So many games fail to live up to their promise, but The Crew may be one of the first to struggle to live up to its own name. Ubisoft's newly released driving game takes its title from the ability to form squads of friends to drive around the vast, open-world digest of America that developer Ivory Tower has created. It's a feature introduced in a day one patch, and - some 24 hours after the game's launch - it's one that remains temperamental at best.

The Crew is sold on the promise of epic, cross-country drives, races that take you from the bounding dunes that skirt the Great Lakes to the swamps of the south, from the dense greens of New Jersey to the dustbowls of California - marathon events that, when the server inevitably drops, can see an hour's progress wiped in one cruel disconnection.

This hybrid of MMO, RPG and pure, unabashed driving has problems, and they go beyond the teething troubles now sadly predictable at the launch of an always-online game. They're there from the very opening, an hour of cutscenes and tutorials that fail to introduce convincingly the mesh of progression, events and social interaction spread out across the map.

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The story missions are unspectacular, even if they're stuffed with Hollywood set-pieces such as delivery vehicles spilling their load or passenger planes swooping down low over a race.

Instead, you're introduced to your player character - Gordon Freeman as voiced by Troy Baker, it would seem, who's somehow found himself trapped in a mid-noughties Need for Speed game - and the turgid story that underpins The Crew. You're framed for the murder of your brother, and in order to clear your name you've got to go undercover for the FBI and work your way up the ranks of the 5-10, a network of racing criminals headed up by a collection of bland racial stereotypes occupying each of the map's key areas. It's muck, and it only just escapes from being offensive by being so overwhelmingly dumb.

Other issues are more banal. Take the waypoint marker, a racing line that hangs in the air like the odour on the breeze in a vintage Bisto ad. It's a cute spin on a well-established staple of the genre, except that it doesn't work. You're distracted from the road that lies ahead of you, while the line itself insists on dancing this way and that, constantly wrong-footing you as you decipher which turn to take next.

The Crew doesn't get off to a good start, then. Other contemporary console games that have taken their cues from MMOs have likewise struggled to convey their strengths in those all-important early hours - witness the slog required before Destiny reveals its late-game majesty - but The Crew's fundamentals aren't quite strong enough to excuse such sloppiness. The driving is far from a disaster, and the cars are imbued with a weight and sense of friction that was sorely missing from the Test Drive Unlimited games with which The Crew shares some DNA - but it all lacks a little drama.

That's introduced, in part, as you level up each individual car, attaining 'gear' and affixing it to your ride as you spec it out in one of several class types. But even when you've invested a fair amount of time in any particular ride, the handling's never anything beyond simply satisfactory. It's good enough never to get in the way, but the real thrills of The Crew are to be found elsewhere.

In that levelling system, for example, which while hardly new to the driving genre has at least been rigorously applied (as have microtransactions which, while seemingly unobtrusive right now, surely have little place in the economy of a game such as this.) Grinding a car through levels is a simple, enjoyable task, with skill challenges dotted around the map helping you acquire new parts, rewarding you while you indulge in the exploration that is The Crew at its best.

And what a map it is. There's care and attention throughout Ivory Tower's world, and while there's a veneer of bullshit layered over the top it can't obscure the fact that The Crew's take on America is one of the achievements of the year. It boasts the mad breadth of Asobo's strange and ambitious 2009 game Fuel (and, indeed, the French studio is working on the Xbox 360 version of The Crew), throwing in character and spectacle that gives each cross-country trek a handful of breathtaking moments.

Work your way from Chicago's bronzed city centre out into the rolling greens of the Midwest, ticking off Kansas and Dakota before the sun sets, and you're braving a snowstorm en route to Salt Lake City. Push through to Death Valley, so darkly ominous by night, and be rewarded with the soft glittering lights of Las Vegas on the horizon, the city slowly coming into focus until you're consumed by neon. This is a world that's meant to be enjoyed at speed - stop too long and you'll notice some of the finer detail is lacking - but its roads seem tantalisingly infinite.

It's a world best soaked up with friends by your side, something which seems disappointingly difficult to do at present. To see the promise of the open road and the ambition of Ivory Tower, more fully realised in The Crew than it ever could be in Test Drive Unlimited, compromised once again by poor netcode is a shame. To see certain design decisions encroaching on what's a very solid foundation for an open world driving game is even more of a concern.

There's every hope that more stability can be introduced in the coming days, and that beyond the choking mediocrity of the story there's the rolling, connected playground The Crew promises to be. If that reveals itself in due course, there's good reason to believe that The Crew could overcome its many problems to become something very special indeed.

This is an early impressions piece based on a day playing The Crew. Our review will be live next week.

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About the author

Martin Robinson

Martin Robinson

Features and Reviews Editor

Martin is Eurogamer's features and reviews editor. He has a Gradius 2 arcade board and likes to play racing games with special boots and gloves on.