Within the first few moments of playing The Crew, its inspirations are abundantly clear. The main narrative (or, more appropriately, what is loosely thread through the main game) is clearly pulled from the Fast and Furious movie series. The plot can feel a little shoe-horned, but the cut-scenes that prelude missions are nice additions to keep players invested beyond the basic task-completion. Ride-alongs with key characters exchanging dialogue can feel very Grand Theft Auto, minus all the rocket launcher explosions and innocent people dying.
To try and explain The Crew as a concept succinctly is nearly impossible. Pitched as a racer-MMO-RPG, it is a constantly connected open world where players level up in order to unlock new cars and better parts in order to take on tougher challenges. By completing races players earn cash and XP; attaining a bronze, silver or gold medal in the event will also unlock a bronze, silver or gold car part to purchase later on.
The variety of environment offered by The Crew is something unseen in previous racers. The inclusion of the whole of the United States (albeit condensed) means this huge world takes on a character of its own. Ivory Tower has included small "tourist spots" for racers to pause and take in the views of major cities. Whether I'm enjoying the beaches of California, the deserts of flyover states or even the vast stretches of highway, the experience feels different enough to make me want to do the same mission types (race, takedown etc.) in these different locations and not feel as though I'm repeating myself.
The freedom of exploration sets up moments that feel almost like a typical Top Gear challenge. Joining a group of friends and creating your own goals is just as fun as any mission the developers have designed. "Right, we're in New York, first person to Miami wins," was the plan laid before our party of four by the developers, and we each planned accordingly to get there as quickly as possible. You can get from A-to-B via any route, be it sticking to the main roads in Performance cars, or as the crow flies in your kitted out Dirt motor, with each of your crew's position on the map showing how far ahead or behind they are.
As well as the seven mission types, there are literally hundreds of 'Skills' across the map, with eight different skill types in total. In an afternoon with the game I only managed to get through a handful of challenges, so I couldn't begin to imagine how long it would take to complete them all.
As much fun as I had playing The Crew, two issues that left a real thorn in my side. The first is the need for a constant internet connection. I reviewed Need for Speed Rivals and came close to eating my controller in frustration at constant reboots and loading screens thanks to host migrations and kickbacks its infrastructure caused. The Crew looks like it will offer a similar, controller-chewing experience. Ubisoft's creative director Julian Gerighty told me that, should players lose their internet connection, they will be booted back to the title screen. Despite Gerighty's insistence that the online requirement won't affect players enjoying The Crew on their lonesome, the fact that any progress made in a mission will be lost at the point of the internet going down is clearly not an adequate solution. As somebody who has a sporadic internet connection at best, I know this will prove a major stumbling block when I play at home.
The second issue is its approach to monetisation. The Crew has microtransactions built into its ecosystem, coupled with an in-game currency. I was assured that players can get through the whole game without spending any additional money at the expense of time. But the trouble is, everything in the game has a price. You even have to pay to fast travel: the further you go, the higher the price, although you can save a little cash by using public transport positioned at certain parts throughout the map.
The presentation of car parts unlocked through races made it seem as though they too could also be bought with real cash, lessening the grind of earning sufficient in-game money to improve your cars. I couldn't be completely certain this was the case, and Ubisoft failed to confirm this in a follow-up email, but did say that car parts can be unlocked through progression as well as microtransactions.
This is countered somewhat by the fact that only parts ranked equal or below that of the player's rank can be applied. For instance, a level 30 player cannot apply a level 33 exhaust, but a bronze level 33 exhaust may not be as effective as a lower ranked gold part. It's a complex and often confusing system, and the brief time I got to spend with the game was definitely not enough to develop a full understanding.
The exact cost of each in-game item and fast-travel was not implemented at the time of preview, so it's hard to judge how much of an impact it will have. Perhaps it will be countered by the fact that players earn money through every action in the game. You'll earn cash out of missions through near-misses, good overtakes or simple destruction of public property, but this felt like petty cash compared to what you need to buy the best rides.
If Ubisoft and Ivory Tower can ease fears of these two major issues and address the game's identity crisis (The Crew is, frankly, a rubbish name for a racer, connoting a gang-led beat-em-up more than anything, plus Ivory Tower seem to add a new genre every five minutes), then the team could be on to something special. I had great fun in my few hours with the game, wanting only more time to explore this huge environment to see everything it had to offer. The variety of handling of each car type was enough to keep me invested alone, and this is one of the few games that would give me the desire to play online.
E3 could be make or break for The Crew. Ubisoft must present the game on a strong footing and really get the message across to consumers as to what this game can offer. I was able to look beyond my grievances and have a blast. Now it's Ubi's job to persuade everyone else to do the same.