First up, an apology from the editorial team, both to you lot and to Ubisoft. Why is our review of The Crew 2 so late? It all comes down to a mix-up with the post. No, seriously.
We filled out a request form for The Crew 2 with Ubisoft’s PR folk in the UK, and Google Chrome autocomplete put in our accountant’s address, not the office. We didn’t spot the error, hit submit, and wondered where our review copy of the game was.
A couple of weeks later, our accountants casually mention to us they received a parcel addressed to Thumbsticks that they weren’t expecting, so they returned it to sender. We send an apology to Ubisoft’s PR department, and they – very kindly, we must add – said they’d have a look through the mail room and see if it had come back in. We expected to never see it again. Then another week or so passes and a jiffy bag arrives, containing a review copy of The Crew 2.
A happy ending, and fittingly, our copy of the game went on a bit of a planes, trains and automobiles adventure around the UK. Now, to the review proper.
One of the recurring themes of Charlie Brooker’s extended dystopian anthology series, Black Mirror, is what happens if familiar technology spirals out of control. Like, say, social media in season three episode, Nosedive. Bryce Dallas Howard’s character is caught in a perpetual battle to be popular, to be seen to have worth. To be seen at all.
The Crew 2 is a cautionary tale of social media run amok, a pocket Black Mirror episode dressed up as a video game. Actually, it isn’t – I’m being facetious – but the nagging sense that you must be popular and be liked to have any worth is scratched into its very core.
The quest for followers in The Crew 2 is, in its most basic terms, a stand-in for an experience point system, a diegetic retooling of one of the most basic gaming systems of progress. Win races? Get followers. Complete risky stunts? Get followers. Keep the action needle in the red? Get followers. Reach new levels of followers? Get access to new events and vehicles. The drive for acceptance and approval – yes, even faux social media approval in The Crew 2 – captures the want, the need, the longing, the needle in the arm of a life lived on social media.
In a world where the word “addiction” is thrown around all too easily in relation to video games – addiction is a serious issue over and above “just liking something a lot” and use of the word is actually frowned upon in our style guide – it is not used lightly in this review. The Crew 2 is designed to capture that rush, not through its in-game antics, but through the way it mimics the machinations of real life social media.
Not only does The Crew 2 labour under the assumption that we all dream of being popular on social media, it also can’t conceive of a world where that happens through any other means than a YouTube-alike video service. The presentation is painfully “how do you do, fellow kids?” – yes, I am aware of the irony of using a popular meme to decry the rampant race for online popularity – and I honestly hate it. It’s probably my age.
However, if you can get past the nasty addiction connotations and the horrific presentation – and thankfully, you can skip all that vapid vlogger exposition – at its heart, The Crew 2 is an entertaining arcade racer. Emphasis on the word “arcade” in that sentence.
It’s an interesting mix. There is no universe, for example, where both braking and accelerating around a sharp bend is the fastest way to corner. Racing line be damned, you need to fling that thing into the turns like it’s Mario Kart. You also can’t magically make a powerboat faster by just trimming – tipping the nose up – all time time. You do that while cornering and you will roll at speed and die.
It’s odd. The very fact they’ve included trimming at all is a vague nod in realism’s general direction, and it’s similar with the handling of the stunt planes.
If for example you fly on a knife-edge, with the wings vertical, you will find your altitude drops slightly. The same goes with barrel rolls and inverted flight, where the shape of the wing actually pushes the plane down towards the ground with reverse lift. That’s actually all quite realistic and is well-represented in The Crew 2’s aerobatic handling. But if you point your plane vertically up, not only will it never stall – you hit the limits of the skybox and start to magically level out first – if you mimic a stall by simply cutting the power, your plane doesn’t behave at all how if should.
If you stall a plane, with the nose pointing vertically up, the plane will begin to slide downwards. Ever been to an airshow? You’ve probably seen this manoeuvre. It’s called a tailslide. The controls effectively reverse and, if you make to steer left, you’ll go the opposite way, until after a few seconds the plane will pirouette over its axis and you’ll be pointing down again. Controls return to normal. You start the engine. You fly away.
In The Crew 2, the plane only steers while you’re pointing forwards and applying power. It feels as though they’ve slapped an aeroplane skin on their car and changed the gravity settings in its variables. That being said, this is also the game where – with the mere click of a thumbstick – you can transform your plane into a boat, plunge from the sky and continue sailing, then transform again into a car when you hit the beach and keep driving. Perhaps realism wasn’t the target.
Quite what the target is, however, is unclear.
The Crew 2 features online mingleplayer which is, thankfully, not at all intrusive. You can bumble around the contiguous United States completely ignoring all the other players, and not be any worse for the experience. If you so choose, you can engage in challenges and contents littered all across the map, either from the game itself, friends, or complete strangers. It’s a balance that Ubisoft have nailed before with Steep, but it feels better, more natural in that mountain setting.
It also features arcade handling and crazy escapades, but these never quite capture the antics people get up to in Grand Theft Auto Online. Nor is the game so basic that you’ll be able to treat it like a novelty racer. The handling might be oversimplified and arcadey, but you’ll still need to have your wits about you and practice to be legitimately good in its many disciplines.
Is it an open world adventure, then? Not quite. While you can drive across its condensed map of the US, it never feels quite as well-realised as the open worlds in the Forza Horizon series. While we often set off with the best of intentions to drive the Pacific Highway, for example, having the option to magically transform into a plane and fly there always gets in the way of that road trip atmosphere. It’s just not as enjoyable as it could be on long journeys, and is too easy to skip them, for better or worse.
But with all that said, The Crew 2 is still an awful lot of fun to just muck about in, which is probably what Ubisoft Ivory Tower had in mind.