Tim McDonald: Ubisoft’s upcoming open-world driving game, The Crew, had a closed beta last week. I played it for a few hours. Peter (Parrish), my regular foil, also played it for a few hours. Now that we’ve both played it for a few hours, we intend to give you impressions.
For the uninitiated, The Crew is… well, like I said above, it’s an open-world driving game. The (literally) big thing here is that it’s set across the entire United States – you can drive from Las Vegas to New York, or go for a spin in Seattle, or whatever. It’s not to scale – it doesn’t actually take several days to drive from the west coast to the east coast – but it’s still pretty damn big. I haven’t done it in-game, but I’d guess it’d take at least an hour or so.
Peter, what were your first impressions of The Crew? And yes, I fully expect you to start talking about the story because bloody hell, that thing is simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst things I experienced in the beta.
Peter Parrish: I am willing and eager to talk about the story! My first surprise was that it actually has a story, because I don’t recall any mention of that in any of the promotional stuff. It does, though.
Exciting reveal number one is that you play as a trendy version of Gordon Freeman, whose brother is … leader, I think? … of an UNDERGROUND RACING GANG (meaning they race in secret, not that they race inside abandoned mines) called the 510’s. You do a tutorial race, meet your brother who looks edgy and then drive to a meeting with a man named Shiv. Yes, he’s called Shiv. Ironically, that’s not his weapon of choice.
Then … are we spoiling this? I mean it happens in about five minutes. Look, if you really don’t want spoilers for The Crew then move down the page a bit I guess. Your brother gets shot and killed, which is telegraphed from the moment you talk to him, and some cops immediately appear on the scene. Then a portly FBI man picks up the discarded gun and rubs it furtively on his thigh in the most hilarious manner possible before framing you for the murder of your own bro, bro.
Peter: But luckily ten minutes later you learn that years have passed and now a different FBI lady wants you to try to uncover dirt on the bad FBI man and help arrest Shiv (who now runs the 510s and turned them into some kind of weird inter-US smuggling gang.) As luck would have it, you’ll do this by racing in cars a lot. Then she buys you a car. I’m pretty sure she’s grooming me.
Every word of that is as silly on screen as it sounds. Did I miss any crucial details, Tim?
Tim: Nope, you’ve got it basically spot on. It is admittedly less a story than it is a very basic setup for “drive around and do missions”, but it’s fantastic anyway. I mean, it’s dreadful, but fantastic. It’s like every stereotype from every street racing movie from the past 20 years has been lobbed into an industrial blender, and then that blender has exploded onto a cinema showing Gone in 60 Seconds. After that you basically start working for one of the low-end bosses in the 510s (because nobody remembers you – the brother of the former boss – due to hand-wavey reasons) and start trying to advance through the ranks and whatnot.
I cannot tell you how pleased I am that the main character (whose name I can’t remember, because that’s how relevant it was to me) isn’t a stereotypical butch crew-cut anti-hero. He’s a guy with a beard and hipster glasses. How excellent is that? I honestly wasn’t expecting a story, either, not least because it’s primarily an online game, so it’s perhaps a little odd that everybody is the same character rather than making their own. I suppose “customisation” is all about the cars, really, since you can’t roam around on foot.
Peter: They don’t remember him because he has a beard now! Oh … wait, he always had a beard. Um.
Tim: I suppose that I should also explain what I mean about “multiplayer stuff” and “online game”, because I completely failed to address that earlier. Here’s how it works: whenever you’re playing the game, there are also other people driving around in the same world instance as you. If you’re careening around Detroit, then there are probably a bunch of other people doing much the same thing. You can invite them into your Crew (and there’s the title), or you can do missions in “quick co-op” where it tries to hook you up with other people attempting the same mission, or… etc.
Which is fine. It’s sort of Test Drive Unlimited, if anyone remembers that – which probably shouldn’t be a surprise, considering various Test Drive Unlimited developers are apparently working on The Crew! It’s nice seeing other people driving around, and having instant co-op, and all that malarkey. I am a reasonably large fan of that sort of thing, as long as I can turn it off when I want to just play by myself. (I didn’t find any way to do that in the beta, and have no idea if the full version will give that option, but I was never griefed when I played and being on a mission seems to put you into a separate instance anyway.)
Tim: I do have two issues with it, though. First is that actually finding other people seemed a bit spotty – I never managed to do a Quick Co-op mission because there was never anybody around when I was attempting a mission, but this may admittedly be down to the beta having a limited number of participants. Second is that it has open mic on. All the time. Forever. And I couldn’t find a way to turn that off, either. This basically made doing a narrated video completely fucking impossible because everything I said was broadcast to everyone within 100 miles of me, and because I’m in Europe, it also meant that all I was heard when driving around was people shouting in Russian. Car noise? Nope. ???? ????? all the way.
Peter: I mostly heard mumbling, static feedback and, in one memorable case, “THE CREW, MOTHERFUCKER.” Somebody out there is very excited about this game.
Did you spot the microtransactions? Every single “upgrade” bit for your car looks like it can be bought with real world money. That’s quite sad and gross. I don’t have much else to say about that, but I thought it was worth bringing attention to.
Tim: I wondered about that. Brief Googling indicates that they’re trying not to make it pay-to-win – you can only use stuff of your level or below, and you can’t buy levels with real money. So you can’t just buy the game, and then immediately pick up a Ferrari with real money – you have to actually play and level up first, and then you can spend real money on it. This moves it from “game-breakingly stupid” to “pretty pointless”, which is where I like my microtransactions to be, if I have to have them! I guess this means if you want a garage full of supercars you can either grind up the cash for it or just shell out real money, but from what I can tell most of the stuff seems to have a pretty reasonable in-game price. Doesn’t look like you’ll ever really be forced to dip into your wallet.
Peter: So, like any sensible person in an open world beta, I buggered off from the “main” missions as quickly as possible and starting driving around the US. Actually, I first flew to Las Vegas from Detroit and for some reason my car was able to travel with me. I can only assume I had a special car passport for it. Driving around between US cities is surprisingly pleasant and they’ve got the scenery changes for the West Coast down pretty well in a superficial kind of way. Outside Vegas it’s all dry, California has a bunch of vineyards and so on. For some reason it wasn’t raining in Seattle, but I don’t know if weather effects are even “in.”
Peter: Broadly speaking I think one hour of real driving time roughly equates to about one minute in The Crew. San Francisco to Seattle took about 10-12 minutes and, according to Google and my brain, would be about 13 hours in real life. It took me ages (20 minutes or so) to get from Vegas to San Francisco though, and that should’ve only been about 9 real hours. I think I took a pretty round-about route.
Tim: Or your estimate is off. But that would be impossible, obviously.
Peter: Obviously, I used science! Well, Google. We can maybe talk about handling and collisions in a bit, because those to me don’t seem … great. But the couple of hours I played did give me a pretty convincing US road trip feel. It captures the impression of moving from countryside to city streets quite well. Only thing is, although I had fun just cruising around, I don’t know how long that would really sustain me. Perhaps I should’ve been looking for more radio towers. YES THERE ARE RADIO TOWERS TO UNLOCK THE MAP. Proper Ubisoft title confirmed.
Tim: Yeah, the map transition stuff is great. I drove from Detroit to New York by taking the motorway (and a detour through a forest), cruised around Las Vegas, hopped over to Seattle and went for a drive in what I think were the Rocky Mountains, and it was all lovely and pretty and genuinely felt quite special.
Also, I’m a massive fan of how they’ve done side-missions. As mentioned above, this is definitely a Ubisoft game, so not only do you have a million radio towers to unlock but you have a million side-missions to do. However! Unlike most games where these completely break the flow and force you to stop for a little while, most of these can be done on the way to wherever you were going. Which is fantastic. I’ve played so many open-world games in the last decade that just randomly waddling about a big game map doesn’t excite me much, so giving me little activities to do on the way – without slowing my progress – is excellent.
Tim: As an example, when I drove from Detroit to New York, I came across one thing on the motorway that challenged me to go as fast as I could while staying on the road. Another one had me swing onto the grass in between the motorway’s roads, hit a ramp, and try to get a certain distance. All of these were oriented for continued travel along the route I was taking, but if I wanted to have another go, I could easily press a button to reset myself back there. I cannot describe how much I like this over little mini-missions that take 10 minutes and are dotted all over the map (although there are plenty of those around, too). I’m slightly bummed that a lot of these were locked because my car wasn’t amazing enough, so I didn’t get to do any in Seattle or Vegas, but that’s a necessary evil of progression. I mean, if you’re meant to have a tricked-out supercar by the time you do those, there’s no way my slightly battered auto could compete, so at least locking them off let me know I’d just be wasting my time.
Peter: The side-missions tricked me into trying to weave between imaginary posts on a busy freeway and I ran straight into a police car. Luckily, he only decided to fine me about $10. I quite like that as you cause excessive amounts of damage in a city, you’ll draw police HEAT, but I think they’ll need to tweak those fines a bit. Or maybe it’s always a proportion of your income or something and I was only charged that low amount because I was poor? I don’t know.
Tim: Handling and collisions… yeah, they deserve a bit of discussion. I actually don’t mind the handling overmuch, but then I historically don’t mind handling in almost any vehicle-based game unless it’s an utter mess. Then again, I don’t play racing simulators nor do I actually drive in real life, so I’m probably not the best judge. It was… kind of arcade-y? The cars I tried felt quite slidey, but they were certainly responsive and perfectly controllable once I got to grips with the way The Crew deals with driving. It’s worth noting that this may also have been because of the car’s “spec”; only a few of those were available in the beta, and I didn’t really play enough to unlock a huge fleet of cars and parts.
Peter: It’s very arcade-y, yes. In a different way to Driver: San Francisco though (that was a Ubisoft game and Reflections is helping on The Crew in some way, so that’s why I mention it.) In Driver: SF you can to haul your big fat muscle cars around corners and everything quite rightly felt like a big stupid Hollywood car chase where the back ends of cars were swerving out all over the place. It was great! The Crew doesn’t feel as fun to me yet, but it’s definitely approaching that “look, the handling is just going to be silly, okay?” area.
Tim: Also, while it’s not trying to be a simulator, it does look like there are a huge number of parts to pick and numbers to tweak. I have no idea how much that’ll impact the feel and control of the vehicles, but it’s not-arcade enough that you have the option of manual gearshifts, so they’re trying something more than the usual arcade racer.
The collisions, however, are rubbish. I really hope that’s something they’re still tweaking before launch, because they just feel a bit random and a bit wrong. On the one hand, I’ve ploughed into a bus at 100mph and my car flipped through the air and so on. On the other hand, I had a head-on collision with another car at 100mph, and… I sort of slid around it, and I lost a bit of speed, and my windscreen looked cracked. Considering that some missions actually require you to ram people off the road and wreck their cars and so on, rubbish collisions are a bit disconcerting.
Peter: The biggest crime though is that you can’t really hear the in-game radio properly. I want to be belting out classical music while I skid across the roads of mid-Western states, damnit. Instead I could barely hear it because it was so quiet compared to car/road/open mic noises. Fiddling with the audio options didn’t seem to help, but presumably that’ll be a beta-ish thing that can be fixed.
Tim: God, yes. I had How You Like Me Now by The Heavy playing but I could barely hear it, even with every other bit of in-game audio shoved down low.
Peter: If we’re getting towards some kind of conclusive state on these impressions, I’ll stick with what I indicated earlier. Faffing about with The Crew in beta was pretty fine, it has a fantastically ridiculous story and the sort of absurd handling that I can mostly appreciate. Making my own road-trips was engaging for a couple of hours, but I don’t know whether that’s enough to keep me interested. I’d not really played enough missions to judge them, although I was a bit suspicious of the AI in the early races which seemed to be slowing down on purpose so I could catch up.
Tim: The AI did indeed seem to do that in the tutorial missions, but it seemed to stop pretty quickly afterwards.
I think we have roughly the same opinion, annoyingly; I quite enjoyed it, but I’m not convinced I’d like to spend 20+ hours in this world. Honestly, though, we’ve both got a pretty blinkered view of it: the multiplayer is clearly a massive focus of The Crew, and it’s something neither of us really managed to experience, barring having random strangers shouting at us. Which is, I suppose, the Internet Experience, but maybe not The Crew Experience. It’s hard to lay down any sort of judgement without having experienced that side of things in full, because it’s an utterly crucial, massively integral part of the experience.
The story is silly fun, the driving seems – at worst – fine, the early missions seem to have a decent chunk of variety, and the open world is pretty impressive. The Crew appears to be driving on the right road, but… actually, no, I’m not going to do some sort of dreadful car metaphor. What I’ve seen is decent but nothing that made my head explode into rainbows of bewildered joy. As I said, the multiplayer matters, and there’s a fair bit of polish to be done before launch. This is a beta, though, and that’s what the last few months of development are for!