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The Crew, Ubisoft's ambitious open-world driving game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC, stylizes itself as a racing MMO but it doesn't have to meet the typical obligations of one.

The Crew

The Crew brings racing games and MMOs to a photo finish

Few video games are more standardized than the driving game. Played with a game pad on a modern console, you know the gas is on the right index finger, the brake is on the left, and your primary joystick is the wheel. You don't have to worry about binding special commands or ordering abilities in a skill tray. Three simple controls will win you a race today the same way they did 20 years ago.

The Crew, Ubisoft's ambitious open-world driving game for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows PC, stylizes itself as a racing MMO but it doesn't have to meet the typical obligations of one. There's no overwhelming canon that players must read or sit through so they can understand what they're doing or why. It's set in the U.S., not a fantasy realm whose regions are alien until they're explored. If you don't know what Vegas is all about, I can't really help you. Perhaps most importantly, it doesn't have a subscription fee.

But it is a racer whose singleplayer and multiplayer takes place in the same persistent world, and features things like level caps, the ability to grind your way up in experience before tackling a tough mission, and player-versus-player races. Julian Gerighty, the creative director for Ivory Tower, the game's director, said there will even be faction missions "that can be up to four hours long."

Four hours? That sounds like an endurance race.

"It is," Gerighty said. "I'm not saying everybody will play this. Faction is completely separate. It's for that 4 percent of people who are gonna do that thing."

But four hours, what about —

"We're working on creative ways to put a pause on that," Gerighty said. "We do realize people will have to go to the restroom during those four-hour situations."

There's not a lot of idling in The Crew. As I buzzed around Las Vegas I came across a story race and triggered it on a whim; a few menu selections later and it was on to the Hoover Dam, myself and three guys against four bot racers. Just one of us had to win to complete this mission. That's how the crew works in The Crew. Even if we're on the same side there's still the all-consuming need to finish first, so it was more of a race between the humans than against the CPU.

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It strikes me as a rather low standard for moving through a story mission, but in The Crew, the campaign seems to be deliberately optional, even if it should offer around 20 hours of gameplay. Gerighty wasn't discussing the story, other than to call it "super light," and "super fun," and inspired in part by the Fast and the Furious (which, he gleefully noted, follows the exact same structure as Point Break.) "It doesn't take itself seriously," Gerighty said.

"How many times have you been told, 'This story will shake you to your core ...' and then you look at it and it's bad CG," he added. "We've taken huge steps to improve the narrative in games, but I don't think it's the job of a driving game to make that point."

Another story mission I played was similarly light on details. We were supposed to go up to Detroit and administer a motorized beatdown to prove our loyalty to the crew we were trying to infiltrate. Same setup as before — you just had to participate in a successful mission, not complete it yourself — but this time it required an off-road configuration as we ended up out on some suburban golf course.

A note here about handling: I was racing on default controls with driving assists turned on. In open-world exploration taking off assists should deliver a truer experience with whatever is being driven. But The Crew still is very much an action racer, with bots going at top speed through every turn, so driving aids are prudently used in competitive situations.

There's a have-it-both ways aura around The Crew

The map The Crew offers is not a 1:1 representation of the U.S. — which IRL has some eminently skippable parts of its own — but it is vast and dotted with a ton of stuff to do. Open world racers are not new and but their environments don't show the kind of variance that The Crew promises, swinging from the Appalachian mountains to the Rockies to Louisana's bayous and everything else.

While fast travel to a location is available once it's discovered it, players who choose to do so may drive to any point, even coast-to-coast. At any rate, Gerighty says the whole nation is accessible within the first 10 or 15 minutes of play, with the basic car the game gives you.

Cars in The Crew are sort of where the MMO comparison diverges, because you're not leveling up or applying gear to a single character. The leveling is applicable across the board — that pertains just to the player. But every car in the game comprises 20 parts — 11 of them performance and nine of them visual. One part goes with one car. Multiples of the same part may be owned (or bought) but it's not like acquiring a certain type of brakes makes it applicable to any vehicle in your fleet.

Every race rewards players with a part, cash and experience points, Gerighty said, so there's your loot drop. "Going around the map, you will be able to identify which skill or which mission will reward you with the part you're missing in your character sheets." There will be 70 story-based missions and 60 PvP races, plus a set of skills challenges that take between 20 and 40 seconds each to complete and end with a bronze-silver-gold designation.

"In playtests, we've seen players get in and start leveling up just by doing skills," Gerighty said. "You can actually get to player level 50 and get to the highest level of car by doing (and completing) only the skills challenges. You don't have to do a single PvP or story-based mission."

The Crew also allows gamers to create their own events, as has been mentioned before, and when the game starts dropping expansions, a curated list of the best community events will be among them. "One of my big messages for E3 is we're going to be supporting this, post-launch, with multiple free packs of content," he said. "Every expansion, or free DLC pack, will include extra content, and one extra big feature."

There's a have-it-both ways aura around The Crew — partly a traditional console racer, partly an MMO — and what it really is will be borne out in the size of its community and how long its motorsports playground can be sustained and refreshed with new content. Gerighty said, though, that his team is mindful that straddling both genres is a gift and a curse.

"It's a gift because, yes, everybody does understand, 'This is a race game, press right trigger to accelerate, press left trigger to brake' and that's it," he said. "But it's a curse in that, when you pitch the game, even internally, people say, 'Don't worry, I know what this is all about. This is a race game. You don't need to do the full on spiel for me.' But you actually do, because there's depth there."

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