The racing genre has endured a painfully lacklustre couple of years. The Dirt series peaked long before the arrival of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, while Need For Speed's annual joyride has spluttered into 'fun for exactly 17 minutes' territory.
The forthcoming GRID Autosport looks promising but is last-gen only, and while Forza 5 can justifiably call itself the best speedster on current-gen consoles, that's a bit like being the resident party animal at an Astrophysicists Anonymous meeting.
Thankfully, there is hope on the horizon. Screeching into the quality gap left since Burnout burned out all of six years ago is Ubisoft open world driver The Crew. The name evokes visions of Croydon hoodies loitering with intent outside McDonald's, so you'll be grateful to hear the game is in fact set on the other side of the Atlantic, in a sandbox interpretation of America that takes 90 minutes to traverse.
Many of the devs behind it cut their teeth on the hugely underrated Test Drive Unlimited series, and the persistent world promises a wealth of races and other events to be enjoyed seamlessly in either single- or multiplayer. There are no loading screens here. You simply put pedal to the metal until your feet (alright, thumbs) hurt.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Crew looks like the next-gen offspring of Burnout Paradise and Test Drive – though it's far more of a stunner than those pretty-in-an-elderly-way parents. Cars shine in the sun and gleam amid big city neon, and the hugely varied selection of backdrops are a pleasure to thunder through in fast, fantastically-modelled vehicles.
It's worth noting, however, that there's a lot more going on onscreen than in most racers. Point tallies, notices about fellow crew members, your speedometer and a small map all take up valuable real estate, and that potential clutter won't suit all tastes.
The Crew's 'idealisation' of America is vast, with 15 million individual objects across the game's persistent world.
These populate the best, most exciting roads in the nation, hence it taking an hour and a half (as opposed to days) to drive across. There's some 5000 square miles of tarmac available for you to burn rubber on, with 15 famous cities incorporated – six of which are comparable in size to Liberty City in GTA IV. Detroit, Chicago, New York, Miami, LA and Washington are just some of the cityscapes that can be explored, with the entire map taking around four hours to circumnavigate.
Want another impressive figure? Try the number 11 for size: that's how many individual ecosystems are present in the game. This news is music to our ears, because cruising the West Coast beneath Californian sun should feel entirely different to hurtling through a frosty Central Park (yep, it's also in, and drivable) at nightfall.
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Discovering America at speed is one of the game's great pleasures, but you're not here to be a modern day Chris Columbus. In fact, we've done The Crew a small disservice by calling it merely a racer. It's also, believe it or not, something of an RPG.
Winning events scores you cash and XP – which over time unlocks new challenges – while earning gold, silver or bronze medals in those events opens up gold, silver or bronze car parts for purchase later on.
There's a Fast And Furious-lite storyline binding things together, but a behind-the-scenes peek suggests that isn't the big appeal here. Neither is experiencing the game solo, although you can absolutely do that if you wish. No, the big hook is forming a crew - hence the name - alongside three mates and taking on challenges such as a flat-out road race from New York to Miami. The victor gets the best rewards; and those spoils taste sweeter when they're earned by owning your online buddies, as opposed to three robo-brained AI cars.
THE INSIDE VIEW
The Crew's car list contains more than 40 vehicles from the likes of BMW, Chevy, Ford and Nissan. Even so, if you're the type of gamer who doesn't care for the number of motors because you'll stick with a personal favourite throughout, creative director Julian Gerighty may well be your new best friend.
“It's one of the interesting things that we're seeing emerge from playtesting,” he tells Gamereactor UK. “We have lots and lots of cars, but we're seeing people pick a car and as soon as they're happy with it, [and] have identified that 'this is the car for me", they stick with it. Not just for two to three hours, [but] for 10, 15, 20 hours. [They] upgrade it as much possible, and make it evolve into as many specs as possible.
“That sort of connection is something [in The Crew] that's very different from normal racing games. Nothing's stopping you from choosing another car afterwards, and doing it all again, and buying the parts needed to get it to a similar level. But we're seeing people have very different behaviours to say, one of our competitors, where it's all about buying every single car and doing all of the challenges.”
Choose your crew
One of the most intriguing parts of the experience will surely be Faction Wars, wherein you'll pick one of five groups to represent: The Bears on the West Coast, the Snakes in the Mountain States, the Wolves in the Midwest, the Crocodiles in the South, or the Eagles on the East Coast.
Hopefully the crew mentality proves cooler than those names, but the real draw here comes with the specialized faction missions, some of which let you pit four of your racers against four others in intense road races across the virtual nation. Teamwork and communication become essential here in a way unlike what we've experienced in previous racers.
Ubisoft says The Crew will launch with 25 faction missions, ranging from solo attempts to those 4-on-4 jaunts, but more will be added each month once the game is live and hopefully thriving. You can get a quick taste of the faction missions in the above trailer.
Last gen's last ride
The Crew was designed first for new-gen consoles and PC, and seemed like it would only appear on those platforms - but Ubisoft recently announced that the game will also be ported to Xbox 360 and released on the very same date.
Unlike Forza Horizon 2, which will be a different experience on Xbox 360, Ubisoft says that The Crew will maintain the same scope and features as its glossier siblings. Hopefully the visual drop isn’t also accompanied by a significant performance hit. No footage has been released as of this writing, and we may well not see anything until the game hits store shelves.
Why only Xbox 360 and not other last-gen consoles? A Ubisoft rep made it sound like a resources issue, telling IGN, “when the decision was made to port [The Crew] to the previous generation of consoles, it was decided to focus solely on the platform closest to the new-gen’s technical infrastructure, which is the Xbox 360.” Sorry, PS3 owners; Wii U folks, you weren’t expecting anything anyway.
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Initially thought to launch in early 2014, The Crew then held down a 14 November release date for months. But one last delay has emerged, and now Ubisoft's racer will debut worldwide on 2 December for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox 360. It's the biggest multiplatform racing experience of the holiday season, what with Forza Horizon 2 exclusive to Xbox One and Driveclub similarly holding court solely on PS4.
In a controversial move, you'll be booted back to the Start screen should your internet connection drop while playing – so if you're planning to plough your life into road trippin' across the States from the comfort of your own sofa, it's probably time to go all-in on fibre optic broadband. Because let's be honest: you've been waiting months, if not years, for the perfect excuse…