Ideas can be peculiar things. At times they can feel so tangible and the quality of an idea, the execution, the realisation of it, can become almost obsolete next to the idea itself. "Obsolete" might be a bit of a strong word, but be that as it may there are clear cases where the quality of an idea is able to carry a less-than-ideal execution of it, at least part of the way. We give praise to film directors for their level of ambition and creative thinking, even when the most basic parts of their films can't live up to it, and we're often ready to forgive an artist for releasing several dull tracks, as long as they're part of a conceptually strong record.
This is exactly how we felt about the original The Crew when we reviewed it back in 2014. There was a level of ambition here that spoke to us; the concept of transforming the traditional arcade racing game into something akin to an MMORPG, to adapt roleplaying mechanics and structures to create engagement over a longer period of time, to extend the interest beyond the finishing line and moving it to the car itself. That the game ultimately did fumble in a few key areas is then another thing entirely, something we were ready to forgive. The point is, The Crew did exactly what the opening chapter in a brand new series should - it presented an array of strong ideas, a concrete and rock-solid identity, and therefore we, and ultimately consumers, were ready to look the other way when the execution stumbled.
But if you follow this train of thought through to its eventual conclusion, The Crew 2 should be a stroke of genius, an opportunity for developer Ivory Tower to refine their ideas and concepts and present a more robust version of its dream of a gigantic, open, adrenaline-pumping racing sandbox. From offset it would appear that Ivory Tower has taken the criticism of the original to heart, beginning the much-needed process of streamlining the concept. Considerably more resources have been put into making the game look jaw-dropping, menus have been brought together to create a tighter UI, and the cliché-ridden story of the first has been removed in favour of something more general.
But let's not start celebrating until we've crossed the finish line, because The Crew 2 is not a straight podium finish, especially once you start peeling off the outer layer of paint. So let's start by getting the mundane, the ordinary out of the way.
The Crew 2 is once again set in a big and open US of A where you can cross the continent from Los Angeles to New York and back again without seeing a single loading screen. While you do this, you dynamically stumble upon events that give you the opportunity to earn currency and additional car parts, these ranging from regular races to lesser challenges of different kinds and live events tasking you with taking photographs or locate hidden boxes. Each vehicle is of a special class and designed for a particular discipline, so swapping lets you earn upgrades of a particular nature, giving you more to strive towards. So you complete events, find parts that have a specific value, upgrade vehicles to unlock more events, and on it goes. It's the loot-based loop that you can't get enough of.
Exactly like the original The Crew, it's a very carefully assembled construction, where elements have been snagged from other genres to help create a relatively unique identity. Sure, in the sense that you slide around corners in a big open world and get gradually better cars by doing so is something we're much accustomed to, for example through the Forza Horizon series, but Ivory Tower exploits these borrowed RPG mechanics to great effect and the result is that The Crew 2 feels... well, different.
The streamlined setup doesn't mean that The Crew 2 isn't also presenting a whole host of brand new ideas. There aren't just different vehicle classes this time around, but also brand new means of transportation. First and foremost motorcycles return after being introduced in the Wild Run expansion, but these get company from both boats and planes in an attempt to create variation, which sounds much like the kind of unchecked ambition that dominated the first game.
Luckily these new rides don't mean that any of the present vehicle classes have been cut, as you still have a class dedicated to Street Racing, one for Drift, one for Drag Racing, a Hyper Car, and even a Touring Car. You can add more off-road friendly vehicles ready for disciplines such as RallyCross and Rally Raid too, and then, of course, you have motorcycles, so there's still tons of content, and more importantly tons of variety.
You'll have to take care of each of these vehicles to succeed, and this loop is as addictive as ever. Actually, despite being the odd ones out, planes and boats exist as a pretty natural extension of the categories in the game. The classifications mentioned above all exist within a few categories, those being Street, Offroad Trial, Freestyle Trial, and Pro Racing, and you're perfectly able to dodge any of these categories for the vast majority of the time, opting for more or less street racing with only a hint of freestyling, or if stunts are more your thing you can make the entire experience revolve around these events. The point is to amass new parts and gain followers - the game doesn't really care how you get there, meaning there's a level of player-choice and depth here that makes for quite the open experience.
But should you happen to be the type of player who samples everything The Crew 2 has to offer, you'll likely run into a bit of a problem. You see, there's a reason that we don't get highly proliferated, big-budget air racing games every other year, and that's because when you have the entirety of the open skies to yourself, with only a few opponents serving as obstacles, it kind of takes the wind out of the racing experience. Sure, you can throw in the odd checkpoint in between buildings every now and again, but the overall experience is still pretty dull. Sadly, this lack of finesse in terms of the placement of obstacles is almost immediately apparent, as is the lack of inherent strategic depth and sense of speed. It's neither challenging nor entertaining.
The same can almost be said when you take to the water, as despite some interesting elements like challenging bayous in Louisiana or Mississippi that have you zipping in and out of swamps, overall both flying and boating lack the excitement and challenge of having all four (or two) wheels on the ground. Having the extra manoeuvrability when you're freely navigating the world is fantastic, and you can swap from car to plane in the blink of an eye, but when it comes to the separate races, the contrast between power boating and street racing is almost too great for the experience to remain coherent.
Luckily the array of events available to you at any given moment is so large that you may want to cut out regular air races and powerboat events altogether, because the introduction of these vehicle types makes much more sense when used in the Freestyle Trial category, where acrobatics and stunts matter more than getting over the finish line first. Is it a wholly integrated implementation that feels dynamic and natural? Not really. While it can feel grand to swap between boats, planes, and cars on the fly as you explore or race from A to B, The Crew 2 simply works best while you're burning rubber.
When you're doing just that you'll experience an arcade racer which, mechanically at least, is innocently simple, but still manages to deliver the basic and necessary key components, like a sense of speed and relative control over how you drift and brake. The roster of available vehicles is varied, if not a bit limited; what with the classes being so divided it's a bit disappointing to find only 10 or so cars ready to purchase in one particular category.
The events themselves create excitement, even if they're also quite simple. The challenges ask you to either drive away from a constantly expanding red circle or zig-zag your way through traffic, but there are also traditional checkpoint races or raids where you choose your own route. We've played The Crew 2 for many, many hours, and we never found ourselves wanting for variety. On the contrary, it's an open world arcade racer that offers plenty of things to do. However, it should be said that during regular races we encountered some pretty shocking rubber banding, causing something like nitrous to be close to ineffective as opponents simply sped up with us.
It's a mixed bag then, and exactly like the first game, we can gather all the points above into two separate groups; the quality of the ideas on display against the quality of their execution. The Crew 2 does deliver a deep, more advanced, and robust version of many of its original concepts, but at the same time, a whole host of new ones are introduced that have been implemented half-heartedly. The new means of transport make sense when exploring the world, and new additions like aerial acrobatics provide a shot of different adrenalin, but none of it feels like it particularly belongs.
The same can be said for the narrative experience that follows. We'd concede that no one will start missing Alex Taylor and his clichéd story any time soon, but instead, Ubisoft has decided that now you're just "Person X", someone who wants to become famous by garnering followers because that's now the meaning of life as we all know. Not only that, but the little acting included is of shockingly low quality, with bad lip-syncing rearing its ugly head. We know that a narrative foundation isn't particularly important in racing games, but it has to be better than this.
Still, the core loop is incredibly satisfying as you gather new parts across a continent filled with a ton of stuff, which in a jiffy can be experienced naturally with friends. The car physics are simple but forgiving, the world is relatively beautiful to look at - if not a tad empty as expected - and the events themselves are plentiful and exciting. It's the very definition of a mixed bag, but in all fairness, the greatest disappointment about The Crew 2 is not the game itself, because that's just fine; it's that Ivory Tower hasn't advanced beyond this.