Forza Horizon 5 was a difficult game to appraise. The experience is pure joy, the car collection is elite, and I still can’t believe how good the tail lights and the bonnet reflections look under the Mexican sun. It’s a riotously enjoyable open-world racing game, but it was built on incredibly solid foundations that the previous two games laid. It raised the high tide mark… by about a quarter-inch.
Two years later though, the community’s initial frustrations with some longstanding FH4 gripes have remained unaddressed, transforming into white-hot rage. Broken multiplayer modes and the interminable onslaught of loading screens that occur between actually taking part in them, frequent server crashes, and suspect account moderation have all played their parts in stoking the fires. So, although it might look pretty imperious up there with its 90+ Metascores on all platforms (which I contributed to with my review at launch), it’s definitely not too big to fail. And The Crew Motorfest knows it.
For its part, the Crew series has never truly nailed the sensation of driving. This sounds like a pretty terminal fault for a driving game, but it’s a testament to how hard the other elements work to keep a grin on your face. The Crew 1 and 2 were both in possession of wonderful open-world maps, which may have been populated by nonsensical signage but sold the illusion of traveling the length and breadth of the entire USA very convincingly. Look, there’s Mount Rushmore! Now we’re drifting through snowy Colorado switchbacks. And here comes the Vegas strip. Incredible.
Rowboats in disguise
The other big weapon in the Crew’s arsenal is the totally nonsensical and silly ability to transform between cars or bikes, planes, and boats, instantly, in real-time. Almost half a decade since The Crew 2’s release, that still feels like too weird a concept for a mainstream, mass-appeal racer like this, the mechanic returns in Motorfest and I have absolutely no doubt that it’ll be just as fun as ever to hurl a motorbike off a mountain and then transform into a stunt plane while in freefall, then do a few loops, fly out over open water and drop down into it as a speedboat.
These two elements are The Crew Motorfest’s left and right hook in the fight against Forza: a compelling world map, and a completely silly vehicle sandbox. Forza Horizon world maps look great to drive through, but they don’t give you a sense of journey. FH4 gave us the series’ best map, but even then its cross-section of England and Scotland couldn’t quite compete with The Crew when it came to a good co-op road trip.
The world map is definitely smaller, and the devs have been clear that it’s going for quality over quantity this time
Motorfest takes place in Oahu, which is a full circle moment for Ubisoft Ivory Tower, a studio formed from the ashes of Test Drive Unlimited developer Eden Games. The genre started in open-world Hawaii and, 17 years later, it’s returning there. Will Oahu be able to convey the same sense of Top Gear special-tier road trippery? Honestly, at this stage of pre-launch, that’s difficult to judge. The world map is definitely smaller, and the devs have been clear that it’s going for quality over quantity this time.
The consensus so far from the beta phase is that this is exactly what Motorfest has achieved. Still, as a 200+ hour Crew 2 player, I can’t help but feel a pang of loss at the idea I won’t be able to race coast to coast across the states anymore. Especially because it was only recently, five years into the game’s lifespan, that the developer added custom race creation tools to let me really explore that map and make epic hour-long races of my own.
All Motorfest has to do is facilitate better road trips than Horizon’s, which isn't as tall an order as it might first seem. Horizon hasn’t tried a full-scale city since its Australian excursion in FH3, and even then it didn’t feel convincing as an urban center. If Motorfest can make you believe that there’s a large population living in this built-up area you’re passing at 140mph, it’s got a chance.
It also needs variety. It needs really distinct biomes, a clear mix of urban and rural roads, and a broad range of road types. Highways. Dirt tracks. City centers full of junctions and 90-degree corners. Tarmac twists up in the hills.
The vehicular sandbox element looks like less of an unknown
The vehicular sandbox element looks like less of an unknown. The Crew 2’s car list looks to have migrated pretty much in totality, along with the other vehicle types of course, and that’s only going to add to its co-op appeal. It’s not that the planes feel like Flight Simulator 2020, you understand - it’s that their inclusion allows you to mess about in free-roam that bit more inventively and, fingers crossed, create some multi-vehicular custom events in the race creator.
Ubisoft Ivory Tower doesn’t need absolute best-in-class handling in its cars if it can make cars, bikes, boats, and planes feel pretty good. Just a notch up from the slightly strange turn-in behavior and weightless sensation they had in The Crew 2. That’s all. The ability to switch between them like a superhero transformer will do the rest.
Because I have no doubt it’ll be a more seamless co-op experience than Horizon. Its predecessor already won that battle hands down. You form a crew - sorry, a ‘Crew’ - with your friends, and then one of you picks an event on the map. You’re all teleported to that event. Easy as that.
Admittedly there’s a slightly odd sequence before the race which involves driving through an underground car park or a gated off-road area and up to the grid, but it’s just there to hide a loading screen. And it’s so much better to manually drive up to your race start position than it is to watch your Drivatar doing the Carlton dance for a minute and a half in Forza Horizon.
The final asset Motorfest has in the fight is the car upgrade system
The final asset Motorfest has in the fight is the car upgrade system. This will sound wild, but its loot boxes and RNG are actually a good system. There are microtransactions here, but only for credits. Credits can buy you cars, but they can’t buy you the upgrades for those cars. Those can only be acquired by, you know, playing the game. Quite a lot of the game actually, at a high difficulty, if you want a full suite of maxed-out parts for all your vehicles across all disciplines.
This is where the Crew series really delivers on that MMO promise. Maxing out a vehicle for each event type - car races are broken down into street, track, drag, drift, and hypercar, for example - feels like reaching max level with each character class in an RPG. You need to commit to it, and, during the grind, you learn that vehicle’s idiosyncrasies. There’s a point to it.
Horizon’s car tuning is pretty excellent too, but it’s a totally different proposition. You’re not just applying color-coded components to it, but really tweaking the individual settings to find speed and performance. Or letting someone else do all that for you. You can simply apply the top-rated tune from the community, pay for the required parts, and bang: you’ve got the ‘maxed out’ version of that vehicle. It’s much more egalitarian, and it makes for some interesting online racing, but it doesn’t deepen your investment in a particular vehicle.
In a co-op and PvP multiplayer context, it means so much more to turn up with a maxed-out vehicle in The Crew than it does to arrive on the grid with your Don Joewon Song tuning applied in Horizon.
Ivory Tower’s David really does have some weapons against Playground Games’ Goliath (not that one). It won’t win the Metascore war, but when it comes to co-op and PvP online racing, The Crew Motorfest has a real chance.