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First play: The Crew
Usually previews of games go like this: you arrive, perch on a conference chair with a couple of pain aux chocolates and an expensive coffee, and a senior producer does his best to wow you with stats. So not that different from car launches, really.
So happily, new racing game The Crew has a veritable Volvo V70 bootload of impressive stats. The entire map of America is rendered – in full - to paint with tyre rubber. Over 6,000 real world kilometres, in fact. There are at least 1,000 famous landmarks to clock. Over 500 race missions split into nine different categories. A level cap of 50. Five regions of the US to unlock and squint at. A world full of other players you can race with or against. Forty-odd cars from the likes of BMW, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Pagani and Bentley. Five different tuning specs of car selection and fine-tuning to the style of race, including street, perf (performance: straight line speed, less handling), “Detroit”, dirt (rally), raid (100% go anywhere off road) and circuit (track races). There’s even a story, written by the chap behind Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto 3.
With all that ringing in our ears, we then spent three hours playing The Crew, hooning cars of around the mid-40s level (it’s a car RPG, so you start with a car on level one, and level it up as you win more races and earn cash). So we began reasonably late in the game, with the entire map open and our cars tricked out with the best parts in game currency can buy. First thing? Find a Pagani Huayra and slather it in a huge Union Jack. As you’d expect, you can tweak, poke, spray, decal, respray and OCD the merry hell out of your cars. Race wins dish out cash which you can spend on upgrading pretty much every part of your car to get your set up just so. Then you wheel your beauty out of the garage.
And when you finally put tyre to highway, you’ll find an incredibly rich world of real life detail. The GPS on the roads is a joy, a neon snake floating about 15ft above the road and a triumph of UI design. The roads are full, but not brimming, with enough traffic to make races fun, but not too much that you end up chewing the controller. A race in Miami saw us snaking round an airport highway on ramp as a jumbo took off seemingly inches away from a bumper. You can also crew up with four other players and go on epic, day-eating missions, driving coast to coast, clocking every landmark or just free driving.
But we hit some issues. A chase mission where the objective is to catch and take out an enemy vehicle became a challenge just to get near the rear bumper of the objective car, as the handling is so remote. The signposting, too. We often lost the chase car in the off-road environment and had no idea where it had got to.
It turns out the biggest challenge facing The Crew right now is getting the handling right. Finding that next-to-impossible sweet spot between first element, arcade fun: cornering like your leading wheel is attached to the corner apex fun, passing your opponent with a squirt of NOX at the line silly, heroic passing via a sweet, slipstream slingshot. And the second element, realism: where physics actually takes over, traction becomes real life and you feel like you’re driving a real, physical car.
The Crew hasn’t quite found this yet. All the races: street, circuit, off road, all had the feel of butter-slicked surfaces of slightly differing feedback. Off road? An inch more butter. Circuit races, an inch less. The upgrading parts element to make a difference seemed totally lost.
Thinking this was just a physics issue, we took a Koenigsegg off road and rightly, rumbled along at walking pace, with handling as instinctive as a Tesco trolley hoiked out of a canal. So the depth is there. The physics work. That sweet spot just has not yet been found.
Handling in racing games is, of course, notoriously tricky and subjective. One man’s over-greased anaconda can be another man’s dead-eyed sweet spot. But thinking maybe it was just my James May-level of skill, I went home to play a review copy of Forza Horizon 2 and it’s there. Handling perfected by years of the developer Turn 10’s experience and brilliance. They’ve nailed it. The Crew hasn’t. Yet.
That’s not to say that The Crew can’t or won’t be turned into a terrific and compelling game. Possibly strangely, this is one of the easiest things to get right. It’s just tweaking code, after all. Play test. Tweak. Play test. Tweak. Something developer Ivory Tower and Ubisoft Reflections have the skills and more importantly, time, to do. Ivory Tower is brimming with ex Eden Games staff, who made the brilliant and hugely under-rated Test Drive Unlimited.
Another issue less easy to fix is the nature of the game. As it’s a multiplayer game, after you open up the West Coast, it opens up a meta game where you join one of five factions, to race against <all> the other players across the entire map. But here’s the thing. This is a racer, played by humans. So a circuit race became hugely problematic as our team failed an objective over and over again as it all got a bit tasty between myself and a “team-mate”, gleefully nudging each other off at corners, sideswiping on straights and plain kamikaze moves to ensure they didn’t win. Objective fail. Objective fail. Objective fail again.
It’s strange. A glance at my notes shows mostly grumpy scribblings about the game’s failings and my failures to navigate it, but what I did take away from the play session was that The Crew is, big picture, a superbly well-put-together, ambitious and mostly fun racing game. There’s time to fix it. They almost certainly will.
The Crew is out on November 14 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. We played the Xbox One version.