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Hands on: The Crew is a great racing game first, MMO second

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When I first heard of the concept behind Ubisoft’s The Crew I was skeptical. I like a good driving game, but the last time I played one that also claimed to be an MMO I got burned. Bad.

I was one of the beta testers for Auto Assault, NCSoft’s failed attempt to bring looting and raiding to the driving genre. When The Crew was announced I rolled my eyes, worried that developer Ivory Tower would make the mistakes its predecessor did. In my opinion, what makes a driving game good are solid driving mechanics, not grinding and raiding.

But during my 15 minutes hands on with The Crew I found a game that put arcade racing ahead of everything else, and enriched that model with a capable progression system. The MMO elements showed me the potential for advancement and personalization that the team had initially promised at last year’s announcement.

After a short video, myself and five other members of the press were invited to take hold of some Xbox One controllers and go head-to-head, in teams of three, in a series of competitive missions. First up was a Takedown mission, which required us to be the first team to ram a larger, faster AI-controlled target vehicle until it broke down.

After a short cinematic with our thuggish boss we were off, tearing across the sand dunes of coastal Michigan. I was driving a Ford Mustang kitted out as a Raid-class vehicle, heavily modified with raised suspension, nobby tires and kangaroo bars on the grill. It was like driving a tank that handled more like a dune buggy.

All six of us were screaming up the face of the sandy hills and crashing down the other side on the tail of our quarry. When we got close we were able to work together to pin the larger car in while teammates swarmed it from the rear. The off-road handling was sticky, and my Raid car felt glued to the rugged terrain. But when we passed over the occasional paved road I began to loose grip. My car fishtailed and the engine sounds told me I wasn’t moving as fast as I could. Turning off into the grass actually sped me up.

The next race was a road rally through the streets of Los Angeles. This time I was driving a pickup truck with a racing body and a huge spoiler in the rear, perfect for long straight city streets. This was a Circuit-class car, and driving it took much more precision than the Raid class. Acceleration was quick and top speeds were high, but braking and cornering left much to be desired.

If this were the retail game, they explained, I would be able to earn equipment to make my Circuit car corner better. The cars in The Crew are your characters, and by leveling them up you improve their performance. Every car is divided into 20 puzzle pieces, 11 for handling and technology and 9 for aesthetics. By performing well in solo and multiplayer missions you earn upgrades, unique to each vehicle, that can be slotted in at the garage.

Overall, The Crew is fun. I can see myself spending a lot of time with it, gathering some friends in an online lobby and just hanging out in the game’s open world. It feels like a promising beer and pretzels kind of title, and I’m looking forward to unlocking a stable of high-level cars for my own personal garage.