Ubisoft’s 2014 open-world racer The Crew made an ambitious promise. Drive any car you want anywhere you want in a condensed, but contiguous continental United States. It did not quite keep up to its end of the bargain, unfortunately. Critics’ and players’ feelings were mixed, which normally isn’t the kind of reception that spawns a bombastic sequel.
Yet the game will have another chance to win everyone back. With The Crew 2, developer Ivory Tower hopes to fully manifest that core fantasy of a nation-spanning automotive sandbox. Deep into the PS4/Xbox One generation of hardware, the team is also making the game bigger and better with the addition of planes and boats, and a new approach to the story which better fits the playground world the developer has created.
After spending several hours cruising around The Crew 2‘s US by land, air, and sea, it’s certainly bigger, and better aligned with the promise of the first game — though with such a broad scope, we’re not convinced it fills a niche not better addressed by more focused driving games.
I’ve gone to look for America
Ubisoft-owned studio Ivory Tower formed in 2007 to develop The Crew, and the sequel is its only other project on the books. That singular focus on executing a vision of open road freedom informs everything the studio does, starting with an iterative approach to the sequel.
“The team was really proud of having created that huge open world that you can wander around in any way that you want,” Narrative Director Julien Charpentier told Digital Trends, “but we also take feedback to heart… Those were the two things that we started with: That the game will be beautiful and that the physics will be better, and I think we achieved that in both ways.”
The game does look lovely this time around, as improved weather and lighting effects make exploration a treat. Whether it’s a sunny cruise through the bayou or an intense street race lit in neon lights, The Crew 2 paints a lovely canvas.
The activities available were as varied as the landscape. The world of The Crew 2 is split into four factions, each of which focuses on a different form of competition — Street Racing, Freestyle, Off-road, and Pro Racing. Once you have unlocked each faction with an initial mission that teaches you the basic playstyle, the map fills up with their different challenges for you to find organically, or select directly from menus.
Whether it was a sunny cruise through the bayou or an intense street race by neon city lights, The Crew 2 looked fantastic.
It also adds a photo mode and associated challenges for players that want to focus purely on exploration. Clues will prompt players to find and capture sights hidden throughout the map. The ability to pause, perfectly frame, and capture stills is becoming an increasingly common feature of AAA games, but this is the first game we’ve played that makes photo mode more than a neat gimmick.
Breadth is the game’s greatest strength. The Crew 2 makes it easy to switch between intense races and leisurely exploration by land, sea, or air (and jumping fluidly between). This same ease of access applies to its co-op features. Up to four players can team up in a single crew, simultaneously exploring the same map. When anyone in the crew starts up an event, each of the other players is given the opportunity to join or pass. It strikes a great balance of being both highly structured, and very low key, which is an under-appreciated part of a multiplayer space that’s frequently focused on competition.
The physics, while improved, still leave something to be desired. Driving was smooth and responsive when things were going well, but collisions felt wooden. Certain environmental objects like lamposts break on contact to make impacts feel more flavorful, but not everything that you would expect to buckle does, and the vehicles themselves behave like they’re made of rubber.
This isn’t a Burnout game, and more robust crash physics would be too large an ask given the game’s basic scope, but it’s immersion-breaking to plunk off of trees so stiffly. Give many players a sandbox full of cars, planes, and boats, and their impulse will be to see how much havoc they can cause. This isn’t a game for those players.
Story of a Nation
According to Charpentier, the four factions serve both the game and the story. The Crew offered an open virtual space, but restricted players to a tight, linear experience when they chose to play the game’s campaign. The sequel’s journey adds more challenges as you grow your Follower count, which works like experience in other games. The more interesting narrative that emerges isn’t about you so much as it is about the world you inhabit, “The Motor Nation” (The Crew 2‘s in-game name for its racing-focused United States). Every individual mission contains a bit of narrative about the world, and certain themes emerge over time as you complete more.
The story fits the game perfectly, and we like how it grounds the game in a real-world community.
For instance, there’s tension in the street racing community because your mentor wants the sport to go legit, while your rival gets off on the illicit rush of its illegality. During their research phase, traveling all around the country to interview real life drivers, Charpentier spoke to the founder of a company trying to make street racing legal, who told Charpentier that he likes the racing part of street racing above all else. The only reason he does it illegally on the street is that it he can’t afford the exorbitant, up-front costs to race professionally.
Each of the four factions have a story revolving around a mentor and rival figure. It’s a far better fit for the game than a more conventional, linear narrative, and grounds the game in real communities.
Although their research didn’t turn up any people that truly practice all of these different driving, boating, and flying disciplines, they (and we) were pleasantly surprised to learn that they are not as siloed as you might think. “Every single champion we met was doing something else,” Charpentier said. “None of them were doing one thing. We met, for instance, an aerobatic champion. She’s 60-ish–she is impressive, this little lady, and in a plane she’s a devil. She was doing street racing on the side. We met a guy who really loves street racing, and he told us that in his spare time he likes to do boating and power boats. So yeah, actually all of them were into at least two things.”
The Crew 2 feels like an admirable expansion of the first game’s promise. The Crew 2 is slated to arrive on June 29, 2018 for Xbox One, PS4 and Windows PC.