In need of a crew-cut.
Unintentionally, The Crew has one particular trait in common with Ubisoft's other recent title Far Cry 4: It's better when it's not analyzed in depth. At best, this open-world racer is a road trip fantasy, giving you the freedom to drive smoothly and briskly across its condensed, slightly deformed version of the continental United States. No one would be blamed for taking to heart its promise of a coast-to-coast pilgrimage through the heartland of America. But The Crew squanders this strength by littering its world with repetitive side tasks, awkward MMO elements, microtransactions, and a lifeless, tiresome, superfluous plot.
How you'll feel about The Crew will mostly depend upon how seriously you care about the inner workings—the components under the hood, so to speak—of a casual racer whose world is both open and persistent in design. In the vastness of the racing genre, The Crew fits somewhere between Test Drive Unlimited, Need for Speed Underground, and Cruisin' USA, simulating six major cities in the United States as well as the tangled web of roads connecting them together. Sacrificing graphical quality for quantity, the sheer number of assets in the environment is a feat in and of itself, from the undulating landscapes of the Rockies, the flat, balmy plains of Miami, the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, and the hard-boiled streets of New York City.
Sure, The Crew's stubby rendition of the continental U.S. is far from being exact and one birds-eye look at the map might give geographers nightmares. As someone whose lived in New York City and San Francisco, I raised my eyebrows at the layout of certain streets and boroughs in relation to each other, and chortled as I passed by San Francisco's Chinatown and saw a store named “Chine Dragon Gifts.” (Yes, I spelled that “correctly.”) The absence of Boston and Philadelphia is a bit mysterious too. But it would be too lofty to expect the developers at Ivory Tower and Ubisoft Reflection to be painstaking cartographers; at the bare minimum, they capture the essence of each city, with seamless transitions from one environment to another as you speed past (or knock down) every road sign in sight.
The only thing better than a two-hour sojourn across state lines is having three friends at your side. After several opening cut-scenes, you'll be granted access to establishing a Crew of up to four players, composed of online friends or nearby players who accept your invitation. Entering races together, colliding into each other for kicks, or simply veering off-track and exploring the Grand Canyon is worth the trip. That said, the lack of an offline mode might irk racing fans, considering that every mission can be done solo, but mandatory participation in the persistent world means that the game will be populated, even if some jerks apparently find meaning in blocking ramps for jump skill challenges. Of course, if the servers are down or you can't find an internet connection, you won't be able to play The Crew at all.
If you've noticed, I have yet to mention the story, which typically goes at the top of reviews, because it's worth not mentioning for as long as possible. This is one of those rare cases that having no story would have been better than this oversimplified yet somehow convoluted plot about Alex Taylor, a Gordon Freeman lookalike with a Joel beard, infiltrating an underground racing gang called the 510s because its leader is in collusion with a corrupt FBI agent at the top of the agency. Oh, and one of Alex's friends is dead, and he's been framed for it, and the good FBI cop Zoe lets Alex free to collect evidence on the 510s, and Alex needs to ascend the gang hierarchy by proving himself to V2s and V4s (yes, that's what the leaders of the 510s are called), and wow, is this torture or what?
In most cases I would merely let this arduous story go, since most people don't play racing games for their narratives anyway, but The Crew crams cinematics throughout the core story and bookends each mission with an intro and outro. At the same time, it seems that the developers understand that most players want to hop right into the race, so these cut-scenes are rather short and usually involve ten-line conversations between characters who are stuck inside their cars. This means there's no time for any character development or for this rather serious story to sustain itself. Forming context is all well and good, but here, it should have been skipped entirely.
As for the arcade-styled driving mechanics, handling is fairly simple even without the assists, with one button for drifting and another for a regenerative boost. Earning first place is mainly about knowing where to cut corners to shave off time and accelerating out of corners with a short burst of nitro. Otherwise, it's about increasing your car's level by obtaining various component parts by completing bronze, silver, or gold (and platinum) goals in mission or skill challenges.
However, turning feels somewhat floaty and the collision physics can be spotty at times, which can make maneuvering between traffic trickier than it should. While the grip and traction does improve as you progress to performance and circuit-tier races, cars don't feel as grounded no matter which vehicle you choose. The various skill challenges, which range from escaping, jumping off ramps, performing slalom runs, and speeding down highways, suffer from luck-based traffic which tends to spawn right in your racing line. The selection of forty cars is limited, particularly without in-depth tuning, and it also feels unnecessary to have separate locations for car tuning, car purchasing, and car specialization when they could have been housed together.
Escaping cops and chasing down targets in raids aren't exhilarating, either. Causing destruction in areas under police surveillance will force cops on your tail, but they tend to spawn in far too convenient locations, have a special ram ability, and can chase you through oncoming traffic with no trouble. Staying out of their radius will eventually lower their pursuits, though I was able to escape by looping around an enclosed racetrack multiple times. Forcing a target off the road in raids is another matter entirely, more frustrating than anything else unless you've got co-op friends to assist. Taking down a moving target becomes more about learning the target's set path through trial and error than driving skill.
In the pursuit of becoming a racing MMO of sorts, you will receive notifications, extra bucks for logging in every day, and you can participate in various daily challenges. Racing against other players in PvP while representing one of the five factions will likely be the endgame for those who reach the Level 50 cap, if just for the higher bucks payouts. Unfortunately, the advent of Crew Credits, currency that can only be purchased (apart from a one-time gift after completing the game up to a point), isn't the prettiest microtransaction model. Crew Credits can be spent on purchasing cars in lieu of bucks, and they're the only way you can obtain additional perk points (about 150 extra) beyond the level cap.
Ambition is both The Crew's greatest asset and greatest downfall. Somewhere buried in The Crew, beneath the bloated content and the MMO shenanigans, is a competent racer featuring the perfect road trip. But for a game whose primary strength is freedom, there should have been more objectives and more incentives to explore its world with friends, instead of copy-and-pasted skill challenges and missions tangled in a confounding plot that's hard to forget for all the wrong reasons.