What do you think is the most important when delivering a genre-defining open-world driving game? Is it the size of the environment? The number of cars? The quantity of online multiplayer options? Perhaps it’s how striking the visuals are?
Well, those are all major features that add something extra to a game, but they aren’t the key ingredients. No, we think it’s the driving experience.
If that’s not fun, the whole thing crashes down like a Jenga tower. This was a critical element that 2018’s The Crew 2 misjudged, but thankfully, no one can besmirch its follow-up – The Crew Motorfest – with the same critique.
It marks a rebirth of the franchise, providing, at last, a serious contender for the accessible driving game crown.
Reassuring driving experience
Sorry for harping on about this, but the way cars behave on the road, or dirt, when comparing The Crew 2 to The Crew Motorfest is like when Simon Cowell revealed his post-plastic surgery face – it’s shockingly different. Only this time in a good way.
Now, we’re not saying this is the last word in realism. That’s not the point. But at least the cars have a heft to them and feel distinctive. There are times when you need to lift off or even brake before tight corners and if you find the zone, and decide to aim for a high leaderboard position, there’s a fluency not seen in any prior Ubisoft driving game.
Some cars, like an Audi R8, are on a knife-edge, and others like a Dodge Charger, will easily spin without the assists switched on. But a heavily modified Nissan 370Z is on rails. In each scenario, this is how they should behave, although just be mindful that at times there can be an uneasy propensity to tankslap.
It’s also unique to other contemporary rivals, so don’t expect it to drive like your current favourite. You’ll need time to adapt. Learn that the handbrake is only for dire emergencies and that boost is best used to carry momentum coming out of corners.
The same is true with planes and boats, which are much more beguiling, almost to the point of zen-like relaxation. Motorcycles though, a bit too rigid in response for us.
Steering wheels are supported, but in our experience while fun to use with the cockpit camera, by default they are a little too sharp and we were a little more comfortable with a gamepad.
Special mention should go to drag racing and drift events too, which feature unique physics and control systems. That means you adapt your driving style to each event type. Point-to-point or circuit racing requires precise inputs with deft timing whereas in drift events you can let it all hang out.
Revels-like mission variety
It’s not just the physics that are varied, but the tests you’ll be taking part in. It harks back to a time when games took themselves a little less seriously. This is an entirely fictional driving title set in Hawaii, remember that, so throw away conventional thinking.
The main structure revolves around a series of curated playlists, much like the ‘Made for You’ section of Spotify.
Each has a theme, be it the history of Lamborghini, off-roading or simply a scenic tour of the location. There are between six and nine main events within each, plus a series of side-quests such as photo opportunities or slaloms. Finishing the main events then unlocks a series of optional challenges which must be completed in specific vehicles.
It’s here where the gameplay variety shines through. While there are plenty of traditional race and time trial events in cars, there’s also a quad bike speed test, a scenario where you can’t hit cones but have lost your brakes and delivery missions where avoiding damage is key. We could do without the AI assistant being quite so vocal, though, they do start to grate.
Some of the longer events even employ vehicle switching mid-driving like a 4x400m relay race, and in free-roam, you can drive between events or fly, with the option of switching between vehicle types on the fly.
Each playlist is ensconced within slick presentations matching the theme, with dramatic cutscenes, voiceovers and in the case of the Donut Media events, trackside inflatable James Pumphreys. Completing one also nets a new car for your collection with a dramatic reveal sequence.
Really though, that’s a bit like using expensive wrapping paper at Christmas. Fancy, but the appeal is ephemeral. The varied gameplay types are what keep you playing and some, like the Liberty Walk set-up, suffer from poor pacing. That one specifically is just 10 races back-to-back and a phoned-in introduction video.
We’ve touched upon the driving experience and what you’ll be using the vehicles for, but not the environment you’re in. It’s the Hawaiian island of O‘ahu and it’s breathtaking. Sure, the built-up areas can be a little lifeless, but from the ash-strewn volcanic mountain to the sandy beaches and jungles, it’s hard to think of a more gorgeous location for a driving game – especially when you mix it together with dynamic weather and a day-to-night cycle.
Motorfest’s predecessors focused on having the biggest map size possible with a procedurally generated United States. It was part of an arms race to see who could create the largest environments, and many Reddit commenters ahead of Motorfest’s launch were bemoaning this island’s comparatively diminutive size.
But this is an abject lesson as to why detail and variety are more important than outright scale. You know how a fine-dining restaurant focuses on presentation and taste with small plates? Motorfest’s environment is that, compared to The Crew 2’s 16-inch deep dish pizza. It’s special.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Crew game, without you being able to create, well, a crew. Up to four people can join up and experience the main single-player progression co-operatively, although not cross-play seemingly.
That feature is supported, however, during the PvP online multiplayer modes – Grand Race and Demolition Royale.
The latter is the popular Fortnite or PUBG-style battle royale formula but in cars, with the last one standing the victor. It plays as it sounds, that is a popular shooting sub-genre smashed together with a driving game. Part of the appeal of this format historically is being able to sneak about and hide, but that tension is missing here.
A Grand Race, meanwhile, is actually more hectic, as a whopping 28 drivers take the grid of a randomly generated race that uses the car switching mechanism. It delivers the sort of ramshackle freneticism as a Cannonball Run movie.
Of course, the Summit system from previous remains a big draw. Here, complete a series of tasks and see your results hit an online leaderboard, with the top echelons of the rankings unlocking prizes. We suspect it will still be the main network-connected pull.
Not without its eccentricities
The Crew Motorfest started life as a download expansion for The Crew 2 but morphed into a dedicated game once the development team wanted to create a more detailed environment with improved car handling and a revised lighting engine.
Thankfully, it does more than enough to warrant a separate launch and delivers what we think is the most resolved game in the series so far. But it’s not without its foibles.
While the vehicle cockpits are detailed, with hand animations that can rotate the wheel more than one turn (take note Forza Horizon), any form of mirror is blurred out, which looks decidedly low rent.
For such an awe-inspiring location, the photo mode is blocked from use during a race and cannot showcase tyre smoke or the surprisingly destructible environment.
Perhaps one of the biggest bugbears is the need for further difficulty balancing. Before each playlist event, you can tweak the stiffness of your competition, reaping greater rewards for the more challenging option you select. What we found, though, is we could win at a canter the penultimate level, but then flounder around off the podium just one notch up. The gap is too great between each difficulty option.
You’re also in a deluge of new vehicles, or failing that, credits to buy more. The aim of building your collection can seem a little superfluous though – remember, playlist events provide you the ideal loan car. So your own collection is used to traverse between missions and… erm… not much else, really.
They do come in useful for the aforementioned challenges that unlock and require specific vehicles, and some playlists force you to buy at least one vehicle, but the vast majority that is included may stay unused.
That oh-so-morish endorphin rush you feel when completing accolades in Forza Horizon or the vast list of optional challenges in Need for Speed Unbound could have been leveraged further here too.
It’s always sunny in
When you stop to think about it, however, these are merely quirks, not game-breaking bugs or reasons alone not to buy.
We still have reservations about some of the level pacing and smaller details, plus if the monthly playlists set to appear post-release will be enough to keep us playing. But, despite our first impressions leading us to believe otherwise, there are enough fresh ideas here to distinguish The Crew Motorfest from the immediate competition.
The transformation enacted by Ubisof’s Ivory Tower development team is nothing short of remarkable, helping The Crew go from an also-ran to at least now a viable alternative to long-established rivals.
|Developer||Ubisoft Ivory Tower|
|Release date||14th September 2023|
|Available platforms||PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S|
|Best played with||Gamepad|
Full disclosure: A game code was provided by the developers for review purposes. Here is our review policy.