I can’t believe quite how different The Crew 2 feels compared to its predecessor, 2014's The Crew. This is the thought that crosses my mind while serenely gliding across the Las Vegas Strip in a Zivko stunt plane, and it’s the thought that stays with me as I casually turn into a speedboat mid-air, hurtling towards the ground before crash landing into the City of Lights’ artificial Venetian Canal and jetting off towards the nearest available time trial.
If Ubisoft’s original 2014 open world racer was an ambitious, but predictable, road trip across a condensed recreation of the United States, its sequel wants to be the hard course correction that puts the series firmly in the right direction. That forgettable and unnecessary campaign from the first game? Gone, in favour of a stratified narrative backdrop that contextualises events, but rightly takes a backseat role to the racing. Those outdated, murky visuals? Significantly upgraded for a sleeker and shinier living portrait of the USA. The prosaic application of Ubisoft’s trademark open world template? Not a single radio tower in sight, thank you very much.
Having spent a fair few hours freely exploring the game’s open world before it launches in June later this year, it feels to me as though The Crew 2 isn’t so much a direct follow-up as it is a second, more informed attempt at achieving Ubisoft’s original vision for a truly freeform racing game. It’s still early days, but what I’ve seen so far suggests this soft reboot is exactly what the series needed.
Fast Fav might sound like something off the McDonald’s Saver Menu, but it’s actually Ubisoft’s nickname for The Crew 2’s new game-defining mechanic. Similar to how players could seamlessly switch between skis, wingsuits, and snowboards in that other Ubisoft sports action game, Steep, The Crew 2 allows you to change between land, sea, and air vehicles on the fly, simply by holding a single button and selecting your transport of choice.
Yes, there are boats and planes now (not to mention helicopters and hovercrafts), and swapping between them in-game is quick and hassle-free, comparable to the ease of changing weapons in a first-person shooter. It’s a bit like Transformers, just without any of the actual transforming, as vehicles will instantly switch to your desired new mode of transport almost as soon you release the Fast Fav button, with no animation frills attached.
At first, that arcade-like simplicity might feel jarring, but you can understand why Ubisoft went with the decision. The developer is doing away with any notions of realism or needless red tape to instead focus on letting the player have as much fun as possible with the tools at their disposal. As anyone who played through the miserably grounded and gritty campaign of The Crew will tell you, this pivot to unbridled revelry is absolutely a step in the right direction for the IP, and leads to all sorts of interesting scenarios.
You could be driving along an open highway up the Californian coast, only to be unexpectedly met with a sharp turn that veers off from a steep cliffside drop straight into Big Sur. You’re going too fast to avoid the hazard, but not to worry, just transform into a boat during the fall and it’s quite literally smooth sailing from there.
A similar scenario might occur when you’ve attempted a risky stunt jump, and you’re pretty certain your car isn’t going to survive the landing; simply switch over to plane mode in Fast Fav and you’re off, confidently flying away from any potential calamity. Mistakes become opportunities to adapt in The Crew 2, and it’s in playing around with the Fast Fav where the already open gameplay becomes truly liberated, as player momentum is rarely upset by any environmental obstacles now that you’re welcome to explore America’s sea and airspace as freely as its landmass.
Fast and furious
Stephane Beley, Creative Director on The Crew 2, explains how Fast Fav was always designed as a way to to encourage player experimentation, with very few limitations holding them back: “I really look forward to seeing what players will do with it, and how they can create and share these moments with the community. It always amazes me when they use your game and do things you hadn’t even imagined when working on it!”
The Crew 2’s game engine has also received a much needed rework, making for a cleaner, brighter, and more modern looking racer. The menus are sharp, slick, and colourful, and the in-game map is nowhere near as cluttered as it used to be. Ubisoft has rebuilt the entirety of the USA once again for the sequel (though it’s still - understandably - a simplified abstraction of the real thing), and the game is all the better for it.
Textures and non-vehicle assets won’t look mighty impressive when viewed up close or in stasis, but environmental vistas consistently wow on a macro level, especially when the dynamic weather system gets to work, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more diverse selection of scenic views in a game with this much space and freedom.
Outside of road tripping across as many states as I could manage in three hours of playtime, I was also able test out some of The Crew 2’s ‘story’ missions and primary activities. I’m hesitant to use the term story, because it’s very clear that Ubisoft wants to steer clear of another needless, cookie cutter revenge drama that the first game was dragged down by, prioritising player agency above all else, but there’s definitely a loose narrative backdrop to your actions.
Your main goal as a fully customizable, voiceless protagonist is simple; be the very best racer in the United States. This requires partaking in a broad series of races, time trials, and challenges across the country, learning new disciplines and taking down some of the top dogs in each league. There are cut-scenes, and even a handful of named characters, but it’s all deliberately told with a light touch in order to get you straight to the good stuff; driving, racing, and generally having a good time.
“It’s less dark this time”, says Beley of The Crew 2’s plot, “It’s more joyful and really just about fun. We don’t need a complex story, we just need variety and diversity, and the goal of being the champion is a simple enough framework thats let players create and tell their own stories. It’s not the narrative’s job to do that in a game like this.”
The titular crews are back, too, so you can play with three other friends as part of a team all helping each other progress in the game’s steady supply of new loot (hopefully not built with microtransactions or loot boxes in mind). It’s done totally seamlessly, whereby a player will automatically send an invite to their crewmates whenever they start an activity, and you can almost instantly teleport over to the starting line even if you’re in completely different parts of the country. During one moment, I was slaloming through downtown Chicago, only to accept an invite and find myself soaring across the New Orleans skyline for an aerial competition within seconds.
Every vehicle type I tried out handled well, though it’s the cars which still feel the best to drive in, especially when there are so many to choose from (monster trucks included). There’s a reason you don’t find many boat racing games in existence, though, and I quickly found myself avoiding any sea-based activities even after a few hours, since they began to feel a bit samey no matter what coastline I was racing across. Still, they’re handy for traversing the world, and it’s this aspect of The Crew 2 where the game seems to excel.
But as a sequel, does it have enough distinctiveness to merit a return to Ubisoft’s fledgling franchise? While it’s unclear just how much entertainment can be wrung from its pick-and-mix USP, The Crew 2 definitely appears to have found a more comfortable balance as a racing-sandbox hybrid, and I’ve already had more fun in three hours than any of the time I put into the original game.
Beley sums up his vision for the game as so: “I want every aspect to be on par with the other. It’s not just for the cars or the planes or the boats, The Crew 2 is for everything and for everyone.” It’s a bold milestone, that’s for sure, but for a racer that often echoes Grand Theft Auto 5 as much as Forza Horizon 3 and Burnout Paradise, there’s a good chance this vision could be fully realised come June.