The Crew review: road to ruin

The Crew's big wins are buried under a mound of frustrations

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ivory Tower
Release Date Nov 11, 2014

The Crew is very nearly the driving game I've always wanted — if it weren't for the fact that it is also one of the most openly hostile video games I've ever played.

As a celebration of the Great American Road Trip, The Crew offers something wonderful and memorable. Its open world, a compressed but awe-inspiringly ambitious version of the United States, is unlike anything I've ever seen in a game. Exploring its every nook and cranny, and racing across its wildly varying biomes is a hugely rewarding, and oddly zen-like activity. I'd safely count one coast-to-coast drive I took among one of my favorite gaming moments of the year.

But the destination is so rarely worth the trip. While The Crew makes the act of "getting there" a treat, the activities waiting for you are almost always unbalanced, unpolished and downright unfair.

There's always something recognizable about where you are

There's genuine accomplishment in Ivory Tower and Ubisoft Reflections' in-game interpretation of America. It is, of course, not 1:1, but it manages to thematically realize each region of the country in a really fascinating manner — a manner that fits perfectly with the game's multifaceted approach to racing mechanics.

There is, for instance, no exact version of West Virginia; but there is a distinctly Appalachian region, with small rural villages, copious dirt roads that wind up tree-covered hills and even a mining quarry that's a perfect playground for cars with adequate suspension. The West Coast is all long, scenic highways connecting major cities, built to order for the game's highest-performance super cars. Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are filled with mountains and valleys for you to throw your heaviest, bounciest trucks into.

A dozen or so major cities received much more attention than the rest of America's urban centers, like Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami — which, amusingly, takes up about a quarter of Florida's total landmass. But that doesn't mean the rest of the country has been glossed over. There's always something recognizable about where you are, whether it's a landmark or defining environmental trait, like the swamps of Louisiana or the towering redwoods of Northern California.

the crew review screen 1

The variety of the game's tracks represents one half of The Crew's other big success — it manages to capture the feel of so many different types of driving games.

Each of The Crew's five regions — the East Coast, the South, the Midwest, the Mountain States and the West Coast — all mostly favor different types of tracks, each corresponding to a different "specialization" you can tune your car to. For example, by kitting your car out with the "Dirt" spec, you can take on the East Coast's rural areas, like the North Woods of New York, or the unpaved tracks of New Hampshire's White Mountains. The "Circuit" spec shines in the West Coast's straightaways, where they can accumulate speed typically reserved for experimental spacecraft.

Each region and specialization completely transforms the feel of The Crew, allowing it to shapeshift between different racing game archetypes. By switching specs, you're effectively changing The Crew's DNA, allowing it to be a gritty street racer, a motocross stunt-jump racer, an off-road buggy racer or super-technical stock car racer. Each motif feels drastically different, but miraculously, each one also feels pretty great — though transitioning between them takes some getting used to.

One thing you won't receive in such large quantities are cars themselves

In addition to specializations, The Crew also offers one of the most accessible upgrade systems the racing genre's ever seen. Each car, with its specific specialization, has a "Car Level," which is boosted when you equip a part that you've either purchased or won in one of The Crew's missions or challenges.

Each has a specific effect on your car, increasing its acceleration, braking and so on — but all those statistics are reflected by a single figure, the Car Level. By compiling all that data into one number, you can make simple decisions on which parts to hunt down and equip. It also gives you an easy way of comparing your ride against those of your opponents.

It's a genuinely brilliant system designed less for gearheads, and more for RPG enthusiasts who have been flirting with the driving genre — a category that conceptually shares an RPG's focus on statistical improvement and loot. You'll acquire parts with breakneck speed, mostly through skill challenges (like slaloms and long-jumps) that pepper the map, adding a few hundred entertaining, rewarding pit stops to your interstate drives.

One thing you won't receive in such large quantities are cars themselves, thanks to the exorbitantly high price tags that most of them carry. Lower-end cars are relatively affordable, but the price of more competitive rides will far outpace the money you'll earn by completing missions. Grinding through players vs. player matches is the only real way to earn serious bucks, but that can get pretty demoralizing — more on that later.

Of course, there's another way of unlocking each ride: By spending Crew Credits, a secondary currency you can obtain by purchasing them with real-world money.

The Crew gives you an allotment of Crew Credits early in its campaign to familiarize you with their raw purchasing power, but you'll blow through them after buying a couple of midrange cars. By the time I hit the game's final region, I couldn't nearly afford — either through in-game cash or Crew Credits — any of the new cars built for the specialization I'd just unlocked. Fortunately, in a perfect microcosm of modern AAA shenanigans, I was able to purchase a promotional ride using some Uplay points I had lying around.

Crew Credits can also be used to purchase perk points, which unlock various bonuses like car performance increases, part discounts and experience point multipliers. You'll also earn perk points each time you level up, and by the time you hit the game's cap, you'll have just enough to buy a quarter of the perks — the perks that actually help you out in a race — but completionists can have their day, too, if the money's right.

It's a bizarre economy that occasionally feels downright contemptuous. In fact, its cross-country tours and compelling progression loop notwithstanding, just about everything in The Crew is profoundly, maddeningly antagonistic.

That laundry list starts with the game's AI opponents, who, across all of The Crew's various modes, cheat constantly, and with aplomb. Yes, there's some industrial-strength rubber-banding going on behind the scenes, but that's just one of the AI's multitude of sins. The real problem is that, across the board, opponents' cars in The Crew behave like they were imported in from another driving game entirely.

Collisions are a real problem area for the game, which seems to make up rules for intersecting objects as it goes. Opponents can evade your offensive driving maneuvers with near-prescience, and, most of the time, barely budge even as you deliver your most devastating shunt. That inconsistency actually carries over to your car, too. Sometimes you'll head-on smash into oncoming traffic at 180 mph and harmlessly scoot to the side of your victim. Sometimes you'll graze a rock while you're off-roading, flip four times and crash spectacularly.

Here's another fun superpower other cars possess: When you wreck, spin out or go off course, your car can reset to where it was a few seconds before the accident. When your opponents get back on track, oftentimes they'll do it several hundred feet ahead. Sometimes they'll do that, and appear right in front of you at a standstill, causing you to crash.

Those kinds of inconsistencies don't pop up in every race, but are more prevalent in the latter portion of the game, where laps become longer and opponents become more superhuman. This also undercuts The Crew's great progression system. While you may feel your car's performance increase as you load it up with new parts, an AI opponent with a car 130 levels below your own will still, with surprising frequency, blow your doors off on a straightaway.

The game's AI cheats constantly, across all of The Crew's various modes, with aplomb

Even that experience was preferable to The Crew's two other main mission types: Getaway and Takedown missions. These missions always feel unbalanced, and together composed some of the worst times I've had playing video games this year.

In Getaway missions, you're tasked with escaping either police or a team of hitmen working for one of The Crew's bad dudes. Regardless of the faction hunting you down, there's one constant: Their cars are always, always better than yours in every conceivable way. Your pursuers can take hairpin turns at tremendous speed, close gaps between you in the blink of an eye and — most infuriatingly — brake to a full dead stop in half a second, instantly bringing you, and likely your escape attempt, to a halt.

The game advises that you crash into your pursuers to take them out, but — as I mentioned above — opponents can dodge your attacks effortlessly, and can take a metric ton of damage before closing down shop. Also, more pursuers will just spawn right in, sometimes in front of you, which is especially infuriating when you've just managed to escape the pack of cops behind you.

Almost every time that I passed one of these missions, it was because every one of my pursuers wrecked into one of their own roadblocks, which is never an especially satisfying conclusion.

In Takedown missions, the roles are reversed, but the AI retains its unimaginably powerful god-car. Not only is their vehicle incalculably better than yours, it has a health bar that can only be drained by contact with your car. Understand: You can only lower their health by ramming them — which, again, is super difficult. If you nudge them into a bridge pier going 130 mph, they're fine.

Of course, that scenario is predicated on you catching up to the car, which only happens when your opponent decides to allow you to catch up to it. Takedown missions (and a handful of other missions, for that matter) feel completely scripted. You can only hope to not fall too far behind your prey while they drive impossibly, then pull off a successful hit at the few appointed times in the event where they slow down, apropos of nothing. Fail to capitalize on those moments before the time limit, and you lose.

To make matters worse, most Takedown missions, as well as a few other events, force you to use loaner cars that you've never driven before. Each car, when equipped with a specific specialization, has a distinct feel to it and requires a lot of practice to get a handle on. All that practice goes out the window when you're forced out of your familiar ride — a ride you've painstakingly upgraded — and into a truck that controls like a wet pile of laundry.

Sometimes, on Takedown missions, you'll also get chased by the police. These particular missions were put on Earth by the devil.

These aggressive missions feel like they only exist to punctuate the climactic beats of The Crew's revenge story, which is bad in just about every way stories can be bad. Characters are either stock crime caricatures or — as is the case with protagonist Alex Miller — just completely unmemorable.

Miller's tasked with going undercover with the FBI to take out a corrupt federal agent, and unseat the current head of the 5-10s, who murdered Miller's brother, the former kingpin. To do so, you'll race for and against various members of the 5-10s who are, inexplicably, all trying to kill each other, or banish each other from their respective territories. Almost every race ends with Miller getting out of his car, and issuing overt threats to his conquered opponents. The 5-10s are, basically, the least effective gang ever.

Missions are made marginally more enjoyable when you play them with other people, which The Crew actually makes a fairly streamlined process. With the press of a few buttons, you can invite players in your session — who could be scattered all across the country — into your four-player Crew. You can fast travel to any place on the map you've discovered, including the immediate location of your teammates, or simply launch your group into a mission in a matter of seconds.

Of course, that multiplayer experience is predicated on two things. First, that you'll have players in your session —which, perhaps a third of the time I spent playing The Crew, I did not, for reasons beyond my comprehension. Second, the game's servers will need to be working to begin with; but of course, if those are down, you won't be able to do any driving of any sort.

Servers have been relatively stable in the week since The Crew's launch, with most of their longer downtimes the result of maintenance rather than calamity. But the game's always-online nature makes even small hiccups disastrous. Server errors will occasionally wait for you to finish a mission before crashing you back to the main menu, but they're not always that polite. Sometimes just parts of the game stop working — once, the servers stopped calculating scores, preventing me from taking part in any challenges or missions whatsoever.

Playing with other people just isn't an attractive enough proposition to justify those headaches. As has been the case with so many other always-online games, the connectivity isn't worth the trade-off.

The Crew's competitive multiplayer modes have their own issues for you to contend with. They're all tied to The Crew's Faction system, which allows you to join up with one of five organizations, each with its own exclusive missions scattered all across the map. You can rank up in your faction by earning reputation points from these missions and playing competitive matches, which in turn boosts a daily salary rewarded to you by the faction.

A single competitive race nets you ten times the cash you'd get for completing a mission, making them a necessity if you want to unlock decent cars without spending real-life money. Matchmaking takes place in the background, and — on a good day — getting into a free-for-all event usually took me anywhere from five to ten minutes. However, maybe a third of the lobbies I made it into got hung up while initializing, preventing them from starting a match, and beginning the cycle anew.

The Crew seems like it tries to fill lobbies with players of equivalent level, but isn't always successful in that pursuit. There's no guarantee a maxed-out racer using a level 1200 car won't hop into the same race as a group of players who are just starting out. Worse still, the lobby leader gets to decide the event and car specialization that will be used in the next match, meaning the reigning champion can force the lobby to keep playing the same race they just destroyed over and over again.

There's also a multiplayer mode in The Crew which pits eight players from two different factions against each other —but after a cumulative total of around four hours spent waiting in matchmaking, I've never gotten into one of these matches. I did make it into a lobby after waiting 45 minutes or so, but someone left immediately, and after 10 minutes of their spot not getting filled, the lobby disbanded.

Wrap Up:

The Crew's big wins are buried under a mound of frustrations

I don't know what's more unfathomable: how all of these shortcomings made it into The Crew, or that they're piled high atop one of the most ambitious, masterful game worlds I've ever had the privilege of exploring. I've never seen a game deliver, dead to rights, on something that huge, difficult and elusive, then completely drop the ball on so many other basic fundamentals.

The result may very well be the most frustrating game I've ever played — not because of its myriad frustrations, but because of the painstaking artistry buried beneath.

The Crew was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy purchased by Polygon staff. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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