Despite the flashy boats and planes, this sequel to the ambitious open-world racing game is underdeveloped where it counts.
It's launch morning for The Crew 2, and I've logged in to do a final network test. The always-online racing game's predecessor had serious network issues on release, so I want to see if the new game is holding up. It's been stable playing with early access players this week, but would the influx of new people cause problems? So far, all is well (unless you're on Steam.) Players are popping up nearby, rather than halfway across the map as they have done during the sparsely populated early access period. They crawl their Lamborghinis up to my stationary 1993 Porsche and rev in wordless invitation to a drag race. They don't need to ask twice and we roar off up the Pacific coast road out of Malibu.
It's a fun moment, but then we just peel off and go our separate ways, because there is hardly anything for us to do together in this game.
The Crew was a scrappy but ultimately lovable open-world racing game with unrealised massively multiplayer aspirations. It was made by Lyon studio Ivory Tower, itself formed by veterans of Eden Studios, makers of the Test Drive Unlimited games, which were scrappy but ultimately lovable open-world racing games with unrealised massively multiplayer aspirations. Things have changed, a little: The Crew 2 doesn't feel so scrappy. It is almost polished (though my PS4 version crashed three times during review). But those aspirations are still unrealised, and the game is underdeveloped in other areas than its network code and bug fixes. There's a sense that it will be much better in six months to a year's time than it is at launch - just like The Crew was. Plus ça change.
The Crew 2 ignores the 2014 original's hapless street-crime storyline, and instead models itself on the 2015 expansion Wild Run, which had an extreme sports theme and concentrated on adding new vehicle types and esoteric new driving disciplines like monster trucks and drag racing. The Crew 2 is purely about motorsports, divided into street racing, pro racing, freestyle and off-road disciplines, and bravely introduces air and water transport to the mix in the form of speedboats and stunt planes. It's a mixed blessing. The framing, which attempts to set up antagonists for your nameless avatar in each discipline, is less intrusive, but still gauche enough to make you wince. Some of the first game's entertaining story mission design has been lost in a more schematic campaign of templated sporting events.
Much worse, The Crew 2 unforgivably wastes the greatest asset it inherits from the earlier game: a vast and spectacular open world that condenses the whole of the continental United States into a map some 60 miles wide that will take you the best part of an hour to cross. It's a singular achievement in world-building that trades environmental density for a semi-realistic sense of scale and packs in all the sights and transitions you want from a dream American road trip. One memorable race in The Crew 2 takes you out of Las Vegas, through a concrete tangle of freeways, across blinding salt flats and up through scrubland into the fog-shrouded mountains, bursting into clear sun over the peaks of the high Sierra, and then into a vertiginous descent amid the sheer cliffs of Yosemite.
But these point-to-point jaunts are rare - and Ivory Tower have given you few reasons to explore the map independently. Silly as its storyline was, The Crew's campaign took you on a memorable journey from East to West, through clusters of events linked by epic cross-country drives, unfurling its map with slow majesty. Bafflingly, The Crew 2 unlocks fast travel from the start and dots new events around the map at wide intervals.
Normally I would implore you to ignore fast travel, set a waypoint to the next event using the improved (but still erratic) GPS system and do it the old-fashioned way. But the distances are just too great; you will be far into the game before you have unlocked sufficient events to populate the map with enough density for this to be practical or fun. When you do decide to take to the roads, you'll find that there's far less to do out there. The Crew scattered 'skills' - slaloms, jumps, speed traps and so on, which rewarded you with car upgrades - liberally across the map. You could chain these together on long drives to keep you entertained and grind up the performance of your car. In The Crew 2, skills are far scarcer, locked to progression, and reward only currency and 'fans' (The Crew 2's XP-equivalent), with upgrade 'loot' being reserved for race events.
This scattershot geography and lack of flow was a flaw of the Wild Run expansion, too. Indeed, The Crew 2 sometimes feels like an overblown expansion rather than a sequel, offering grandstanding new features but skimping on nuts-and-bolts content and taking players' familiarity with the map for granted. I have often found myself using the events list in the menu to pick a new race and warp to it, only to load the map to see where in America I am, because otherwise I would have no idea. It's such a shame.
This is not to say there's no fun to be had. The Crew 2 is a welcoming arcade racer whose strengths are variety and exuberant spectacle. The handling is simple and consistent, with little variation between individual vehicles, but with each class having been carefully tuned to offer something at once accessible and unique. Street race cars are grippy and robust with wide turning circles to match the high-speed road courses; drift cars are exceptionally pliable. Touring and "alpha GP" (unlicensed formula 1) race cars don't convince quite as well, or perhaps it's the rudimentary and cavernously wide race tracks they take to. Ivory Tower's heart and talents lie quite obviously on the open road, not the circuit.
The air and water options are overall a success, too. The muscular powerboats and nimble, flat-bottomed jetsprint craft introduce 'trimming' - lifting the prow of your boat to increase top speed, and lowering it for tighter turning by leaning back and forward on the stick. Once you're used to it, it's a neat and involving little control tweak. It's a shame the majority of The Crew 2's waters are glassy smooth - you have to head out into the ocean to meet real waves - but I look forward to the addition of hovercrafts in a September update.
The aircraft - small, light, prop-engined aeroplanes - are much harder to get to grips with. Simplifying flight controls for an immediate experience like The Crew was never going to be easy. Ivory Tower has done a decent job, but there's a steep learning curve to threading these craft through the twisting air-race courses as the world tilts and veers around you. It's rewarding when you get used to it though, and there's more handling depth here than in the rest of the game's disciplines. It is not, however, a deep game overall. Most disciplines just get faster as you progress, rather than more challenging, and the rubberbanding AI drivers seem to have invaded from a cartoon karting game.
The vehicle catalogue is small, but interestingly stocked, and in any case the point of The Crew is to settle on your favourite cars and level them up using its RPG-style loot system, rather than rapaciously expand your collection. Performance parts now come with rarity levels and affixes, though the Pavlovian hit I get from picking up blue or purple loot is far more meaningful than the decimal percentage points of nitro boost or loot chance that they actually afford. And there are lots and lots of events. As a solo player, as much as you might mourn any incentive to go out and explore its continental mass, you certainly can't accuse The Crew 2 of being short of stuff to do.
As a multiplayer game, however - and despite Ivory Tower's insistence that multiplayer is at the heart of its vision - The Crew 2 is virtually non-existent. It currently makes no case for requiring an internet connection. (No solo activities require an Xbox Live Gold or a PlayStation Plus subscription, mind.) You will encounter other players on the map, or can invite friends to cruise alongside you, but you can't really interact with them. You can undertake events in "co-op", making the game much easier, since only one player needs to meet the objectives for all to succeed - which might be useful for grinding out parts from the endgame-ready Hard difficulty setting. There are extensive leaderboards. And that is all. According to the roadmap supplied to reviewers, it could be six months or even more until we see a competitive multiplayer mode added in a winter update. Nor is there any hint of how Ivory Tower intends to bring players together on the map organically, as it tried but ultimately failed to do with Wild Run.
To add insult to injury, The Crew's open-world racing rival - Playground Games' magnificent Forza Horizon series - is stealing its MMO-racing shtick. At E3 this month, Playground announced that Forza Horizon 4 would feature a shared world populated by other players, and went further by demonstrating live events, in the style of Destiny or Guild Wars 2, that will draw players together on the map to join shared activities. This, presumably, is in addition to Horizon's already established and wildly enjoyable competitive multiplayer mode - and it's exactly the kind of design that has seemed beyond the reach of the developers at Ivory Tower and Eden before for well over a decade now.
As someone who initially dismissed The Crew but eventually fell in love with it, I dearly wished to see its promise fulfilled and its incredible map brought back to life. The Crew 2 can't manage either feat. It is a sound enough arcade racer as it is, and there's every chance that it will eventually flower into a great game. But it is a much smaller, less ambitious and less exciting game than it pretends to be, or than it could have been.