"What is The Crew?" Julian Gerighty, the game's creative director, asked at a recent hands-on event for the game, before proceeding to answer his own question. "This may surprise you, but The Crew is actually an MMORPG." I later spent about an hour playing the game, and while I'm not sure I'm convinced that the designation of massively multiplayer online role-playing game applies here, I was surprised by the way in which elements we might typically associate with role-playing games are being incorporated into this open-world racing game.
Your time in The Crew begins in Detroit. In my garage here, I saw how you apply equipment to cars. Similar to loot in action role-playing games, each piece of equipment, like your car's exhaust, gearbox, fuel injection system, and so on, has a level and a color-coded indication of its quality. Slotting in better gear improves your car's performance. There's also a perk system that affects your abilities as a driver, and I used it to put points into improving my braking and handling. I started out driving a Mustang, and found the car felt heftier and less responsive than I would have liked. But this may just be a matter of tuning and customization, rather than a reflection of the game's driving model. Cars can be customized to fit a number of different specs: a street spec (all-around performance and handling), a dirt spec (great for off-road races and exploration), a circuit spec (designed for racing, with a more technical handling model), and a perf spec (good for highway battles, sacrificing some handling for speed).
Before leaving Michigan, I took part in a takedown mission, cooperating with my fellow players to do enough damage to an AI-controlled vehicle to disable it, while competing with them to be the one who did the most damage and therefore reaped the biggest rewards in terms of money, parts, and experience points. This was an off-road mission that took me over the rolling dunes along the shore of one of Michigan's Great Lakes, which felt about a million miles from the industrial streets of Detroit.
My time with The Crew left me with some idea of how varied its locales will be. I participated in an illegal street race that took me through New York's Central Park, and stopped briefly in the pleasant burg of Norfolk while cruising down to Miami. Each city and region I saw had a distinct personality communicated through the architecture of its buildings or the nature of its terrain, though while there's plenty of beauty to the wide-open America of The Crew, the game does appear to be sacrificing detail for scope. Cruising down a Miami street, I noticed that I passed the same convenience store twice within a few blocks.
"...we've found that people really just like discovering the country together. It isn't an aggressive atmosphere at all. This is a very pleasant discovery of the country."
The drive from New York to Miami took maybe 10 or 12 minutes, leaving me with the feeling that the highways that connect the game's cities are meant to give you the feeling of traveling from one place to another, without making you wait for too long to reach your destination. There's also a detailed map that you can open at any time to fast-travel to places you've been (or to use trains or planes to travel to places you haven't been, for a cost).
There's a story here that's meant to give the game structure and provide you with an excuse for progressing from one region of the country to the next. Taking some cues from the Fast and the Furious films, it has you going undercover to infiltrate and undermine a gang that dominates the illegal street racing scene. What little I saw of the story struck me as thoroughly generic, but thankfully, The Crew doesn't need a compelling narrative to be an interesting game.
In my time with The Crew, it was the prospect of just hitting the open road and cruising around that appealed to me the most. Gerighty said, "Something quite unique to this game is that we have an almost Zen driving experience, where you're just going around the country. There is no competition here. There's a lot of collectibles, and we've found that people really just like discovering the country together. It isn't an aggressive atmosphere at all. This is a very pleasant discovery of the country." I was kept on a tight leash while playing, so I didn't have the chance to indulge my wanderlust, but since one of my favorite things to do in any Grand Theft Auto game is just turn on the radio and cruise around aimlessly, I'm already excited at the thought of seeing where the roads of The Crew can take me. It's a big, big world. Gerighty showed a slide that depicted the worlds of Forza Horizon, Far Cry 3, Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto V, and Need for Speed: Rivals all fitting comfortably within the United States of The Crew.
"It's huge," Gerighty said, "but I don't really like to focus on the size of it. What's really impressive and what we've spent a lot of time doing is creating a lot of variety in terms of areas. So not only do you have natural parks--Yosemite, Black Hills [National Forest], the Rocky Mountains, snow-covered hills--you've got cities, you've got highways, you've got everything in between. And that's really crucial, because we've found that people get a little bit tired of racing games after the eight- or nine-hour mark when they realize that basically they're just going in circles."
In Miami, I purchased a Lamborghini Miura from a dealership, outfitted it with a few parts I'd earned doing missions, and then leapt into a street race against the seven other journalists who were at the event. I won. So if you want to join my crew, look for me on the highways of America. There's a good chance I'll be cruising somewhere in the Midwest with the top down and the radio on when The Crew comes out for the PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One this fall.