By LCom 1 Comments
Pre-Trip, The Road to The Crew:
I'm someone who's still not sick of open world racing. I'm still happy race side events exist in GTA, Watch_Dogs, and other open world games, and I'll even return to Midnight Club now and then. (Although ironically, Burnout Paradise is not my favorite Burnout game.) The Crew was on my radar from its announcement, but with the only gimmick being "the hugest open world map yet" I wasn't especially eager to jump into it.
Cut to mid September, when Ubisoft began giving The Crew away for free for a limited time through uPlay. I already had uPlay on my PC for Trackmania Turbo purposes, and so there were no barriers to entry left. I was in.
Detroit, The Midwest:
The story is minimal, but I like it.
After being framed and jailed for his brother's murder, Fast & furious AU Gordon Freeman is approached by a detective who says "I'm trying to go after the guy who framed you. Would you-"
"I'M IN." he says, slamming his handcuffed fists on the table, itching to get his revenge-murder on.
And from there you're let loose onto the streets of Detroit. There's early story missions that lead you towards St. Louis, but in a game world that vast Skyrim instincts take over, and I almost instantly dick off away from the story and head for a place I would recognize - New York.
New York, The East Coast:
One of the bullet-pointed mechanics of the game is the Skill Challenges that litter the highways. On paper it's a good way to break up the monotony of driving between missions, but the first time a Skill course diverges from the path towards your objective, you're sick of them. That happens quick.
So it was bittersweet when I got far enough out of Detroit that skills became locked off. And once I finally reached New York, it was clear that just about everything to do is locked behind player level progression. This wide open world is functionally entirely empty unless you experience it in the line the designers have laid out. There's nothing inherently wrong with linearity, but it's so directly contrary to the promise of the game's main gimmick. It was infuriatingly disappointing.
But I was able to do what one does in any game based on a real world location: pick a place you're familiar with and compare the game world to the real world. For me, that's the Queens side of the East River by Roosevelt Island. And sure enough, zoom in on New York, and there's Long Island, there's Manhattan, and there's Roosevelt Island! I was able to find a spot that I more or less knew as home.
It feels like a really well crafted shoebox diorama. In my reference spot, I was able to look around and say, "yep, this is about what you would see if you were here in real life." And then you look up and say, "Oh, yeah, and there's what would be right over there, too!" But while "here" and "there" are accurate, the distances are all compressed to surreal effect. It feels right until you notice how there's only 6 blocks between Times Square and "Battery Park" at the southern tip of Manhattan. It's nostalgic and unnerving at the same time, in a way I really dig.
Even though all the missions were locked off to me, there was one thing to do: spiral out from New York to search the East Coast for /hidden car parts/. However, after a couple tedious hours spent combing from D.C. to Maine, I was met with more disappointment. I wouldn't able to redeem the fruits of my labor until I had unlocked the New York headquarters, which is tied to story progression. blocked again. But at least I had gotten an achievement for driving around New York for a while specifically at night. That felt good.
With shoulders slumped, I headed back to Detroit, ready to chain myself to the critical path.
Detroit, The Midwest, again:
The trip back was painless, thanks to fast travel that allows one to zip to any spot where you've been. It seems like another system that isn't in line with the ethos of "we made the whole US!" gimmick, and more over totally subverts the public transit / airport & train station system in the game. But restrictions on it more would've felt like a punishment for my exploration instincts, so I took it as a kindness.
I begrudgingly followed the story as it took its sweet time making its way to New York.
New York, The East Coast, again:
With the space already exhaustively explored, nothing stopped me from zipping directly from mission to mission, and doing absolutely no driving or exploration outside of the races. Honestly, if it hadn't been for the momentum that let me keep through missions, this is around when I would've dropped out of the game. But I was so close to finally getting that hidden car I worked so hard for, so I kept going.
This time New York welcomed me with new cars. The Nissan I had started with was fitted for off-road missions, and I picked up a Ford Fiesta that felt better on the streets. While I was at it, I took a look to see what I could get with my horde of uPlay points (Trackmania Turbo continues to pay off). Turns out, a sweet Dodge Viper which I was still too low level to properly use anywhere. But I plenty high enough in level to put a sweeeeeet Raving Rabbids sticker on it.
After zipping around through all the East Coast story missions, I finally had to put wheels back down on the road for the long haul down to Miami.
Florida, The South:
Unlike the East Coast, I hadn't gone south at all yet, so I couldn't fast travel. And the distance to Miami was further than it was from Detroit to New York. I got into my newest ride, and settled in.
I set out from New York at night. I watched the sun rise. I drove through a rainstorm that darkened the sky and found glistening wet roads on the other side. When the road widened and the traffic lightened up, the drift physics finally clicked in my head. While the cars had felt unimpressively slidey at the outset, now with the right shaped roads and the right amount of power behind my wheels, sliding sideways around corners came comfortably. The road mirrored the sky, and I experienced a minor zen.
When I arrive I check the map of the area around me. I had driven right through the Florida Everglades. My brain connects a new piece of context to an episode of Dexter's Laboratory I had seen long ago. Also the Gulf of Mexico is there. That's the Florida I remember.
Vegas, The Mountain States:
The fly-over states. The drive-through states. There's nothing out there but rocks and shrubs. It's clear by just how little of there is besides the road as you drive from Miami all the way to Vegas. It's not New York to LA, but this is where you cross the country.
What welcomes me is a surprise. Each region has a character who is your main voice on the radio for that leg of the story, and each one is introduces with a but of a cutscene. What stands out about this Vegas cutscene is that it actually has nothing car related in it at all. It's just our Main Character, sitting in a diner, late at night, waiting to meet someone who could be friend or foe. Anxiously stirring a cup of coffee, which is the entire meal. A gaze that subtly follow the legs of a woman who walks past, a welcome moment of distraction from the situation. This is a game that doesn't need people. It's about the drive and the speed and the experience points to level up the cars. And yet, for seemingly no reason, there is this moment that succeed at making these non-characters feel human. I was just really caught off guard by it this deep into the game. And just as abruptly as it arrived, it passed.
Dallas, The South:
The Mountain States introduces Raid vehicles, a 4th kit of equipment. But it's also the middle section of the game, so they try to mix it up with the other kits we've seen in the game so far. That's fine. What isn't fine is that each kit levels up separately. I haven't used my earlier kits for a while, so they are under powered for the current missions. To get them up to fighting weight, I actually have to head back east, where there are level appropriate skills I can replay for upgrades.
They put grinding in this racing game. I'm incredulous. What was formerly was just disappointment with the implementation of skills suddenly becomes low tier disgust.
So I go east, in a contempt fueled fugue state. I grind the skills. While I'm at it, I begin looking for hidden car parts again. I'm just criss-crossing these barren planes, not even beholden to the roads anymore thanks to the raid kit. Untethered from the world I've known so far.
What pulls me back is a sharp contrast - a grey block rising straight out of the ground in an otherwise flat and barren brown landscape. A city, isolated and unexpected. I had stumbled upon civilization. The curiosity brought me back. I checked my map after a long time being dismissive of it - Dallas. I was in Dallas. I don't know how I got there, but that's where I wound up.
By now I had done enough grinding, so I returned west for more story missions.
Northern Snow Lands, The Mountain States:
The story leads me north, towards nothing in particular. Slowly snow can be seen building up on the scenery, until we're engulfed by the feeling of isolation brought by the fog of a blizzard in the middle of the night. The hedge maze from the end of The Shining, but having never exited the station wagon from the initial scene.
It forces me to reflect. The last memorable setting was the sunny beaches and damp swamps of Florida, so disconnected from the scene I currently find myself in. The changes have been subtle, all places unified by roads under your wheels, but these mountains finally push past the tolerance of awareness, and force you to realize just how varied all the locales you've visited to far have been. Even the numbing nothingness on the way to Vegas was unique onto itself.
A story mission guides me down a massive ski jump. Fun setpeice, but a ham-handed and ultimately unnecessary attempt at making this a memorable leg of the journey.
Los Angeles, The West Coast:
From very early on, the West Coast had been marked as the end of the journey. An finish line to track your progress by. I had started to consider it back in the Snow Lands, but now with the finish line in sight the realization of just how far I've come sets in.
More missions. One drops me off rolling down Hollywood Boulevard. I've never been to the real Los Angeles, but I get a vivid flashback to Los Santos. Vinewood Boulevard. Next to where my first apartment in GTA Online was. It shouldn't be surprising, as they're based on the same real world location, but one virtual location being evocative without being identical to another was still striking.
Also there are the obligatory chases through the LA storm drains. They are perfect for it, so I'm not complaining.
Seattle, The West Coast:
One last diversion north before the finale. If the diorama version of Seattle is as accurate as its been for the other cities, I think I would actually like to travel here. It's a dense enough city, and the sky is never not grey. That's what I look for in a locale.
San Diego, The West Coast:
The story reaches its climax. You come back down south, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and enter the finale.
So far the last mission of each region has been a "boss fight" of sorts, with multiple sections, mixed objectives, and even vehicle swaps. It's a little bit of escalation that goes just far enough. The final mission of the game is also one of these, but it doesn't do anything to go bigger than any of the "boss fights" so far. The clear path would be to make it the coast to coast race situation that popped into everyone's head from the initial trailer reveal, but it's also understandable how you couldn't make that the finale, as that is a much bigger investment than you can ask of most players.
It almost feels like they even got the feeling that finishing this game at all was a big as for most players. The final mission doesn't reach for anything grander than middle game moments, and the final cutscene is reused intro footage. It's low-effort in a game where cutsenes are barely extant to begin with.
The ending was disappointing. But I knew it was going to be. That's not why I stuck around. I wanted to go to all the places. I wanted to see what was in-between the places. I wanted to get lost. It wasn't about the destination, it really was about the journey.
(But any kind of fanfare at all for finishing that journey really would've gone a long way.)
The Future, Beyond The Story:
The story is over. There's PVP stuff, but I have no intention of doing that. Certainly not in a game with grind. There are small towns on the map the story didn't take me through, but without any personal connection to them, I feel no urge to go visit them. I could try to get and upgrade all the cars, but it's a small selection to begin with none of my goto car game cars. The expansion Wild Run has been pushed in my face this whole time, but nothing in it looks as motivating as unfinished side missions I already have.
But before I delete it and put this chapter completely behind me, I do feel compelled to do that coast to coast diorama road trip at least once. But it requires some decisions and planning: Just a s straight drive? Do a loop or a zig zag? Have some sort of self imposed scoring system? Find a friend willing to come along? Try to make a video out of it? Which would make it most fun, and how much time am I going to have to set aside for it?
Right now the leading idea is to mimic the route from Crusin' USA, and compare the virtual coast-to-coast experiences. Hopefully I can will that to come to pass. And hopefully soon, as I would do well to have that hard drive space back soon.