The Crew is an astonishing achievement. The game world takes care of that single-handedly, offering the entirety of the continental United States, masterfully compressed and pruned into a playable, driveable space. But it's not the vastness that's impressive, it's the level of fidelity and the authenticity of its character.
Cities and towns are oversized, compared to the network of roads and acres of countryside between them, but that's in order to make each one a convincing, recognisable and explorable space in and of itself. Dallas might never be the sole inspiration for an open world game, for example, but here you can roll through the dust-skirted suburbs as the downtown skyscrapers rise to meet you. What's more every location, regardless of size or significance, feels hand-crafted, with appropriate architecture, distinctive buildings and local flora and fauna.
Between those more populous areas, on the highways and byways, 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.
It functions because, crucially, the scale is great enough that in all but a couple of locations, the scenery changes gradually, almost imperceptibly. Waft along the East Coast and you'll progress seamlessly from the autumnal New England forests all the way down to the sun-cracked asphalt and orange groves of Southern Florida.
And for a game that has obvious graphical foibles, it's frequently beautiful. Descending from the mountains and glimpsing Las Vegas for the first time, picked out in lights on an otherwise featureless desert plain is magical. Sunsets are invariably striking, whether you're parked on top of a mountain or negotiating rush-hour traffic on the approach to Los Angles. Even scything through a claustrophobic forest shrouded in thick, grey fog is hugely atmospheric. The absence of a photo mode is baffling.
It's a world that begs to be explored, and the online-only game that's overlaid on top of it is happy to take you on an extended tour of the highlights. The Crew attempts to blend the dreadful paper-thin plotting of a story-led Need for Speed game, the seamless multiplayer of Test Drive Unlimited (with which this game shares some DNA) and various MMO-inspired systems. It's mostly successful.
After a somewhat bumpy debut, the online experience has settled considerably in the week since release. While it's by no means mandated (in spite of the requirement for an always-on internet connection), co-op is by far the most entertaining and rewarding way to play the game. The story and faction missions, which form the bulk of the challenge, can be played with a 'crew' of four friends and even just roaming between shared waypoints in the open world, picking off skill challenges is a soothing social experience.
As in Test Drive Unlimited, the world is populated with real players in their own cars, which adds welcome colour to the traffic. While there's no current way to initiate a quick competitive race, it's trivially easy to hop into a co-op event with a stranger if your chosen crewmates are all offline. When those crewmates do eventually appear, they're dropped back into your game automatically with zero fuss.
It's the story portion of that trifecta that you'll encounter first, though. The plot is the usual rote nonsense, with treble-crossings, murders, corrupt cops and a wronged street racer out for revenge, enlivened only by the bizarre design of the lead character, Alex Taylor.
The mildly phobic term 'hipster' is tossed around indiscriminately these days, but Alex is, aesthetically at least, the very archetype. There's a profound sense of dissonance in seeing this man - who in theory shouldn't be racing anything more potent than fixie bicycle between artisanal East London coffee houses - attempting to subtly infiltrate the underground street racing scene.
But while the cutscenes and dialogue are essentially white noise, the missions themselves all feel more considered and novel than the handful of checkpoints sprinkled over the landscape that you might have expected. Take, for example, the mission that has you chasing down a galactically powerful Bentley Continental in your scrappy rally weapon, veering onto dirt shortcuts and over jumps to press home your own vehicle's advantage.
Even if it's just some scripted background animations occurring as you whip past, there's the sense that every race, whether offroad or on, has been touched by the hand of a designer. If painfully earnest cutscenes and yet another hero with Troy Baker's increasingly distinctive voice are the price we have to pay for that, then so be it.
Less welcome are those moments when the MMO mechanics rub up against your expectations of a traditional racing game. Events recommend a car of a certain level, but there's a sense that the performance of your vehicle isn't the only thing conspiring against you if you attempt a challenge recommended for cars above your level - the game's various systems are as well.
The AI rubber banding in particular is outrageous, ensuring that if the game has decided that you're only worthy of battling for third in a race, then barring a massive accident on the final stretch that's exactly where you'll finish. There's marginally more wriggle room in events where you're pitted solely against the clock, simply because it's harder for the game to sabotage you, and it turns out even police chases deemed 'Impossible' aren't necessarily. The flip side of all this, of course, is that level-appropriate events of all flavours offer dicey, entertaining battles for their duration.
Where the grind really manifests itself, though, is in the quest for new cars. Anything desirable is guaranteed to be phenomenally expensive and, in one of The Crew's more insidious moments, it bestows 100,000 of its secondary 'Crew Credits' currency upon you - enough to have you mooning over the Ferraris, but not quite enough to buy one without dipping into microtransactions.
Mercifully you're never required to buy a new car to progress because your starter vehicle's specs can be upgraded far beyond the point of plausibility. Better tuning parts can be earned outside of story missions by dabbling in one of the dozens of moreish 30-second skill challenges on the way to your next event. Unless you're prepared to put in hundreds of hours or whip out real-life plastic, though, you can park that ambition to have a garage to rival Jay Leno's.
Still, no-one could accuse The Crew of failing to fill its world with things to do on the long road to riches. There are tens of hours' worth of activities, almost all of them playable in co-op. This is a substantial racing game and particularly committed pedallers can tackle the Faction Missions, Ivory Tower's automotive take on MMO raids. They vary in length but one of the longest, Landmark Tour, will take a bladder-rupturing 4 hours of continuous driving.
And the strange thing is, you'll probably want to try it at some point, just to find another excuse to criss-cross the continent absorbing the scenery and the Americana. There's no doubt that a huge part of The Crew's appeal is nostalgia for US road trips, whether previously experienced or just imagined. No game has mined that cultural seam quite so authentically or with such all-encompassing ambition. It's a game that requires and occasionally enforces patience, but like all great road trips it's about the journey, not the destination.
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