The Crew tries to be a driving game with something for everyone. You can team up with a group of friends for an epic road trip filled with fast-paced illegal activities, and seamlessly explore a massive map of the U.S., from the tip of Maine, all the way down to Miami, over to Los Angeles and back again, passing through other iconic cities along the way. Though it's true that all of this is possible, the experience isn't all that it's made out to be. The Crew tries to do a lot, and while it technically delivers the features it promises, it frequently stumbles over itself. There are brief moments of joy within, but just when you start to think the game's turned a corner, a bump in the road sends your joyride careening off course. When the best thing a racing game has going for it is the variety of environments it has to offer, you know something's amiss.
You start off in the streets of Detroit, but it's not long before you're rolling through mountains, everglades, and forests. The huge maps and its colossal number of activities is intimidating at first, but that's great: the more places to go and things to do, the merrier. Story missions, which take you through a trope-filled campaign that plays out like a Fast & Furious sequel, send you from one region of the country to the next, and missions emerge out of the blue along the way. You street race, smuggle contraband, take down competing criminals, and tackle bite-sized emergent challenges that test your abilities behind the wheel while you're on the go. There are hundreds of things to do, but only some are truly fun. The problem? With so much ground to cover, The Crew feels and looks like it's stretched too thin, and it's evident from the start. The Crew's world may be massive and varied, but it's not good-looking. It's constantly plagued by texture and geometry pop-in, and looks generally outdated. People, buildings, the environment, and most importantly, the cars, are represented by disappointing models that suffer from an unsightly amount of aliasing.
At some point during your journey across America, you wonder: what was that about forming a crew, again? Despite the game's title and pitch, The Crew is a single-player experience tucked into a multiplayer server. It starts with a story that casts you on a grand mission, and you're constantly encouraged by your cohorts to head to the next step along the way. You always have the option of inviting three of your friends along for the ride, but at no point does the game inspire you to do so. Think extra crewmates will help you on a difficult mission? Nope; the game scales its difficulty accordingly. If anything, forming a crew is a chore that's easy to brush aside. The best thing you can do to improve your chances at success is to upgrade your car, but the way in which The Crew facilitates this can get a little frustrating. While the game won't prevent you from entering a story mission, it will tell you if you're below the recommended level. You can purchase kits when you're avatar's level is high enough, but it takes a while to hit successive milestones.
In practice, you earn new parts as rewards for missions, but playing story missions alone won't provide you with enough parts to get your vehicle to the appropriate level towards the end of the game. That's when you have to grind through optional missions, which pop up as you drive around the map. Some of these objectives are enjoyable, such as long-distance jumps and missions that challenge you to drive as fast and as far as you can while keeping your tires on the road. Others, like the missions that challenge you to hit a series of targets that are strewn both on and off the road, are frustrating. Essentially, the game asks you to drive like a jerk, and it's not fun when you can't help but careen into other cars and buildings as you try your best to fulfill the criteria to earn a medal. It comes down to the luck of the draw. Sometimes the coast is clear, and other times you're bombarded by a phalanx of other vehicles that you can't avoid when pursuing objectives.
These optional missions can be useful when you need to level up, but they can also be an annoyance when you're just trying to get from point A to point B. Every time you hit the road, you eventually cross the virtual gate that activates these missions, but there's nothing you can do to prevent them from activating automatically. Pass through a gate, and you have to suffer through a cluttered user interface, which starts with icons, but ends with a large results screen that blocks your view while driving. Apart from driving off the road to avoid a gate, or entering into a menu to abort after a mission activates, you're at the mercy of the map.
One of the best aspects of a racing game is the selection of cars that you get to choose from, but The Crew has a meager selection and does a poor job of incentivizing you to explore your options. Story missions are broken up by the type of vehicle they require: street, dirt, raid, performance, or circuit. Not every vehicle can be kitted out to fit every spec, but the one you get at the start of the game definitely can. Given that you earn new parts for the vehicle you complete missions with, you are never compelled to pick up new cars. Maybe your curiosity will get the better of you and you'll check out a new car, but there's nothing stopping you from using the same car from the beginning of the game through to the end.
Although the variety of cars is underwhelming and underutilized, the story missions take advantage of the different car specs in a good way. As you travel from one region of the country to the next, you encounter different terrain and environments that call upon the different types of kits you can fit to your car. You race street cars through dense cities, take on dirt car races through construction sites and rough terrain, and tear across states in souped up performance vehicles. The story missions are largely the best moments in the game, however, there exceptions: raid car missions and fleeing missions.
Raid missions are fun at first--you charge through mountains, swamps, and back country in an armored vehicle--but at some point, the game decides that you need to fulfill precise criteria, such as collecting objects on rough terrain under a strict time limit, and raid cars are anything but precise. They slip and slide all over the place, and when these missions leave no room for error, you end up very frustrated when you're cut short due to the game's poor physics. The same can be said for missions where you have to flee from cops, who are incredibly overpowered. These missions are not fun in the least, and the cops' unusual bursts of speed feels like a product of driving games of old. This isn't the only example of frustrating AI. During races against the computer, cars sometimes drive off of tracks for no reason, taking a 90 degree turn out of the blue before flying off of a cliff.
Essentially, the game asks you to drive like a jerk, and it's not fun when you can't help but careen into other cars and buildings as you try your best to fulfill the criteria to earn a medal.
With rough physics and AI, you get into a lot of collisions, but luckily, damage doesn't hinder your car's driving capabilities. However, you do have to endure a slow-motion cutscene as punishment when you take a strong hit. Eventually, you have to pay a negligible fee to fix your car if you've gotten in a lot of accidents, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to how much money you earn during missions. If crashing is not a big deal, wasting players' time with slow-motion cutscenes as punishment is pointless and disrespectful of their time.
Unfortunately, you have to endure the game's questionable physics in other scenarios, most notably during player-versus-player races. It's nearly a guarantee that each PVP race will start with a ridiculous display of bugginess when opponents' cars suddenly speed up and flip in multiple directions at the drop of a hat. I've seen cars teleport into the sky, and rotate uncontrollably before appearing 20 feet down the track for no reason. These moments of chaos are funny, but they make for an inconsistent and unpredictable experience. Pray it doesn't happen to you. That's assuming you can even get into a PVP match. There are a handful of lobbies across the map, but they're severely underpopulated. It's a rare occurrence that you can find enough people to race against in less than 15 minutes. Luckily, you have the option to drive around while you wait, but it's still deflating when you can't find anyone to play with.
Keep in mind that if UPlay, PSN, or Xbox Live is down, you can't play The Crew, even if you just want to go solo. During my time with the game, I was booted due to server or connection issues on a daily basis, which was very frustrating. The most enjoyment you get out of the game's connected world comes from player-vs-player competitions, but even they have issues.
When The Crew puts you into races with good AI, and you get to race through interesting and varied environments, you get the feeling that you're playing a good game. When you struggle to find people to join your crew online, balk at the outdated graphics, and shake your head at the AI and the occasionally unpredictable physics, you realize: The Crew isn't that good after all. When you can't play due to server issues, you find a new game to play and leave The Crew in your dust.