THE CREW Game Review: Accelerator’s Creed

An open-world marvel buried in bad writing, irritating gameplay and the Ubisoft Blight.

Somewhere inside The Crew lurk two interesting and potentially great games. One is a relaxed, immersive open-world driving simulator; the other a high-octane riff on Fast and the Furious. But both are undone by needing to co-exist with each other, and both fall victim to Ubisoft’s “everything to everyone” ethos, drowned in a sea of pointless side activities.

The Crew’s banner feature is its environment. It takes place in an open-world recreation of the contiguous United States, with all the varied geography that suggests. It’s a compressed version: mostly altered in service of fun (reducing space between destinations), or the developers’ sanity (removing certain cities, like Austin and Philadelphia, to preserve development resources for others, like LA and New York and...Amarillo). That compression extends down to the fine details, which are sketched in pretty roughly. You wonder how the artists designing shopfronts or animating pedestrians feel, knowing their work will mostly be sped past, seen only in blurry periphery.

Luckily, cross-country driving in The Crew is a relaxing, transcendental experience. The environments - while detailed as cursorily as you’d expect from a game covering the entire United States - are gorgeous at their best and only a little dull at their worst. Cruising along the coast, or winding through the Rockies, or making dust trails through the desert, the open-world driving is terrific, dripping with romanticised verisimilitude. Like the real America, much of the country is empty save for highways, but if you’re in the right mood, that can be a salve to stress (which I’ll get to later). Even driving to the game’s version of LAX airport almost makes you sigh with familiarity at how soul-destroying it is.

At complete tonal odds with The Crew’s open-world backdrop is its story, missions, and gameplay. Yes, the bulk of the game proper ranges from yawningly missable to outright hateful. The story, a fifth-generation carbon copy of the first Fast and the Furious, sees its bland white protagonist going undercover with the FBI to infiltrate a street-racing gang to avenge his brother’s death. Even typing that sentence invoked major deja vu. The story, characters, and self-consciously “street” tone are uninspired and stupid. It all feels like an afterthought - the game’s Austin Powers-esque determination to avoid showing characters out of their cars, presumably to avoid animating them, is a source of much unintended hilarity. This ain’t Fast and Furious. It could have been, but not with this cursory storytelling and lack of focus.

But at least the gameplay is fast and furious, right?

Wrong - The Crew’s gameplay is frustrating and uninspired. As you’re confined to a car (you can’t get out, like in a Grand Theft Auto, or telepathically hop between drivers, like the weird and underrated Driver: San Fransisco), missions are limited to what you can do in it. So you’ll do a lot of racing; a lot of escaping from cops; a lot of taking enemies down, chauffeuring people around, and delivering things. It’s all variations on “get from point A to point B,” the sole function of road vehicles. The context might change slightly, but there’s little variety or substance to be found.

You’d better like playing those missions, too, and not just because they’re so homogenous. The Crew’s enemy AI is psychotic and downright unfair. AI cheating is commonplace in racing games - rubber-banding cars to yours to manufacture tension and excitement - but in The Crew, it reaches Nixonian heights. AI-controlled vehicles are just faster and nimbler than yours, capable of unrealistically fast hairpin turns and of responding to your own movements precisely as you make them - making it near-impossible to get ahead. Make the slightest mistake in many missions, and you might as well restart. The cheesy slide-to-stop and bewildering achievements screen that caps each mission is insufficient reward for such sloggery.

But not even the half-baked story gets to take centre stage, as - like the genuinely good open-world driving - it’s constantly backgrounded by what I’ve come to refer to as “The Ubisoft Blight”: the relentless proliferation of minigames and collectibles that has plagued Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Far Cry and more. (It’s not an issue unique to Ubisoft, but the identical nature of their deployment of the Blight - even across genres - makes them synonymous with it.) Now, I get the point of the Blight. The idea is that you’re never far away from something new to do. But the minigames are so repetitive - and again, mere variations on “point A to point B” - that the unceasing popups you see every few seconds are just an annoyance. Fellow open-world racer Burnout Paradise managed to get around this by giving everything an over-the-top, visceral sense of fun; The Crew’s dedication to realism prevents it from reaching those heights.

Masking a lack of depth through pointless complexity, Ubisoft have dropped in next-level unnecessary complication in The Crew’s progression and upgrade system. Completing any one of the irritating missions or unremarkable challenges earns you any of five forms of reward: experience points, perk points, in-game currency, reputation, or upgrade parts, because your car has its own progression tree. You can then buy, tune or upgrade cars, buy car parts, or acquire character perks from a range of perk distributors. Some of these can auto-equip, which is great; those that don’t, I ignored. I don’t have time to sit in a menu endlessly upgrading a gearbox when there’s a dot on the horizon I need to visit. I’m sure there’s an audience for this kind of stat micromanagement, but is it the same audience that wants explosive car action, or a transcendental trip across pretty countryside?

There’s a good game in here somwhere, but it’s block-parked in by pointless diversions and a terrible campaign. This is Assassin’s Creed, but instead of an assassin, you are a car, doomed to a fate fast and frustrating. If the game stuck by its killer open-world driving, it’d inherit that franchise’s sense of freedom; instead, it inherited its bloat, and without seven games’ worth of feature creep to explain it.