Ivory Tower's ode to the open road is an underrated gem, but this fiddly expansion still can't advance its MMO aspirations.
First things first: you should play The Crew. It's wonderful, honestly. If, like me, you glossed over it last year because you were already playing Forza Horizon 2, or because you'd heard the online service was flaky at launch (it was), or because you were in a sulk with publisher Ubisoft over Assassin's Creed Unity, now is the perfect time to correct that.
An online, open-world driving game with the usual themes - the acquisition and customisation of sweet rides, wrapped up in a corny street-crime story - The Crew, by French studio Ivory Tower, is a great deal more than the sum of its unrefined parts. As a racing game, it's basic, broad, enjoyable: heavy handling, high speeds, focusing on judicious use of nitro boosts as much as anything else, with slippery dirt tracks and bouncy off-road rally raids in addition to every arrangement of tarmac you can think of. It's not technical, and the AI drivers stick to a pretty rigid script, but it's a good time.
This action sprawls in glorious plenty across what is without question the greatest open world in any racing game. It might be one of the greatest open worlds, full stop. The Crew's gigantic map of the entire continental USA must take a full hour to cross from coast to coast. Dense and atmospheric despite its grandiose scale, it conjures the soul as well as the sights of the American road. It's at its best in its carefully elided transitions: you'll sweep through the clapboard churches, scrubland and oil jacks of Texas to the glossy towers of Dallas, or down from New England's smouldering woodland toward Manhattan, or from Miami's low-rise suburban sprawl into the swamps and spanish moss of the Louisiana bayou. The sheer size of it just allows for more texture, more variation, more time, and heightens the romance of the journey. The less often you use fast travel, the better this game is.
As Mike Channell wrote in our review last year: "The Crew is an ode to the great American road trip. Not one in particular, nor just the ones cherry-picked by Hollywood or Kerouac, but all of them. At once." Take it from someone who's been lucky enough to undertake a couple such trips in real life: he's dead right. No game captures them better. It's genuinely epic.
The Crew is also an attempt to create the first real massively multiplayer online racing game - an idea flirted with by some of the same developers, under a different name, in the lovably eccentric Test Drive Unlimited games. The Crew goes much further, taking TDU's map populated with other players and incorporating a grindy, granular system of car advancement that owes something to Diablo's randomised loot tables, as well as stabs at an endgame and "PVE" co-op content.
Its success here is mixed. The MMO influence lends the Crew a structure and economy that are quite distinct from the "CarPG" norm established by Gran Turismo. You aren't just grinding out cash to splurge on buying cars and upgrading them at will. You'll only expand your garage of cars and "specs" (performance, circuit, dirt and so on) slowly, and you can't buy upgrades; you have to get out there and earn them, like loot, from events in the world, including the fun driving skills that litter the map and fill out every point-to-point journey. It's a grind, but a grind linked inherently to racking up mileage around that stupendous map, so it's a rewarding one - as well as a refreshing change within the racing genre.
As an actual massively multiplayer game, though, The Crew doesn't gel. PVP options are weak - especially compared to Horizon 2's excellent 'road trip' playlists - and co-op isn't well incentivised. The game's terrific fun to play with friends, but it can't come up with good enough reasons to bring the wider community together, and its online schema and interface are arcane and confusing.
So there we have it. A unique, compulsive, expansive racing game, and the greatest road-trip simulator ever (with a respectful nod toward Euro Truck Simulator). You can pick it up for around £20. It's a no-brainer.
But should you spend an extra £15 to get the new Wild Run expansion as well? And if you already own and love The Crew, should you upgrade? This one isn't so easy to answer.
The first problem is that several of the best updates to the game come for free in the latest patch. There's a graphical upgrade, including some decent dynamic weather effects and very handsome new lighting. Though capable of moments of great beauty, The Crew was previously pretty rough visually, so this is a welcome improvement. The handling of most of the game's cars has also been revamped (though crash physics remain, er, unpredictable).
Of equal significance to the game's community: the endgame reward system has had a much-needed overhaul. It used to be parsimonious and far too random, and fans were ultimately reduced to grinding out the quick-fire jump skills in the hope they would yield the parts needed to get their cars to the level cap. Now, getting a platinum badge in any activity at max level awards you proportionally and generously with either upgrade parts (which are guaranteed to be useful to you) or cosmetic items.
Setting these freebies aside, then, the best reason to shell out for Wild Run is probably the addition of motorbikes. These can be used in almost every activity in the game, and come in all the original spec flavours. They're well balanced, handling some events better than cars, some worse. They handle simply but well, and with their focus on gently throttle-steering through bends, they offer a pleasingly modulated alternative to the cars' rather lead-footed driving style.
Wild Run also adds three "extreme" specs for cars only: monster trucks, drag racers and drift cars. Each is fun, in a limited, mini-game sort of way. Monster trucks bound and wallow around giant stunt arenas that paradoxically make them feel like toy RC cars. Drag racers reach ridiculous speeds via what are essentially quick-time events. Drift cars are much as you find them in every other racing game. Though they all come with their own upgrade paths, of course, it's hard to see them as much more than novelties because they're not well integrated with the game as a whole, each existing within its own individual bubble. Damningly, you'd be pretty unlikely to use any of them for The Crew's principal pleasure: cruising around the map.
The real problem with Wild Run, however, is that it's one of those MMO expansions that is more concerned with trying to get players to behave in the way the developers want them to than with giving them what they what. It's a classic example of game design as social reverse-engineering.
Ivory Tower seems conscious that The Crew's community lacks cohesion, and lacks a reason to log into the game daily. So it has built Wild Run around The Summit, an itinerant championship - rather like Forza's Horizon festival in concept - that roams around the map offering time-limited challenges. In each suite of Summit events, you jostle with the Crew's entire community for leaderboard position, earning prizes as well as medals that grant qualification to later, greater monthly rounds.
It's not a bad idea in theory - if nothing else, checking your ranking is a good reason to log in to the game on a regular basis - but its implementation is problematic. Instead of inhabiting The Crew's huge and vibrant world map, you end up viewing the game through The Summit's hub screen and warping from one event to another, at which point you could be playing any other racing game (one that, all of a sudden, doesn't seem so distinguished).
Also, Ivory Tower's ambition seems again to have outstripped its ability to design seamless multiplayer modes or build reliable netcode. Some Summit events require you to be in a Crew (a team) to play, but either the matchmaking is ineffective or has too small a pool of players to draw from - or, I suspect, both. Either way, the new Looking For Crew matchmaking system seems to be less effective at bringing players together than the game's previous, simple "quick co-op" option.
When the developer does try to return you to that splendid map - with a free-drive stunt challenge and a feature that allows you to design your own, continent-spanning races - it again enforces multiplayer, but offers no curation, explanation or guidance. Matchmade groups attempting these activities tend to mill around and then disband in confusion. If you can assemble friends to play them with, I'm sure they're brilliant, but at this stage in The Crew's life it needs to be introducing players to one another, not suggesting they bring a date.
You have to give Ivory Tower credit: in pursuing the racing MMO, the developer is exploring virgin territory and having to improvise as it goes along. If only others working in the racing genre were willing to take such risks. But it's doing so in a way that is haphazard and a little stubborn, refusing to play to its existing strengths. If Wild Run had more modest and focused multiplayer goals married to a chunk of good solo content - perhaps some of the great mission design that characterised the base game's silly story, perhaps more new cars - it would be easier to recommend.
But The Crew itself remains a great achievement that's been unjustly ignored. It deserves a second chance - not just from players who might have missed it last year, but from Ubisoft. Since the publisher has just bought Ivory Tower, perhaps it will get one, and I for one certainly hope it does.