The Crew: can a racing game really work as an MMO?

There's no orcs, but plenty of spoilers

The Crew

This article was provided to TechRadar for PC Gaming Week by Edge magazine. Follow Edge on Twitter here. Click here for Edge subscription offers.

  • Publisher: Ubisoft
  • Developer: Ivory Tower, Reflections
  • Format: Xbox 360, PC, PS4 (version tested), Xbox One
  • Release: Out now

Early on in The Crew, the grand vision of developers Ivory Tower and Reflections becomes clear. It's during the pre-rendered intro, in fact, as throaty, V8-powered cars tear through New York, the streets teeming with pedestrians and vehicles.

After an extended chase across a grab bag of recognisable US locales, the camera pans back to reveal four players forming a crew, just as another quartet does the same on a nearby road. Then the camera pulls out again to take in a whole city's worth of drivers going about their business, and then once more to show the entirety of North America riddled with dozens of street-racing gangs. It's a pitch for the greatest open-world driving game ever conceived, but much of that promise is systematically dismantled once you begin to play.

Looking on

While it's true that you share a single world with everyone who made the same format choice, you'll only observe them in sharded groups of up to eight at any one time, plucked from those in your immediate vicinity. That's three more than Need For Speed: Rivals managed, but it still undermines the sense that the world is bustling with other players, much less crews. More frustratingly, while we occasionally find ourselves driving alongside seven other humans, it's more usually two or three, and sometimes none at all.

When you do find other players, however, forming a crew proves painless. You can bring up a roster of those in your session by clicking the right stick at any time and invite them into your gang, and most story missions can be played in co-op. If you're not currently in a group, choosing the quick co-op option will notify every player in your session and form a new crew, not just a one-off group, from everyone who accepts.

It's easy to leave a crew once a mission is over, even if you'll have to discover the knack through trial and error, but it's a little irritating to have to go through the process each time you find yourself partnered up with a player you'd rather not spend any more time with.

Still, while you're bound together, any unlocked missions can be started by everyone in the group, regardless of where they are on the map, and when you're playing with a good bunch of players, it proves an excellent feature.

The Crew 1

Cliché corner

You'll want as much backup as possible if you're going to trudge through the uninspired, frustrating story sections. The Crew's plot is a collection of clichés delivered with less nuance than even a Fast & Furious movie, and the missions themselves will leave you nonplussed.

Of the various event types, racing fares the least badly, proving for the most part inoffensively lacklustre even as you wrestle with the staggering rubber-banding and unrealistic cornering abilities of your opponents, which puts you at a clear disadvantage. You have to place first in every event, too, and failing to achieve this won't even net you a smattering of consolation experience points or car parts; the race ends simply, and unceremoniously, as soon as the lead car screams across the finish line.

Playing co-operatively with other drivers shifts the odds in your favour, since only one of you needs to win in order for everyone to get through. The setup works well, allowing more experienced drivers to help newer players beat mission objectives that are just beyond the reach of their vehicles' abilities, and organised crews can even work together to run interference on AI racers while a designated driver takes the chequered flag.

Almost any excessively steep challenge encountered can be circumvented in this way, and some by levelling up your car through replaying earlier missions, tackling PvP events, or attempting the various short challenges that pepper the map. Entered automatically once you pass through a set of floating blue starting gates, challenges take in a variety of driving disciplines, including the likes of slaloms and high-speed tests, DriveClub-style line holding and more unusual activities such as hill climbs that require you to power up difficult terrain as quickly as possible.

But grinding won't soften the blow of the missions that require you to step out of your levelled-up car and into a loaned vehicle, several of which provide some of the most egregious difficulty spikes we've ever encountered in racing games.