The Crew Motorfest Review
Racing games are not getting much love this generation unless you're called Forza-something or Gran Turismo X. It's quite strange, really, as in the glory days of the PS3/Xbox and PS4/Xbox One there were all kinds of driving games providing various forms of entertainment to all: simulations, career modes, multiplayer fun, open-world playgrounds, arcade driving, drifting and various surfaces. Then something happened. It became a less successful (read: profitable) genre, one more for the die-hards than the casuals, and innovation failed (Onrush for example was great, but it didn't do well financially), and, well, developers were closed down and now there's just nothing to scratch the itch apart from those mentioned and the odd-Need for Speed. Which is where The Crew Motorfest comes in.
A sequel to Ivory Tower and Ubisoft's The Crew 2, this moves from lumbering handling and a repetitive environment to a smaller, contained open world where arcade fun is the signature and wealth of activity the focus. The result is an engaging replica of O'ahu, Hawaii's capital's home island with every distraction along almost every part of the island, be that roads alongside the ocean, mountain paths which twist and turn, forests which limit the light ensuring it's always in flux, and more. It's pretty, the driving feels more fun and responsive, and the challenge will be working out what to do.
You see, in typical Ubisoft fashion, Ivory Tower has been tasked with developing a game with every feature in the world in the hope some stick. That means it can be very confusing when you first boot up the game. Even the intro is unusual and tough to navigate. The game focuses you on designing your avatar and then, as your Motorfest (the game's title details the in-game event on O'ahu which you're attending) host starts talking about how it all works, you get to drive a variety of vehicles as said host when you're dropped into the middle of a race, and leave before the end. You can't skip this, and when it's done, you're finally allowed into the world with little understanding of what to do next despite everything.
This is where the game most frustrates. You're ushered into a virtual world and you're free to roam via your avatar to see what's going on. This means you can check out Playlists (i.e. themed race events like racing around neon-lit roads at night mimicking Tokyo, or racing across open spaces in American muscle cars), new cars, seasonal events and so on. What you can't do is just walk up to a Playlist and enter it. No, that would be too logical. Instead, you see one you want, fire up the game map and look for that playlist marker, and then drive to it. It seems like the user experience has been ignored for fluff and cool things. But it's not cool, it's just irritating. For everything else it takes some time to get used to how to access things (like your garage to utilise the collected upgrades for your cars) and move around the myriad options available to you. In time you'll get it, but it's not overly intuitive which for an arcade racer as the core game, seems unbelievable.
When you do start driving there is lots to do on the way to any marker of your choosing. This means you can find a photo opportunity or get scared by the ghosts of asynchronous online players coming towards you as you avoid everything on the road to build XP. This might be good in your mind, or it might be irritating (do we really need random ghosts that scare the bejeezus out of us when driving very fast, when they can’t harm us?), but it's stuff. And stuff is good, when the quality-of-life offerings in the game are lacking. We've mentioned the Playlist thing above, but even the route guidance towards your marker is frustrating. It's above ground. Cool you might think: a new way to implement GPS in-game. And it is, but when you're trying to move fast, at night, and enjoy the core high-speed twitch-driving experience central to any arcade racer, well, the fact you must look away from the road rather than just get in the zone and follow the marked road is disappointing at best and irritating at worst.
In fact, the whole user experience is a mess. If you think of Driveclub where you had event menus and then racing, it was all very clear and simple what you could do and what you were doing. For games with more going on, like Burnout Paradise or any Need for Speed game, it was intuitively managed via the map overlay and differentiated markers around the world. Here it's a mishmash of the world your avatar walks around in, reminiscent of the PS3's Home (it's bizarrely at about that graphical level too), where you're basically an expo-goer and must walk around in the hope of finding something of interest, and using the map overlay which doesn't immediately scream 'playlist here' and 'event X there'. There's a lot going on and it's tough to penetrate. At least when you do penetrate it, the driving is fun.
It looks good too, probably akin to the PS4's Driveclub – which looks lovely still today by the way – with a driving model that most obviously compares to a Need for Speed game. That is, it's a fast-paced racer with different handling when on-road versus off-road; in a lumbering hunk of junk compared to a race car; on a road or in some other form of transport (yes, planes and boats are here again). The handling feels right, but not to the degree of the top arcade racers. It's the best handling model The Crew has ever had, but Ivory Tower still has much to learn.
All told then, what we have here is an upgrade on previous titles in The Crew franchise, and something which does scratch the racing game itch, but it's a far cry from the best that other generations have to offer. Ivory Tower is getting there though, and as we said before, Ubisoft has all the resources to help make it work - if they keep going.
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