In the hands of any other publisher, an undercooked online infrastructure and a slew of lukewarm reviews would have seen 2014’s The Crew sent on a one-way drive to the scrapheap. But not so with Ubisoft. The French publisher loves a good franchise, so Ivory Tower’s racer returns with a bright new presentation, disciplines aplenty and enough vehicles to sate even the thirstiest petrol head.
While the first game used a bland and forgettable underground racing story (one so bad it’ll probably be in the next Need for Speed entry), The Crew 2 jettisons any sense of tangible narrative in favor of an extreme sports makeover that effectively opens up the map, with fast-travel accessible races available right from the off.
While the lack of a corny story is a definite plus, the way in which you explore the game's world is an odd choice, to say the least (especially considering Ubisoft has opted once again for a truncated version of the United States as a setting). For all of The Crew’s problems – and there were many – its open-world was a huge selling point. Driving from East Coast to West Coast, and seeing everything from the rolling maize fields of Kanas to the lights of Las Vegas lighting up the deserts of Nevada made a forgettable arcade racer feel that bit more exciting.
A similar open-world exists in this sequel, but there’s very little reason to explore it in ‘Freedrive’. The original forced you to drive from A to B, and used challenges such as speed traps and races to keep you entertained along the way (and provide a handy way for you to earn new car parts at a steady pace).
With fast travel unlocked from the start, you simply find the event you want to play, select it and boom! – you’re in a boat, plane, bike or car waiting to race. It’s ideal for getting into the action with the minimum of fuss, but it needlessly demotes one of its biggest selling points to mere mise en scène. You can shift from one vehicle to another as you roam, but those multiple-vehicle races that dominated the original's marketing are painfully rare. Again, another key feature inexplicably watered down.
However, perhaps that shift in how you navigate the world is down to the noticeable inconsistency when it comes to environment textures – we encounter touring car races on tarmac so smooth and lacking in detail that we might as well be racing on titanium, and urban cityscapes (Harlem, in particular) looking so basic you’d think you were playing something on PS3 or Xbox 360. Considering how great some locales do look – off-roading around the Grand Canyon, or road racing on the streets of balmy Florida really stand out – it’s a bizarre duality.
Scenery can be treacherous and hard to read too. Some elements can be smashed through, but you can never tell which fence or pole will break, and which will stop you dead in your tracks; it’s a lottery at best, especially in busy street races.
Much like 2015’s Steep – another Ubisoft franchise that packed myriad sports into one package – The Crew 2 isn’t just about burning rubber. Now you can leap into powerboats and ride the waves, or jump inside a stunt plane and pull off barrel rolls to your heart’s content. There are even bikes because, well, at this stage why not?
Boats offer some of the most challenging and dynamic races, with the need to slip around enemy wakes key to keeping your speed up. The game’s engine also gets the best chance to shine here, with twinkling droplets of water spray landing on the chassis of your craft and waves swelling around you. Races set on the coast are easily the best of these, with waves providing a dynamic that’s always changing.
There also some brilliant jet-boat races, which take advantage of smaller inland routes (including everything from maneuvering the waterways of the Louisiana swamps to an indoor course in a casino), with clever use of corner-cutting and an emphasis on fast reactions making for some of The Crew 2’s best moments.
Planes also offer an interesting way to break up the street, drift, drag and off-road races you’ll undertake most of the time. Ivory Tower has managed to put together a relatively accessible control model, although it favors the stunt-based aerobatics rather than the precise movement of ‘races’ where you’re actually just racing a ghost and passing through gates in the right orientation.
Forza your consideration
As we mentioned, four and two-wheeled races make up the bulk of the game’s activities, and while there’s enough distinction between cars designed for drifting and those outfitted for long off-road odysseys, the arcade driving model is just as floaty and ultimately uninspiring as the one in the original.
For a game that’s clearly aiming to take on and surpass the Xbox-exclusive Forza Horizon series – its XP system even uses a similar ‘fan’-based system to unlock new races and disciplines – The Crew 2 lacks the weighty feel of its vast garage of motors. There simply isn’t enough distinction between real-life car brands to make the simple pleasure of steering a car around a track feel that much different from last year’s Need for Speed Payback.
The ‘loot’ system from The Crew, which enables you to add new car parts to your vehicle, also returns, but with the road trip-style activities mentioned earlier no longer in the game, you’ll have to earn them from completing races and activities. They’re once again based on rarity, which gives each of your cars a gradually increasing Performance rating.
It's an arbitrary number, but it provides a simple way to determine if your vehicle is souped-up enough to enter a given race. You’ll also need to jump into the game’s menus in order to fit parts, making the simple pleasure of upgrading your car while on the move a thing of the past.
Then there’s the fact that the game – much like its predecessor – rarely takes advantage of the ‘crew’ setup that’s written right there on the box art. There’s multiplayer support, with the option to link up with other players, but you’ll rarely run into other human-controlled players while you’ll almost pass an AI-controlled crew during a session. With PvP not set to arrive until December 2018, The Crew 2 ends up becoming a racer that's better suited to solo play than co-op.
Verdict: Play it
While very few of The Crew 2's systems or aesthetics are original – its social media-driven popularity conceits are pulled straight from Forza Horizon, its colorful motifs are pure Dirt 2, and the open map of instantly accessible activities is Steep to a tee – that doesn’t mean you won’t have plenty of fun flying its planes, riding its boats and drifting its cars. But with so many disciplines, and very few areas that stand out among them, it’s an arcade racer you’ll finish and soon forget.