We get behind the wheel of Ubisoft's MMO racer and take it out for a practice lap.
We went to see The Crew in Paris a few months ago, and came away very excited about the potential held in the concept. Since then we've had a chance to sample the delights of the Closed Beta, and while we're going to dial down our excitement just a teeny tiny bit, we're still looking forward to Ubisoft's MMO racer launching later this year.
Why are we excited? Well, the scale of the project is truly impressive. Straight away we're offered a map of America, and once a couple of story bits are out of the way, you're free to drive wherever you want. We didn't get around to the coast to coast road trip, but we did take advantage of the fast travel and had a look around some of the different locations found in Ivory Tower's vision of mini-America. It's already been confirmed that it'll take a chunk of time to cross the continent, but we're still looking forward to doing it one day, just because we can.
There's an enticing sense of freedom woven into the open-world, and it's easy to see Ubisoft's trademark stamp in the way it's presented. The map is revealed as you explore, peeling away the blue finish with a more colourful and detailed layer underneath. There's five different zones, and they all feel different. There's objectives dotted across the criss-crossing roads (and we only had markers on one zone), and overall it looks very busy.
We spent most our time chewing through the story-campaign content. We played through the opening city - Detroit - and then travelled to St. Louis to continue our adventure. There, a couple of missions in, we hit a wall; a race where the competition was so much faster than us that there was grinding to be done before our own ride would be fast enough to compete.
We say grinding, because it's an MMO and that's what you have to do to level up in an MMO. In The Crew this is done via activities - skill challenges - discovered as you drive around. Hit this jump, stay on the road while driving really fast, slaloming between several markers; that sort of thing. These activities are distractions on the way, diversions from the monotony of driving the sometimes considerable distances between objectives, and they do succeed in helping to fill up the world and pass the time.
The story itself was well told via stylish cutscenes, but it's still fairly generic stuff. Put it this way, if it was a movie, it wouldn't be winning any Oscars, but you'd happily chew through a tub of popcorn while the plot unfolded. But, it's not a movie, it's a racing MMO, and while the story is important, it's far from the main attraction here. That honour goes to the handling of the cars and the racing events you discover along the way. In this respect, The Crew holds up its end of the bargain.
The driving physics are, for the most part, solid. There's the odd moment where the slightest of nudges will send you horribly out of control, and in this regard we'd expect some more fine-tuning before the game's November release. The different cars, however, definitely handle differently, even if this sits more on the arcade-centric side of the racing spectrum. With five different specs (think classes - two were included in the beta) and a load of different perks on offer (think RPG-type levelling up), there's plenty of room to build up your fleet of cars and tailor it to suit your evolving playing style.
Racing is split into a variety of different events, and most can be completed either alone versus the computer, or in co-op groups. We're still not entirely sold on this idea, at least when it comes to racing with strangers. With friends we can see the appeal, even if the extra wheels on the track will speed you through the campaign with much more efficiency (after all, with two, three or four of you, there's a much better chance that one of you will win the event and story will move forward).
However, racing with strangers means that there's every chance someone else will win the race on your behalf, and then you can either progress without that sense of personal completion, or you can go back and do it again... by yourself. If you're going to do this, why not race alone in the first place? It's a clash between the spirit of co-op racing, the progression of a story-driven driving game, and the sensibilities of an MMO, and we're not sure that when the final game arrives we'll bother racing with other players unless we've made friends with them first.
While we're on the subject of other players, at the moment we're still regularly getting treated to other driver's inane ramblings blasting through our headset at seemingly random intervals. You can mute them in the menus, but (as far as we can tell) there's no way to mute all other players by default. It's very annoying when the game decides to party you up to other players nearby with no warning.
Another annoyance is the pop-up screen that appears once you've completed a mission or event (see below). When you've finished an event or skill challenge with either bronze, silver, or gold, you're rewarded via a new part (loot - it is an MMO) to use when upgrading your car. The pop-up that delivers said reward is intrusive, and while it is possible to continue driving while you either install the part or dismiss the screen, it's still a distraction and a more elegant / muted solution would be simple enough to achieve in our opinion.
We've also noticed some connectivity issues. Sometimes we'd get blasts of audio from other player's microphones, but when we went to select them and invite them race with or against us, they'd simply disappear. This inadvertently meant we weren't able to sample as much multiplayer as we'd have liked to during this phase of the beta. Given that we were able to party up for some co-op races earlier in the week, but not towards the week's end, we're assuming that the issue isn't on our side (either that, or we were doing something wrong - if that's the case, it needs simplifying and better signposting).
The final issue that we had came down to the stability of the client. The game crashed our computer on more than one occasion, but we'll put this down to it being in beta, for the time being at least, and hopefully this won't happen once the final game is released at the end of the year.
They're the main problems that we have with The Crew at this current moment in time. For the most part we're impressed with what we've seen, and we're looking forward to seeing more than what this gameplay slice has to offer. We were able to experience the skill challenges and story missions for one region, and were able to drive freely across the map, but it still feels like a tiny chunk of what will ship with the final game.
All in all the beta has done as intended; it has given Ubisoft and Ivory Tower a chance to test their servers and see how people play the game, and it's given us a chance to enjoy the scale of this ambitious project. There's still a few months to go before this vehicular MMO comes out, and that should be plenty of time for the developers to get it shipshape.