The last time we played The Crew 2 was all the way back at E3 2017, where we got our first look at the sequel, but last month Ubisoft and Ivory Tower invited us to an extended hands-on at Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey, England to have a bit more time with the game - around three hours in fact - where we got the chance to explore things more freely, without the shackles of a guided tour weighing us down and inhibiting our vehicular creativity.
After all, player freedom is the number one priority here, and in fact as player experience director Julien Hummer said in his brief introduction, the only thing he asked of us was to complete the four trials for the different disciplines - Offroad, Street Racing, Aerobatics, and Water Racing - so we could unlock everything on the map. Other than that, it was just a case of putting the headphones on and doing quite literally whatever we wanted.
Thus, if you go street racing and find that you can't even get around one corner without crashing, you can opt to never ever do it again and exclusively fly your plane around in Aerobatics to try and get the highest scores. The player experience is really defined by making your own stories and adventures right from the beginning, with more options opening up in each field as you get better.
Even within each discipline, there are further disciplines within them too. For example, getting better at street racing unlocks drift racing, while advancing in Offroad gradually unlocks motocross, and as you might have guessed, each new flavour means new vehicles to buy. You'll need cash to buy new cars and the like, and you'll need good vehicles to perform well in races, so there's always that hook of pushing to get bigger and better rides (like we've seen in countless racing games in the past).
We have to make clear though that this isn't exclusively a racing game as such. A lot of the experience is about rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder with your adversaries to get the first-place spot, but there's also an emphasis on stunts and racing with style. Aerobatics, as mentioned, is all about fulfilling a checklist of stunts as well as trying your own for maximum points, and drift is all about hitting the highest score with epic Tokyo Drift style turns.
There are plenty of ways the game encourages you to keep engaging with its activities, one of which is followers. Like with other games such as the Skate series, followers mean more fame, and more fame equals more rewards and things to do, but you can only gain followers by doing gnarly stunts and getting good scores/positions in activities.
What's more is that at the end of each activity a loot system hurls some random loot your way, and just like armour in an RPG you can swap out some vehicle parts to make way for the new ones you got in the loot drop, all of which revolves around numbered scores you're trying to push up to make the highest rated vehicle. This was the element that pulled us in, and there's something strangely addictive about finely tweaking a number on-screen to push it ever higher.
Even if you don't do these activities on the map you can still earn Live loot, which revolves around following a beeping on your mini-map which gets progressively faster until you reach said package, again earning you more gear to upgrade your plane, boat, or automobile. We can't even say we noticed that much of a difference regarding in-game performance with these upgrades in the short time we played, but still we felt inclined to fervently pursue these upgrades.
It's nothing new for games like this to be essentially vehicle porn in the visual department, but props should still be given here to how detailed and authentic everything is, from beasts like certain planes and monster trucks through to the motocross bikes and cars, all of which feature famous brands and licenses.
Everything can be customised down to the finest detail, including a plethora of colours, materials, cosmetic changes, decals, and more. It's not just 'pick from five designs' and you can spend an endless amount of time making your vehicle just right, and we went for a shiny hot pink car with black paw prints down the hood for our default ride, accompanied by a bright lime green plane for when we took to the sky. If you want it garish or classy, the garage has you covered.
We'd obviously be foolish not to mention the vehicle handling itself in such a game, and the good news is that there's plenty of assists you can turn on and off, whether you want an arcade experience or something more simulation-like. We're not saying hardcore racing fans will find this the peak of entertainment, but Ivory Tower is trying to cater for all audiences here, which for us meant putting all the assists on and making easy turns as we enacted our racing fantasy on the streets. Drift is probably the best example of this, as in this mode literally any turn you make becomes a powerslide, which is at the same time incredibly fun but also a pain to control.
Perhaps the biggest appeal of The Crew 2 - aside from the obvious vehicles - is the world you use these vehicles in. Ivory Tower has faithfully recreated a very simplified version of the US for this purpose, an open-world rendition of the land of the free and the home of the brave that can see you take a quick hop on over from Detroit to New York City in minutes as opposed to hours. That's not to say the areas are totally aside from reality, because there are fine details like the Queensbridge Housing Project in New York that show there's been a real care to recreate the feel of these cities at least, which you can feel most intensely during the street races when you're whizzing around landmarks. Of course the last game was also set in the US, and there doesn't seem to be a huge difference in terms of scale, but everything has been reshaped and tailored for all the vehicles.
These great locations apply just as clearly to when you're offroad or in a boat or plane too, as one activity even sees you fly around the iconic faces of Mount Rushmore, while another has you tour the waters around Manhattan on your speedboat (you can ever drive down rivers). The locations are just as much fun as the means with which you explore them, and what's more is that there are even sections where the world literally twists upside down to produce this surreal section where you may be doing a full loop in a river that's bent 360 degrees with the world.
All in all we spent three hours in The Crew 2 without getting bored, but without objectives either. We didn't get to see much multiplayer, granted, but what we did see was a huge sandbox filled with varied activities and a whole host of different things to occupy your time, all of which gradually unlocks as you explore, giving players more to do over time. It might be a jack-of-all-trades situation come final release, but for now, it looks balanced and accessible to everyone.