The opening race of The Crew 2 isn’t short of visual spectacle. You might start off in a fast car, racing through the city, but just as one race seems to be coming to a close, the world wraps around you like that bit in Inception and you suddenly find yourself in a speed boat, racing across the water, and then it pulls the trick a second time, dropping you into a plane and weaving between checkpoints in the sky.
It’s a show-stopping intro, and it’s not much of a surprise that the Inception wrap is a trick that the game doesn’t lean on too regularly, but it effortlessly gets across The Crew 2’s big new hook: you can change vehicles almost whenever and wherever you want. OK, not in the middle of a race at your own volition, but when you’re simply exploring or hooning around with some friends, there’s nothing stopping you from driving at the water and turning into a boat or, a little more excessively, transforming from a plane into a car while you’re a good few hundred feet up in the air.
It’s one hell of a trick and it gives the game a freewheeling spirit that was missing from the overly dour original. Gone are the FBI handlers, the story of revenge, the gangs, and in their place are bright and breezy TV visuals of the Live Xtrem Series intro and different families of racing – street racing, off road racing, pro racing and freestyle – each with a straightforward story of different types of racing meeting the modern world. If you do these four introductory races back to back, it really hits home that they share the same story of you, a fresh new racer, being mentored by someone who’s eager to break the status quo of how that style of racing is perceived. It could be legitimising street racing, for example, and maybe helping you learn a little something about its origins in the process.
It’s as good an excuse as any to take some sweet rides and go racing. Everything you do is in a quest to gain more followers, clear groups of events and unlock the next set of events and vehicles to buy. Of course, with freedom the name of the game (OK, the unspoken subtitle of the game), you don’t have to go drift racing if you don’t want to, you don’t have to step into a boat after the intro level, and you can simply hone you skills in street racing or put all your hard earned cash into upgrading your favourite drifting car.
Improving your vehicles hinges around earning loot from races, which drop as brightly coloured glowing boxes for you to drive into and pick up. It’s randomised to a certain extent, and there’s the typical tiers of rarity, with the rarer parts coming with additional boosts to performance. As in the first game, you can use microtransactions to buy cars, but they don’t tap into any loot box system and, most importantly, your progression through to becoming the Motor Nation champion is tied to the followers you earn from pulling stunts, winning races and finding things in the open world. Some vehicles can also only be unlocked by beating parts of the game. Want that Ferrari LaFerrari? You’ll have to earn it.
Perhaps the biggest problem for developers Ivory Tower is making all of these different styles of racing gel well together – they’re trying not to be a jack of all trades, but a master of all. The car handling was one of my main bugbears with the first game, and it’s great that, while it’s still got a real heft to the souped up street cars there’s no lag in the controls, letting it feel like relatively light arcade fun. There’s a deftness of control to the planes and boats as well, and while the initial racing in a speed boat isn’t terribly exciting, the wild, sharp turns that you can pull in a jetstream boat are simply insane, not to mention being able to skip across the ground and take shortcuts. There are some classes that don’t work quite as well though, and dirt bikes are much too twitchy and difficult to handle, even if that’s something you’ll can find in games like MXGP as well – looking back, this was a complaint I also had from the Gamescom demo, as well.
While it still takes place in a rendition of America, and took the map from the first game as its basis, a lot has changed. Ivory Tower have coloured in all those off road areas on the map that were previously inaccessible, allowing them to expand on the off road racing that appeared in the Wild Run DLC, but they’ve also fiddled with the cities and other parts of the world as well. You shouldn’t be surprised to see big ramps taking you up to race from rooftop to rooftop or have you jump across a river instead of taking the much more sensible (but boring) bridge.
But really Ivory Tower want to immerse you in this world, even if you can fast travel to the next race. Just like the original, you can hop into a vehicle and just go and explore, perhaps driving from coast to coast like it’s 2014 all over again. Along the way there’s other little incidental objectives and things to do. You might stumble upon an impromptu time trial, see how far you can slalom in your speed boat through San Francisco bay, or heed the pop ups that tell you there’s a nearby photo op, nudging you to take a snap of the Golden Gate Bridge or a condor flying through the sky. The photo mode is about as fully featured as they come, by the way, letting you tinker with time of day and weather conditions in addition to camera settings.
And you can tackle the entire game with your friends. Races can be tackled in co-op – it doesn’t make too much sense since it gives you several collective chances to beat the AI, but that’s fine by me. Don’t worry if someone’s behind with their vehicle collection, as you’ll always get a loan vehicle to use, but will sacrifice some of the rewards after the race.
There’s so much on offer in The Crew 2 that I barely scratched the surface despite playing for a few hours. You can do so many different things here, from drifting cars to flying sideways between skyscrapers, from street racing to boat racing. With 2018 seemingly the year of the arcade racer, The Crew 2 is a free wheeling spirit that lets you just go and play however you see fit.