The Crew hands-on preview

The Crew hands-on preview

It’s been a challenging few weeks for Ubisoft, with the less-than gracious launch of Assassin’s Creed: Unity casting a bit of a shadow over things. The busy publisher’s next release is now upon us: The Crew– an online racer with RPG aspirations.

I say busy because, whilst the French publisher has been hitting the headlines pretty continuously regarding the latest Assassin’s Creed: Unity bug reports, they’ve released an outstanding amount of other games without a hitch.

As well as Assassin’s Creed: Unity, in the last couple of weeks Ubisoft have also launched Just Dance 2014, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, Far Cry 4, Shape Up and Rabbids Invasion: The Interactive TV Show.

That’s a pretty impressive line-up that caters for a huge demographic.

Rounding off the season’s game releases The Crew gives racing fans the chance to burn rubber across the entire USA. Well, a scaled version of the USA, anyway. It’s still a big game that’ll take well over an hour for even the fastest drivers to race from the east coast to the west.

As The Crew is intended as an online experience, re-release review code was not made available to journalists. Whilst this means that reviews will not be forthcoming for a few days, the game’s extensive beta programs will mean that many fans have already had a taste of the game.

The Crew hands-on preview

Earlier this year at the EB Expo I got the chance to play The Crew during an extended preview with Ahmed Boukhefila, chief operating officer at the game’s developer, Ivory Studios.

The first thing Ahmed showed me was the map. The map of the whole of the United States, and I thought that Forza Horizons 2 was big! For the demonstration the entire map was unlocked, something that only happens in-game once you have visited a location. I started in Detroit. Not a place I’ve ever been to, so I couldn’t see just how true to life it was, but graphically it looked good.

It also felt quite familiar.

As soon as Ahmed told me about the game’s connection with the Test Drive Unlimited games the peeny dropped. The Crew has been developed by many of the same folks that made Atari’s two open-world online Test Drive Unlimited games, the first set on the Hawaiian island of Oahu and the second on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza.

Test Drive Unlimited was the first game I played that seamlessly melded online and offline play. Now, with new-gen games like Destiny and even Need for Speed: Rivals starting to blur the line between online and offline experiences, what Eden Software did eight years ago with Test Drive Unlimited was a bit ahead of its time.

Unlike the Test Drive Unlimited games, The Crew doesn’t rely so much on procedurally assets. Whilst it most definitely has some procedurally generated assets and, to be honest, you’ve got to expect it a game of this size), a lot of the environment has been manually adjusted by the game’s designers and artists. The result is a more organic and believable world, a far cry from the somewhat generic, cookie-cutter scenery in the Test Drive Unlimited games.

The Crew hands-on preview

Ahmed asked me where I wanted to go. Rather than race around unfamiliar territory, I thought I’d take a look at Las Vegas. Instead of dropping me straight onto the strip my car was placed on the winding road down from Mount Charleston to the west of the city. Not only could I enjoy the beautiful panorama overlooking Sin City, I could also hoon around some pretty mean corners as I made my way down the mountainside.

The actual city of Las Vegas, like all the major US cities in the game is based on the real thing, giving players all the landmarks and features that they expect to see. Driving along The Strip I could see the game’s interpretation of The Luxor and the MGM Grand. Heading east I took the road to Boulder City and on to the Hoover Dam.

Back to the map, it was on to Los Angeles for a quick spin through Santa Monica before checking out some of the tuning options.

A lot of work has clearly gone into making tuning cars in The Crew as comprehensive as possible, but still easy to understand. Unlike some racing games where all those tweaks can end up with a car that’s impossible to drive, The Crew gives players immediate visual feedback as modifications are applied.

The Crew hands-on preview

Not only can you see the car’s stats change, but you can also see the parts being added to the striped down chassis. The tuning graphics are really nicely done, with the car engine running so that you can see all the moving parts and the effect of the mods in real-time.

There are six tuning specs in the game, adapting cars for use on different terrains and race classes. Full stock is the basic showroom car state. Street offers a road car with a bit more grunt. Dirt upgrades the car for some rally action. The Raid spec turns the cat into an all-terrain beast. Performance make the car into a finely-tuned tricked out street-racer. Finally the Circuit spec makes the car into a lightweight aerodynamic track racer that’s not at all road legal.

Ahmed explained that they addressed the game’s tuning system in a similar way that they would a character’s stats in a role-playing game. The cars are the game’s characters, with the modifications being the character’s various abilities and the tuning specs the character class. It’s an interesting way of looking at a racing game.

The Crew hands-on preview

I tuned my car to the Raid spec and got it dropped into the desert. The Crew takes the idea of an open-world racer and runs with it. In a similar way to Forza Horizons 2, there are no boundaries in The Crew. And with a Raid car that means nowhere is out of bounds.

Hooning across sand dunes was exhilarating as I tried to jump the car as high as possible. Then I came across one of the challenge markers that are randomly dotted throughout the game, triggering an escape challenge. This involved driving as fast as possible away from an ever increasing red circle on the map. As fast as I could I drove over the dunes, through fences and across roads, dodging trees as I went. Eventually the red circle caught up with me and I could breathe again.

The main thing I took away from my preview of the game was just how much there is to do in the game. Players familiar with the Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed games will know that Ubisoft doesn’t mess about when it comes to side-activities, and that’s exactly what we have in The Crew. Whilst racing is the game’s mainstay, if you need a break or only have a short time to play, you’ll always find a skill challenge or other activity on your travels.

The Crew looks likely to change the way we view racing games in the future. With a ridiculously huge map and the promise of and engaging story, I’m looking forward to burning some runner across the USA.