Locked Continent: Two days of road tripping in The Crew

The Crew road trip

America, you are massive. You’re great, most of the time, and I want to drive up and down you, across your roads that cut through mountains and towering cities. Then I’ll maybe write a love letter to you, as so many enamoured drivers have done before. I don’t drive, though, and a trip to America is not – according to my bank account – on the cards. But there’s always The Crew. 

Road tripping across Ubisoft and Ivory Tower’s huge driving MMO that recreates the USA, in broad strokes, was something I’d been looking forward to. Road trips are the mythic journeys of modern America. The Romans had the Aeneid, America’s got On the Road. I wanted to see if The Crew could capture some of that amid the races and police chases. And I talked Rob into joining me for the ride, as my American guide.

Morning, Day 1: Detroit, MI

Rob: The single-player campaign in The Crew tells the story of a street-racer on a quest for revenge against the man who murdered his brother, and the corrupt FBI agent who framed him for the crime. Since your character’s brother was the head of the 510’s, a street racing gang with a sideline in petty crime, it follows that the only way to bring the killers to justice is through even more street racing. After all, that’s how they got Capone.

That’s all just window-dressing on a coast-to-coast racing adventure across the the United States. The Crew gives you a distorted map of America where all the boring shit has been removed (sorry, Ohio) and it’s nothing but postcard-perfect countryside and iconic cityscapes like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. So driving from Detroit to Chicago only takes a few minutes along the highway, but Chicago itself sprawls in every direction so that you can soak of the the flavor of each neighborhood. It’s a bit like Main Street, U.S.A., but for sports cars.

Fraser, being a Scotsman who never drives and whose country is so small that a coast-to-coast road trip is what his pizza delivery man takes every time Fraser gets hungry, wanted to experience the great American roads immortalized by Kerouac, Easy Rider, and Herbie the Lovebug. He proposed a road trip, from the game’s starting location in Detroit to the sun-drenched beaches of Los Angeles. Since I’ll be making my own cross-country drive in a week, and could use the practice, I agreed to join him on his adventure.

Fraser: I was nervous. Not because I feared the open road or the busy, intimidating American cities that awaited Rob and I, but because I wasn’t sure if The Crew would even allow us to play together. You see, despite a day one patch that seemingly fixed the connection issues, our first attempt to team up ended in failure. Faffing around with port-forwarding like we were living in an age where almost every game didn’t have online functionality did little to improve things.

But then! Random success! We didn’t know why it worked when it did, but we weren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, and so it was that we began our noble mission to drive all the way across Rob’s delightful nation. Nerves gave way to excitement. Goodbye, Detroit, with its one landmark I could recognise, and onto Chicago, Rob’s old hometown.

Rob’s a driver and I am not. It was clear within the first five minutes that our very different levels of experience with driving down roads would lead to very different experiences in regards to the trip itself. Generally, this was mine:

Rob, on the other hand, was winning races – what few the game offered thanks to its restrictive structure – and getting into high-speed chases with the local and state police like a man possessed. I’d be driving down a broad stretch of road like a sunday driver, squealing with delight every time I saw a bear, then Rob would whiz by me like a bat out of hell, a convoy of cops on his arse. He is not a responsible driver. Not remotely.

Afternoon, Day 1: Northern Wisconsin to Chicago

Rob: On the one hand, I was embracing the freedom The Crew promises as I slammed into cop cars and led them on high-speed pursuits along the blacktop and country roads of “Dairy Land”, an idealized vision of the northern Wisconsin countryside where I spent my university years. Bucolic pastures, family farms, and wooded groves whipped past while ineffectual highway troopers tried to smash me off the road. I jammed as many of them as possible into oncoming traffic, then confounded the rest with bootleg turns.

Fraser, meanwhile, was either obeying all posted limits or plunging into the undergrowth to home in on collectibles. Occasionally I’d glimpse his car through the foliage, like a majestic metallic stag patrolling his domain.

But something else was starting to happen on our way to Chicago. Or, more accurately, nothing much was happening at all.

See, The Crew seems to function like an MMO. Let’s call it an MMFaux. In Detroit, which is where Fraser and I had both left our characters’ stories, there were lots of plot-related races unlocked and we were able to do lots of mutliplayer racing together. But once we left the city limits and started embracing the freedom of the open road, The Crew stopped giving us anything to do. There were a few special challenges on the road, like a speed challenge where you try to go as far as possible while remaining on the road in a limited period of time. But there were no events to do. They all seemed to be tied to our characters’ progress in the story.

While we were free to drive west, the Crew was getting increasingly adamant that we come back east and do the damned missions in the exact order it wants. It reminded of this every few minutes, as our FBI handler, Zoe, phoned us constantly to check on our progress and remind us of unfinished business back in Detroit.

Evening, Day 1: Chicago to THE BADLANDS

Fraser: Chicago proved to be pretty dull. A city with nothing to do, no races, not events, only a few mini-challenges here and there or the occasional landmark. While Rob acted as tour guide, I hit up one of the slalom challenges, which I confess I thoroughly enjoyed. I could weave all day.

With little to occupy us, we decided to bid farewell to Rob’s old hometown, and we drove off in search of pastures new. Unfortunately, we drove off in completely different directions, and Rob got a little lost. Then I got a little lost. When we got the band back together, it was a powerful, emotional experience for the both of us, and we hit the open road once again. Well, I hit the open road; Rob hit some cop cars.

As we journeyed west, we started to learn a lot about our mighty metal steeds. Did you know that American-built cars have regenerative properties? They seem like fragile things, unable to go off-road for even a second without falling to pieces. But once they return to the familiar asphalt, they start to put themselves back together. Nanomachines is my guess. They really are miracles of American engineering and ingenuity.

Chicago was growing ever distant in our rear view mirrors, and though we had only been driving for a short time, our world was changing. Forests and fields gave way to dry plains and massive, imposing cliffs. As we pulled into a ghost town, we realised we’d arrived in THE BADLANDS. And in this desolate, daunting land we found many wonderful sights. Like an abandoned gold mine. Okay, one fairly average sight. But it could have been haunted! Maybe, if we’d stayed longer, we could have participated in a race with real ghosts. That we never remained in that dusty mine to find out would haunt us throughout the rest of the trip.

LA was still inconceivably far away, though, so there was little time for regret. The horizon was glowing and ahead of us, there were mountains. Things were about to get exciting Things were about to get ever so slightly less dull.

Morning, Day 2: THE BADLANDS to Las Vegas

Rob: There was nothing waiting for us out west. Fraser and I ascended into the Rockies and discovered a desert of another kind: a desert of CONTENT. We’d been drawn-in by the stories of content so thick and plentiful that a prospector couldn’t swing a pick without hitting a vein of missions and challenges. But up in those cold mountain passes, we didn’t find nothing but more broken dreams.

Then, like a mirage, I saw it. The XFINITY Challenge. Fraser and I approached it. Reverently, hardly believing it to be true, we decided to compete. Of course, we didn’t have a choice. There was no other option for miles around, but that’s part of the Comcast XFINITY experience: the freedom to choose from between nothing and Comcast.

It was a tremendous race, though. How could it not be? When you’re competing a race sponsored by Comcast and covered with XFINITY branding, only the most blazing-fast cars and most open roads will do. Fraser and I found ourselves driving in a race packed with Le Mans-style race cars that made my Mustang GT look like a horse-and-buggy. Then we were launched down the highway, dueling with each other and with AI drivers all the way from Yellowstone to Chicago.

It was a glimpse of the game that Fraser and I had wanted to find. The American countryside went by in a blur as we weaved in and out of traffic, blasted each other off the roads, and drifted through sweeping turns on mountain roads or drag-raced through downtown Chicago.

It was a photo finish as I slipped into the lead past an AI driver, only to watch Fraser blitz past at the last moment. I tried to boost to catch him, but collided with a panel truck and watched helplessly as he took the checkered flag… and then the game awarded the win to the AI driver. Later, watching it on video, I’m still not sure how Fraser didn’t win. But maybe we just had to learn one more lesson about Comcast XFINITY.

Fraser: If you watch the video below, from Rob’s perspective, you’ll see that Comcast stole victory away from me by keeping me in last place at all times. I think I somehow missed a checkpoint early on, and the game failed to tell me until halfway through the race, when it did so vaguely.

Rob: Speaking of rigged games, now that we were finished with the race, it was time to resume our journey to Vegas. After a long, uneventful drive through the ski country of Utah and the deserts of Nevada, we arrived in Sin City under a blazing noonday sun. We drove down the Las Vegas strip as I explained to Fraser how they rebranded each of the casinos for the game. Then we pointed our cars west and resumed our travels. We were almost across the United States and as we headed out of Las Vegas, we both reflected on how much we had grown and changed over the last two thousand miles.

Afternoon, Day 2: Las Vegas to Los Angeles

Fraser: The Crew is nothing but a sightseeing tour if you choose to go your own way instead of Ivory Tower’s prescribed route, as we did. The fields of Wisconsin, the desolation of the Badlands, the slopes of Yellowstone and the bright lights of Las Vegas’ most gaudy casinos – we’d seen a hell of a lot on our journey across America. But we were witnesses rather than participants in this condensed world, and that had taken its toll.

I had completely switched off. My car might as well have been moving of its own volition. The hours I’d spent playing prior to our road trip and the two hours of driving across America during it had made me familiar with the quirks of The Crew’s handling, and I no longer had to think about it. Rob and I chatted, about work, the upcoming holidays, cracked jokes and filled in the time as we drove down the mostly empty roads.

That’s probably the best thing that The Crew offers – the ability to drive around with your chums, some of them perhaps living in a different continent, and have a good old catch up. But that hardly makes it stand out from the mountain of MMOs it awkwardly emulates.

As we rolled down the meandering roads of Napa Valley, admiring the striking vineyards that stretched across the slopes, we spotted another player, and it dawned on us that this was the first sign of human life that we’d witnessed since we left Detroit. Imagine that. We’d driven across the breadth of an MMO, and we came across one player. Then they were gone, speeding off in the other direction. Were they a mirage? A trick, meant to entice us to turn around and give up our quest of reaching LA? We would not be so easily diverted.

When we hit the ocean, the relief was palpable. This was it, we were almost at the end. When I first pitched the idea of detailing a road trip across The Crew’s facsimile of America, I was excited. Open worlds and driving are a perfect match, and when I started my car up for the first time, all the way back in Detroit, I was anticipating races and chases, tough challenges, a bit of friendly competition between Rob and I. There was none of that, simply because we wanted to experience the game’s big hook, and it turned out to be completely hollow.

The Crew is open. You can drive the length and breadth of America, hitting all the big cities and a bunch of small towns. But unless you follow the game’s trite story and follow a specific path, that open world will be completely devoid of activities. Maybe things suddenly become fun when you hit level 30, but waiting for that to happen is absolutely not.

We pulled into a beach, somewhere between LA and Malibu. We were in Los Angeles County, which was good enough for us. The sun was sitting low in the sky, and everything was bathed in a deep orange glow. It was a picturesque end to what ended up being a bit of a dull slog. I learned something important on the journey, though. It’s impossible to hit a bison with a car.