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It’s everything that Need for Speed has been leading up to – a persistent online world, real-time stat tracking, arcadey events listings, and a huge selection of cars. Though we won’t be seeing a new such title from EA this year, Ubisoft is here to the rescue with exactly that; The Crew.

On the first time playing, you’d almost mistake it for the next entry in the long-running Need for Speed franchise with arcade-style handling mechanics, upgrade systems to cars, and an online competitive system that’s more like NFS Autolog than it’d care to admit.

After a 20-minute spin with the game it does start to feel different, but more like an incremental upgrade than anything with a sleek, refined take on the arcade racer genre, encompassing features brought forward in various past titles, integrated with polish and style.

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The Crew introduces ‘skills’ challenges, which are little objectives dotted around the map that trigger as you drive past. Each represents a different style of objective, such as keeping a racing line, maintaining high speed, or beating the time for a given section of road. It’s all saved, too, so your friends can break your records and set new ones, thus adding further to the competitive spirit that the game seeks to foster early on.

It’s all set in a wonderfully recreated rendition of the USA, but scaled down to fit into a roughly 90-minute drive from coast to coast. Distinct regional styles are well kept, with easily identifiable landscapes and scenic hotspots liberally dotting the map. On the other hand if you don’t fancy driving everywhere, The Crew features a fast travel system to get you there.

Utilising this handy feature, I sped to the Laguna Seca Raceway to try out what competitive racing feels like. Sadly, though the scaling of the country might be necessary, I simply can’t see why developer Ivory Tower had to make the real life racing circuits smaller too. It’s unsatisfying, and it would really just would have been more fun to battle supercars around a life-sized replica instead.

It was race time however, and I chose my favourite beast in the ‘Circuit’ car range and got ready togo. From the offset it became clear that The Crew is a tough thing to drive. The game’s driving model is definitely skewed towards the arcade, yet not the familiar feel of similar titles from Burnout or Need for Speed. Instead it accelerates with plenty of power and powerful nitrous, but one small twitch on the controller stick can send you spinning out into wheel-screeching failure.

I was told that eventually I’ll unlock upgrades to improve the grip and handling of the cars, so such unfortunate events won’t happen as much, but in the short-term at least, the handling model still feels over-sensitive and quite irritating, with a low margin for error. While the notion of an upgrade system is certainly welcome, it should only exist to make the car perform better and not to make the car drivable in the first place.

Each car that you control also supposedly evolves to suit the type of objective that you’re currently trying to complete, but I couldn’t really make out that big of a difference between the Circuit, Performance and Street types. Perhaps I should have taken my ride into the mountains for a spin, but alas, my time with the game did not allow it.

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In terms of the enemy car AI, matters are improved, with your CPU-controlled opposition driving with sufficient aggression and vigor without being overly unfair. Of greater concern is that there isn’t a collision system in the game; instead, it seems like hitting something and actually getting penalised for the act of doing it feels like luck of the draw. Head on collision? Your car will merely slide past unless you happen to be smack bang in the middle of the crash. Any shift to the side and an oncoming car will just slide past you as if you had a giant shovel in front of your car. Similarly, it’s possible to take that high-speed ‘Circuit’ car and send it right through a forest, bouncing between the trees until you make it out the other side.

To say it hurts the sense of immersion that The Crew is trying to convey, would be a understatement to the say the least.

Visual damage mapping on the cars is also hit and miss; a flip off a highway overpass results in scratches on my car, while a hit from another player on the rear results in my back bumper falling off. It’s more than a little weird and inconsistent and as such, remains disappointing just how seemingly so little attention has been paid to the collision and damage department of what should otherwise be a fairly bombastic racer.

As a result, my mind wanders back to memories of Burnout Paradise and how fun it was to set up a truly spectacular pileup or send other players careening into walls during races. Such satisfaction feels like it’s needed here and would have been a superb addition to the game’s lackluster vehicular collisions.

The Crew might have been called an MMO racer, but it isn’t really. Rather than a sense of scope that would feel appropriate to a game carrying the MMO label, The Crew instead feels almost like an instanced section of whatever part of USA you happen to be in. Assuming you’re playing with three mates, up to seven other drivers may appear in the immediate area bringing the total number of players to 11 for your little section of road. While it might not sound like much, with even just four players rumbling around, things got pretty hectic. Having extra friends in-game does up the fun factor however, especially when teaming up for a take-down mission, where all four people must attempt to ram the target while staying out of each other’s way. This becomes an entertaining and high-speed juggling act to see performed.

Overall though, despite its flaws, developer Ivory Tower appears to have fashioned a highly entertaining racer. Ostensibly, The Crew feels like a mash-up of arcade racers with many familiar features present, but also with some noticeably absent. This doesn’t detract from the overall fun of the game though, as simply speeding through the USA and exploring the whole map could offer at least a few hours of entertainment on its own and remains a thrill regardless. Though it’s missing a few things, the well done interface, size, and design of the world map and its many multi-player features make The Crew one to put on your radar.

I was told that this is the finished game and there won’t be many, if any changes before it launches in December. If this is it, then I can’t wait to get my hands on it come release.

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaU3BbiKGo0

The Crew is being developed by Ivory Tower, and releases worldwide December 2 for the PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.

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