Not a year goes by without a new arcade racer arriving on the scene, claiming to offer gameplay players have only dreamed of, and new ways to compete with friends in unique rides. Ubisoft did a terrific job introducing The Crew during their E3 2013 press conference, not only by officially releasing one of the best cinematic trailers of the show, but providing a live on-stage demo of four separate players joining up online to take on a mission together.
Several of us got the chance to try out The Crew behind closed doors, and get a sense of the driving models and physics ourselves. The core driving mechanics may not be perfectly balanced, but playing it firsthand makes it clear that realistic simulation isn’t the top priority for developers Ubisoft Reflections and Ivory Tower; fun with friends is. And for casual arcade racer fans — particularly younger ones — it could find an audience when it launches.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to remain optimistic about arcade racers these days, since some of the most promising and innovative have been tossed on the chopping block due to a lack of mainstream blockbuster success, and even the most successful franchises have begun their annual-release-cycle death march (a pain Need For Speed knows all too well).
So when word first appeared of an arcade racer from Ubisoft, expectations weren’t exactly sky high; but then, there’s always room for another driving experience favoring takedowns and turbo boosts over tire physics and gear ratios. Having played The Crew ourselves, we can say that although our expectations were mostly accurate, the potential is there for Ubisoft’s new racer to find a fanbase. The odds aren’t in favor of it finding a massive one, but against next-gen processing and unparalleled realism in shooters seen at E3, there’s something to be said for fun.
As demonstrated in the press conference presentation, the world map of The Crew encompasses (a scaled down and slightly heightened) digital recreation of North America, roughly divided into four different sections. There wasn’t an exact explanation of how large the environments really are, but the team did claim that it had taken their fastest driver just under two hours to drive from one side to the other.
Whether you favor off-road races and challenges, highway chases or simply street racing, each section of the world features some combination of all tastes, free to be played at each driver’s leisure. But as the name implies, players are capable of forming four-player ‘Crews,’ and competing cooperatively for both group missions and personal achievements.
The developers weren’t yet offering any in-depth information on how drivers could work together besides ramming an enemy (as was demonstrated already), but the systems for rewarding individual Crew members — with bonus points granted for dealing the finishing blow — do offer incentives for players to team up. Better performance means more credits and upgrades, which can then be applied to cars in each players garage.
From a customization standpoint, The Crew doesn’t lack selection. Rims, body panels, skirts, bumpers — you name it, and the developers have included it to maximize the player’s ability to make a car all their own. In the demo, the game’s tablet companion app was utilized for customization, created using the attractive interface and then synced with the console version of the game. How deep the customization goes or how many vehicles are available to drive wasn’t explained, but The Crew will feature licensed real-world cars (the reason players aren’t able to injure pedestrians in-game).
If one area of the game requires some fine-tuning, it’s the physics and driving model. Heavy cars that don’t respond well to gentle steering are nothing new, but an impact or oversteer seemed to impact the cars far more than they should have been given their weight. By the same token, it was challenging in the demo to grasp what would bring a speeding car to a halt — fences, trees, rocks — and which would shatter on impact — telephone poles, beach chairs and tables.
That being said, no arcade racer is without its odd choices or driving models that are unintuitive at first, only offering true mastery after hours of gameplay. If those issues are either fine-tuned or addressed, then racer fans looking for a game to play online with friends would be wise to check out The Crew, knowing going in that they’re not trying to push boundaries or reinvent the wheel.
We’ll wait to see a bit more before deciding whether this arcade racer will manage to pull ahead from the perennial competition. It may be described easily based on similarities to open world drivers like Burnout Paradise, but before it can reach similar success, more of it will have to be seen.
The Crew is expected to release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2014.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.