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Wot I Think: The Crew 2 as a single-player game

Driving the nail in

The Crew 2 is out proper tomorrow, at which point its servers will probably collapse for a bit, then eventually get stable as players fill up the vast amount of empty space in this miniaturised rendition of the United States. Meanwhile, I've been playing it this week to experience its vast amount of solo content, which is undeniably the focus of the game's core progression. I've reached the conclusion that, oh boy, the multiplayer aspects had better be exciting...

I've no idea what The Crew 2 wants to be. It's a rendition of vast stretches of the United States that just isn't very interesting to drive around, and then lets you teleport to anywhere from the very start. It's a multi-disciplinary collection of races, with cars, planes and boats of multifarious forms, yet tries to create a Need For Speed-style storyline that is wholly incoherent as it's spread micro-thin across their surface. It's a game that actively encourages you to play solo, emphasising all the hundreds of solo events and solo challenges and solo races across all its plethora of vehicles, and never whispers a mention of how one would ever actually form a crew - and yet is an always-on, network dependent game that logs you out if you leave it idle for more than a few minutes. It's a multiplayer racing game that defaults to having you race AIs for all the progression. Good lord, it's a muddle.

First impressions don't do much. It's often extremely pretty, but in a peculiarly sterile way. Cities are minimalist, textures pop in very late, and it's hard to ever stop feeling like you're driving around inside a 3D model of a city on some mayor's table as he declares plans to build a casino. It also has this excruciating sensation from the very start of a game being made by confused dads trying to sound like teens. Its instantaneous and all-pervading obsession with "social media" reeks of a gruesome desperation to sound - what the game would probably call - "with it". But being unlicensed from all the big names in the field (and yet oh so licensed in every other), isn't able to actually say "Instagram" or "Snapchat" or any of the words it so desperately wants to. So instead you get the 40-something duuuuude narrator just awkwardly bleating about how important it is for us kids to "get more followers" on "your social media". Shut up dad, you're embarrassing me!

Followers becomes the games' de facto XP, used to gain levels (of fame) and thus unlocking further tiers of races and race types. You gain followers either by competing in events, or by dicking about in the world, apparently incessantly filmed by invisible cameras and beamed to your ever-growing pool of adoring admirers. In reality, the latter is far too scrappy and inefficient, and you can zoom through the first four levels (to unlock most of the content) in just a few hours of taking part in races.

You then improve your ever-increasing collection of vehicles with drops won in races, which are alleged to let you tweak cars etc to your satisfaction, but in practice just mean you swap in a higher numbered item for a lower numbered, and your car goes a bit faster.

So to the races. It would take far too many words to describe each type, because to the game's credit there are quite so very many. Fortunately I can generalise by saying: they're all a bit crap. Not terrible. Mostly playable enough. But none anything special. And while each is a bit crap, they all achieve this in their own unique ways. Bog standard road racing is frustrated in irritating ways I detail below, while boats are tiresomely slippy and clumsy to control, drag races feel like a poorly delivered golf game (matching meters to target zones and pressing buttons), off-road is endlessly tiresome due to the complete random nature of what's smashable (giant metal lampposts, say) and what's not (flimsy striped raising barriers) ... I do, however, want to focus on a couple in more detail.

First up, the aeroplanes. What really should have been The Crew 2's most fun events, looping and spinning and diving in the air, are its most broken. You're tasked with completing lists of tricks, interspersed with freestyle blocks, to accumulate high scores, but it's hopelessly bad at recognising when you've done a trick. Loops are by far the most obvious, often having to be repeated two or three times before the game noticed you did it, and then dull tasks like vertical climbs are made aggravating by there being no visual feedback as to your position in the air when there's no visible ground for reference. It gets even worse when it comes to detecting "near misses", where you can be a micron away from the walls and roofs of buildings and have it not notice, and then credit you with one when flying past a tree. It's all absolutely hopeless.

I also want to specifically discuss drift challenges, because they usefully exemplify another larger issue - how poorly everything is explained. I have yet to complete a drift challenge. This is, I am certain, due to my being inept. The game tasks you with scoring, say, 20,000 points, accumulated by drifting about the road, multiplied by chaining these together. But it a) never even mentions how to drift, let alone b) tells you that multipliers exist, how to chain them, what breaks a chain, etc. Touching anything in the world breaks a chain, so you are asked to skid and slide around narrow roads without touching any of the 380 million items it scatters all over them, but other Mysterious Things break chains too, which I've yet to discern. Also, it seemingly at random just refuses to score your drifting for reasons ungiven, meaning I've gone splendidly around a series of corners before noticing that it's yet again not counting. I've only ever managed to accrue about half the points needed for an event, and still have no idea if I've missed something vital that I should be doing. It certainly isn't interested in saying.

Not explaining what you're supposed to do is endemic in the game, although having played enough of the games on whose shoulders this one stands, I already have the vocabulary to get on with things for the most part. I cannot imagine how unwelcoming it must be to anyone new to the genre. But drifting also stands out as the only time in the game I've felt a notion of challenge. It is otherwise stupendously easy to win races, progress through challenges, and keep churning through its squillions of map icons and levels. Difficulty, it seems, only comes in the form of more crapness.

As races get longer, the core problems of the game become more apparent, and frustratingly they're like a checklist for everything that's been wrong with open world racers since they started. Most of it comes down to AI, both that of the cars you're racing, and of the NPCs (non-playable cars) that inanely mosey around the streets of America.

The former is best exemplified by Crew 2's rubber-banding - the means by which it attempts to keep races feeling racy and not allowing you nor AI cars to get too far ahead/behind. Done well, it causes race games to be thrilling. Done badly, and it makes you feel secondary to the game you're playing. Here it means you either feel patronised as your car drives astoundingly faster than the others, or frustrated by narrative scripted cars suddenly pulling impossibly ahead of you because the pre-amble said it was the car to beat.

But worse are those NPCars. In any street race, you're going to have to dodge traffic, and fair enough. But what's not fair here, as has miserably been the case in recent Need For Speed games too, is the utterly imbecilic nature of those vehicles. It is perfectly normal while racing down a road at 300kph to see a car pull out into the centre of an intersection, and then just stop. There's nothing you can do about it, no way to avoid it, no way to predict that it'll just decide it'll commit suicide rather than keep going, and so SMASH. And if this is in the last sections of a race, such that the rubber-banding isn't going to give you time to regain the lead, that's it, you have to start over. And it happens so often. And when that's a race that's taken half an hour as some do, it can fuck off into the farthest reaches of outer space.

And then the game just gets weird. One of the most peculiar features of the game is the so-called time travel option for photographs. You can, it says, rewind and fastforward through recent time to take the snap you want/need. Except rather than actually record what happened, it only remembers where your vehicle went. So, smash through a market place of stalls and parasols, then rewind to get a snap of that moment, and completely madly the broken scenery continues to exist in linear time. Such that, your car rewinding through it will knock it about more! You can go back and forth along the time line, repeatedly bashing the physics objects further about, in quite the quantum confusion.

Then there's the climactic time travel. After a race in Vegas I paused the game to argue about something in an IM window, and when I returned the desert was covered in a couple of inches of snow. Vegas. (I checked - it can snow there, but it's astoundingly rare, and not nearly enough to settle.) Another time I was in a long-distance cross-country race, the AI cars bashed me off into inescapable trees, so I used the reset button to put me back on the track. PING! Everything covered in snow again! It's extremely strange.

Oh, and ohhhh, the sponsorship. Eurgh. Frowny face. It's so vulgar. Obviously there are all the licensed cars, and inevitably there are Red Bull stickers stuck all over the place, but then there's the "Papa John's Better Ingredients Better Pizza" challenge, which isn't a fun little pizza delivery minigame, but just some other race with Papa bloody John's incongruously emblazoned across it. It's not alone.

It's also worth mentioning that while this is essentially a single-player review, as it was written before the game was released and satisfactorily populated, this is a grimly always-on game. I've had the game not let me play it for server updates, as if it were an MMO. I've had it tell me I can no longer play because my connection dropped. And most egregious, if you leave it idle for long enough to go get a coffee, it'll log you out from wherever you were, for absolutely no fathomable reason. There's no good enough reason for this game so focused on solo play to be like this, and if you've a flaky connection, absolutely do not touch this.

It's clearly vast in scope, ambition and content, and you might well scream that I'm a greedy-faced fool for wanting it to be exceptional in any of its eight billion disciplines. But I retort that an awful lot of mediocrity is perhaps not as good a thing as a small amount of brilliance. And there's no denying that it fills time. There are so, so many things to do, that just to list them would double this already far too long review. But doing them never really felt that satisfying to me. And as I said from the start, I just can't figure out what it wants to be.

There's a "home" in the game for your character, who you can customise, and I've no idea why either is possible - they make no odds, and the home isn't worth visiting. It does, however, feature the game's hilariously clumsy first-person walking, also found in the main hubs for event types, which is something akin to walking around a kitchen in some free CAD software.

There are storylines, and implied evil baddy types who are trying to ruin your day/life, but then seem utterly forgotten even by the end of the race that was preceded by such inane waffling. This means that, yes, you're going to hear the same bloody barks when you repeat a race, and they are spectacularly awful. ("Drive like you never heard of a red light." "Keep that bike moving. That's what a winner does.") All the writing throughout is embarrassing and shameful.

There's a whole continent to explore, and yet absolutely no incentive to explore it. Driving between events is dreary and sporadically dotted with the worst of busywork. (Take a photograph of a California condor, it'll ask, before failing to recognise when you do. Drive through these floating blobs for a bit, for some reason.) And you can just teleport to any event from the main map.

There are just so many different types of race, different enough that there's no consistency between car types to get used to, but not different enough that any feels specialised enough. (There are Formula 1 cars and tracks, where you can bump off barriers and skid around corners (although they clearly didn't manage to licence the words "Formula 1", so have opted for the fist-chewing "Alpha GP").)

Next week, once the servers are busy, I'll return and find out whether this is a game that desperately needs the internet it insists upon to shine. I'll be delighted if that's the case. Right now, this is an awful lot of not very much.

The Crew 2 is out tomorrow for Windows, starting at £50/$60/60€, via Steam and Uplay

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