I had an unexpected burst of nostalgia when I found myself on the Pacific Coast Highway in The Crew 2. If you live in California, driving up Highway 1 between LA and San Francisco is basically a rite of passage, and while I can't say whether The Crew 2 perfectly recreates it, it at least feels right.
The splash of cold water came when I took a closer look at The Crew 2's map. Like its predecessor, The Crew 2 is a racing game in which the entire continental United States is your sandbox. You can hop between cities taking on a variety of challenges, or if you get bored, you can just start driving from one end of the country to the other. It takes the formula pioneered by Burnout Paradise and blows it out, with the sequel adding in planes, boats, motorcycles, and ATVs for good measure.
But making a country as large as the U.S. comes with some compromises. Like, for instance, my entire home state of Minnesota. In the world of The Crew 2, it's squeezed out by Chicago, Mt. Rushmore, and something called "Dairyland." It's like California's worst Midwest stereotypes come to life.
The Crew 2 player experience director Julien Hummer chuckles when I mention how his game erases Lake Superior, Prince (RIP), and the entire American curling scene. "It's a constraint when you're building this kind of world. From coast to coast it's 45 minutes to an hour depending on which route you're taking, so we needed to make some choices to make sure that the game worked on the console. I'm sorry, when we meet again, we'll have your region."
I kid, mostly. All accusations of coastal bias aside, the U.S. is so vast that you are inevitably going to have to make some cuts; and much as I love the idea of a boat race across Lake Minnetonka, the Twin Cities were always gonna be pretty low on any priority list. To help offset its inherent big city bias, the original game even made a point of sneaking in random little towns like Doland, South Dakota and Bar Harbor, Maine, heightening the sense of Americana as you drove from one end of the country to the other.
The Crew 2's real challenge, aside from improving the graphics and fixing the structure of the original game, is making the trip across America feel meaningful. Yeah, sure, you can only include so much, but you have to make what you put in feel meaningful. That's why the trip up the PCH stood out to me—it was just real enough to feel good.
The strength of the map is mostly as a backdrop. One moment you're flying a plane around San Francisco; the next, you're street racing in Vegas. If you get bored, you can just drive at random, enjoying the scenery as you go by. It's a tradition that hearkens back to Grand Theft Auto 3, which was the first game to really let you just race around an area while listening to some sweet tunes.
The Crew 2 wisely drops the hackneyed story of the original, opting for a more traditional "become the best racer ever" story akin to that of Burnout Paradise or Forza Horizon. You get a large pool of events across multiple disciplines from the start, and that pool deepens as you complete races along a particular track. So if you're in the mood for offroading instead of street racing, you can jump around at your leisure.
The upshot of all this is that The Crew 2 has a much more cohesive and interesting structure than what was available in the original game. The lack of major cities (hello Philadelphia?) is softened by the fact that you're mostly jumping from event to event anyway. It offers the illusion of size even if it doesn't quite fill in all the details.
There are times when I think that The Crew's developers have bitten off more than they can chew by making the entire U.S. their playground. Forza Horizon 3 is set in Australia, but its scope isn't nearly as vast. Hell, you could probably make an entire game out of just racing in cities on the East Coast.
Still, while the original game seemed to sink under the weight of its scope, suffering in the graphics department as well as many other areas, the sequel looks to be a measurable improvement. I may never fulfill my dream of racing past Gaear Grimsrud's woodchipper, but it gets enough right in other departments that I think I'll be okay.
The Crew 2 will be out on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on June 29.