This week, Yahtzee reviews The Crew 2.
When all the great questions of the universe have been answered - "Why are we here?", "How do you open clamshell packaging without lacerating yourself?" - only one remains: "Does a driving game need to have a plot?" On the surface, maybe not, since it is still one of the more skill-oriented genres (at least until a game offers to do the handbrake turns for you if you pay it five bucks), and all you usually see of the player character is the back of their neck and an exhaust muffler. But then again, Driver: San Francisco had a plot and did pretty well out of it. Fortunately, The Crew franchise has finally supplied the definitive answer to the question of "Does a driving game need a plot?"; the answer is "Yes! I mean, no! I mean, maybe a little bit." Thanks for your fucking contribution, Ubisoft.
See, The Crew 1 had a plot; it was a surprisingly involved one, too, in which a bloke who looks a bit like the bastard offspring of Gordon Freeman and Phil Fish must avenge his brother's death and bring down a corrupt FBI agent by driving cars at things a lot, and that makes the rather conspicuous absence of a plot in The Crew 2 a cause for wonderment. Well, the plot is, you are a person who likes driving a lot, and your mission is to drive a lot; also, to become very popular on social media, a goal that can be best accomplished by driving a lot. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that the goal of getting a lot of social media followers is now considered equivalent to avenging a dead brother; that is, a universally-understandable motivation. "No, Officer, I had to mount the pavement and plow through two Parisian-style street cafés; don't you see that my Twitter profile depended on it?"
But I digress. The Crew 2, like The Crew 1, is a sandbox game by Ubisoft - a phrase still about as redundant as "an unhealthy meal from McDonald's" - that boasts a huge, cohesive sandbox map of the entire continental United States and all of its important cities, and St. Louis; the usual shrunk-down, heavily-summarized Legoland version, obviously, but it'll still take you about an hour to drive from coast to coast, not that you'd fucking want to. The map's got a shitload of dead space containing nothing but endless terrain and copy-pasted trees, and you'd probably have an equally enjoyable time playing an hour-long YouTube video compilation of inexpensive indie rock tracks where the singers all have their mouths way too close to an unfiltered microphone while staring at the little position marker on the timeline and pretending you're riding on top of it. I'm pretty sure, if you traveled in a straight line northeast by east from Los Angeles in this game, you wouldn't run into anything of note until you hit St. Louis, and arguably, not even then.
The game is divided between four distinct types of driving gameplay: pro racing, which involves driving to a place the fastest; off-road racing, which involves driving to a place the fastest; street racing, which involves driving to a place the fastest in a very responsible way; and freestyle, which involves doing stunts in a plane until you unlock the second tier, at which point, it becomes about driving to a place the fastest. It's through these four extremely distinct disciplines we receive what amounts to the game's plot: each of the four has a rival character who is currently the most accomplished racer, and someone assures us that this person is a bit of a twat and we should feel motivated to unseat them from their perch. And that's it. I don't even get a chance to gauge their twat-ishness for myself by interacting with them or taking them to the waterslide park; I think some of the mystery voices that talk in your ear during races might have been the rival characters, but I don't know why you expect me to remember any of these doints when the game's context is as engaging as a slithering contest at a worm farm.
Is it worth speculating why Ubisoft went from in-depth plot to basically none? Was it a calculated move because nobody gave Shit One about the plot of the first Crew, or did Ubisoft use up all their budget and resources adding tits to one of Assassin's Creed Odyssey's protagonists? Whatever the case, a sequel having less stuff than the original is always a tough sell; it'd be like putting out a new smartphone without a headphone jack.
More of a plot might have helped give the game some fucking structure. Yes, you unlock more races as you go, but the entire sandbox and fast-travel are unlocked right from the start, so I don't feel like the game has anything new to reward you with as you progress; all it does is throw brightly-colored Christmas presents at you that contain new rims and suspensions that you can glue onto whatever vehicle you arbitrarily picked from the available list to make its numbers get slightly higher, and then you can attempt to convince yourself that it now handles better than it did before, even though I strongly suspect the unlockables have less effect than adding a fuzzy dice, and I wouldn't be surprised if the developers confess that once we've got them all tied to stakes. Oh, but I know what else they would say as I walked up with the burning torch: "Sandbox, Yahtzee! Sandbox! It's not supposed to structured; you make your own fun!" Yeah, let's bring that up, Guy Fiery.
Does anyone else remember a time when sandbox games were characterized as being "cathartic", where the point was, you could just go crazy if you were bored and the world would react appropriately, exploding cars and sending police after you, and that response was important because part of the glee in stealing cookies is knowing you'll get spanked to the Moon and back if you're caught? You remember, before Ubisoft turned sandboxes into glorified MMOs with the other players taken out and replaced with more grind?
Bearing this in mind, The Crew 2 has one of the least reactive sandbox worlds I've ever seen. The street-racing lads occasionally mention that they have trouble with the cops, selfishly not wanting people to plow through pedestrian precincts with flamethrowers attached to their rear bumpers, but cops don't come after you in-game. I'm pretty sure every NPC vehicle has exactly the same mass; I know, because I sideswiped a bus and it reacted like a bamboo frame with aluminum foil wrapped around it. There's also no damage physics, unless you count fences and Parisian street cafés atomizing the instant you lightly brush past.
Although, now I'm mentioning it, there's very little distinction between what you can plow through and what flimsy wooden park benches will cause you to instantly go from 200 to 0 in a way that, by rights, should have decapitated you with your own seatbelt; but there's no car damage, so after a head-on collision that should, by rights, have reduced both cars to bleeding cardboard cutouts, the game just pulls the old Prince of Persia "That didn't happen", and drops you back on the road a few yards back. And I am one million percent certain that this is because The Crew 2 's vehicles and environments are all licensed from real-world companies and slathered with corporate logos, and licensers are notoriously iffy about their products being shown getting so much as a dent, to say nothing of getting wrapped around an orphanage. So all the cars just roll indestructibly around the landscape like Maltesers on a loved one's lower back.
I suppose, in the dilemma between more fun/realism or more money, Ubisoft opting to bend over and spread its hot pink wallet open shouldn't come as a surprise. If you just want a multi-terrain racer, then there's one in here, sure enough, but you might wonder why it's spread out across a pointlessly large, empty, uninteresting sandbox; if you want that experience, then just play, say, Mario Kart with your "Accelerate" and "Brake" buttons on opposite sides of the room.
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- If the Maltesers roll around too much try switching to licorice allsorts