I've just got back from a two-week road trip around America, and boy, have I done a lot of driving. I've seen Niagara Falls, driven across the Golden Gate Bridge and sped through Time Square. I've dodged bears in Sasquatch country and I've chased after foxes in the snow. And you know what? I had a great time. Just my hands on the wheel, some friends to drive with, tunes on the radio and the open road begging to be explored. No, of course it wasn't real life - this isn't HolidayRadar, y'know. This is The Crew, and it's all about you and the road. The fundamental act of driving is exemplary, but pretty much everything else has at least one issue...
You assume the role of Alex Taylor, a Gordon Freeman lookalike who feels ten years too old to be street racing (not to mention trying to win enough 'respect' to earn a tattoo). After being framed for his own brother's murder, he's given the chance to earn his liberty by unrealistically-sassy FBI agent, Zoe, who wants to gather enough evidence to take down a crooked colleague, and the head of the 510 gang of street racers, known as 'Shiv'.
If you've ever played Need For Speed Underground 2 or Need For Speed Carbon, you'll know what to expect from the story scenes. Painfully-grating hip-hop speak, loose cannon alpha males and slim, long-haired girls who love cars and call you 'my boy'. The fully-voiced story scenes are well-produced and they just keep coming. For hours, and hours and hours. The story is so involving, it's like playing a PG13-rated street racing movie, which is a nice palette cleanser in these days of GTA 5 and its ilk. It's massively predictable, sure, but enjoyable nonetheless.
All of this takes place in the most expansive open world driving experience yet seen in a console game. While it isn't a 1:1 recreation of the USA, it is a damn good stab at a highlights reel of it. You can just set your GPS for a point on the opposite coast and drive there, without a load screen getting in your way at any time. This sensation of freedom is wonderful and there's genuine excitement as you make your way into a new area, mentally ticking off each track from Road Rash as you go. No? Oh. Just me, then.
You get graded from bronze to gold in every event or mini challenge you complete. Your cars get better upgrades if you win higher accolades, so it's worth hitting 'retry' if you know you could have done better. However! Once you hit level 50, the game announces you can now earn Platinum awards in every event. So if you've been aiming for 100% completion up until then, you'll have to do every single event again. FFFFFFUUUUUUUU...
However, while the story gradually introduces you to new cities at an amazingly slow rate (did I mention this is a very big game?), you are soon able to catch a freight train to a new city. Sadly this is a bit like opening your presents before Christmas. Once they're open, the surprise has gone. And when you travel to San Francisco prematurely and realise it's another recognisable but ultimately empty facsimile of the real thing, disappointment starts to set in. You never see anything like the jam-packed city scenes of the intro sequence, so it only feels like a real world when you're up in the hills, driving through forests. The cities are just too empty to feel alive.
At least the car handling is feisty. There are some driving assists switched on by default, but you can switch them all off and revel in wheelspin, fishtailing and understeer. Different models of licensed cars are available and all have their own handling traits. I wholly recommend you play the game from the in-car viewpoint because it's so much more dramatic. And seeing the interior light up green as you pass traffic lights is awesome.
There is an abundance of things to do, with challenges everywhere you look. There are slalom events, increasingly narrow gates to navigate at speed, jumps to perform, icons to hit and times to beat, but they're the same in every city, which means it can feel like you're just going through the motions after a while. This game world is huge and with every event graded from bronze to gold (well... see the boxout for more on that), truly completing everything is a mammoth task that will take well over 100 hours. Fortunately, whenever it starts to feel tired, pressing on with the story will keep the scenery changing and the fun coming.
By this point, you may well be wondering why it's called 'The Crew'. The name implies plurality, not the 'one man and his car against the world' that makes up so much of the story mode. Well, I wondered that too. You do build up a crew of scripted characters as you progress, but you mostly just hear them over the radio. And while you can create a four-car crew with online companions, there is very little emphasis on the online aspect. Subsequently, it's incredibly frustrating when your internet connection drops out and you are unable to continue playing the story because you're sent to the title screen until further notice. This isn't like Driveclub – the single-player experience could be released alone and it would still be a good game.
Not that the multiplayer element is bad. Before every event, you get the choice to either play solo, or with fellow human beings. You can invite your crewmembers to join in missions (but only if they've unlocked the same one by their point in the story) and, if you don't have a crew active, you can invite random players in the immediate vicinity with a single button press instead. This works really nicely and at present there are a reasonable number of people who will join in. The extra element of competition and/or co-operation does add to the experience, adding tactical elements to takedown missions and even races, as you act as a wingman for your mate in first place.
Sadly, there are many minor bugs, and frustrating design choices, such as the inability to remap the controls. That means not only is the handbrake on a different button to every driving game I can think of, anyone who likes to play with manual gears is forced to shift gear on the right stick. But it gets worse. The right stick also navigates menus that pop up in the top-right corner of the screen, so I found myself stuck outside my own HQ because a menu was preventing me from selecting reverse gear to back away. I had to scrape against the wall in first gear until I was free of it.
Even so, considering the size of the game world, the quality is mostly high. The voice acting is strong, making the most of a mediocre script (although minor characters often put emphasis on the wrong words), the course layouts are fun to drive and the game does have many moments of outstanding beauty, thanks to some nice sun refraction effects and huge draw distances.
There is, perhaps, too much content. Even after playing for two weeks and finishing the story, my map still has some 50% covered up in pixelly fog (you can see it down there). There is stuff hidden out there, like wrecked cars to piece back together. And extra events are drip-fed into the game by Ubisoft every few days. There are PvP lobbies, 'proper' race tracks (even including a slightly stylised version of Laguna Seca), endurance events to tackle... so much game. Months of content if you want it. But once you've played a few hours, you'll have experienced the majority of gameplay variety.
Even so, it has a habit of re-endearing itself to you after every minor misstep. It's fundamentally enjoyable to play, with pleasing car physics over different surfaces, plenty of visual variety and that popcorn story to keep you pushing along. Problem is, I also loaded up GTA 5 to compare its driving and frankly there's no contest. GTA's car handling may be twitchier, but its graphics, crash physics/damage, environmental density and everything else besides overall scale is superior to The Crew. In many ways, The Crew is just like an old game. An oldie, but a goodie.
Take away its vast environment and The Crew is decidedly mediocre. But the enjoyable story and great sense of actually driving, whether alone or solo, means there's plenty of fun to be had all the same.
This game was reviewed on PlayStation 4.