bugs – at one point I rammed head-on into a building, and my car's bonnet got stuck in the window.
Also: personal bugbear. There seems to be this sense with driving games that their players desire to have sex with a vehicle. This paraphilia manifests in, for example, missions being described by a female voiceover artist who sounds like she's undressing while speaking, or the long and lingering shots of disassembling engine internals that can only be described as gasket porn. It's weird, is all, and The Crew certainly plays to type. J.G. Ballard has a lot to answer for.
Anyway, much sexier is the overhead map that lets you warp to different locations, and the promise of smartphone integration that lets you build custom vehicles which are uploaded to the game (not on show, sadly). Worth mentioning, too, that The Crew's world is not just a series of boxy buildings but a lively city filled with pedestrians to be knocked over, 'normal' cars to be weaved around, and countless objects to be smashed through.
More than anything, the simple thrill of synchronised driving is something that always seems to be presented from a competitive angle – but The Crew offers a different take and one that, since the demise of PGR, nothing else offers. The finished game's biggest danger is losing focus on co-operative play, and simply subsuming itself in a mishmash of decent-enough competitive racing and open-world noodling. But if the name is a conceptual band around the missions, rather than just being a marketable title, The Crew might break from the pack.
The Crew is set for release early in 2014.