2016’s The Division was the first serious stand-alone title from the Swedish development company, Massive Entertainment. Up until then, their most notable work had been done in partnership with Ubisoft on Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Far Cry 3. It’s a testament to the quality of their output that their first major game sold more copies in its initial twenty-four hours of release than any other game in Ubisoft’s history at the time. Small wonder then that The Division 2 was announced early last year and released towards the end of 2019’s first quarter.
It’s no secret that the games industry is dependent on spin-offs and DLC. Constantly increasing sales expectations driven by investor speculation have created an environment in which the best bet is usually the safest. However, from time to time new intellectual properties like The Division provide a welcome break from the flurry of copy-paste sequels that flood the market every year. If they gain enough traction then they spawn follow-ups of their own, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The Division 2 definitely falls into the former category and not the latter.
No matter how successful The Division was, it had its fair share of problems. Julian Gerighty and Mathias Karlson, co-directors of The Division 2, were keen not to repeat the same mistakes made with the first game. Community concerns and feedback were made a priority during the development cycle of the sequel in an effort to improve it on every level. Their efforts have been predominantly successful and as such, The Division 2 is leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor. Although the core concept remains exactly the same, it has been tinkered with and tweaked just enough to create a fresh and entertaining game that never fails to deliver on player expectations. From combat to mission structure, to emergent events, and the environment itself each and every aspect of the game has been a given an overhaul.
Few publishers or developers have more experience with creating open world games than Ubisoft and their affiliated studios. Many of the features, mechanics, and systems that their teams have collectively refined over the years are all but industry standard now. The Snowdrop engine has evolved considerably over the last few years and the results are clear for all to see in The Division 2. Post-pandemic Washington D.C is a densely packed but never cluttered virtual playground that absolutely nails the aesthetic of an apocalyptic scenario. The streets are strewn with abandoned vehicles and mounds of garbage, and key locations such as the Lincoln Memorial and the White House are little more than dilapidated ruins. Missions take place in self-contained areas of the map and each one is completely unique, and are structured in such a way that they feel like encounter spaces in a Dungeons and Dragons module. Each one has its own set of enemy spawns and hazards for players to overcome, and no two are exactly alike meaning that every time you go into a mission you never know exactly what to expect.
In the previous game, virtually all areas ended up with an oppressive similarity. That was quite fitting for New York in the depths of winter, but as we saw with Fallout 4 and Fallout 76, bland and unengaging environments are often the first sign that something is fundamentally amiss. The artists have gone to great lengths to make sure that’s not a problem in The Division 2. Their work is of such an insanely high standard that even on a 1070 GTX from a couple of years ago there isn’t a single aspect of Washington that isn’t lovingly crafted in immaculately rendered detail. Once pristine parks are now overgrown forests with dangers lurking behind every tree, and the ornamental architecture of the home of the world’s most powerful democracy is pockmarked with battle damage and crumbling from neglect. You could even say that they have gone a step too far, seeing as in game terms it has only been seven months since the collapse of American society but some places in the city seem like they’ve been cobbled together over the course of decades rather than just over half a year. However, considering that a few ill-advised tweets are veritable cause for lynching someone these days it makes sense to illustrate the fragility of modern civilization in such a melodramatic fashion.
The Division 2 is a near-perfect example of how to create a relentlessly fun looter-shooter
Combat in looter-shooters can often be a hit and miss affair. Even the most experienced and dedicated design teams often try and fail to hit their mark. There’s a fine balance to strike between making combat challenging enough to be entertaining but not so difficult that it becomes tedious. The first Division game suffered greatly because it failed in that regard, and it’s a mistake that Destiny 2 and Anthem have both made recently. My experience so far with The Division 2 indicates that it has managed to avoid the pitfalls that can make gunplay a chore in most other games in this genre. Each weapon type, from pistols all the way up to light machineguns, feels like it has its own niche in the player’s arsenal and the game doesn’t punish you for making use of your preferred armaments. Modification blueprints can be unlocked by completing side missions or projects for the ragtag settlements across the map, and each one can be equipped at any time to virtually any weapon. Being able to customize each gun with a variety of functional and stylistic modifications also means that whether players are progressing through the initial leveling content or working through the endgame, they are able to put their own personal touches to even the most mundane of munitions.
Although being able to micro-manage the performance of each gun with customized modifications constitutes the bulk of character personalization in The Division 2, the skill/specialization system and perk options allow players to further adapt their character as they see fit. The available variants of gadgets and gizmos on offer serve a wide variety of tactical and strategic purposes from inflicting massive amounts of damage with clustered explosives or auto-targeting drones to buffing and supporting your allies with armor repair and revival systems. This means that whatever role players prefer to play there is always more than one way to fulfill it, so you’re never pigeonholed into a restricted skillset. Unlike the first game, The Divison 2 seems to be fully aware that it has RPG elements firmly at its core and it isn’t afraid to let players experiment until they find what best suits them. The cover-based combat is nothing that hasn’t been seen anywhere else but movement and weapon control is so fluid and responsive that makes a very old style feel brand new. Being able to dart between one strategic position straight to another with just a single button press means that players can manage their approach to any given engagement on a moment-to-moment basis. The result is a satisfyingly dynamic cross between all-out carnage and tactical maneuvering that means no two firefights are ever alike.
On the whole, The Division 2 is a near-perfect example of how to create a relentlessly fun looter-shooter that dodges all of the pitfalls that other recent titles have stumbled blindly into. But it’s not all a shower of glorious loot. It’s narrative also falls short of being anything other than a flimsy mesh of context for the gun-toting action. Granted, it is a looter-shooter so engaging and coherent story isn’t the top priority either for the developers or the players. It’s a criticism that could be leveled at almost every game in the “Tom Clancy” stable and virtually every game in this particular genre. Yet if Borderlands 2 way back in 2012 could manage to feature a laugh-a-minute narrative as well as feature-complete gameplay, then it makes little sense that a company with more money than both the old gods and the new combined, like Ubisoft, couldn’t help Massive Entertainment throw together something with a little more depth and scope than your average straight-to-DVD Die Hard knock-off.
In the next part of my review, I’ll go into a little more detail about the specifics of The Division 2 and offer my final verdict. For now, suffice it to say that at launch the base game is feature complete and well worth the money. A fact that it is as shocking as it is pleasantly surprising for a title positioned as yet another game as a service. At a little just over halfway through the initial content I’ve already got over a day invested in the game, and not a single moment of it has been anything other than interesting, compelling and most importantly fun.