If you’ve ever fancied taking a coast-to-coast road trip across America, then you were probably excited by the announcement that Ubisoft's latest driving game The Crew was offering the chance to do just that. Even with its abbreviated version of the USA, the scale of its game world, coupled with the chance to tear up the open road with your friends in online co-op, made for a potentially compelling title. Now that it's out on PlayStation 4, however, gamers can finally find out if it manages to speed into pole position ahead of every open world racer already on the track

The story at the heart of the title has you pulling on the driving gloves of Alex Taylor – a street racer who, despite a love of fast cars and being chased by the cops, is really a decent guy deep down. His brother Dayton, on the other hand, is the leader of a countrywide gang of speedsters known as the 510s – and when he’s killed, Alex finds himself framed for his murder. Five years pass, and the protagonist is given the chance by the FBI to get out of prison, as long as he joins up with the 510s, to help the Bureau take down Shiv – the gang's current leader – and the crooked agents responsible for his own incarceration.

Feeling like a rejected script for The Fast and the Furious, the game's central story lacks originality, and even the addition of a few subplots as you build up your crew fails to deliver anything but paint by number characters and motivations. It all seems like a missed opportunity, with the plot merely setting up the game's driving events, rather than providing an interesting narrative.

Not only does the story fail to make a good early impression, but when you pick up your first ride things look even worse. Pulling out of the garage with your pristine motor, the handling on the car just feels wrong. At first it’s hard to put your finger on what’s amiss, but it doesn’t take long to realise that the vehicles just feel far too loose – even for an arcade racer. At first you'll struggle to understand how developer Ivory Tower got it so wrong, but as you play some more, you'll realise that this starting point and the subsequent improvements that you’ll make to your car is a fundamental part of the game's design.

Playing through any of the missions or skill challenges out in the world will earn you either a gold, silver, or bronze award, depending upon how well you performed. These trinkets also give you a part to equip on your car, which provides a permanent boost to the stats of your vehicle. This improvement is determined by the level of the event, and the game makes it really easy to tell if any given component will improve your car by showing how it’ll increase or decrease the impact rating of your ride.

The car's performance grows as you add more and more parts, and as you level up your favourite motor, you’ll begin to see an improvement in every aspect of its performance, causing your initial frustrations around the handling of the vehicles to slowly recede. There are a relatively modest number of cars available compared to other games of this type – 64 in total – and they’re priced quite steeply, so rather than switching between lots of different vehicles, you’ll be focussing more on levelling a select few for the trials ahead.

Each event not only suggests the sort of impact rating that you’ll need, but also the specification of the car that you’re required to use. There are five of these categories – Street, Dirt, Performance, Raid, and Circuit – and you can tune your automobiles at the respective shops in the open world, with each model able to be tuned to more than one of these. The required spec for an event also gives a good indicator of where you’ll be driving, with Dirt and Raid events usually involving a decent amount of off-roading, while Street, Performance, and Circuit are generally confined pre-dominantly to the hardtop.

The events all pretty much fall into the categories that you’d expect, asking you to drive really fast to achieve your objectives, whether it’s winning a race, escaping from pursuers, or ramming a target vehicle off the road. Those races that ask you to clear a number of checkpoints against the clock are the most enjoyable, taking you along some varied and interesting routes, but the moment AI opponents are thrown in the mix, a lot of the fun can evaporate.

This is due to The Crew having some really heavy rubber banding, where no matter how fast you go, or how often your opponents crash, they’ll be breathing down your neck in no time. This becomes especially frustrating in events where you’re being chased, as your pursuers move like they’ve got rockets strapped to their cars, easily catching up and ramming you – even when you’re driving at top speed.

This makes the later stages of races the only part that’s truly important, as a crash in the last few turns will all but guarantee failure. If the races were all short then this wouldn’t be too bad, but there are some quite lengthy events, meaning that there’ll be plenty of occasions where you’ll find yourself beaten in the home stretch – and having to do the whole thing again.

The wonky physics will also add to your frustration, as cars frequently fail to react consistently to collisions. Hard impacts will barely alter your course on occasions, while at other times you’ll be spun around completely. You’ll also quickly develop an aversion to launching your car too high in the air, as landing hard causes you to veer off in a direction that seems to bear no resemblance to the lie of the land. On the upside, there is some comedy to be found in the instances where the physics go completely haywire, with collisions literally catapulting your car into the stratosphere.

Even with all of the aforementioned problems, there is one major part of the game that’s hugely impressive, and that’s the open world. Driving across continental America, as the scenery transitions – without any loading screens – is a real joy, making you feel like you’re really taking a road trip across a vast and varied landscape. The scale is bewildering at times, and whether you’re traversing the Rocky Mountains or visiting Punxsutawney, it’s infused with such a strong sense of the real world that you’ll banish any of the shortcomings to the back of your mind – at least for a while – as you revel in each slice of Americana served up.

There was a chance, however, that a world of this size could become overwhelming, with too much pointless driving getting from A-to-B. Helpfully, though, there’s a fast travel system that allows you to teleport to any area of the map you’ve already driven through, making it much more manageable to navigate. If you do want to test your endurance driving, there are a number of optional events that send you on some extremely long races. These can take upwards of an hour to complete and really do test your concentration, as you need to keep you focus as you race across some huge distances – especially since the AI will be hot on your heels.

In terms of the visuals, you’ll frequently swing backwards and forwards in how you feel about the presentation. The landscapes can be truly breath-taking when driving at speed, but slow down and spend some time taking a closer look and they fail to stand up to the scrutiny, looking downright ugly in places . Ultimately, though, you can’t really hold this against the game too much, as its scale is so ambitious that any compromises made to deliver its vistas is understandable – especially when you consider its focus on online play as well.

The game does require that you’re connected online the entire time, and you’ll always be playing in a shared world with a group of other players. Selecting a mission or event lets you pick if you want to play solo or cooperatively, and choosing to play with others will send an invite to every player in your session, allowing them to decide if they want to jump in with you. This does work well in theory, but more often than not, no one will take you up on your invite, as they’ll all be much more interested in doing their own thing.

Should you be lucky enough to find someone to link up with, you’ll automatically form a crew, and whether you’re playing with friends or random players, there’s a lot of fun to be had tackling missions or generally tearing up the road. This is especially the case if your new allies help you to get past a particularly challenging event, as it only takes one of your crew to be successful for you all to clear it.

Should you want a bit more direct competition, there are also a number of player-versus-player locations around the world, which act as matchmaking lobbies. Placing you in head-to-head races with other drivers, it’s fun when you get into a game, but the amount of time that it can take to get a race together is far too long, with pauses frequently running over the ten minute mark. This seems to be mainly due to the decision to split out the multiplayer lobbies by geographic area, diluting the player pool to the extent that it’s easy to get games in some locations, while in others, there might as well be tumbleweed.

Conclusion

Ivory Tower deserves a serious amount of credit for delivering an outstanding open world in The Crew, where every square mile feels expertly crafted. Taking a drive across its varied landscape with a posse of other players is a memorable experience, and while it takes a little time to level your cars to a point where they’re actually fun to drive, when you get there, you’ll happily spend hours exploring every town and back road, from New York to Los Angeles. It’s a real let down, then, that the rest of the package fails to come close to matching the same standard, with excessive AI rubber banding, inconsistent physics, and an unimaginative story all acting as dead weight.