How The Crew is reinventing the online racer: Hands-on with Ivory Tower’s racing RPG

Online racing games are stuck in a rut. The clash between the unforgiving simulation in Gran Turismo, the well intentioned but under-performing drivertars in Forza and the repetition of Need for Speed, which is skipping a year for the first time since 2001, have never captured the joy of the carefree road trip; the mateship, the shenanigans and the ill-timed mishaps that make the journey more memorable than the destination.

The Crew is redefining what it means to enthral yourself with an online racing game. An MMO, but not as you know it, The Crew is set amongst a persistent online United States, sprawling 5000 square kilometres, with a dozen major cities joined by the pleasantries of the countryside and always populated by real drivers — and hilariously acrobatic AI pedestrians that cannot be run over.

I’ve played The Crew now on numerous occasions, and on each I’ve learnt about little bit more about Ubisoft’s foray into casual racing.

NOT WHAT BUT WHO

The Crew is thriving with a myriad of race events, but it’s not just the content that makes this current-gen exclusive such a tantalising prospect: it’s doing it with your buddies.

By teaming up and joining a crew, I was both competing with and against my three crew-mates during a two hour play session back in May, and another three hours with a more recent built last week. The first of many events had us working as a team to ram a fleeing scoundrel Humvee to destruction. The winner got a significant XP boost and top billing on the leaderboard, becoming the new crew leader and determining what we would do next. As you would expect, it was me!

Becoming leader sent me to the map, which combines with options posing as apps on a virtual smartphone to navigate the menu without ever leaving the world, to find a new and exciting challenge to tackle, assuming my subordinates accepted the invitation to play. If you’re off exploring the deep south while your crew is competing in New York you’ll only be plucked from obscurity to join them if you accept the crew leader’s invite to start a mission.

Other events included traditional races, across street or dirt tracks, and a proper co-op mode that had us working as a team to collectively pick up 300 containers within a tight time limit.

You’re actively encouraged to team up with other players by forming a crew to make completing challenges easier, earning everyone more XP. Basic RPG elements are employed to trade in-game currency for new cars and better parts, moderated by XP capping unlocks to specific levels.

But it’s not the numbers that will ensure The Crew becomes more than a single-player game in a multiplayer world. It’s the inevitable rascal behaviour developer Ivory Tower must have envisioned. A joyful sense of camaraderie grew between our crew of four, as we joined forces to ensure a trash-talking fifth player, a visiting member of the development team, wouldn’t put us to shame. So we played dirty, electing to ram him at every turn so at least one of us could break free. It was super effective.

Tight races turned into one-versus-one tussles, as the first and second competitors often locked horns, pushing their roaring Lamborghini Aventadors into each other, both refusing to relent and give up pole position until it inevitably resulted in fiery disaster, allowing the third or fourth placed follower to totally Bradbury it and take home gold. Such tomfoolery has to occur organically, and it will with regular gaming buddies, keeping you coming back long after the mission objectives have grown stale.

IT’S A LONG WAY TO THE TOP

Under the hood, The Crew is built upon hoarding XP. You’ll hop between street, dirt, performance and raid vehicles, upgrading each by unlocking or buying parts tied to your driver level.

That means there’s a mix of in-game currency and microtransactions, but Ivory Tower assures me they’ve learned from past mistakes in the racing genre and won’t give an unfair advantage to anyone that elects to pay. Foremost, parts are locked to player levels, so newcomers can’t buy their way to the top. Alternatively, all parts can be bought with the (free) primary in-game currency, but it’ll cost you more, as well as the microtransaction currency that can be bought using cash or earned by completing specific social tasks.

Perhaps most importantly, the top level platinum parts cannot be bought with microtransactions. You’ll need to play and earn them the old fashioned way.

Why does a full price retail release need microtransactions? Honestly, it probably doesn’t, but I can see some merit. If you’ve been spending all your in-game coin on street and performance vehicles, and team up with a mate focusing on off-road races, you’ll be stuck with the stock vehicles despite being of a similar level; microtransactions allow faster unlocks across all vehicle categories.

Spinning the right way to have worth in its conceptual stage is one thing, but gamers accepting the dual payment scheme is another matter. It didn’t go well for Gran Turismo 6, and I’m inherently averse to spending more money inside a game that carries a $99 price-tag. Conversely, MMOs tend to avoid have recurring payments scrutinised and The Crew is the certainly a massively online multiplayer game — even if the 20 hour single-player needn’t reply on fellow joyriders.

EASY RIDER

In a year consumed by the battle of the arcade racers — Forza Horizon 2 and Driveclub — The Crew distances itself by being something else. Upgrading parts and completing a variety of races is more prevalent than in either of those titles, and handling is less punishing.

I don’t mean to say it’s easy: the sheer nature of racing with, but also against, your Crew means there’s a great many instances of ramming each other off the track, causing all four of you to lose a challenge — you’re often competing against each other, but at the same time need to ensure at least one person hits the next checkpoint before it times out.

Handling, though, is less of an obstacle than it is to arcade racers. You can always hold down the reset button if you spin off too far, and swerving along corners feels a lot like Driver: San Francisco, where you’ll need to pay attention, but can make most turns with the right mix of hard brakes and full speed, with little in-between.

The challenge is more in the nature of the tracks than the demands of the car. Vehicle performance is tied to the type of car — of course performance cars won’t perform off-road — and the numbers. Upgrading parts improves the stats, but taking a dirt car onto tarmac automatically diminishes the output.

Unsuspected obstacles and some nasty turns, which aren’t always obvious when there’s no road, throw in extra challenge, especially in the team-base competitive modes. While your Crew often form your allies and opponents, the PvP, or should I say CvC, multiplayer has your team of four do battle against another — it’s the Eagles vs the Wolves.

This is without doubt the most fun I had with The Crew — although granted you probably won’t play with all eight people in the same room to flaunt success over the losers.

As a team, one person coming first won’t necessarily net you the win. If one person on the Eagles come first, but the Wolves take out second, third and fourth, the total points will see them the victors.

The race events — especially those off-road — make for an enthralling blend of wanting to protect your team mates, and ensure at least two of you are near the top, but also take the spoils for yourself — it’s all well and good being a team in a narrow victory, but when all four of you are smashing the opponents, it’s hard to suppress the urge to sabotage their success and take the mantle. Talk about opening the door for your beaten opponents.

DWARFING SKYRIM

Blissfully cruising the incomprehensible world solo or rolling around as a team is surprisingly invigorating. Driving from the east to west coast of the US, from New York to Los Angeles, will take about 90 minutes in one of the performance cars. Swap it for a ute or something better suited to the dirt and it’ll take a bit longer.

The worlds of Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto V, Red Dead Redemption and more easily fit into The Crew’s rendition of the United States, with plenty of space to spare. Skyrim, in particular, looked tiny when Ivory Tower showed it to scale against The Crew’s world, as it fit into the area hosting just New York, while Liberty City was miles away in LA.

This is an astonishingly massive world and I can’t wait to spend a solid hour-and-a-half racing from one side to the other.

It remains to be seen how much such an epic world will contribute to the gameplay. Surely a persistent world will have its limitations, and the always-alive pedestrians look a little out of place — car manufacturer licensing means there can’t be any GTA-style grievous hit and runs.

CAUSE FOR ALARM: WHY ON 360?

Last time I played The Crew, it was a current-gen Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC exclusive. At E3 2013, the first time I saw The Crew, I was basically told why it had to be “next-gen” only and than none of this was possible on the ageing last-gen hardware. Again, earlier this year, it was made to appear that the MMO aspects for this racing RPG weren’t possible on PS3 or Xbox 360.

Jump forward to late-2014, and all of a sudden it’s an Xbox 360 game — but peculiarly not a PS3 title. This concerns me, massively, as I’ve not had a chance to play on Xbox 360 and almost all cross-gen games marketed and built up as next-gen marvels (hi, Destiny) have disappointed across both generations.

It’s only been games like Forza Horizon 2, where the Xbox One and Xbox 360 versions were totally different games needlessly sharing the same name that the current-gen version has faired well. In that instance, the Xbox One version was great, but the 360 game did nothing but diminish the name. It’s clear why it was ignored by Microsoft. We’ll have to hope for something similar with The Crew. In good news, the Xbox 360 release is clearly a secondary version, being made by Asobo Studio and not Ivory Tower, but I’m still not sure why. At best, it’ll be similar to Forza Horizon 2, where there’s a divide between the proper version next to the last-gen cash grab riskily sharing the same name that at best is forgotten, and at worst is a point of confusion. It’s odd hoping an Xbox 360 game is rubbish, but if it’s essentially the same as The Crew on PS4, Xbox One and PC, all versions will have cause for alarm.

Without a Need for Speed this year, and a vastly different take on social gaming against DriveClub, it could emerge as a pioneer in the racing genre. While microtransactions are a potential point of alarm, I had an absolute blast cruising around a persistent United States that gives new meaning to massive open world.

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