The Crew and why living, online worlds could define the next generation of console games

‘Always-on’ has become a poisonous little phrase, so it’s understandable that The Crew’s creative director Julian Gerighty avoids that term entirely during our conversation about Ubisoft’s new online openworld racer. The Crew is only playable online, but the usual angry internet flashmobs needn’t sharpen the pitchforks; Ubisoft’s new racer should be thought of as an evolution of what Test Drive Unlimited achieved way back in 2006. Or, as Gerighty is keen to point out several times, an MMOG on wheels.

The Crew aims to do for racing games what Destiny intends to do for shooters, in short. Its gameworld is rather closer to home than Bungie’s sci-fi lore – Ubisoft claimed at E3 that The Crew takes place within the biggest openworld ever made, an “idealised” United States.

“It’s not 1:1, because I think that would be just ridiculous,” says Gerighty. “It’s an idealised thing. To give you a sense of scope and scale: Liberty City is about the size of our New York. But we’ve got Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and ten other big cities around the states, and everything in between.”

Players will be free to explore or take on missions, alongside or against other players within the game’s titular Crews – a part of next-gen play which could come to define the generational shift, says Gerighty. “You’re hearing a lot of that from [games] like Destiny, and I think it really is a difference that we’re going to see on this generation of consoles. Xbox 360 and PS3 [was] definitely the HD-era. And we’ve got used to that. So this next generation, honestly? It’s going to be living worlds. And any simulated worlds we’re going to get kind of tired of, bored of, because we’re going to see the manufactured aspect to it. What living worlds bring you is this constant surprise; constant challenges, constant people to recruit, people to face-off against, and life around you.“

The Crew is, therefore, only playable online. The subject of online connection has become a touchy subject among console games players – part of the generational shift that’s been unduly criticised, we suggest. Gerighty seems to agree. “Nobody complains on PC,” he says. “Nobody complains that World Of Warcraft has to be online all the time. It’s part of the experience.”

But why not make offline play possible in some way? “I think it’s a choice,” Gerighty continues. “I think if we do that we’d have to have an offline save, so those two worlds wouldn’t be compatible. So I think it’s a choice to say ‘this is just online’. It’s just like World Of Warcraft, it’s a persistent world. If you want to play, it’s got to be online. It’s not a check thing; it’s an experience thing.”

The Crew’s developer Ivory Tower has pedigree here; it is made up of the core team behind Test Drive Unlimited, a title Gerighty describes as “visionary”. “It was really before its time,” he continues. “Everybody’s doing these shared, living, persistent online worlds on console – these guys were ahead the curve.”

It was the Ivory Tower team that first pitched the idea, with Ubisoft Reflections adding its expertise to the project after finishing Driver San Francisco, a game Gerighty rates as best driving game of 2011. But there are other studios involved too – this is a Ubisoft project, after all. “Ubisoft Shanghai is helping with art, Bucharest is helping with the cinematics; it’s a big project for us,” says Gerighty. “If you look at all of these games like Watch Dogs or Assassin’s Creed – it’s multiple studios every time. It’s something that Ubisoft’s getting pretty good at doing.“

RPG-esque customisation – each car should be seen as a “19-piece puzzle,” says Gerighty – adds to the sense we’re seeing multiple genres collide in The Crew. “We really see this as an MMO driving game where you can play singleplayer,” says Gerighty, who steers the conversation back to Blizzard’s pioneering MMOG once more. “With World Of Warcraft you can play it singleplayer…I mean, there’s a world around you that’s alive but a lot of people just like playing by themselves. And it’s exactly the same thing with us.”

The technical challenge here is eased somewhat because of Ivory Tower’s experiences with Test Drive Unlimited, but we’re surprised to learn that next gen tech remains a moving target, even this close to launch. “It’s tricky because none of the hardware is final,” says Gerighty. “We’re still playing around with it. They’re both great machines; PC is the face, the core unit dev tool. So we’re seeing how to work with both the PS4 and the Xbox One. But those both have different challenges. I like both of them.”

And the difference between the two? “I think it comes down to the controller and both of the controllers are super-interesting. We just got the prototypes for the Xbox and I don’t think they’re at the quality level of the final Xbox 360 units but they’re going to get there, and it’s going to be phenomenal.”

The next generational shift will be slower and subtler, but one can’t describe The Crew in those terms; like so many others at this year’s E3, it suggests that the next generation will be more open and online – just don’t call it ‘always-on’.

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