It was mid-afternoon when we left New York City, and the traffic was light. I can't recall whether we took the Holland or Lincoln Tunnel as we aimed for Florida, but I do remember I was driving a blue Nissan 370Z and Lisa, whom I had just met, was my copilot.
I was driving fast, passing other vehicles on the road and giving the Nissan a good workout, testing its handling by slaloming down the road. Lisa encouraged me to drive faster, and she told me we could drive anywhere in the U.S. I wanted to go.
In The Crew – a video game forthcoming later this year from Ubisoft for PS4, Xbox One and Windows – the entire United States is available to drive from the beginning. It was developed by Ivory Tower, which was established in 2007 by former Atari, Infogrames and Ubisoft staffers who had worked on Test Drive Unlimited (Atari, 2006).
Tower staffer Charles-Arthur Bourget said that development on The Crew started immediately after Test Drive was completed. The founders, said Bourget, envisioned creating an open-world, online game that would encompass the entire United States. For three years, said Bourget, they worked only on the engine that would make the game possible. It would be another two years of work before the game was even announced, at last year's E3 Expo in Los Angeles.
Creative director Julian Gerighty calls The Crew an "MMORPG where your character is your car." The story is loosely about a man recruited by law enforcement to bring down a national criminal organization that begins in Detroit before moving to New York, Miami, Las Vegas and then Los Angeles. But players can choose to ignore the story altogether. Gerighty explained that the level cap can be achieved without ever completing a single story mission. "You should be able to drive coast to coast," he said, "because that's the fantasy when you're selling the whole of the U.S.A."
For those who just want to get in a car and drive, there are collectibles scattered throughout the U.S. for players to discover, and landmarks to unlock. When I ask if there are any particular drives in the game that might be special, Gerighty's eyes light up. "Route 66," he says, "is almost mythical to Europeans."
I may have been able to go anywhere, but our crew – other media in San Francisco for the press event– was expecting us in Miami, so I kept heading south. Lisa is a member of the Frag Doll gaming team and was assigned to assist and guide me as I played through an early version of the game. In no time we were passing through Pennsylvania, then Maryland and Virginia.
Lisa rode with a foot up on the dash (actually just the table the monitor was on). She kept an eye on the GPS and we both wanted a radio for her to tune, but it wasn't yet available in the car. Gerighty promised us that when the game is released it will have some 120 songs on seven different stations. The soundtrack is from musician Joseph Trapanese, who was the arranger and orchestrator for the Tron: Legacy soundtrack for Daft Punk.
The landscape changed gradually. "Do we hit the Carolinas before Georgia?" I asked Lisa. I'm Canadian, from the west side of the continent, and my knowledge of the geography of the Eastern Seaboard is spotty. Lisa, from the U.S. Mid-West, wasn't sure either. But it didn't matter, because before we could figure it out, we were already nearing Miami.
Gerighty said it was difficult trying to relate the scale of The Crew. New York City in his game is roughly the same size as Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City. In real life it takes about 18 hours to drive from New York to Miami. It only took me about 10 minutes but because of the geographical transitions it seemed as though we had travelled the entire two thousand kilometers.
There are six different vehicle specifications in the game, each with its own purpose: Stock, Street, Dirt (off-road), Performance (fast and extravagent), Raid (extreme off-road) and Circuit (technical racing). I was driving a stock Nissan and had set the game to install the best upgrades for me, instead of doing so manually. Personalization and customization are essential to a role-playing game, and The Crew is no exception.
The game was designed around giving players the "best possible driving experience," said Gerighty, so I was able to change cars on the fly and improved parts were added to my ride with me having to exit the driving.
Players earn money and experience for completing challenges in the game. Some, like near misses and passing vehicles, are automatic as you drive. Skills are short tasks that you can trigger while on the road – think speed runs – and are immediately replayable (they can also be asynchronous challenges with friends). Missions progress through the story. Car parts are also earned, which can be used to improve the performance of vehicles.
Skill events are mostly under a minute, and story missions are a few minutes long, but Gerighty said that there are longer side missions. One is two hours long, and he has asked the development team to come up with a four-hour mission. "It's not for everyone," he admits, but it will be appreciated by those who play it.
The Crew will also be leveraging the transactional nature of customizing and upgrading vehicles. Gerighty said that the full game will be available to those who own it, but admitted that players will be able to spend real money to, for example, speed up progress or acquire new vehicles sooner.
Lisa and I didn't have to worry about that. After arriving in Miami we visited a dealer and purchased a Lamborghini Aventador for a race through the streets of the Magic City. It was too much car for me, though. Next time I'm taking a Shelby to get my kicks.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story suggested Mr. Trapanese was the composer on Tron: Legacy, we regret the error.