The open-world driving game is a genre that exists because it can: it came about purely because advances in games design technology made it much easier for developers to create huge open worlds. But as with all technology-inspired games genres, it has a potential pitfall: open-world driving games can lack a discernible identity. That was certainly the case with 2014’s The Crew,, which was saddled with a clichéd bad-boy-turned good storyline and a fiddly interface, and turned out to be distinctly average.
Bravely, Ubisoft persisted with the franchise, and The Crew 2 suggests it was right to do so. This time around, it not only has plenty of personality but even boasts a unique selling point, going beyond cars to bring boats and planes into the mix. The first game’s faults have been addressed pretty uncompromisingly, too, with The Crew 2 doing away with storyline altogether, and boasting a neat, tidy and intuitive interface.
The game does have a general premise, however. It’s all about turning the whole of the USA into a giant automotive playground, in which you seek fame and fortune via your vehicular exploits. At the start, you’re introduced to the four families who, according to the game’s alternate reality, are in charge of organising the US’s grassroots motor-based events, split into Pro Racing, Off-road, Freestyle and Street Racing.
Structurally, it’s simple enough: you must amass social media followers (and earn in-game cash} by winning events in order to increase your amount of fame and level up. There are five status levels – Rookie, Popular, Famous, Star and Icon – and whenever you hit a new one, loads of new events open up. Plus, in the first three levels, new event types become available. So there’s a bit of a mushroom effect: the deeper into the game you get, the more there is to do. Which contrasts with Steep, Ubisoft’s similarly playground-style winter sports game, in which it wasn’t long before you ran out of events to compete in. Lesson clearly learned by the French publisher.
The events are gloriously diverse, and display a determination to avoid the obvious and the humdrum. Sure, there are checkpointed street races, often around city circuits studded with jumps and the like, as well as checkpoint-to-checkpoint rally-raids and powerboat races, both in lakes and at sea (where you have to pay close attention to the waves and the wakes of your rivals). Motocross races are pretty conventional, but they do take place on some great courses, and the motorbikes feel spot-on, allowing you to lean forward or back when approaching jumps and landing, and to set up your orientation in mid-air.
Events are gloriously diverse, avoiding the obvious and the humdrum.
Far more off-beat are the likes of aerobatics events, timed monster truck runs around vast playgrounds studded with loop-the-loops and points-awarding discs to hit, jet-boat races, drift events, drag races (again with a good control system) and air races. There are even touring car races around tracks (but still with checkpoints, which initially feels a bit weird) and insanely long “hypercar” races, which can take upwards of half an hour to complete. There are one-off specials, such as a long race into the countryside with everyone on Harley-Davidsons, which felt like a homage to Road Rash, and a street race sponsored by the pizza chain Papa John's.
When you’re generally cruising around, a click of the right-stick instantly lets you swap between your favourite car, boat or plane, which is a pretty fun feature. You can lose hours of your life randomly speeding around The Crew 2’s game-world, which is huge and spectacular, full of sights like Mount Rushmore and the Hollywood sign. There’s a photography-capture engine – and you often find assignments to take specific photos, earning extra followers and cash – plus the last ten minutes of your play is automatically recorded, so you can edit little videos of your exploits.
There are vast amounts of vehicles to buy in the game, most of which are pretty exotic. When you hit the Star fame level, for example, you open up Alpha Grand Prix events, which are basically track races in Formula One cars, and you are encouraged to buy (surprisingly cheaply) a Red Bull F1 car.
Which is pretty ambitious, given that The Crew 2 takes an arcade-style approach to its car-handling – the planes and boats, too, are much easier to pilot than they would be in real life. The drift versions of cars are preposterously tail-happy, but the street-racing cars and touring cars handle impressively – as long as you don’t expect too much realism, you should be happy with how the vehicles feel. As you level up, you start to find races which test your skills much more, and to notice subtleties such as the effect of wind on the planes you fly. Overall, though, The Crew 2’s vehicles err on the forgiving side of things.
Its predecessor may have been depressingly lacklustre, but The Crew 2 most assuredly isn’t. It’s super-slick, looks fabulous, and manages to add some exciting new spins to a well-worn genre. But above all, it’s geared up to giving you the tools to have loads of fun in a stunning sandbox – the game’s rendition of the whole of the US is a bit squashed-together (it doesn’t, for example, have many small towns or villages), but it’s still much more vast than any map ever seen in a driving game.
If you like sandbox-style driving games, you’ll love The Crew 2 – vibe-wise, it isn’t dissimilar to the Forza Horizon games, but gameplay-wise, it adds several extra dimensions. Indeed, it sets new standards for sandbox-style arcade-racers.