Social online action racing
Making its debut at E3 2013, The Crew is Ubisoft's attempt to create a new and fast-paced racer for the next-gen consoles. Although the publisher has definitely got some stiff competition from other racing titles, what separates it from the rest is its ambitious take on open-world racing with competitive and cooperative gameplay.
The Crew is an open-world driving game set across the United States. From the get go, players can freely explore the 2000-square-mile game space, take part in races and unique challenges, and meet other players online to either team up with or race against. Sectioned across five different zones -- from the West Coast, mountain states, Midwest, the East Coast, and the South -- players can race across a variety of different landscapes. In the process, you'll build up your own collection of vehicles, resources, and influence in the online space.
Dubbed a "social action driving game" by the developers, the intent was to create a world that allowed for seamless online integration with other players around the world. When racing with other drivers, the player can choose to join up with new drivers and form their own crew to take on races and challenges, and pull together resources for body work and customization. While it's totally possible to play the game offline within single-player mode, doing so would mean missing out on a major part of The Crew's living and active game world.
To help realize its vision for an open-world racer, Ivory Tower utilized the new next-gen technology and developed a graphics engine that minimizes loading and keeps things seamless. Players can fast travel across the map at anytime to meet up with friends and engage in active challenges, with little to no loading whatsoever. While in the map you can zoom in and out and analyze the different tracks located in the cities and countryside. You can also use this to observe races in progress and see what new challenges have popped up.
Speaking with online producer Tristan Lefranc, the developers at Ivory Tower have been hard at work on The Crew for more than four years. While they've done some additional work on the Test Drive Unlimited series, this is the developer's first game built from the ground up. Their goals for this title were to craft a richly detailed game world, while designing the innovative networking systems that will bring players together.
"We very much wanted to be able to make a racing game for everyone," LeFranc said while going over the car customization. "We believe that with the size of the world and the content we placed in it, there would be a variety of different play styles that we players could use." During my time playing, it was clear that the developers wanted both gear-heads and casual racing fans engaged.
There's usually two schools of design when it comes to whom the developers are catering to. Arcade racers focus on over-the-top action with pick-up-and-play mechanics, while simulation racers emphasis realistic driving physics and fine tuning your vehicle. For The Crew, Ivory Tower is focused on delivering a title that blurs the lines between the action of arcade style racers in the vein of Burnout and Fuel and the attention to detail and planning that comes from racing sims like Gran Turismo.
A key part of the player's experience with The Crew is customization. With dozens of brand named vehicles and vehicle types, such as compacts, convertibles, street racing vehicles, and off-road cars, the developers want players to find a car that suits them and their personality. To take things even further, every car in the game is fully customizable from the ground up.
Your own custom vehicles will come in handy in the various missions and challenges across the U.S. These missions range from standard street and off-road racing, to the more peculiar stunt racing tasks like Follow the Line, and even time trial challenges against other players' scores. I spent much of my time in the mountain states and southern zones, where I took advantage of transforming my street-racing vehicle to a more off-road-friendly version to take on the challenges. I do have to say that I got kick out of seeing a muscle car being turned into a decked-out off-road vehicle with massive tires.
An aspect of the game that was clear was its usability. The Crew is an easy game to get a handle of, as it seeks to bring in players of all interests. Controls are very smooth, and getting a feel of new cars comes very quickly. One element I particularly enjoyed was how it keeps players engaged and always in the action. With the exception of your map and car customizations, player/crew networking and communication is all done in real time and not in separate menus. Your character has the use of an in-game smartphone, which allows them to access your collection of vehicles on the fly.
From the engine parts, chassis, tires, and the decal, you can stick with your favorite car for the long term or alter it in anyway you see fit. When completing missions, you're reward cash and a random vehicle part. At first it felt a bit overwhelming, but the car customization becomes much easier to handle once you've got a feel for the system. Changing a street-racing vehicle to a fully functional off-road vehicle is not only an effective strategy for some missions, but a necessity. Some challenges call for taking advantage of different car types during races, and mixing and matches parts is a vital strategy for winning.
When players complete missions, they'll come across NPC characters from different fields -- such as FBI agents, businessmen, and stuntmen -- that will offer their services to your crew in the form of perks and comforts. Perks allow for players to have various types of bonus abilities; such as easier police evasion, better braking, drifting, buffs to nitrous, etc.
Comforts function somewhat like perks, but are far more specific. When completing challenges and missions, you'll gain points which can be used to spend on comforts that can lower costs of jail time, less expensive car customization, etc. More points that you put into a specific comfort, the more useful it will become.
I came away largely impressed with Ubisoft's new racing title. I'm actually not too interested in the genre outside of a few exceptions, but this particular game managed to impress me in ways that I didn't expect. The Crew expresses a lot of thought in its design, and the sheer amount of content on offer is simply staggering. In a way, it feels like racing title that isn't afraid to walk ride that fine line between staying traditional, and knowing when to take an unorthodox approach for giving what players want.
Currently, The Crew has been scheduled for a Q1 2014 release, and the developers at Ivory Tower still have much more fine tuning to complete. But judging from my time with the game, this ambitious and thoughtful racing title has got all the right moves.