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    The Crew: Dude, why am I a car?

    Why am I a car ? This is the question I keep returning to during my time with The Crew, a role-playing driving game set in an extensive open world. There is much to admire and enjoy about The Crew, but this nagging existential query hovers over it all, from the road gang revenge plot to the game’s extraordinary attempt to condense and transform the entire United States Of America into a playable, explorable space. “Yes, thank you for making it possible for me to drive from New York to Los Angeles through a beautiful blur of mountains, cities and deserts. But… why am I a car?”

    Of course you’re not actually a car. You’re a man with a beard driving a car, and you can’t get out. Your brother, who was a big deal in a gang called the 510s, has been shot dead you watched, from your car and now you’re working with the police to infiltrate the gang to expose his killers. This means taking part in race missions, which form the spine of the game’s story, while buying and upgrading a collection of cars by taking part in various skill-based side activities.

    This attempt to fuse RPG elements with a stock genre of gaming isn’t new or mad. Destiny does a very similar thing with shooting and RPGs (with various attendant problems) and Test Drive Unlimited laid down the basic driving RPG formula with bonus Hawaiian shirts many years ago. Buying, levelling and augmenting cars ticks all the boxes of traditional RPG progression, with sprawling trees of options and upgrades and a constant compulsion for the next thing. It’s essentially no different to upgrading armour, or swords, or guns, and on a UI and interaction level The Crew makes this levelling and augmenting satisfying and straightforward. It’s clear what you’re racing for, what you’ve won, and what you can do with it.
    “levelling and augmenting cars ticks all the rpg boxes, with sprawling trees of upgrades.”
    In other ways, though, the idea of a driving RPG breaks down rather badly, in terms of what role we’re supposed to be playing. Let’s invert that hovering question why am I a car? and instead ask, if I am a car, why is this game about crime? Cars are related to crime, sure, in that some crimes are done in or with the aid of cars. But really the reason seems to be a hangover from the success of Need For Speed, the late-’90s thrill of illegal street racing, and the indomitable popularity of the Fast And Furious films. In other words, there is a pop-culture safety net that says the way to make your open-world car game cool is to make it about gangs, but the truth is that, starting from scratch, nobody in their right mind would ever attempt to tell a compelling or non-ludicrous gang story through the medium of driving.

    There are really very few expressive activities that can be done by a car, and in fact they are basically limited to going fast or smashing into things. In The Crew this leads to some extraordinary jumps of logic, like the suggestion that causing a crash which somersaults a woman’s car off a bridge is actually a way of delivering her to police protective custody. Or the idea that racing a truck across a St Louis field in the dark with no witnesses will somehow lead a local outfit to cede territory to your Detroit gang. Why? Even if they’d seen it, why? Because good driving is somehow the currency of power and influence in gangland America? No it isn’t. Shut up.
    “driving is the currency of Power in gangland america? no it isn’t.”
    A mode of transport is not a good medium through which to deliver narrative meaning. It also means this story was probably retroactively applied to a world that was already built, to provide some semblance of continuity and coherence. It feels dated and cumbersome, and at odds with the game’s best qualities.

    There’s also the question of whether a driving game is the best fit for an open world. Racing, after all, is about discipline, skill and accuracy all things tested and displayed on a track. You don’t need an open world to race, and actually you can’t race in an open world, as demonstrated by the game making sealed-off loops and courses when it drops you into race activities.

    So why have an open world at all? Judging by what that world is populated with, one reason is the inclusion of side activities, a scattered series of skill-based diversions that draw you through the map with slalom events and speed tests and target jumping. This is essentially the same formula as deployed more entertainingly by Burnout Paradise six years ago.

    The world of Criterion’s game was smaller and more focused, and the studio understood something The Crew apparently doesn’t that an open world needs to be filled with texture and purpose, with verticality and variability. Otherwise it’s just extra space between tracks.

    There is a grand scheme here that doesn’t quite come off. The Crew’s open world is
    almost a success of exploration and freedom. It strives to be more than just a racer, but a driving game with a sense of philosophy, forging meaningful links between the open road, the engineering of automobiles, and a place America that has historically embraced them both.

    In fits and bursts it is great the experience of driving across a curated USA, through shifting terrain and myth-bearing landscapes, is extraordinary. But also compromised: the world is low on detail, the cities which we’ve seen recreated more luminously and dramatically in other games are boxy, and from within the confines of your metal crate, you can’t look up to admire the architecture. Why am I a car?

    The Crew is halfway between driving game and brilliant America sim. It makes you excited about a world and then unlike GTA or Watch Dogs it forces you to watch it through the car window.

    All of this could have been saved by incredible handling, if The Crew was so beautiful and satisfying to drive that the world was a bonus and simply pounding the road was the thing. But it is not the thing. It is a competent arcade driving model with decent variety marking out different makes, models and tuning setups, but doesn’t stand out as a reason to invest in a flawed whole.

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