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Ubisoft’s chaotic racer, The Crew, is best enjoyed with cheering developers and bad teammates


Ubisoft’s upcoming open-world racing game, The Crew, is all about freedom and variety. Players will have tons of customization and multiplayer options, plenty of scenic locales, and a wide variety of racing events. Yet I fear that the final version will not contain my favorite aspect of the E3 demo I played: the exuberant French developer who shouts encouragement into the player’s ear throughout the race.

Before I start my petition to get Gallic Navi into The Crew, I should probably tell you how his impassioned cheerleading raised beautiful and exciting, if seemingly conventional, arcade racer from promising to sublime.

My cherry red Nissan 370Z skidded across six lanes of traffic in lower Manhattan, taking the 90-degree left-hand turn at high speed.

“Yes, YES! Pair-fect!” The developer showing me the game clapped my shoulder, shouting into the headset that lets us hear each other over the deafening noise of the Ubisoft booth. “Now you have them!” He gave me a slightly maniacal grin, then returned to studying the screen through narrowed eyes.

A burst from the nitrous system sent my car rocketing into oncoming traffic, trading paint with passing cabs and delivery trucks. Ahead, the second place driver piled into a sedan and started rolling sideways. It’s down to me and a blue Camaro.

“Keep on going! You have him!” Nitro finished recharging, with the finish line just ahead. I cut to the left of the Camaro and hit boost. Just as I nosed past, my screen filled with the blazing white headlights from a semi. My Nissan practically exploded, pitching itself end over end against the lights of Times Square.

“Dammit,” I said, flinching.

“No no! Who cares?” My friend stabbed a finger at the screen. “You won!”

Apparently I did. The Crew doesn’t care that I cratered my car in the process, all that matters is my bumper crossed the finish line before a truck scattered me over East River.

Open-world arcade racing games are about the journey, not the destination, and I’m not sure any of them have been as open and ambitious as The Crew. It is an aimless drive across a highlight-reel of American roads and off-roads. What if Los Angeles and Las Vegas were only a short drive apart? What if there was no sprawl, no miles of empty blacktop, just a world constructed entirely of postcard-pictures?

This, and the emphasis on multiplayer, are what distinguish The Crew from a number of wannabe Burnout Paradise successors. Where most open-world driving games create a single, self-contained city to play host to a variety of mayhem, The Crew tries to grab as many great American locales as possible and turn players loose on them.

There’s lots to do, but none of it is particularly pressing. The HUD is filled with little icons for challenges or local events. A street-race, or just a quick point A to point B time trial. But no matter what you elect to do, you keep racking up experience points and unlocking new upgrades. You can also play around in your garage via an iPad app for The Crew, tweaking your rides and customizing their appearance.

If you like cosmetic customization, this will probably be a fun feature, but I have to admit it left me cold. Especially because the driving model seemed a little too arcadey, fun to play with but devoid of any real connection to the car or its handling traits.

When I warped from New York to Miami to join a group of other players in an assault on a smuggling Hummer, my Nissan was specially kitted-out for the beachfront dune chase. Suddenly its chassis was reinforced and lifted off the ground to make room for huge off-road tires. But on the streets of Miami, it felt very much like the same car I’d been driving moments ago in New York. It left me concerned that The Crew might feature a huge selection of cars and upgrades whose differences are so marginal as to be meaningless.

But I wouldn’t rush to judgment: Ubisoft Reflections, who are working with lead developer Ivory Tower, earned some trust after the excellent Driver: San Francisco, and I hope that The Crew shares its approach to giving arcade super cars some distinct character. I still want to drive a fantastical version of a Corvette or Viper, even if its handling borders on the cartoonish.

The heist mission was a hilarious failure. My teammates were godawful drivers whose ignorance of the laws of physics was so profound that even The Crew’s Roadrunner-esque interpretation of them could not raise them to competence.

The moment we spotted the (ridiculously nimble) Hummer racing along the beach, it shook my two companions off with a gentle dogleg turn onto a beachfront streets. My friends missed the turn and vaulted into the open air like Thelma and Louise, eventually landing somewhere in the surf.

Once again, the French guy showing me the game got caught up in the thrill of the hunt. “That’s it, you are almost there. You almost have him!” he’d yell, as I narrowed the gap on the black Hummer. But every time I came close, he’d end up juking onto a side-street or surprising me with another plummet onto the beach.

As my teammates rejoined the pursuit, my headset crackled again. “You need to work together! Herd him, get ahead of him!”

Seconds later, one of my teammates impaled himself on a palm tree while the other spun in a circle. My companion rubbed a hand over his stubble. “Eh, okay. Maybe it is just you. But you can do it!”

I had to anticipate the Hummer, since I was effectively alone. As he bulldozed over the beach, crushing volleyball games and umbrella-shades, I straight-lined along the road and dunes, knowing he’d have to come back into the city. Sure enough, I got him cutting broadside across me and landed a crushing hit.

“Yes! Like that! Again!”

Just as I lined up the kill shot, time ran out. The smuggler vanished ahead and my car slowed to a stop. My companion helped me off with my headphones while shooting the other players disapproving glances. “Eh, you were so close. Those ones weren’t so good. Better luck next time, yeah?”

Since next time I’ll be playing on a PC, probably with a steering wheel and a hand-picked group of buddies, I don’t think luck will have much to do with it. Win or lose, I’m confident it will remain ridiculous.