Famously, in the music world, bands' second albums are the ones which prove tricky to make. But difficult second album syndrome isn't so much of a factor when the first album isn't all that. In 2014's The Crew – Ubisoft's first stab at an open-world, sandbox-style driving game – was generally hailed as solid, albeit unspectacular. It garnered praise for a huge open world, but had marks docked for a rather generic bad-boy-turned-good storyline along with an impenetrable interface.

Nevertheless, it did well enough for Ubisoft to make a sequel and, after about three hours playing the start of The Crew 2, it looks like we can all be thankful for that. Because The Crew 2, more or less from the moment you fire it up, is clearly a much better game than its predecessor. One that, most importantly, has a unique selling point: it goes beyond mere cars to powerboats and planes, and lets you switch seamlessly between each of those modes of transport. Which may sound gimmicky, but actually opens up all manner of fun possibilities.

The Crew 2's open world is spectacularly huge, pretty much encompassing the whole of the United States (although developer Ivory Tower hasn't been afraid to tweak parts of familiar cities, Burnout-style, to encourage spectacular stunt-driving). It's super-polished and slick – to a greater extent than we expected – and the storyline has been pared down to an extremely minimal level, which may sound a tad risky but which turns out to make eminently good sense in the context of a sandbox-style game.

After a pretty short but very slick intro, The Crew 2 wastes little time plunging you into its action. You're an aspiring street-racer type with a burgeoning reputation as a driver/pilot, and the game is based on the flimsy but contextually convenient premise that a number of families with interests in different forms of racing – broadly categorised as street racing, off-road, pro-racing and freestyle – are running racing series across the USA.

At the start of the game, you meet a member of one of those families, who gives you a general intro to the scene and helps you enter an event from a series called Live Xtreme. That starts off as a straight-up checkpointed street race, but at certain points some dramatic, vertiginous viewpoint shifts occur and, mid-race, you find yourself transferred to first a powerboat, then a plane. Which proves to be pretty exhilarating.

That initial multi-discipline race (you unlock more as you level-up) functions partly as an audition of your skills, but also as means of demonstrating another standout element of The Crew 2: the planes and powerboats are extraordinarily fun – and pretty easy, by videogame standards – to pilot. As, indeed, they pretty much had to be in order to elevate The Crew 2 beyond the realms of being just another open-world driving game.

With that giant map, you soon discover the joys of, say, driving your car into the sea then instantly flipping into a powerboat. It happens seamlessly, as you can swap between cars, planes and boats merely by clicking the right stick and making a selection at any point in time (sometimes to disastrous results). While you can fast-travel in the game, the chance to flip into a plane when you're driving along the motorway makes exploration vastly more interesting.

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As you play, you'll also discover subtle aspects of flying the planes and piloting the powerboats that aren't initially obvious. In planes, in order perform the aerobatic challenges, you must swiftly get to grips with using the tail-rudder and reducing the throttle to turn more sharply, for example, while higher altitudes deliver the affect of wind. In powerboats, meanwhile, when you feel sufficiently confident, turning down the assists introduces a more real-life level of twitchiness, and from the start you must pay attention to the physics of the waves and pull the nose up for extra speed.

Once you've prevailed in the initial Live Xtreme event, a load of events open up on the map, under the aegis of the four overall racing series: offroad, street racing, freestyle and pro racing. There's another hub: your flat in Miami, which lets you customise cars and your character, and generally tinker around.

Each series has an initial trial event which, in the case of the planes and powerboats, functions as a tutorial. The trials are pretty gentle – you merely have to finish the events, and you're not actually racing against the AI. A pre-trial scene-setter informs you that you'll be given a choice of vehicles if you succeed, and subsequently, a hub opens up where you can buy vehicles appropriate to that particular series.

Within each series, several types of races and events become available which, eventually as you level-up, give you access to a staggering diversity of motor/marine/airborne sports. For example, freestyle events encompass the likes of drifting, monster trucks and aerobatics, while pro racing embraces things like touring car races, air races and endurance races. The game even includes Red Bull's Formula One car (although we never levelled-up enough to be able to investigate the presence of any F1-style racing).

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The Crew 2's roster of machinery is very impressive indeed, with a vast amount of insanely desirable cars on offer (many of which we were able to investigate after being given a big chunk of in-game currency). Our stock street racing machine, for example, was an Audi TT, but there's plenty of much more exotic machinery on offer from a huge range of manufacturers. Yep, The Crew 2 has clearly been the beneficiary of some expensive licensing.

We ended up sticking with the Audi longer than expected, thanks to another mechanism in the game: loot boxes which you're awarded when you win races (it wasn't clear whether those can be purchased with real or virtual cash, but we'd be surprised if they couldn't be). Each loot crate – they appear on the track post-race, and you must drive over them to collect them – contains an upgrade to an element of your car (tyres, transmission, engine and so on) or vehicle, Gran Turismo-style. So you tend to develop an attachment to your increasingly fast and tight-handling car.

We were pretty happy with the car's handling, which simply felt right – realistic yet planted and with plenty of grip and a good sensation of speed on offer. The cars and powerboats have nitrous boosts, which come in handy (especially after indiscretions or in last-gasp dashes to the line – damage is turned off by default). All the races are checkpointed, which makes sense in the street racing. Other races can throw you curveballs like forcing you to drive round a body of water and over a bridge as the last checkpoint approaches.

The cars handle with sufficient realism to support proper track racing, which is impressive for what is essentially an arcade-style driving game. Some of the drifting beasts are hilariously lairy, and that side of the game is also enjoyable. But our favourite events are the street races, which take place around city tracks delineated by yellow arrows, and stuffed full of shortcuts, jumps, sections of track on rooftops and the like, generating a very Burnout-style vibe.

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Other elements of The Crew 2 which we were able to investigate include a sightseeing element of the game where you're challenged to, say, photograph a flamingo if you happen to be cruising around an area near Miami in which flamingos proliferate. Such challenges pop up when you hit the right general vicinity, and showcase a very sophisticated camera editor.

And they are worth pursuing, as you're constantly being rewarded for both winning races and doing spectacular things such as nailing jumps while merely exploring. There's a kudos-style system in which you gather followers, as well as the main in-game currency, both of which are constantly topped up as you explore and do things of which the game approves.

Price when reviewed:
First Impressions

We were pleasantly surprised by The Crew 2. It looks absolutely fabulous, and playing on an Xbox One X, we never even got the tiniest whiff of frame-rate drop-off. All its in-game graphics are slick and appealing, and it has an overall polished sheen which instantly makes it feel way classier than its predecessor.

The sheer diversity of racing and events on its roster is great, too. The flying and powerboat-racing are great fun, adding a feeling of uniqueness to the sequel which the original game lacked.

Whether that progression lasts as you level-up is probably the biggest question we can't yet answer. Hopefully, Ubisoft has learned lessons from its skiing game Steep, a similarly open-world, sandbox affair, but which ran out of appeal once you had exhausted its disappointingly small amount of events.

Overall, even after just three hours of hands-on time, The Crew 2 appears to have all the correct elements in place to establish new quality standards for sandbox-style open-world driving games. Let's hope it lives up to its considerable promise.