Julian Gerighty, shortly after our hands-on session with The Crew, explained to us that Atari weren't brave enough to call Test Drive Unlimited an MMO. It was too early, it was ahead of its time. Well, time has now caught up with the racing genre, and recent/upcoming releases from some of the major racing studios - Need For Speed, Driveclub, Forza - all talk up connectivity and shared experiences. The Crew goes all-in in this respect, and when you look at its composite parts, it's unmistakably an MMO. You could even go as far as calling it an MMORPG.
But pigeonholing The Crew would be to miss the point, first and foremost it's a racer, and a decent one at that. There's plenty of cars, customisation options, terrain types, challenges, all contributing towards the thrill of the chase, or the pressure of leading the pack. It's a racer, pure and simple.
Looking past that basic label, and considering the different elements that make up the game, a different picture starts to emerge and the lines start to blur. There's levelling up, with skill points to be distributed across a broad range of skills. There's loot, and when you complete a certain task, you're rewarded with items that can be equipped to improve your performance in the game. So far, so RPG.
But then you look at it another way, and there's co-operative missions, there's PvP battles, there's the mysterious heading name Factions which we believe is some kind of endgame content (they're not talking about it right now, we're told), there's huge worldwide servers that will be filled with players. So far, so MMO.
There's pedigree at the studio - drawing from ideas first laid down with Test Drive Unlimited - to realise this ambitious vision of the future of racing. It's a future we've already glimpsed with the recent releases of Need for Speed: Rivals on both new and old-gen consoles, as well as titles such as Forza Horizon and Forza Motorsport 5 (though for different reasons). From what we've seen of The Crew so far, they look to have thoroughly bested the competition.
The reason for our - perhaps premature - praise starts with the map. It looks huge. It is huge. We're told that in the fastest car it would take an accomplished driver 90 minutes to drive from coast to coast. Ubisoft has created a mini version of America, filled with different terrain and cities, and teeming with life.
The detail already present in the build we saw was impressive; road workers drill at the side of the road in cordoned off areas, wildlife scuttles through undergrowth, pedestrians stroll down the sidewalks, and traffic patrols the streets. And you can go anywhere. We fast travelled to the Navajo Trail and immediately went off-road, blasting through the desert just because we could. Earlier we'd chewed through mountain snow, flashed past Miami's palm trees, driven through the streets of New York, and careered down the highways of east coast America through Norfolk. At any time you want you can go off-road, or fast travel to any place you want to see.
The Crew managed to avoid feeling empty or lifeless, and it did this by making sure there was lots to do. In the built-up areas there was plenty to see, with challenges and points of interest lurking around what felt like every other corner. Even on the highway, as you cruise from location to location, you regularly come across challenges that give you something to do as you drive from A to B. Examples include slalom-like events (which are self-explanatory), ramp challenges (land in designated areas for rewards), chase events (stay a certain distance from your pursuer), and sections of road where you must follow the race-line. Depending on how you do in these events, you'll get either a fail, bronze, silver or gold; the better you do, the better the prize - a part for your car to improve your ride.
Different challenges take place on different types of terrain, and there's five different ‘classes'. Depending on the task at hand, there'll be a tool best suited for the job. Gerighty likens it "the Pokemon of racing games" and you can see why. Full Stock is your basic, off the forecourt setup. Street Spec is best suited to street racing, Dirt Spec is rally inspired, Perf Spec cars are high performance beasts and less arcadey to boot, Raid Spec are off-road specialists, and Circuit Spec are there for the technical drivers, and are the quintessential race cars. These different classes, and the different terrains to drive them on, should mean a decent variety of experiences.
You'll unlock some of these cars as you progress, or you'll get to drive them in the story campaign. These missions, which tell the story of an undercover officer trying to break into an organisation of racer-smugglers called the 510 (hardly original stuff, but hey, it's not a genre known for its narrative), are the glue that holds all of the other goings on together. They can be played either alone or with friends, banded together in their own crew (hence the title). Playing alone and tackling these missions is certainly tense, as failure requires a restart. Play with friends and if one of your team wins, everyone wins, the trade-off being having to avoid a restart, for the tension of trying to beat your buddies.
While the story might be generic stuff, the world in which it's set was impressive. We were able to take on solo missions and challenges, as well as easily invite other drivers to join us in various events. One such event, which we played alone and with others, was one where we had to repeatedly nudge our opponent and whittle down a health bar, all while we were cresting over sand dunes and trying to avoid driving straight into the sea. There was a clear shift of dynamic when played differently; alone we failed but found it to be more intense, with friends we won, but another driver landed the last hit and took home the points. It's more about fun and gentle competition than that more pressured feeling of solo missions or lap racing.
We had a babysitter while We were sampling this content, who sat with us as we played through the content that Ubisoft wanted us to see. We played the aforementioned off-road mission, raced in a campaign mission with three other racers, and then drove down the coast, tackling skills challenges and soaking up the atmosphere as we went.
The second half of the demo was focussed on cranking up the level of our temporary profile, and using the loot earned to pimp up our ride. There's something like eleven different ways to improve the performance of each vehicle, and even more vanity objects to help set your ride apart from the others in the game. We drove a Chevrolet at first, but eventually decided to upgrade to an Aston Martin DB9. For the rest of our time we were grinding up our level through winning medals in skills challenges, trying to get the best car possible ahead of a PvP contest between all the journalists in attendance. No doubt, dear readers, you'll be pleased to hear that it was Team GR who took home the prize and ended the demo in first place.
With our triumphant victory in the bag we then waited on our interviews with the developers (which you can read elsewhere on the site in the coming days), killing time by exploring the map and the UI. The UI is a bit cluttered at the moment, and it looks like it'll take a while to get to grips with everything, although it wasn't unintuitive. In Freedrive we headed to the map and plotted a route from Miami to Amarillo and started a long night drive through The States, and it proved to be an atmospheric trip, livened up by what sounds like a solid soundtrack.
After our interview we returned to the game, fast travelled around to see some of the different landscapes, and the variety on display was decent. In fact, the whole thing was impressive. There looks like there'll be plenty to do, and plenty of ways to enjoy the game. It looks good, with the version we played locked to the 1080p and 30 frames per second we'll likely to see on both new-gen consoles. The cars, from what we could tell, handled well, and there was differentiation between the vehicles in our garage. It leaned toward towards arcade thrills (and spills), but that fits in with the plethora of different activities on offer.
We can't wait to see more, such was the impression that it left. The loot and RPG progression could act as that killer hook that'll keep us coming back time and again, and the racing was fast and furious. There's co-op and PvP, solo-play and asynchronous (you can leave ghosts for your friends to race), and on top of that there's a huge open world to explore, the breadth of landscape and activities should be reason enough to just roll out and have agenda-less fun.
There's still more to come, more to reveal, more to know. At first we weren't sold on the idea, but now, having seen what's in store via this extended hands-on, we're enthused and looking forward to seeing what's next. They have our attention. Let's just hope they can deliver on the promise, and turn that potential into something tangible. The stakes are high: all Ubisoft has to do is stay on track.