There are a few things you can count on me to be embarrassed by on any given day – my beer gut, for example, or the time I called my teacher ‘mum’ when I was six. One of the things embarrassing me most at the moment is how much I like The Division 2, because it is a game that manages to be both great and repugnant.
Let’s start with the good stuff – The Division 2 is a very well made cover shooter. The core experience introduced in the first game is still gripping, offering countless busy set pieces with just enough of a challenge to make its players feel like part of a well oiled machine.
Skills remain a big part of the game, offering a wide array of sophisticated, deadly and very often daft gadgets to help agents get an edge on their opponents. The range of core skills – and variants of those skills – has been greatly expanded for the sequel, which now boasts a drone that can fix your armour, chemical launchers that can stick people to the spot, and a silly device that zips around the screen attaching magnetic grenades to pre-selected targets before quite often flying into the nearest wall. The gear system has also undergone some changes. Items of gear now have manufacturers – effectively gear sets – adding a layer of complexity to your equipment loadout that can offer some useful perks. Weapon mods, meanwhile, now feature one negative trait along with a positive one, making customisation more of a challenge.
For all these new toys though, the main experience remains largely unchanged. The core mechanics are extremely similar to the first game, as are the enemies. There are three main factions in The Division 2 – the Hyenas, the True Sons and the Outcasts. These are practically identical to the Rioters, Last Man Battalion and Cleaners of the first game in both form and function. When I previewed The Division 2 at the start of the year, I was concerned that The Division 2 might be too similar to the original to hold my attention. Having spent 40 or so hours in its rundown rendition of Washington DC, I now think Ubisoft Massive has just about managed to get away with it.
Where significant progress has been made, however, is in the mission design. While the basic loop is the same – go to location, shoot bad guys, acquire loot, repeat – it’s clear the designers have taken pains to make each mission location memorable, helping to lift The Division 2 clear of the sense of monotony that stalked its predecessor. Whether fighting through a planetarium, the United States Senate chamber or an art installation that changes colour when combatants take cover, each mission location feels distinct. The sense of craft makes The Division 2’s core campaign genuinely fun to play through, rather than a means to an endgame. The streets of Washington DC themselves, however, don’t quite meet the same standard – while numerous recognisable places from D.C have been faithfully recreated, the broad and sunny streets of the game’s open world fail to impart the same sense of atmosphere, of claustrophobia and desperation that ran through The Division’s New York City. They aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just that the game world lacks a sense of cohesion.
It’s in the endgame, however, that the PvE portion of The Division 2 truly shines (minor spoilers ahead, obviously). At the end of the campaign, an entirely new enemy faction by the name of Black Tusk arrives, and they are not screwing around. Armed to the teeth with gadgets of their own – including a weaponised version of the terrifying robot dog from Boston Dynamics – they quickly take over all of Washington DC, introducing new ‘invaded’ versions of the campaign’s main missions and taking over all three of the city’s strongholds. Just after you’d finished claiming them all, the curs. The endgame is thus focused around taking the city back again, returning to the site of each main mission to re-assert your dominance. So while you are going back over the same environments and mission structures you’ve encountered before, your goals and enemies are different.
The soldiers of Black Tusk, for their part, make for really challenging foes. With technology to rival your own and a highly aggressive approach to combat, they make you feel far more under siege in combat than any point in the series thus far. As a result, reaching the endgame in The Division 2 feels like a genuine step up, rather than the start of a long and dreary grind.
And it’s an endgame that keeps going – taking down the missions and strongholds will advance your world tier, effectively resetting the endgame and increasing the stakes once more. It’s an endgame with a new game plus mode, in other words, and it’s extremely clever. With weekly challenges, bounties and all the other bells and whistles loot shooters have taught us to expect also thrown in, The Division 2’s endgame is substantial.
It isn’t the only thing to have been given an overhaul since the last game, mind you – the PvP offering is markedly different this time round. For one thing, there are now three Dark Zones on offer, featuring normalised stats in an attempt to level the playing field and prevent player griefing. As someone who struggled against the overpowered players in the last game’s Dark Zone, the normalised stats are a breath of fresh air, making hostile encounters less daunting and making these weird and treacherous arenas more inviting. Whether the player base will allow things to stay that way, of course, remains to be seen.
Player versus player matches are also on offer from launch and, while they aren’t exactly groundbreaking, The Division 2’s core mechanics translate well to these more traditional formats and offer a fun way to take a break from the grind of the main game or constant tension of the Dark Zones.
On a functional level, then, The Division 2 is a really accomplished sequel. It plays it safe in terms of straying from the original, but the adjustments and additions make for an enjoyable experience that’s well worth playing.
The story, presentation and politics of The Division 2 – not to mention Ubisoft’s insistence that it is somehow not a political game – are godawful. The campaign pulls in bits of US history and political themes like protest, agency, rebellion and cruelty at an alarming rate. It’s clear this is supposed to evoke some sense of poignancy, but with no actual conclusions being drawn the effect is shallow and off-putting. One mission is set in a museum featuring a vast recreation of the jungles of the Vietnam war; burning orange sun, chopper blade sound effects and all. Another is set in an exhibit on Native Americans and their relationship with ‘sacred water’. One of the enemy barks is ‘drain the swamp, fuck your flag’. The first time you leave the game’s base of operations, you stumble across George Washington’s sword, inexplicably lying next to a corpse. The base of operations, by the way, just happens to be The White House. I can’t tell you why any of those things are the case.
From start to finish, The Division 2 pulls in these bits of American history with unwavering earnesty and yet manages to say absolutely nothing. Worse, it goes out of its way to say nothing. The result is that the only real message The Division 2 manages to impart is that guns will keep you safe. Despite the advertising campaign this is not a game about saving the soul of America, it’s a game about the good guys with guns taking what they want from the bad guys with guns.
A shame, because if you can look past the vacuity and the slapdash politicisation of The Division 2, there’s a great game to be enjoyed here – even if you’ll never quite escape the sense that it’s a thunderingly dumb one.