The Crew, and how Ubisoft is turning its version of the American dream into reality

The Crew 2

Eden Games’ Test Drive Unlimited provided a vast play area in its take on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Now Ivory Tower, a studio staffed by former members of the TDU team, wants to go further, offering up the whole of North America in The Crew.

Oahu may have been big, but The Crew’s world is more than four times that size. Squeezed into this distorted version of the US are 7,000 miles of road, 15 cities – six of which are comparable in size to Liberty City in GTAIV – and 15 million individual objects. It’ll take you roughly an hour and half to drive from the East Coast to the West Coast, and four hours to circumnavigate the entire map. Where do you begin with a project of this scale?

“It starts off with a DEM [digital elevation model], which is an accurate representation of the country in terms of height,” Ubisoft creative director Julian Gerighty explains. “Then we define ecosystems – which might represent a type of vegetation, a type of road, or a type of architectural structure – and these ecosystems are then placed, one next to the other, to create a variety of different experiences around the country.”

It’s as simple as that, then. A great deal of the heavy lifting is done by Ivory Tower’s proprietary tools and Babel engine, which procedurally generate much of the variety in the ecosystems, and the results are then moulded by artists and designers.

“The whole world is generated multiple times per week over the nighttime period,” Gerighty continues. “It takes about eight hours to render and regenerate the world, but it allows us to see the changes that we’ve made within this procedurally generated space on an almost daily basis.”

Where Oahu had just one ecosystem in play, The Crew’s US will have at least 11. Gerighty highlights the team’s ambition to keep the look of the game fresh and distinct throughout: drive for ten minutes in any direction, he promises, and you’ll encounter a different ecosystem or new types of architecture. But one of the biggest challenges of building a version of North America, it turns out, isn’t what goes in but what you leave out.

“It’s a French team, and when we initially defined how the game was going to look and feel, everybody had their own idealised version in mind,” Gerighty says. “The major cities were fairly easy to settle upon. Detroit, the birthplace of motor culture. Chicago, the home of the blues, and which is also very interesting architecturally. New York: you can’t have the US without New York. Washington DC, Miami, the dream of driving down Sunset Boulevard in a classic car – those European and American fantasies of car culture, those are the things that really informed what we were going to create.”

But it’s not just the obvious choices that are represented. There will be dozens of smaller towns to discover, and areas like the Midwest with its expansive cornfields.

It sounds comprehensive, but surely with a play area this large there had to be some compromise? Route 66 might be great with the wind in your hair, but we doubt it would hold its appeal for couch-bound drivers holding the right trigger. “For me,” Gerighty explains, “it’s all about gameplay. Having the Brooklyn Bridge in New York is essential. Having the roads that cross through Central Park is essential. Having the structure of Manhattan roughly right is essential. But replicating every single road exactly absolutely is not.

“There’s enough space once you’ve captured the essence of a place to [create] a really fun outline road mapping. And then it’s a choice of how we position the races, and the missions, within the game. The rest is open world, which is a great terrain for skills and instanced challenges, but less important for pure gameplay than the missions.”

With the game not due until early 2014, the team still has time left to iterate, and Gerighty claims that the engine is capable of much more than we saw in the live E3 demo; Times Square by day, for example, will be significantly busier, and Gerighty admits that he’ll be disappointed if the visuals aren’t dialled up a notch or two by the time of release. As it stands, though, The Crew is already one of the most ambitious open-world projects to date: a vast, highly detailed world exposing itself to comparison with its real-life counterpart.

“LA Noire stunned me with the level of detail that they went into recreating 1940s LA,” Gerighty says. “For us, though, the challenge came in finding a unique take for each ecosystem. It’s all about coming at it with a specific emotion in mind that we want to create, or a specific colour palette we want to feature the most. It’s that type of thing that really makes the experience stand out.”