For all the criticisms that can fairly be levelled at The Crew, a lack of ambition is definitely not among them. Ivory Tower’s open and shared world racer is almost always magnificent in its scope, and sometimes it’s even breathtaking in its execution. But The Crew doesn’t see the trees for the forest: its arresting vistas and beautiful set pieces can’t pave over its uneven execution and its dogged insistence on grinding. The Crew is Icarus in a V8 weighed down by a boot full of microtransactions.

The Crew is Icarus in a V8 weighed down by a boot full of microtransactions

Set across the breadth and expanse of the continental United States, The Crew is the story of Alex Taylor, a street racer framed by a crooked FBI agent for the murder of his own brother, the leader of the 5-10 street-racing club. Taylor, who looks like Gordon Freeman by way of Brooklyn, is offered a shot at vengeance by going deep undercover to take down the new criminal management of the 5-10s from within.

The Crew review

The ridiculous plot hinges on the conceit that a bunch of douchebags, each with the wits and emotional range of a sack of wet mice, could somehow elude the cops and carry out a vast criminal conspiracy while driving around in hot pink Lamborghinis. As Alex, actor Troy Baker does the best he can to add some personality to a lumpy script, but even he can’t reliably lift the dialogue above its dudebro trappings.

As an exercise in world building, The Crew is mostly superb, a huge collage of tourism brochures from across the 48 contiguous states all pasted together. For scale and beauty, Ivory Tower’s racer suffers few rivals.

The developer can also be commended for attempting to include cities, although their scale relative to the surrounding countryside will require some suspension of belief. Weirder is that these vast metropolises are so vacant. New York, for example, appears to have about 10 permanent residents, and that doesn’t sync up with the eerie backing track of hundreds of blaring horns and bustling pedestrians.

If traffic isn’t always where you expect it to be, it’s often where you don’t want it to be. To its detriment, The Crew borrows heavily from the MMO genre’s progression mechanics. Players will drive to mission start markers pocked about the map, and complete events for experience points and rewards, such as mufflers and fuel injectors.

players need to rely on the meagre charms of The Crew’s preposterous story to keep them hooked in through the levelling up process

Missions in The Crew take several shapes, none of which stand out and some of which frustrate immensely. In cities, randomly generated traffic will often snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, whether by blocking a necessary turn or swerving without reason into the player’s racing line. In these events, luck is as important as skill. More than once, you’ll pause and restart an event through no fault of your own. Raids are the most interesting mode but also the least reliable. In these players must ram a fleeing vehicle and reduce its hit points to nil, but hit registration is exasperatingly inconsistent. When missions are completed, race data overlays the unpaused game. The predictable and avoidable result is embarrassing fender benders that jolt the fantasy of being an accomplished driver. It’s a minor frustration, but it’s demonstrative of the kinds of small oversights that when considered altogether negatively impact on the playing experience.

Also like an MMO, some content is locked behind level requirements, and cruelly, players will not always be of the requisite level by only completing story missions. That means grinding. In The Crew, grinding takes the shape of small, sometimes interesting challenges dotted around the map, whether it’s maintaining speed over distance, performing jumps, or slaloming around markers on the road. It also takes the shape of replaying the same mission races over for better finishes and better loot.

The obvious flaw in The Crew’s mission and progression structure is that the player’s full range of driving ability is locked behind thousands of tiny upgrades. As cars “level up” things improve, but most of the improvements are so incremental it’s hard to tell whether better performance in the next mission is due to greater familiarity with the game’s driving engine, better luck with the traffic’s dodgy AI, or whether it’s down to that obscure part you just won. That means players need to rely on the meagre charms of The Crew’s preposterous story to keep them hooked in through the levelling up process.

Levelling up is a grueling exercise with or without other players, but the experience is unquestionably improved by the presence of others. Once you’ve reached the level cap, things open up – or as Ivory Tower would no doubt tell you, “the real game begins”. That real game largely consists of collecting and levelling up cars with new platinum – read: epic – parts and then competing against others. The experience for a newly capped 50 can be brutal. Cars with platinum parts are demonstrably better than their levelling game rivals. Finding the kinds of races you’d prefer to race in is also a challenge as whoever has the most points in the lobby gets to decide the format of the next challenge.

Of course you can bypass much of the potential humiliation and grind if you’re prepared to pay. Microtransactions come in the form of a secondary currency called Crew Credits. Ubisoft even deals the first hit for free. Using these, you can skip the grind and buy top-end cars and parts immediately. For the most part, there’s nothing that can be bought with Crew Credits that can’t be earned with a bit of hard work, but The Crew toes the line of what’s acceptable in a game that you’ve already paid a lot of money for.

The Crew review
The Crew review

As microtransactions become more common in Ubisoft games, it seems as if the company and its studios are imagining and implementing more tedious tasks for players to bypass with real cash. Without microtransactions the developer can have a singular focus on what’s fun. With them, the developer needs to find that sweet spot between what dedicated players will tolerate grinding through, and what cashed-up players will pay to skip. Entertainment value feels like a secondary consideration.

Most damning, though, is the ability to buy perks. Perks are talent points, earned one per level for a total of 50 (or a handful more if you choose the ‘double perk point’ lottery talent). But the perk cap is soft. There are around 200 to choose from in total and paying players can use Crew Credits to buy them all.

Underneath all the toil lie the bones of an excellent game. When the randomly generated traffic doesn’t rob you of a victory, when a third-filled progression bar doesn’t sap your will to keep at it, and when other players aren’t devolving every PVP event into a pile-up, The Crew can really shine. The world of The Crew really is one worth spending time in. Cresting a hill or turning a corner to discover the lights of Las Vegas or the imposing sculpted edifice of Mount Rushmore is a genuine joy. What a shame it can come at such a price.