The sun hangs low, basking the streets and vegetation in an orange sheen. A deer is slowly making its way across the street as I creep up on a group of unsuspecting Hyenas. They are currently busy staging a public execution somewhere on the streets around the Homer Building in Washington D.C. There are four, no, five of them prancing around, heckling their targets. I take aim at one of them, pull the trigger and the bastard goes down. The rest of the gang immediately spring into action.
They start shouting at each other to take cover, hot lead filling the air. A grenadier is readying a grenade to flush me out of my cover. I clip his shoulder, making him drop the grenade at his feet. The world erupts in a cascade of flame and smoke. The grenade ignited some gas canisters, which in turn set off other explosives around the area. I pump mag after mag into the enemies and they start dying one by one. Confidence surges as I realize that I am about to win, the hostages are saved. Then something happens, I hear someone screaming profanities and start to take significant damage. Turning around I catch a glimpse of my assailant: it’s a baton armed miscreant that is having a field day with my skull. “Damn, I forgot to deploy my turret,” I think as I go down, spilling my brains on the pavement, like a seal coming to shore in Norway.
The above account is an all too familiar occurrence in The Division 2: an action-packed, chaotic, and intensely satisfying game that manages to surpass its predecessor in pretty much every single way.
Not that the first game was bad, it was a decent shooter that improved a lot over the years as Ubisoft and Massive persisted in showering the game with a ton of support. Personally, the biggest problem with The Division 1 was the combat itself. It tended to feel stale and dragged on, the sort of dynamic situations described above almost never happening. Enemies could also take a ridiculous amount of bullets before going down, making combat feel unnecessarily drawn out. This time around, enemies can still eat a lot of lead before dying, but it is balanced in a much more fun way. For instance, you can destroy armor section on enemies, making them vulnerable in that spot. Additionally, some carry around bags of explosives or other things that you can shoot to do some serious damage.
You have a lot more options when it comes to murdering the opposition. The streets and areas of Washington D.C. are littered with flammable objects or things that go boom if you as much as touch them with a bullet. The perks also feel more diverse and fun to use this time around. Seeker mines, cluster grenades, bomb drones, and chem launchers are all part of your armory and using them is really fun. One of the most useful of these is the hive grenade equipped with microdrones. It is essentially like throwing a grenade full of angry bees at the enemies, who as a result panic and have to run into cover to get rid of the swarm of angry drones that it spawns.
That said, the real star of the combat is the savage and aggressive AI you face. As soon as combat is initiated, people will get into cover and start laying down suppressing fire at you while others start rushing your position with shotguns, grenades, and clubs. Since you can’t really take a lot of hits, it can be quite a challenge to deal with, especially if you are playing alone. As a solo player, covering all your flanks is almost impossible. It forces you to constantly keep moving and stay on your toes, as staying too long in one spot is just asking for trouble. It is a system that favors tactical and considered maneuvers instead of bull rushing and Rambo’ing your way forward.
While The Division 2 is fully playable as a single-player experience — indeed, this is how I enjoyed most of the game — it is also abundantly clear that it’s designed to be played together with friends. Take the skills, for example: about half of them make little to no sense in using unless you are playing together with a well-organized group of people. Things like spotting, revival drones, and healing gels are all preferably used when playing with others. While those skills might not be useless when alone, they have significantly reduced effectiveness if you do so.
The game likes to constantly remind you of this fact also: as you run around the city, you receive a steady stream of assistance requests. Joining another player in need is easy and streamlined, but I feel that overall the “always online” aspects of The Division games are somewhat squandered. Since I am already online and connected to their server, couldn’t they just make agents who are in trouble populate my game world? Like see a flare shoot out and know that a few blocks away there is someone who is in trouble? It just feels like a missed opportunity to once again relegate all other players to safe houses and settlements and leave the city completely empty except for you.
Elsewhere, the game’s multiplayer has seen some changes. The Dark Zone makes a return in Division 2. Or I should say Dark Zones as there are three, albeit smaller ones in The Division 2 compared to the first game’s larger, single zone.
The Dark Zones work much in the same way as in the first game in that they are areas which combine PvE and PvP. As you enter a Dark Zone, your gear gets normalized and your level stops to matter, all in order for players to be on equal footing while in there. This is because the name of the game in the Dark Zones is betrayal. You want to go in there to collect the best loot, but while in there you can at any point be ambushed and taken out by rival players before extracting with this loot. It’s still the early days, so things still work as intended in that you can actually have semi-meaningful exchanges with strangers and help each other out. The Division 1’s DZ eventually just disintegrated into having roaming bands of griefers who used the space for PvP. Hopefully the Division 2’s DZ manages to stay away from this.
Luckily, Massive have opted to include a proper multiplayer this time around called Conflict. It is a 4v4 multiplayer mode which takes place on a series of maps and modes to determine who is the better team. It can make for some good tactical fun, but I really recommend you playing it with friends as team coordination will easily sway a battle. The neat thing about Conflict is that the gear you are rewarded in it also carry over to the main game. Most of all, though, I hope the Conflict mode will help keep the Dark Zones cleaner and more fun as PVP players have their own space to play in now.
Technically, The Division 2 is a really stunning game on the PC, albeit a bit temperamental. It looks and runs well on my 1070 on ultra settings. It does, however, have a tendency to crash if provoked. It seems the game hates being interrupted by Windows messages, or anything else, with a passion. Turning off DX 12 and unplugging my wireless headset went a long way to addressing these issues, but it seems the developers still have some bugs to work out in the coming weeks before everything can run as it should.
In terms of graphical fidelity, it is the volumetric smoke and fog effects that especially stand out. These, together with a nice lighting model and really sharp textures, makes for a visual feast. I also just really like how the player looks, the everyday clothes together with kevlar vests and machine guns just having a nice style to them.
The change of setting is also something that helps the game out considerably. The frozen streets of New York in the first game looked fine for what they were, but after a few hours, they started to feel a bit one-note. D.C, on the other hand, is full of distinct areas and districts. You have the denser streets around the White House full of shops, hotels, cars, and other such places. Then, in contrast, you also have the National Mall, with its open areas and large monuments to run around in. It simply makes for a more varied experience. The fact that some time has passed since the collapse also helps out with this. Vegetation and wildlife have started to reclaim D.C., making some areas completely overgrown. You will also see quite a lot of animals running around the streets and parks. Why they have not opted to run as far away as possible considering all the gunfights going on is a mystery, but it does help to sell the setting.
Design and structure-wise, the game also makes a lot more sense than the first one. While you had a lot of side missions and tasks to do in The Division, they were completely disconnected from the world and just felt like busy work to do in order to grind out some XP. Now, they have been integrated into the settlement system. As you progress through the city, you will unlock settlements — think of them as a safe house 2.0 from the first game. These settlements will give you tasks and missions to do. They can be everything from helping patrols gather food or water to full on side missions with some narrative elements built into them.
As a reward for helping them, settlements give you some really nice benefits. These include things like blueprints or recruitable staff members, who in turn unlocks things at your main base in the White House. As the settlements grow, they will start sending out more and more patrols on the streets. It goes a long way in making the world feel a lot more alive than it ever did in the first game. In The Division 1, NPCs out in the world were mostly just catatonic zombie-like creatures who occasionally asked for water. Now they roam around looking for stuff and actually help out during fights.
It is worth mentioning that The Division 2 does have microtransactions and a ‘premium’ currency, which can be used to buy cosmetics and gear. However, it’s done well and mostly out of sight — I hardly ever even noticed it, to be honest. But it is there for those who want a specific look or speed up their progression a bit.
The only blatantly bad thing in the game is sadly its narrative. It’s a real shame too as the premise and the setting just begs to be explored. For most of the game, there is very little setup and there is especially a lack of motivation for your character or your organization. Massive is painting with the broadest brush there is when it comes to the story and they just seemingly refuse to engage in anything that might be seen as taking a side or being political in any which way. For a game about a future American civil war, it not only feels disingenuous, but it is also profoundly disappointing.
More and more it feels like Ubisoft come up with these great premises and settings but then get cold feet when it comes to the execution of this idea. Far Cry 5 suffered from the same problem; the initial tone and setting looked like something that could really deal with some heavy aspects of American society today. Making a game about a religious gun-nut as the antagonist felt both bold and suggestive. The final product was, however, very sandpapered down and had rather sharp edges.
It just reeks of Ubisoft wanting to have the cake and eat it too. Because even if they don’t want to address it in the narrative, the game is about a civil war set in a decidedly Hobbesian world. For those who are a bit rusty on your political philosophy: Hobbes basically postulates that the only thing that keeps humanity nice and civil is the threat of punishment from an authoritative state. In The Division’s world, a mere seven months have passed since the outbreak of a virus and human existence has been reduced to roaming bands of armed barbarians, who seemingly only want to kill one another. The player is, of course, part of this as well. The only verb you have in interacting with the world is “kill”. There is no dialogue, there is not even a real motivational factor other than you are the ‘sheriff’ who has come to clean up the town in the name of, what? Justice? Patriotism? The game doesn’t really give a good answer to this or any other faction’s motivations.
Luckily, the other parts in the Division are strong enough that it is easily overlooked or ignored. It’s a very fun and engaging “loot shooter” that is super fun to play with friends. It is just hard not to feel like it’s such a missed opportunity for the developers and Ubisoft to reach for something higher. Who knows, maybe a fleshed out story would suck, but I am almost certain it would at least have been interesting, given the groundwork they have already laid. For now, though, we have to make do with supplying our friends with water and electricity while murdering thousands of non-compliant “others” who aren’t really given an introduction at all.
The Division 2 is a seriously fun game to play that’s slightly hobbled due to its lack of a compelling or cohesive narrative. Almost every other aspect of the game has been greatly improved upon, but next time around I would love to see Ubisoft push their narratives a little further.