Ivory Tower’s ode to the open road is an underrated gem, but this fiddly expansion still can’t advance its MMO aspirations.
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.
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.