new game The Crew preview
Ubisoft's cross-USA driving RPG is an ambitious use of modern gaming's connectivity, John Robertson talks to The Crew's crew about their plans.
Formats PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360
Developer Ivory Tower/Ubisoft Reflections
Released 14 November 2014
The video game landscape is changing. Largely gone are the days when wholly completed projects would be printed on discs and inserted in our consoles, played until completion and then stored away likely never to be seen again. We live in an age of downloadable content additions, "shared-world experiences" and expansion packs that tread a the line between commercial cynicism and cultural value.
It is into this environment that new games must venture in order to justify the kinds of nine figure budgets that are increasingly being reported on. Indeed, without such an approach a game is unlikely to generate the kind of investment that would classify it as a member of the nebulously-titled 'triple-A' crowd.
Into this space enters The Crew, a massively multiplayer online driving game set across the entirety of the United States. That's 'entirety' in the pragmatic, rather than the idealist, sense. The map is not to scale, rather landmarks and cities are correctly positioned in relation to one another and driving between them means racing across routes lined with roughly the right kind of scenery. It's a shared experience, with other players occupying the world with you, and what's on the disc is far from what's eventually going to be available.
"Two years ago I would have said that on day launch day the content that's on the disc would be everything," explains The Crew's creative director Julian Gerighty. "Today, though, and this is both a blessing and curse, we can continue working on the game and adding things to it after it has been released and submitted.
"Yes, you could do that two years ago, but what I'm finding with this console generation is that there's a much bigger opportunity to continue building content far beyond launch day. That's my vision for The Crew, to continue supporting it way down the line. We've negotiated with Ubisoft to keep the team working on the game for a year after release to deliver content packs, new missions and skills and even major features."
Gerighty's desire is to provide this kind of post-launch support without charging players extra to engage with it. The plan is to instead underpin the business model with a micro-transaction system that sees players part with cash to add extra cars to the game, presumably in a way similar to that seen in Forza Motorsport.
The grand scheme is to give players what Gerighty describes as a "platform for driving games", in which multiple styles, tastes and disciplines are covered. It's here that the open-world comes into play, the broad range of environments giving you the option of street racing, off-road hill climbs and takedown challenges in which you must destroy another car within a set time limit. There's even a full recreation of California's Laguna Seca racetrack for you to drive to and compete on.
It's undoubtedly an idea of significant scope, one that will likely require many hours of investment to appreciate it in the way intended. What it's not, however, is an idea that has come about without existing foundations.
"Our core team has been working together for about 15 years," Gerighty tells me, "I joined the team about three years ago as creative director. Our studio director has always had the vision of creating large, shared-world driving games - that goes back to Test Drive Unlimited on Xbox 360, the idea of which is essentially Destiny with cars. That game was the precursor to The Crew, really, although it's very bare bones by comparison.
"I'm seeing a lot of games launching with this similar concept, but without the social layer at the base in the way that we've got it. For me, this generation is all about creating connected experiences. The reason for that is that playing in a world populated by other real people is going to be more surprising and engaging than an AI world. No matter how good the AI is, having other people in the world is going to create a more powerful experience."
A consistent theme comes to the fore when you begin to reel off console games attempting to provide 'connected experiences'. Destiny, Grand Theft Auto Online, War Thunder et al revolve around conflict, either by design or player persuasion. Gerighty is intent on making sure The Crew's communal elements don't exclusively revolve around competition in this way by not encouraging players towards specific routines of play that define a universal base of interaction.
You can decide to concentrate solely on racing your peers, but equally you can ignore that side altogether and instead embark on road trips across the country or work together as a team against an AI entity. The idea goes back to the initial concept of creating a driving game platform, in which 'driving' is the key word... a 'racing game platform' would be a different proposition.
Creating this kind of pick-n-choose environment is a far cry from how games used to be made, requiring a completely different skill set based around facilitating player actions rather than guiding them at every opportunity. It's something Gerighty seems to savour.
"Fundamentally our jobs have changed because of the move towards designing logic and systems over very defined paths for players to follow," discusses Gerighty. "Going back to something very linear and something that's very 'level designed' kind of feels like a chore for me now, I don't enjoy those kinds of experiences very much at all anymore.
"Some people do that kind of thing very well. Naughty Dog still creates some fantastic linear experiences, but in general I'm not so interested in them. I think that's been a huge change in this industry and a change in what our jobs mean. It's been a pleasurable change, though, because designing something that's going to be the same every time you play takes the magic out of video games. It does for me, at least."
And that's where The Crew is either going to succeed or fail, in its provision of allowing us to do something different every time we play. It's no easy task, not least given that driving games must adhere to the rigid fundamentals of vehicular interaction: accelerate, brake, reverse and turn.
Reimagining the framework within which those commands operate, to the extent that The Crew feels like a wide open platform for you to experience 'driving', is where Gerighty and his team will be judged