Ubisoft's latest looty-shooty is a flawed but nonetheless massive game, bursting at the seams with things to do and people to shoot. It's got problems, but lack of fun isn't one of them.
Apparently, I’m an LMG guy now. The first time I picked one up in Ubisoft Massive’s Tom Clancy’s The Division 2—what a possessive wordsoup—it was purely numbers-driven: the LMG had better damage and rounds-per-minute than the assault rifle I was previously using, and it’d probably be good enough to keep me going until something better drops in thirty seconds’ time. Turns out, LMGs are a bit good. They chew through just about every enemy archetype in the game and have very little by way of trade-offs. I might eventually find something to usurp the Big Gun Throne, but for now I’m enjoying holding down the mouse button and watching health bars empty. Problem is, I’ve been through about fifty of the buggers now, and they’ve all been functionally and aesthetically identical.
The Division 2 is a loot game. There’s a lot of it. There aren’t many particularly exciting designs in the higher rarities, and neither have I encountered anything that shakes up the combat a great deal, but I don’t really mind. The core mechanics are so much fun and the content so expansive that I’m having trouble stopping to worry about whether my gun has any fancy shiny bits. It’s a cover shooter through-and-through, and the AI is built to work with that. They’ll use cover, flank, retreat and regroup in much the same way that I and my teammates do, and that makes them a genuine challenge—significantly more so than most shooters. More surprising is the fact that the gunplay feels fantastic, which puts it leagues ahead of any other third-person shooter I’ve played in recent memory. There are a bunch of great combat set pieces throughout the missions, and it’s never not satisfying unloading a magazine into a grenade pouch or fuel tank strapped to an enemy’s side, watching them disappear in a screen-shaking burst of smoke and sparks
Some encounters also throw other factors into the mix, like verticality or awkward cover spacing that makes abilities ineffective unless you flank. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into making the game feel good to play, and that’s a large part of why I can’t put it down.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a story in The Division 2 to drive those combat encounters home. Your agent is called to Washington, D.C. to retake the city from the factions that have brought it to its knees and…. well, that’s about it. The game starts and ends with shooting Hyenas, Outcasts, True Sons and, eventually, the Black Tusk, which we’ll come to shortly. There are characters and set pieces and moments with a stroke of emotional heft, but none of it makes any impact. That’s the least of this game’s problems.
Despite Ubisoft’s odd marketing efforts, The Division 2 is not apolitical, or without messaging. It is entirely coded with implicit and explicit statements about guns, public services, the role of communities, and the prison system. Ubisoft have attempted to pass it off as a game that takes no stances, but all that does is attract the crowd that think the opening cinematic's rhetoric ("with no police to protect you, did you own a gun? Did your neighbour?") is totally benign. The Division 2 is obsessed with America’s monuments, and presents them as something to be valued and protected while providing near-zero context or motivation for its clashing factions. It’s a game that isn’t interested in critically engaging with the statements it is constantly making, and that makes the already-light narrative entirely uninteresting. Tom Clancy might be long dead, but his strange, poisonous legacy lives on through these games.
Outside of the main mission-based content, the open world is littered with procedural activities, outposts to capture and collectibles to find. For the most part, they serve as small distractions between missions or quickfire sources of loot and materials. A lot of it contributes to the development of “settlements”. Currently, there are two, and they follow similar progressions to the base of operations from the first game. By completing various challenge lists, you can unlock rewards and see tangible impact it has on the NPC community. Over the course of my 60 hours, the Campus settlement has gone from a grey shelter to a vibrant and noisy little post-apocalyptic homestead. If there’s one thing the world’s lacking, it’s the endless supply of sportswear that could be found around New York. I want my beanies, dammit.
I find myself missing more than just The Division’s clothing options, though; the sequel’s world is just less interesting and harder on the eyes. On a technical level, there are clear improvements to the engine and lighting, but the winter whiteout that enveloped Manhattan was a delight. In comparison, much of D.C. looks like it was ripped from Nier: Automata, all muddy browns and swampy greens. There are moments—particularly in bouts of extreme weather or in the meticulously-recreated American History Museum—that I find myself sitting back and really appreciating the world, but those are very few and far between. The character designs are also lacklustre, with some important NPCs looking as though they were thrown together in the game’s own creator and animated by a computer that doesn’t know how human faces work. At best, the game looks functional, but it’s certainly not the generation-defining visual titan that the original was.
In the wake of games like Anthem, Battlefield V and Destiny having their individual struggles with live game operation, I had my reservations jumping into The Division 2. Ubisoft have a stellar track record with Rainbow Six Siege and For Honor, but with so many recent missteps from other publishers and developers, it was hard to feel positive about where the game would fall. Fall it doesn’t. This game is brimming with stuff to do, and the endgame is a little overwhelming at first. Beat the story, hit level 30 and the world, frankly, comes to life. Factions become more dynamic, retaking control points and sending convoys between them; traversing the world becomes more dangerous thanks to elite patrols; dungeon-like strongholds open, offering new challenges and loot; and an entirely new faction, the Black Tusk PMC, invade the world, making missions more difficult and introducing new enemy archetypes.
The list of things that suddenly click into place in the endgame is dizzying, and with the promise of more challenging world tiers and group content to come, The Division 2 is set to be the live game of 2019. There are growing pains, including difficulty spikes, scaling problems and the usual launch-window bugs—some making the game considerably frustrating to play—but overall, it’s been seriously enjoyable and stable. And though I’m not usually one for PvP gameplay in loot-based RPGs, the improvements made to the Dark Zone are surprisingly welcoming. It’s a little easier to get around as a solo player, there’s significantly less griefing and the logistics of getting in and out are far simpler. I’m not deep enough into it to tell whether it’ll stand the test of time, but I’ve had a lot of fun rolling around, whether it’s solo, with friends or a squad of random players I bumped into.
The Division 2 is a game that comes together in a far better package than I anticipated. The story is non-existent and littered with awful messaging, the equipment and world design are artistically bland, and it could do without some of the more annoying bugs, but the tactically-engrossing combat and expansive endgame mean I’m having a hard time putting it down. Where Battlefield V and Anthem left me wondering where all the content and bugfixes are, The Division 2 has me properly excited about potential future updates and expansions.