The Crew’s greatest achievement is its vast, beautifully rendered condensation of the United States. Dozens of major cities, landmarks, hills, valleys, backroads are all represented, and the game’s current-gen horsepower gives us a sense of scale unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s all open world, all of it is driveable, and there’s dozens of great cars, all customizable with multiple variants specialized for different terrain. Had The Crew stopped there, we would be comparing it favorably to Need For Speed: Most Wanted. Instead, we get the artistic equivalent of a Texas funeral, and the dirt starts piling on right from the first race: A wild, fun, off-road Midwestern countryside police chase full of jumps and hydroplaning gets hijacked by the trifle of a plot, involving a framed street racer, a dude-bro doppelganger of Gordon Freeman named Alex, working with the F.B.I. to climb the ranks of an international criminal consortium-slash-nationwide racing league called the 510s to avenge his dead brother.
Instead of just jumping right into races at will, you’ll spend a great deal of time having your drive interrupted by constant on-screen chatter from your F.B.I. handler, or any number of irritating criminal scum sending you on errands or berating you for losing first place or for not going to your main mission fast enough. All this is one side of a screen that’s already an astonishingly cluttered user interface that feels the incessant need to tell the player everything that every other player is doing. This would be fine if that information meant linking up in any meaningful way. Instead, unless you know more than one person with a copy of the game, playing with or against strangers in the open world is a multi-step process that often ends with no one in your random crew doing anything except randomly driving around, never starting events, or joining existing races or events, and that’s in situations where the server doesn’t cut off your random event halfway, sending you back to the title screen.
That feeling of meaningless clutter extends to every non-driving aspect of the game. Even the process of buying and upgrading a new car is overcomplicated to the point of aggravation, involving making the purchase using either “Bucks,” or “Crew Points,” or just plopping down real-world money for more of the latter, then taking it to a car tuner who can unlock it for different sorts of events (off-road, pursuits, street racing, etc.). Because the tuners for each type of car are in different cities, you have to travel to that city first, which involves a sizable load time for each one, then loading again to get to your HQ, where you can actually customize the look, though not necessarily the performance parts. The performance parts, in turn, have to be won in events, and the part might be useless unless you’ve earned enough XP to raise your player level. Once you have the right level, it still might not be enough to get you access to the next event, because your car’s level, a completely separate stat, isn’t high enough either. And of course, this is mostly dependent on being able to navigate the map screen, which is overloaded with tiny information. It’s a system meant to mimic the various stats an MMO would present, seemingly not realizing that for a racing game it’s complete and total overkill.
Having done all that, you finally get to race, and realize, even after hours of raising your stats, the very act of driving is too often marred by slippery, traction-less car physics, an incredibly unbalanced A.I., and one-too-many race designs that seem tailor-made to counterintuitively prevent high speeds and dangerous driving. Even tried-and-tested fun ideas like hot pursuits and single-car takedowns are rendered aggravating by the A.I.’s penchant for ridiculously unfair bursts of super speeds, and the act of T-boning another vehicle at 180mph having all the visceral impact of a warm familial hug at Christmastime. Such is the slow death of The Crew, a foundation of a serviceable racer, weighted down with the worst tendencies of AAA “added value” game design. There’s a good game buried alive inside it, and when they finally plant the headstone, the cause of death will be chiseled as “trying too hard.”