'The Crew' Is the Video Game Equivalent of the Great American Road Trip

So it's kind of annoying that you're expected to accomplish micro-challenges at the same time as exploring every inch of a truly spectacular gaming world.

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16 december 2014, 6:00am

I've been dumped into Detroit. Before I got here: something about a prison spell being curtailed to assist the FBI in chasing down a crooked cop and some gang leader. Honestly, I couldn't give any less of a shit. The Crew throws its hackneyed plot at the player inside its opening 20-or-so minutes: you've been framed for a crime and now the powers that be want you to infiltrate this... blah, blah, bored.

All I want to do, as soon as I'm let loose with a Camaro SS – familiar to anyone who's seen a Transformers movie, so obviously I colour it Bumblebee yellow – is tear out of the city and aim for the coast. Any coast. I just want to see this world that The Crew's makers have assembled: a condensed but still epically proportioned working model of the United States, full of recognisable cities and landmarks, clouds-brushing mountain peaks and horizon-reaching salt flats. I floor it – by which I mean I claw a finger around the right trigger – and aim my waypoint at New Orleans. The Actual Activities can wait while I'm taking in the southern sun.

Which is, essentially, my way of playing The Crew "wrong" – but something that many newcomers to this Ubisoft-published open-world vehicular adventure with slight MMO and stats-heavy RPG stylings will surely relate to. Win this street race, beat that scramble time, escape these goons with their overpowered rival vehicles: actually doing the missions that splatter across your map is a tedious task for the most part, very few delivering the thrills you might associate with being pursued across city and state lines by sirens-wailing squad cars or rival thugs with murderous intentions.

I dip in and out of these assignments, undertaken both for the FBI in an undercover capacity and regional crews battling for turf war supremacy – you have to, to level-up your car/character, in order to unlock access to later missions and to even the odds. Attempting races when you're underpowered is a waste of time – and even when you're rolling in a supremely pimped beast of an asphalt-eating machine, the rubber-banding effect that The Crew employs means that significantly lower-ranked competitors always have a chance of exploiting your mistakes, overtaking and parking your arse at a retry if you happen to slide from the racing line.

Other missions – such as takedowns that follow scripted patterns and getaway sequences that feel more emergent but are short on palpable drama – reward you with vehicle perks and overall level increases... but they're really not any fun, which is quite the problem. Main missions can be attempted solo or with whoever else is in your game with you – this being an always-online title, you can see other players on the map, and their IDs and distance from you clutter an already crowded HUD. Reports  ​elsewhere suggest that this PVP approach has its share of problems, as in it's inherently broken, so I don't feel I'm missing anything by not indulging in the game's factions right now. Or ever.

So the appeal of The Crew (to me) is not its level grinding, its micro-challenges where you have to weave around markers or speed your car off a ramp to hit a landing zone, or pointing my headlights at the many Ubisoft-standard unlockables spread around the US, from data stations (this game's take on Assassin's Creed's sync points, or Far Cry's radio/bell towers) to bonus car parts. I do that sorta stuff just because it's there, but I'm not actively looking for it. All I want to do is reveal this entire map, by driving around every inch of a truly spectacular gaming world.

The Crew launch trailer

It's not the most aesthetically arresting environment you'll see on current-gen hardware, with some blocky flora and cut-and-paste buildings, but The Crew's America is still an astounding achievement. "10,000 kilometres of open road" claims its box, set in 1,900 square miles divided into five regions: the West Coast, Mountain States, the South, the Mid West and the East Coast. Within these areas are settlements large and small, from obvious inclusions like Las Vegas and New York to less-likely municipalities, such as Sacramento, Amarillo and Millersburg. There are some weird omissions, like Houston – the most-populous city in Texas – and Boston, but designers had to draw their line somewhere, I suppose. And it's not like there isn't wonderful variety across regions and conurbations – you'll recognise San Francisco easily enough, and can run rings around Ground Zero if that's your thing.

It's the changes in the landscape, as you drive east to west or south to north, that make this the game I'm playing right now: American Road Trip Simulator 2014. You can cruise cautiously, taking in the mountains as they rise before you, flipping perspective to see that last city fade in the rear-view mirror. Or, you can scorch around the place like a mechanised bat out of hell, antagonising local cops (all with regional accents as their calls crackle over your own radio) and burning rubber across the pumpkin patches of Salem or through the redwoods of northern California. At times it's astonishingly beautiful, and you have to stop to appreciate the moment: The Crew's painterly sunsets are some of the best around, although whoever approved that top-left smearage on the screen shouldn't be let near a video game ever again.

If you want, The Crew can be your own feature-length take on Sega's eternal Out Run, each city a checkpoint as you choose your next destination: head south to the swamplands or hightail it into the mountains, where the roads become dirt tracks and you just might collide with a moose. (You won't – the fauna of The Crew is remarkably adept at dodging your missile-like attempts to flatten it, including drone-like city centre pedestrians.) This is something The Crew gets so awesomely right: it gives you this playground from the very beginning. Yes, if you're at all bothered about the paper-thin plot – Gordon Freeman look-alike voiced by games stalwart Troy Baker must get his "ink" because... sorry, I'm bored again – you've got to nail the numerous missions dished out by a cast of immediately forgettable smartphone-screen faces. But you could just not do those things. Nobody's making you do anything here – not even the FBI.

Just as Out Run designer Yu Suzuki called his arcade masterpiece a "driving" game, rather than a "racing" one, so The Crew should be appreciated in the same way. There are races – there are even proper circuits dotted around the States – but no way is this experience comparable to your regular so-many-laps-around-the-track release. Cars might handle as they do in Blur, power-ups sadly absent, and irregular collision detection makes for some wholly random wipe-outs, but even as an arcade-feel affair The Crew doesn't deliver, just as it can't as a strict simulator. It's too twitchy, too glitchy, too unfinished – it drives, sure enough, but unconvincingly so.

It has the elements it needs to begin to deliver on its promise of being an "MMO driving game", with multiple cars to earn or purchase and upgrade accordingly, but nothing is as fully realised as it could be. It'll be interesting to see how updates improve The Crew's core gameplay, as comparing its present state with an older open-world driving title like 2008's Burnout Paradise does this fresher release few favours. In many ways, Paradise is a superior game, even today – its irritating DJ Atomika aside, Criterion's colourful concoction drove racing into an open-world arena, offering a generous progression system with plenty of new vehicles to play with and a host of subsequent updates. For one thing, it included motorbikes – a mode of transport curiously missing from The Crew. (Anyone else smell DLC?)

But in the here and now, I can forgive a lot of what The Crew does wrong: the oddly stiff flags scattered around the land – they won't ripple in the wind, instead remaining Moon Landing rigid – as well as the same three-birds-fleeing-a-verge animations and the trucks manifesting from nowhere right in front of me at an intersection. I can just about let all of its failings go – I must be able to, or I wouldn't be playing it every night. Each time it pisses me off with some ridiculous difficulty spike or pop-up semi-trailer that wrecks my escape, I take a breath, smile and just get on with American Road Trip Simulator 2014.

My car's only at level 15 or something, well short of where it could be for the hours I've put into The Crew so far – probably because I keep avoiding the challenges that pepper its tangled roadways, if only to prevent more statistical detritus from polluting my screen. But I don't much care. There are numerous areas left to visit – I'm yet to hit Seattle, or any of the north west; and the likes of Tampa, Santa Fe, Newport and Kingsman are still awaiting my arrival – and plenty of grey to shift from this expansive, genuinely awe-inspiring world that Lyon-based developer Ivory Tower (working alongside the UK's Ubisoft Reflections) has crafted. Tonight, I'll set my in-game GPS to somewhere new and rip up the tarmac all the way there.

By the time I've money and time enough to take a road trip across the States for real, most of it will be underwater, on fire, or both. So I'm loving The Crew because of the fantasy it provides me: that I can drop the world I know and head into the unknown, seeing sights that I'd never be able to with my own eyes. Yeah, the Golden Gate Bridge isn't really that short, and the Statue of Liberty is nowhere near that close to the mainland. But these concessions don't matter to me; I'm more than content to get my kicks on this virtual Route 66 – it's just a bloody shame I can't mute the persistent calls to get back on mission. When do video game mobile phones run out of battery, roughly?

​@MikeDiver

Previously:

​Anxiety Disorders and the Great Escape Video Gaming Can Provide

​The Sporting Stars of the Future Are 'Halo' Players, Not Footballers

​Does Anyone Actually Give a Shit About Video Game Collectibles?