If you've played Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, or Watch Dogs, then you are intimately acquainted with the Ubisoft open-world formula, and The Crew will surely ring similar bells. This upcoming driving game takes place in a large and lavishly produced online world stuffed with things to do and minor challenges to overcome. It sends you from location to location, busying you with tasks that seem connected in the vaguest of ways. The Crew is afraid you might become distracted, and so it provides its own distractions, reminding you of the many dozens of things you could be doing while you're headed towards another dozen things. There is always another waypoint to drive to, another goal to accomplish, another cutscene to watch, and another vehicle to drive.
The smorgasbord of activities includes street racing, drag racing, offroad chases, delivery missions, and more. Simply driving from one point to another means potentially activating drive-through challenges, and suddenly you're zooming around digital slalom gates or accelerating up ramps to catch some air. It's tempting to stop and enjoy this condensed vision of the United States: The Crew is lush and colorful, and scripted races often feature commercial jets or crop dusters soaring above for no more reason than to provide visual and thematic drama. However, the game is always insisting you stay on the move.
This is a formula that works, but it's also a formula that toes the line between keeping you busy and making you feel like you're just going through the motions. I've been playing the game's closed beta test, and I am not yet sure that The Crew will land on the proper side of that line. I can't deny its appeal, however. The beta speeds ahead from the moment you sign in, with a chase sequence that keeps you roaring forward. From there, I've gone to Detroit to Chicago to St. Louis to New York and places in between, pursuing missions and other tasks that earn me new parts that spruce up my two current vehicles, a Ford Mustang and a Ford Focus. I also earn perk points that I can spend on upgrades that provide boosts like experience bonuses.
In some sense, The Crew embraces the traditional role-playing formula and applies it to an open-world driving game. I rush to the next objective, I perform a task like chasing down rival gang members or rushing someone to another section of the map, and I earn a reward. It's the loot loop, compelling in that primal way that games like Diablo so often are, and like in an action RPG, I am not necessarily alone in this world. I wouldn't call The Crew a massively multiplayer game, but you still share your gameplay session with others, and you can join up with them to free roam cities and the stretches in between. If you don't know any of these folks (and considering The Crew beta uses Ubisoft's UPlay portal as its social hub, you may not), you can invite nearby players to join you whenever you activate a mission. Conversely, you frequently receive random requests to join others in their own cooperative tasks, and can join them with the press of a button. Afterwards, you and your crew can roam about together, or you can go your separate ways once the task is complete.
This structure allows you to easily hop from place to place provided you've already driven once to the area you're visiting. Occasionally, I bounced from one city to another using the quick travel system, but I enjoyed driving across the beautiful stretches of midwestern farms and towns, even though those expanses are far smaller than their real life counterparts. (I drove from Chicago to New York in under ten minutes.) There are moments, however, when I long for a thematic thread to tie The Crew together that's stronger than the neverending quest for more powerful cars. I suppose the story is Ubisoft's attempt to ground The Crew in a theme, but at least in the beta, it is absolute nonsense, full of ridiculous dialogue that lacks the gung-ho silliness that could have made it mindless fun. It's a parade of meaningless characters floating around a protagonist with the face of Gordon Freeman, the voice of Booker DeWitt, and the personality of a used tissue.
As for the driving, I admit I am spoiled by Need for Speed: Rivals' slick handling. In The Crew beta, vehicles don't behave consistently, sometimes careening off of the smallest objects as if they'd bounced from a trampoline. Making contact with other vehicles doesn't always result in the collision you expect, but rather might send you ricocheting away as if the cars were covered with a thick layer of rubber. There's undoubtedly plenty of time to tune up the physics, of course, but it was hard not to notice the quirks. In The Crew beta, the driving is serviceable; it's the sheer variety of tasks and the constant call to group up, to go to a different city, to do one of a dozen available challenges that keeps you on the move.
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Lest I sound overly judgmental regarding a game in closed beta, let it be said that I'm looking forward to seeing how The Crew blossoms as the game nears its full release this November. It's a big and ultradetailed game that in its current beta state comes as across as random and unfocused. A few major tune-ups could make The Crew an appealingly smooth ride, and one that you could put a lot of miles on.