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The Crew 2 is a ton of fun once you pretend it’s IRL Mario Kart

The Crew 2 seems to improve on its predecessor in every way, while borrowing from games like Diddy Kong Racing

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

The Crew 2s closed beta is available this weekend and with it, gobs of videos and streams. Having played a few hours (and watched a couple more), I recommend you find a way to try the game for yourself, rather than make any purchasing decisions off gameplay footage alone. That’s because the game, an improvement on its predecessor in nearly every way, looks different than it feels. And it feels very good.

It looks like a glossy, arcade-sim racing hybrid, similar to Microsoft’s Forza Horizon series. The reflection on the cars, the way city lights flicker in the distance like lightning bugs, the churn of water beneath a boat’s prop: The artists display an admirable, if not ill-advised obsession with detail. This is on trend with the portfolio of Ubisoft, a publisher that has become exceptionally talented at creating massive (genuinely massive, not marketing-speak massive) open worlds that paradoxically retain visual realism alongside scope. Assassin’s Creed Origins, Steep, Far Cry 5; No matter the franchise, the genre or the tone, the machine — and it is a machine — produces this same sort of exterior. It’s beautiful, no doubt, but in some cases not in line with what’s happening under the hood.

The Crew 2 falls in the latter camp. The spectacular, realistic visuals conceal, if not contradict, a game that feels more like a kart racer, as if Ubisoft and developer Ivory Tower funneled tons of money and time into an hyperreal, open-world spiritual sequel to Diddy Kong Racing. The pairing makes for a disorienting experience, as large trucks lack a certain weight as they zip over a cliff, and aircraft spin and climb with cartoonish ease. At first, it feels downright wrong. Awkward. Bad.

Recalibrate your expectations, though, and The Crew 2 is a pleasure, ripping entire appendages from other arcade games, kart racers and Ubisoft’s own open world franchises, then grafting them into a lovable Frankenstein’s monster of a video game. It shouldn’t work, and yet it does — lit by some intangible spark of life.

The way cars ricochet off walls and planes bounce off the ground rubs violently against the visual realism, but the forgiving physics make for fun and often silly races. It’s a fools’ errand for a racing game developer to compete with Forza and Gran Turismo, and shrewdly, The Crew 2’s creators have opted not to — at least not directly. How wonderful diving into a racing game without all the typical baggage.

Within the first hour, I felt like an expert at the various crafts The Crew 2 generously invited me to pilot, drifting through tight Manhattan alleys, ramping boats over bridges in Miami and flying single-engine planes upside down a few feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon. I rarely crashed so much as I bumped off, flipped over and blasted through whatever got in my way.

Hours into the game, The Crew 2 feels incredibly forgiving, but purposefully so. Above everything else, it’s fast. This is a racing game, after all, and the best bit it borrows from kart racers is the speed with which you zip from one race to the next. You could repeat each track, memorizing each corner. But sometimes, it’s better to boost through the world, leaving everything in the rearview mirror.

Perhaps The Crew 2’s creators are more aware of their weird tendency to have it both ways, to make a game that both looks real ands feel unreal. After all, the game’s map of the United States looks like what would happen to this nation if you left it too long in the microwave — the edges curling in, its center bubbling, some parts evaporating away entirely. And in the opening race, as you shuttle from car to boat to plane and back to card, the game does its best Inception impression, New York City rolling up like a city-sized cannolo.

I’m curious how The Crew 2 will hold up in its final version, set for release on June 29; how this game will thread together its two seemingly opposing goals. It’s a different mindset than I took into the beta. The game’s trailers and footage hadn’t left a mark. That’s fine: Some games, you just have to play.