Two years later, I played The Crew 2 again. I have questions.

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I didn’t like The Crew 2.  At all.  But that was two years ago, when it was initially released, minus all the cool stuff that comes with seasons passes, paid DLC, and free updates.  Presumably, Ubisoft has been hard at work on their flagship driving game.  So let’s see what Ubisoft can do with two years of post-release support.  

But first, I have some questions.

Why do I have to run something called Battleye to play The Crew 2?

Why am I weird beardguy?  I never would have picked this guy. I don’t want to look like a Blackwater thug between gigs.  What happened?

Why did I spawn here? And why is there an airplane in my kitchen?

Why do I own this abomination?

Why am I now driving this abomination when I leave the house?

Why does the license plate on my car’s ass never have anything but the game’s name?  Why is there still no way to customize it?  I can change every little fender, exhaust pipe, side view mirror, and paint hue, but I can’t change the license plate from blurting the name of the game into my face every time it catches my eye?

Why is the game’s logo in the lower right corner after I explicitly turned off UI elements so I could just enjoy an uncluttered view of my drive?

Let’s look at all the skins available for my cars.  Uh?

UHH?

Has anyone at Ubisoft ever actually been to Los Angeles in the winter?

Why are emotes the main unlockable in the game’s new progression system?  

Since when am I expected to care about emotes?  If there’s one thing I could care less about than the T-shirt my avatar wears, it’s the emotes I will never use.  

I was briefly excited to see a new progression system in The Crew 2, based on advancement in three different categories: collecting, exploring, and racing.  It’s a solid concept, and exactly the sort of thing that drives a good caRPG.  But the reward built into this new system is just emotes.  However, if you grind away long enough, at the very top of each advancement track, you’ll find three things that aren’t emotes.  First, a new costume for your avatar.  Second, a neon underglow for your cars.  Third and ultimately, a new car.  I don’t need a new car in The Crew 2.  I have dozens of the damn things.  Not to mention planes, boats, and even a hovercraft.  Most of my vehicles are meaningless.  The Crew 2 makes the classic caRPG mistake of not understanding that fewer more important cars are always better than more and more meaningless cars.  This new progression system, which should drive The Crew 2, is instead an obvious afterthought.

But in the process of giving the progression system a fair chance, of tooling around and exploring the new features, of trying again the different vehicles and event types, of exploring the open world, something unexpected started to happen.  I started to understand the possible appeal of The Crew 2.  I started to think, “Hmm, I could imagine spending more time playing this.”  If I wanted to pick a favorite vehicle and run it through the different events to upgrade it, like a character in an MMO, that’s what The Crew 2 is all about.  So I spent a rather silly amount of time doing dirt bike races, upgrading my dirt bike, and then doing harder dirt bike races so I could further upgrade my dirt bike to do harder dirt bike races.  If there’s one thing Ubisoft knows how to do, it’s push me gently into the friction-free slide of a fruitless gameplay loop.

Part of the draw is the “affixes” on the parts that upgrade the vehicles.  These are bonuses to gameplay elements, randomly rolled when you find the part.  A muffler on my dirt bike might give me a 4% bonus to lean control.  The handlebars might give me a 7% boost to nitrous recharge rate.  But maybe I’d rather have the handlebars that give me a 6% increase in loot drop quality.  Or maybe I’d rather pair the muffler and handlebars that give me a combined 12% bonus to lean control.  This is part of managing the vehicle upgrades, and it’s as good a system as any to keep me engaged in a loot chase.

But wait a sec.  Hold on.  Hold on just a sec.  This feels familiar.  Why does this feel so familiar?  Where have I seen this before?  I mean besides every other game with a loot chase.  In what caRPG have I seen this before?  Why do I feel like I don’t need to deal with The Crew 2’s many shortcomings to spiral around this exact same gameplay loop?

Oh, right, The Crew 1.  This is exactly the same thing I could be doing — and indeed, have frequently done — in the original Crew, which is still a superlative game.  It’s the definitive caRPG, in fact, for precisely this reason.  If you want to level up a favorite car, The Crew 1 will gladly oblige you with its loot chase featuring parts and affixes.  What’s more, because you have fewer cars, each car is more important.  You worked harder to get it.  It wasn’t sprayed at you out of a car firehose.  Upgrading a car you care about because it was hard to get is better than upgrading a dirt bike you picked because you were trying to be ironic.

The Crew 1 will furthermore let you level up this favorite car in a better looking world, richer with detail, more alive with activity, and more accessible with its wealth of things to do, see, and discover.  Any caRPG will give you an opportunity to drive your favorite car on a road trip down progression highway.  Few do it as poorly as The Crew 2.  None do it as well as The Crew 1.

Unfortunately, the problems that plague The Crew 2 cannot be fixed.  They are its foundation.  They were put in place when people at Ubisoft gathered in a conference room to decide how to make a sequel to The Crew 1.  Three fundamental design decisions from early in the design process doomed The Crew 2.  The first is the variety of vehicle types.  Someone thought it would be a good idea to add planes and boats.  Which is an odd idea, given that the appeal of planes and boats isn’t as universal as the appeal of cars.

This design decision is even more problematic because you’re supposed to be able to swap between car, airplane, or boat at any time.  The people in the boardroom who made the decisions that doomed The Crew 2 wanted you to be able to instantly fly over the same street you’re driving along.  The demands this places on a game engine are considerable.  It’s not impossible, because Ubisoft has done this in the Far Cry games.  But it means decisions about the game world are dictated by entire sections of The Crew 2 that, at best, are tangentially related.  At worst, and to my mind, they miss the point of a caRPG entirely.  Is this why The Crew 2 looks so sterile, flat, and last-gen compared to The Crew 1?  Because I have to be able to fly over the same street I’m driving along?

The second design decision that doomed The Crew 2 is the player avatar.  If this were just a head you might glimpse behind a windshield, no harm, no foul.  Easy enough to add as a customizable feature.  And it would be nice to have an alternative to the Gordon Freeman look-a-like from The Crew 1.  But the people in the boardroom who doomed The Crew 2 decided the player avatar needed to get out of the car and walk around and shop and hang out with other avatars.  They decided he needed to buy T-shirts and sunglasses and shoes.  They decided he needed to stroll through a showroom to admire the different cars for sale.  They decided he needed to visit a festival with booths and a DJ and a festive party atmosphere where he can chill with other player avatars.  They decided he would be part of the player progression, which would be based on social media.  If you’re going to create an economy based on “likes”, they concluded, there must be a 3D model of a person to be liked.  Which again misses the point of a caRPG.

The third design decision that doomed The Crew 2 is the replay feature.  It’s a great replay feature.  But like the decision to add planes, at what price?  What demands did this place on the game engine?  What limitations did it place on the game world?  What sacrifices had to be made to buffer all that data and put it at the player’s fingertips constantly, whether he wants it or not?  How much is it to blame for how ugly The Crew 2 looks?   

Steep is an interesting point of comparison, because the replay in The Crew 2 is an almost exact copy of the replay in Steep.  But Steep is a gorgeous game, worth admiring in a replay.  Because stunts and therefore player animation is a big part of Steep, this means there’s more to admire in a replay.  And it also gives weight to the player avatar.  You care what you look like in Steep, because that’s what you’re looking at when you play.  When you play The Crew 2, your player avatar is the head you might glimpse through a windshield.

In fact, it seems like the bad decisions at the heart of The Crew 2 are all features from Steep. Steep also lets the player swap instantly among different “vehicles”, but they don’t place dramatically competing demands on the game engine.  Skiing and flying a wingsuit are much closer types of traversal than driving a car and flying a plane.  Steep focuses on a character as the player avatar, but that’s because it’s about people on skis and not vehicles.  Steep has a robust replay system, and it’s a joy to use because the game looks great.  An open snowy wilderness doesn’t have to be rendered with the same kind of detail as a city with traffic on its streets, pedestrians on its sidewalks, and a hundred different buildings visible from any given point.

My guess is that the people in the boardroom who doomed The Crew 2 learned too much from Steep and not enough from The Crew 1.  Their bad decisions can’t be fixed with patches or post-release DLC or seasonal content like The Crew 2’s Beach Summit, which encourages you to buy bundles of new cars, cosmetic upgrades, and probably even emotes.  But there’s no reason to be dismayed at the state of The Crew 2, because you can play the game it should have been by just playing The Crew 1.  And you can play the game it wants to be by just playing Steep.

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