Design by committee. That’s the first thing that came to mind. Actually, no… the first thing that struck me while playing The Crew 2 for the first time was a sense of utter bewilderment, drowning in Things To Do. That’s because The Crew 2 has boats, planes, bikes, and, well, everything, all splattered across a map with little discernible way of knowing what to do next It’s a compilation of racing disciplines, none of which are particularly disciplined. It’s not especially clever either. But, damn, it sure is pretty.
The “everything” on display here is overwhelming at first. The Crew – the original game – was an ambitious, quirky, open world racer with a proud gimmick or two under the hood. This sequel is just an absolute torrential downpour of diversity. Diversity at any cost. Motorcross bikes, monster trucks, power boats, jetsprint boats, planes, rally cars, street race cars, touring cars, more cars… it’s an assault on my motoring sensibilities, to be honest. If you were disappointed the first time Colin McRae Rally became DiRT and exploded into silliness, The Crew 2 will make your brain hurt.
The sequel hangs onto some of the gimmick factor which made the first one worth a go, and ditches some elements which should have been refined instead of binned outright. The open world was the undeniable headline feature last time, and it’s still glorious, but in The Crew you felt compelled to explore it, experience it, make the most of it. Much of this was motivated by the game’s cheesy man-on-the-run storyline, something which has been entirely removed this time around. For The Crew 2, often you have to remind yourself that there is a huge, stunning world that you’re free to traverse. You might start feeling guilty for ignoring so much of it, but it’s by no fault of your own, rather due to weak game design which doesn’t encourage you to strike out into the great unknown.
This under-used world, by the way, is just breathtaking. It’s huge, and detailed, and quite startling in scale and form. From the bright blue waters lapping around the Florida coast, to the seared rock canyons sweeping across the horizon as you head up country, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a racing game with such extravagant beauty. Admittedly, some environmental elements don’t hold up well under close examination – roadside detail, and sometimes the road textures themselves often look dull and faded. But on a macro level, as a super-condensed recreation of the United States, it’s genuinely astounding, and one of the best that we’ve seen from a Ubisoft title, a company with a reputation for building sprawling open worlds. But again, you have to remind yourself that it’s okay to get out and discover it.
Thanks to a system of instant fast travel, most of your time will be spent unlocking new events and being teleported across North America like you’ve qualified for the rapture in pursuit of race wins, new race disciplines, freshly unlocked vehicles, and followers, and it soon translates into a faceless quest for hollow glory. Instead of the original game’s B-grade action movie plot to drive you forward, The Crew 2 has you striving for fame in a fossil-fuelled popularity contest. This hunt for followers, pitting you against a particular antagonist in each race family, acts as a flimsy framework for progress and competition.
So, in the absence of story and characters, we’ve got cars, boat, planes, bikes, and variants of each. The different race disciplines reveal themselves in specific sets, so you’ve got street racing, off road, freestyle, and pro racing to work your way through. Each style has its own vehicles to unlock, and while the roster looks a little anaemic when held up to the likes of a Forza or Gran Turismo garage, there’s plenty of variety and they’re passable recreations. But modelling cars, planes, boats, and bikes in a world where something like Forza or Gran Turismo exists is bound to end in disappointment. Developer Ivory Tower has given it a solid go – everything is suitably shiny, pointy, and reflective as you would expect – but definitely nowhere near the immaculate work we’ve come to expect from Turn 10 and Polyphony.
Matching the current genre legends in terms of handling and driving experience is also a huge ask, and again The Crew 2 is found wanting. Road car handling is good, but rarely brilliant, while the bikes often feel jerky and loosely bound to the rules of physics. Alpha GP cars, the closest you’ll come to Formula 1, are no more challenging to guide around a track than a Ford Mustang, so you know this is no Project Cars 2. Flying is as simplified as it could possibly be, which is probably a good thing, as this dumbed-down style means that you’re easily thrown between race disciplines without needing a lengthy adjustment period.
The planes are the most disposable, though, as there’s little sense of urgency up in the air. Doing lazy loops into the blue just can’t compare to the adrenaline of tossing a flat bottomed speedboat around between swamp trees in the shallows, or manhandling a hulking 4×4 beast across the dunes and through rocky mountain passes. Ivory Tower knows how to replicate the sense of speed too, so much so that at times my Ferrari made me dizzy for a moment when I pulled the trigger. It can be exhilarating, especially against the backdrop of an uncharted piece of highway or abandoned aerodrome. Sometimes, while juicing that nitro button at just the right time, I literally gasped as the world around me blurred.
Strangely, for a game with so much to do, a lot of The Crew 2 feels lonely. This is a franchise which built itself up as a multiplayer shared world thing, but this sequel has little to lure you into playing with friends. Quick sprints against strangers are fine, but forgettable, and the whole dream of building a crew to explore the world with lacks substance this time around. Whether you’re playing alone, or trying to rope in a few mates to get crewed up, these options get lost as the map sinks under its own weight, so overloaded that it’s often hard to know what you’re supposed to do next.
Taking on tarmac checkpoint races turned out to be the aspect of The Crew 2 which held my attention least of all. It was the Rally Raid sessions across the swamp lands deep south which pulled me in, and the long open stretches of highway that captivated me, the afternoon sun kissing the desert sand well into the distance as I screamed across middle America, pointing my nose towards a random waypoint I created purely to have something to aim at. Zooming out from your vehicle and high up into the sky to view the whole map, choosing an area of the US which you haven’t explored yet, and soaring back down to ground level is startling, in a way that no game map has achieved before.
After a few hours I realised that the star of the show isn’t the racing itself, but the beautifully realised gameworld that too many will overlook in a blur of game modes, buried under terrible dialogue, endless trendy indie rock music, and a unwieldy list of options, activities and just… stuff. So much stuff, and too much of my time was spent uncertain of my goals. Despite this lack of direction, and with little motivation to progress through the ranks of each discipline, I will go back to The Crew 2. But I won’t be going back to win races. I’ll be heading out there for the simple catharsis of the open road. Slide behind the wheel of your supercar of choice, rumbling ominously down a side street on the outskirts of Miami, set a waypoint somewhere near Seattle, and check out of reality for a while.