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A car competes in the Papa John’s race in The Crew 2
A sports car careens through the suburbs in a Papa John’s-inspired race in The Crew 2.
Ivory Tower/Ubisoft

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The Crew 2 is an uncanny mess and I’m enjoying it anyway

The Crew 2 could benefit from Ubisoft’s commitment to its games after launch

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 2 is the video game equivalent of cross-eyed puppy waiting in a cardboard box marked “needs good home” abandoned on the side of the road. It’s a bit busted, a little sad and quite confused, and yet, every fiber of me wants to love it.

It’s a bold statement of intent from a newly formed studio composed of some of the industry’s most underappreciated talent; a spiritual successor to a cult classic; and an official sequel to a AAA project that aspired to accomplish too much with too little. It’s an open-world game that spans the United States — from the regal Pacific Northwest to the dank swamps of Florida — and allows you to pilot not just cars, but motorcycles, monster trucks, planes, boats, hovercraft and a variety of other vehicles. The pièce de résistance: You can transform between them in real time.

If you’ve ever wondered what a speedboat looks like falling from the clouds into Nebraska farmland, wonder no longer. Or perhaps you’ve fantasized about flying from Los Angeles to New York City, then skipping the traffic and dropping into Central Park in an indestructible Porsche. No problem: The Crew 2 will let you do that, too. Here is a video game desperate to please, one that would love to let you do anything practically anything you can imagine with any vehicle on the planet — assuming it isn’t vulgar!

You probably know where this is going: In pursuit of doing everything, The Crew 2 struggles to do anything particularly well.

The Crew 2 is a lovable, thirsty mess, and the sooner you accept it for what it is, the sooner you can appreciate all of the idiosyncrasies that make this racing game unique. The map’s scale is astonishing, and finally delivers on the promise made by its spiritual predecessor Driver: San Francisco: basically, “Google Maps, but a video game.” When you pause and hold the left trigger, the camera pulls away from your vehicle to a view of the city block, then the neighborhood, the city, the state and finally the entire United States. But this isn’t a static map. The world continues to move, the waves crashing against the beach, traffic moving through the intersections, people and animals leisurely passing by your parked vehicle. Yes, the original The Crew was similar, but the sprawl of the States is better appreciated when you have the option to see it by swamp boat, motorbike or farm plane — an option that game lacked.

From the map view, you can select another mission elsewhere on the map, and almost seamlessly (on PC), you’re there. It’s an impressive technical feat. But like a good magic trick, it doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.

The Crew 2 spans the entire United States, yes, but it’s a condensed version of the country that curiously prioritizes Miami, Las Vegas and St. Louis above, say, places I’d actually like to visit. (I kid! I love fried ravioli!) Even favorite locales lack internal logic. It is tough to understand why, for example, New Braunfels appears in Texas instead of San Antonio, and why this version of New Braunfels doesn’t feature its iconic water park and lazy rivers filled with drunk 20-somethings in inner tubes.

Ubisoft has pitched The Crew 2 as a tour of the U.S., but this virtual country is more Lynchian facsimile, an uncanny contortion of Americana. When flying high above the map, the natural landmarks are muddy and lack detail, like when your friend Instagrams a blurry photo taken through a dirty airplane window. Up close, the world is unnatural. Drive through a cornfield and the corn bends, then slowly returns to an upright position, like a relentless cowlick. French restaurants advertise Italian dishes. Coffee shops sell pizza. Snow sticks to the rear of vehicles in the same way as mud. Or as PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly so aptly put it: “Looks like a giant baby’s been sick on my Ferrari.”

Kelly also notes that when it snows in The Crew 2, white sludge covers the entire continental U.S. — including Los Angeles and the deserts of the Southwest. I saw this in the beta and assumed it would be changed for launch. I assumed too much! I honestly can’t tell if this is a technical limitation of the game world (perhaps a seamless, perpetual moving map doesn’t allow for transitions?) or a bizarre choice. It’s unclear whether the game wants to be a simulation (loot in the form of vehicle parts tie into a surprisingly deep set of tinkering options), an arcade racer (vehicles bounce like they’re in a cartoony kart racing game from the N64 era) or an extreme sports festival set inside a sci-fi film.

The Crew 2’s intro sequence suggests a campaign full of reality-bending thrill-seeking. A car zips through New York City, then the entire world rolls into itself, Inception-style, as the race transitions to a boat, then to a plane and lastly back to a car that leaps across Manhattan rooftops. But after spending a couple of days with The Crew 2, I haven’t seen anything that fantastical. At its most spectacular, you jump off the Hoover Dam, only to land with a dull thwap on the water below. At its most mundane, you race on a largely flat and straight road in honor of the truly flavorless Papa John’s Pizza.

A Papa John’s partnership is fitting in that like cheap pizza, The Crew 2 wants to appeal to everybody, to let everybody pick their proverbial toppings. And like cheap pizza, it offers fun, empty calories. But the longer you consider it, the more you might think to yourself: “There has to be something better than this.”

And there is. The Crew 2 is bested by the Forza Horizon series. Horizon doesn’t span the entire U.S., and it’s limited to cars and trucks, but limitations can breed creativity and expertise. Forza Horizon 3, the most recent entry in the series, doesn’t allow racers to morph into a crop duster or a speedboat, but its races are more memorable, more thrilling, more authored.

And yet! The side of the road. The cardboard box marked “needs good home.” The cross-eyed puppy. The Crew 2’s weird freedom does make for an expressive play space. As a racer, its leaden physics and funky track design can be frustrating when they’re not downright maddening. But if you think of its vehicles like Hot Wheels toys and its map like the corner of your childhood living room that once hosted imaginary action sequences, The Crew 2 becomes a genuinely compelling and experimental plaything. Bouncing off buildings at high speeds becomes a forgiving advantage. You clip through stacks of rubber tires on the road because hitting them would slow the action. The weird signage and mutated American countryside sort of make sense if you pretend this is the world a child — making an action movie with their toys — might imagine awaits them outside the confines of their suburban neighborhood.

I recognize that probably sounds patronizing or dismissive, but believe me when I say, sincerely, that The Crew 2’s messiness is its charm. This world isn’t meticulously recreated in the style of Grand Theft Auto or even Assassin’s Creed; it’s the United States reproduced with whatever resources Ivory Tower could muster. I know, intellectually, that this game cost millions of dollars and required hundreds of people to produce. But because the goal is so high, it has the joyful, scrappy, devil-may-care energy of fan reactions to famous films shot on a camcorder with friends in lead roles and whatever junk is in the garage as props and sets.

The Crew 2 is also generous in a way few other AAA games even attempt to be. I don’t mean that it fills the map in busy work side quests (though it has some of that too). Rather, that there are so many vehicles, so many ways to zip through this bizarro USA, that there’s an argument to be made that you should ignore the game’s racing altogether and simply explore.

I haven’t played something so fundamentally messy and so unpredictably lovable since Ubisoft’s Steep, a game with a similar conceit: The player can ski, snowboard, wingsuit, sled and jetpack across a collection of humongous mountains. Its races ranged from middling to bad and the controls felt off, but neither stopped me from playing that game more than nearly everything else in 2017. For the most part, Steep didn’t force its players to play the core game to enjoy its world.

Right now, that’s not quite an option in The Crew 2; unlocking vehicles requires committing a good deal of time to completing obligatory races. However, Ubisoft has shown post-launch commitment to both its hits and its oddball longshots, sometimes turning the latter into the former months or even years after launch. There’s a lot of fun to be had in The Crew 2, and even more so than with Steep, I think that Ubisoft, in collaboration with whatever player base gels around this game, could find a way to elevate what works above everything that doesn’t.

In 2018, The Crew 2 is a mess, but it’s easy to imagine the same game, in 2019 or 2020, being a must-play. There’s a part of me that looks forward to that version of the game. But I’d be lying if I said I wanted all of its embarassing blemishes to be concealed, repaired and removed. There’s plenty to love about this cross-eyed puppy.