One of the most unexpected surprises to come out of Ubisoft‘s E3 2013 press conference – loaded to the rafters with third-person action titles – was the open world arcade racer The Crew, the debut title from French developer Ivory Tower. The game’s announcement trailer got every gearhead’s blood pumping, but in a genre dominated by established brands on both the simulation and arcade sides, the reason for yet another open world racer seemed hard to fathom.
Our brief hands-on time with The Crew at the conference confirmed our suspicions that the game was no lemon, but a sound driving engine and potential going up against the likes of Need For Speed ‘s entire catalog? That seems like a fight that – for better or worse – would be over before it had even begun.
But now that we’ve gotten a chance to speak with the developers themselves, and see the game’s variety of experiences, progression, and upgrade mechanics, we’re far more convinced that Ivory Tower has crafted something new enough to warrant some attention. Not to mention make the term “racing MMO” seems like more than lip service.
For those who may have missed out on the game’s early details, it seems on the surface like most open world racing games – see Most Wanted, Rivals – with a twist. Players will acquire new vehicles of various performance levels, but will also have the chance to modify those vehicles into a range of ‘Specs,’ suited to performance on and off the streets. Players have the chance to either team up with other players into a Crew, or go it alone in tackling the immense open world, completing a range of challenges and missions in the name of upgrading each car in your garage.
Again, that may sound like standard fare for the modern arcade racer, and Creative Director Julian Gerighty admits that it isn’t easy showing The Crew‘s strengths, especially with a game world larger than Forza Horizon, NFS: Rivals, GTA5, Red Dead Redemption, Far Cry 3, and Skyrim combined:
“E3, Gamescom, trade shows in general — you’ve got a ten minute window to talk to journalists and to other people. So giving people the hands-on experience, the depth of an RPG is really, really tough in that amount of time.
“It’s huge, but I don’t really like to focus on the size of it. What’s really impressive, and what we spent a lot of time doing, is creating a lot of variety in terms of areas. So not only do you have National Parks – Yosemite, Black Hills – the Rocky Mountains’ snow-covered hills, the bayou, you’ve got cities, you’ve got highways; you’ve got everything in between. And that’s really crucial. We’ve found that people get a little bit tired of racing games after the eight- or nine-hour mark, after they realize that they’re basically just going in circles.”
That variation can be clearly seen as a trip down the East Coast fades from the wilderness of Virginia to the sun-drenched beaches of Miami so naturally, players might not even realize they’ve navigated hundreds of miles until the journey is complete.
It’s this kind of “pure” driving experience – watching mile after mile of open road roll by without noticing – that seems just as important to the developers as the online multiplayer. Certain vehicles or off-road specs will need to be purchased to explore regions or environments, or tackle challenges with any hope of success, but The Crew appears to be far more of an open-ended and free-wheeling experience than the first gameplay demos implied.
The prospect of that large a world and dense a customization system can be intimidating to newcomers, so Ivory Tower has concocted a story to go along with the open world racing. Don’t expect something akin to Need For Speed: The Run though, as the team is after an MMORPG experience, not a cinematic one.
That comparison goes deeper than some might expect, with the team likening a player’s car to an RPG’s hero, complete with ‘character sheets,’ upgradable skills, and a constant drive to complete dozens of Skill challenges scattered across America in search of the cash (used to buy parts and cars), XP (used to level up specific skills or bonus effects) and the unique parts they unlock.
The scripted story was hinted at in our play session, but Gerighty explains that it’s the mechanics which keep players engaged, not the cut-scenes:
“The Missions are constructed to drive you on a road trip around the country. Starting in Detroit, going to New York, Miami, Las Vegas, and finishing in Los Angeles. There’s a narrative that ties them together, but really what that is is a structure to basically guide you through the country, because parachuting you into such a large environment isn’t the smartest thing to do. I think a lot of people would get lost.”
It’s impossible to tell how rewarding or nuanced the customization systems will prove to be, but from our early experience, Ivory Tower has streamlined the process in ways some RPGs would be wise to mimic. With each new or unlocked item selected, a simple number shows the resulting improvement or loss of performance, meaning even newcomers can find their way through building a perfectly spec’d car with ease.
The challenges and races run the usual spectrum of arcade feats, and are open to all drivers to attempt whether the drivers qualify for the rewards or not. The bad news: players may end up completing a challenge perfectly only to be rewarded with a part they aren’t capable of using yet. The good news: the parts can all be stored for later, meaning time and effort hasn’t been wasted. That may seem insignificant, but it speaks to the fact that the designers have little interest in restricting choices.
The mindset extends to the multiplayer aspects as well, since every single mission can be completed solo for those who aren’t fans of the “massively multiplayer” experience. Taking down a target vehicle (ramming it until its HP meter dropped to zero) was essentially identical in our single and multiplayer play sessions, with the ‘Crew’ version simply awarding the target greater health. It’s far too early to tell if the Crew mechanics will offer anything more meaningful than standard matchmaking, but it doesn’t seem to be the heart of the experience as much as its title might imply.
With some on the development team having previously worked on Test Drive Unlimited, those roots shine most clearly in the game world itself; where even next-gen games like Need For Speed: Rivals introduce worlds which are, for all intents and purposes, lifeless but for the drivers smashing their way through it. But in the limited environments witnessed in The Crew, the city streets are teeming with life.
Heavy traffic will complicate nearly any challenge, but the civilians strolling down sunny sidewalks has an invaluable impact on the overall feeling. It’s an inexact science, and a hard distinction to pin down, but there is no question that Ivory Tower has found a way to single their game world out from the rest – even if it’s patio furniture and a backyard barbecue being thrashed to pieces by a million-dollar supercar.
To see more of the attitude in action, take a look at the newly premiered first gameplay trailer below:
What is perhaps the most lasting aspect of The Crew isn’t the customization, the driving model, the variety of locales, or even the multiplayer – it’s the breadth of experiences that just might be contained within it. While Gerighty claims that PvP racing is a “huge” part of the game, we had just as much fun prowling through the Florida swamp, dodging flamingos and wildlife as we did enemy racers on the blacktop.
The game is far from finished, but the seeds of exploration and what Gerighty calls a “zen” driving experience (the same one which made TDU a lasting favorite for many) are present and accounted for.
We’re holding off judgement for now, but left our preview event far more intrigued by what The Crew seems to be seeking than we expected. And perhaps most shockingly, the experience of actually playing the game came much, much closer to the one promised in its cinematic trailer. These days, that alone is an accomplishment.
What are your thoughts on The Crew‘s style and aims for an online world? If you’ve got questions, simply leave them in the comments, and we’ll do our best to answer them.
The Crew will release in Fall 2014 for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.