Gamersyde Preview: The Crew
It is no secret, especially if you're a regular here, Test Drive Unlimited has always had a special place in our hearts at Gamersyde. Because it was more a driving game than a racing game per se, because there was much conviviality and fun in its concept and it brought about the very idea of free riding in a huge open environment, we all enjoyed the game a lot, even though it was not perfect by any means. So when Ivory Tower - a studio composed mainly of the original dev team behind TDU – decided to unveil The Crew, we were pretty darn excited to say the least. We knew the developers were working on something ambitious and what little confidential info we managed to get in the past 5 years made us quite eager to discover what they had in store for us. E3 2013 came as the opportunity to talk freely to the team and try the game for the very first time, so here are our first impressions of Ivory Tower's title.
Note: I'd like to thank my good friend Mattshotcha for taking the time to check the English version of this preview article.
As I'm sure you've all noticed during Ubisoft's press conference, there is definitely something mainstream about The Crew, which unsurprisingly aims at the largest possible audience. Considering the different reactions we saw on the forums, that is clearly where all the controversy is: some indeed believe that the developers decided to sell their soul by going for a more Need for Speed/Burnout approach instead of remaining faithful to what TDU was. In fact, it's hard to blame such reactions, as the presentation was indeed meant to appeal to a wider audience, hence the choice of a car chase and the addition of customization and nitro to the gameplay mechanics. That being said, we believe it might be a little too soon to condemn Ivory Tower for choosing to make their game more paced and dynamic than Test Drive. From a marketing point of view, it actually makes sense if they want the game to sell, but behind the new pace and the new gameplay direction still lies the heart of what made TDU so popular: the sense of freedom that only exploration and free ride can give. So yes, The Crew features a full story in which the player has to face criminals and cops. Yes, The Crew includes a complete tuning system – engine and car parts, stickers, but also cockpit personalization – and a nitro gauge which can be used on most vehicles. But, from what we've played, The Crew feels nothing like Need for Speed, the game's DNA being the same as the developers' iconic title.
Like we said, the project is very ambitious, starting with the simple fact that they chose to model the USA and make it the game's playground. While we've gotten used to exploring big open environments, never before have we been offered a whole country. Sure, you can't expect the whole map to be reproduced at the exact same scale as the real thing, but it is still impressive to see that the game includes places like Chicago, Miami, New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, to name just a few. The Crew will take us through the countryside, mountains, forests and deserts, and will let us drive on sand, snow, asphalt and dirt. Which means we can expect a great variety of terrains and landscapes. What's more, contrary to Forza Horizon, The Crew doesn't force you to stay on the road, you can go off-road at any time and you don't even need a man-made path to get where you want. Everything you see you can reach, although the time it will take will depend on the class of vehicle you've chosen, off-road speed varying accordingly. Thankfully, unlike TDU, The Crew allows to change cars on the fly without having to return to your headquarters. Exploring the map should then be a lot of fun, even more for tourism enthusiasts as there are no less than 1,000 landmarks to find in the world of The Crew. Every time one is found, a short cut-scene will play to introduce the place where you are, a good way to learn more about the most famous locations in the USA.
Because there is a plot to follow in The Crew, the player will be introduced to the game's features little by little, to make sure he can grasp all the possibilities he's given. The adventure will start in Detroit and this first area will require about 3 hours to complete, a good indicator of the game's total length. Obviously, free ride is still at the core of the experience, with the possibility to mark a specific spot on the map and drive there in real time, or if you're more of the lazy type, the magic of fast travel. The country is divided into 5 different zones which unlock every 10 levels, level 50 being the highest one. Again, it should be a good way to walk the player through the game so he can understand what this huge world has to give. The map works just like TDU's in that you can check it by pressing the equivalent of today's select button, then zoom in or out Google Earth style. The developers did a lot of work on the interface in order to make it easier to find friends, check their profile and invite them, all using the D-pad and the analog stick. Players will even be able to watch their friends play in real time as long as they are in free ride mode (Big Brother, here we are!).
There is no denying that we want to be optimistic when it comes to The Crew. We want to believe in its potential but that's not to say that everything we saw was perfect. Being able to personalize the HUD entirely is a great idea, but we think the GPS system might not be to everyone's liking. It's actually rather original as it takes the form of an aerial blue line the player has to follow to reach their destination. It is clearly more practical not to have to look down to check the mini-map, but it might also lack some of the realism that goes with the setting. That's why we believe it would be a good idea to propose an alternative guiding system using the usual vocal instructions and the mini-map (or even a tablet). After all, Test Drive Unlimited offered a bunch of tweaking options, like the toning down of the camera's shaky movements at high speed. According to the developers, this new GPS representation proved very efficient over time, to the point they even now feel it's lacking when they play another driving game. It's certainly true, new ideas like this one can indeed make the experience more user-friendly, like when Codemasters first introduced their flashback system. It was highly criticized by players when it was announced but now many players couldn’t do without it. At the end of the day though, we think it should be made optional, much like the rewind system in the Dirt/Grid/Formula 1 franchises.
Another idea which, to us at least, is both a nice touch and a potentially awkward addition, is the inclusion of optional challenges in free ride mode. Sometimes, a blue line may appear all of a sudden on the road, suggesting the player follow the given trajectory to earn experience points. At other times, the player will be asked to drive through blue doors, each getting smaller as you go. For now, these sequences start randomly as you explore the world but the developers said they were thinking about letting the player decide if he wants to trigger them, by adding some kind of icon on the road for example. It seems to be the right way to go, however, if it means having to avoid something planted in the middle of the road, it might end up being a little annoying after a while. Maybe players should be allowed to activate or deactivate those challenges in the option menu, which would permit those who simply want to enjoy a free ride session to play without being disturbed. All this is actually not a very big deal, and maybe just redesigning the whole system will make it look less intrusive. At the moment, the blue line and the blue doors stand out a bit too much and seem out of place, at least from our point of view. It may not come as an issue for most people but we thought it was worth mentioning anyhow.
Graphically speaking, The Crew is objectively not the most impressive next-gen title we've seen so far, but it still looks very nice for a title set in such a huge environment. The forests have enough trees to be credible, the canyons which can be found in the desert remind those of Motorstorm with more details and grandeur, the cities are full of traffic and towering buildings. It's a vast world with tons of things to see. In the countryside, the trees sometimes wear their autumn cloaks while some areas are a lot more arid and inhospitable. There are also different animations that make the world more lively, like airplanes or birds flying, but also other types of animals running away from you as you drive like a maniac on a country road. The towns and cities are finally full of pedestrians, all of them being incredibly agile judging from the way they can dodge your car a la Midtown Madness – and since no Red Meat DLC is planned, would-be psychopaths will have to go for GTA V. The lighting is very well rendered too, with sharp contrasts and vivid colors underlining the beauty of sunny places such as Miami. The Crew features a whole day and night cycle, which does not come as a surprise in an open world game, but is still a welcome addition. It is pretty obvious the game isn't finished yet, as some areas need a bit of polish but we've been assured that more graphical effects will be added before release and other things will be fixed (like the pop-up issues hopefully). With its 15 mile draw distance though, we have good reason to believe that exploring the world of The Crew will have its share of memorable moments.
Now let's talk gameplay and car handling, with the full picture since we could play both with a standard controller and a driving wheel (in a cool hydraulic cockpit and a triple screen set). To put it bluntly, the sensations are better behind a wheel than with a gamepad, and not just because of the whole moving cockpit. It's not that using a controller makes the game any less fun, it's just that the game feels more realistic with a wheel, which is not a surprise considering all the driving assists are automatically off when playing this way. Although colleagues seemed to have a hard time keeping a decent trajectory with the wheel, we did a pretty good job overall, if it weren't for those few instances when we lost control of the car in a curve. The pleasure really came from the fact that you had to fight with the wheel to handle your vehicle, not to say that the handling was difficult by any means. In the car chase sequence of the demo (the one from the Ubisoft media briefing), using dunes as jumping ramps and slaloming between traffic and bystanders on the beach was a lot of fun. The only frustration came when the demo ended before we could catch the bad guy with our teammates, as we were left wanting more. Then we were given 15 minutes of total freedom with a controller so we could capture the very essence of free ride. Even if 15 minutes clearly isn't enough to judge such a game, we had a chance to try a bunch of different cars and to feel that they handled quite differently. But like we said, it is a lot more arcadey when playing with a controller.
Again, the explanation for that is quite simple. The developers told us that they had decided to force players to drive with driving aids with a gamepad instead of offering multiple handling types as in TDU, all this to keep a certain balance in multiplayer. The driving aids are supposed to compensate for the lack of precision of a stick compared to a wheel. We can't help but feel a bit disappointed by this decision, as not everyone can afford to buy a good driving wheel, but we take comfort in the fact that the controls are still enjoyable in spite of that (and who knows, the team might have a change of heart). From what we could see, the handling is probably closer to Midnight Club L.A (except that steering is much more reactive in The Crew it seems) than to Forza Horizon. Thankfully, what is certain is that Ivory Tower's game plays nothing like Need for Speed, which means there is no latency in the controls and you don't need to go from one wall to the other to keep moving forward. Too bad the One controller we had during our trial had no vibrations on as we would have loved to test the feedback of the bumpy roads or the different shocks. Even so, it was quite a nice ride we had, first in the Nevada desert, chasing the birds that dared land on the road, then in the country just outside of New York City. At some point, in desperate need of the smell of concrete and car fumes, we headed straight to Manhattan until we reached Times Square, where we had to put down the controller.
And that's exactly what we love about the Crew! The freedom it gives us to visit the US and the satisfaction of being able to spend hours just going from one place to another, in search of a new landmark to spot. Just imagine: you're driving towards the Big Apple, leaving the countryside behind you. Little by little, you realize there is more and more traffic and the buildings are getting higher and more numerous. Then Central Park comes into sight and you know that it won't be long before you finally reach one of the most famous landmarks in the world. You're there finally, the neon lights of the big screens glowing like stars in your eyes. Now that's what we are looking for in a driving game these days, a title that can take us on a journey. The developers are still actively working on finishing the map but we've been told that it should take a bit more than 2 and a half hours to go from the east coast to the west coast using a fast car and the freeway, and about four hours to go around the whole country itself. With such a massive environment – about 3,000 square miles and 7,000 miles of roads – full of variety, we don't think there is too much to be worried about when it comes to free ride. To top it all, the car delivery missions from Test Drive Unlimited should normally be back, and we don't know about you guys, but we really digged them at the time. Hopefully, they will still convey the same kind of atmosphere.
More info we've gathered for you thanks to the dev team
• The Crew will include a full damage system via a life gauge. It will diminish each time the player hits something, the amount of life lost depending on how big the crash is. The bar will then replenish by itself until a certain point, that point being reached faster and faster as time goes by. After some time, the car will have to be repaired. Handling will be affected by the damages but only when they become pretty significant. The cars will get scratched or dented, the bumpers can fall down or hang off and if your vehicle is in bad shape, some scraping sounds or squeaky noises will be heard as you drive around or brake.
• Multiplayer will work like in TDU, meaning up to 8 players will be able to join the same session in what the developers call a bubble. In each bubble, 8 players will be able to meet with friends or compete against other crews. We've been told that people in your friends list will be seen in priority to make it easier for everyone to regroup, leaving no need to find a deserted area as a rally point.
• In-game display should be entirely tweakable so you won't have to see the icons indicating the different landmarks or missions when in free ride, it will be up to you if you want to see them or not. Everything will be done via the in-game smart phone, which serves as a menu.
• Each zone will have its own flora and fauna. In the desert, you will see vultures while there will be flamingos in Miami or pigeons in most cities. You will also see moose or deer for example.
• A few examples of the famous cities you will be able to visit: Chicago, Detroit, Saint Louis, New York, Washington D.C, Miami, New Orleans, Dallas, Key West, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a whole bunch of villages too.
• As we stated before, car handling will depend on the terrain type.
• A lot of stuff will be announced in the weeks/months to come so stay tuned!
When we talked to the developers, we realized how ambitious The Crew is. Not only will it feature tons of potentially cool things when it's released in early 2014, but there are also plans for more (and we can tell you we want to see it!). Of course, to be sure of the game's true potential, we will need more time with it, but we are confident. Ivory Tower's title may not be as visually impressive as we'd like for a next-gen game, but in terms of scale and possibilities, it is already a hundred percent next-gen. TDU started the whole MMO vibe for driving games and The Crew is about to go even further by making it compulsory to be connected in order to play the game. Whether or not players will fully embrace this new vision of gaming – that Bungie seems to share with Destiny – still remains to be seen, but as for us, we're ready for more as soon as possible.
About the game
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