The Division 2 Review – A Big Improvement

It’s pretty crazy that both Anthem and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 launched in the same month, both offering stacks of loot and lots of shooting. On paper, at least, Anthem sounded like such a cool prospect versus the more grounded reality of The Division 2. Mechanized suits, an alien world, potentially awesome types of loot to hunt down. Yet here we are: Anthem was a disappointment and The Division 2 has wound up improving on the first game in nearly every area. Even with the constraints on loot that a realistic setting imposes the people at Massive have crafted a more interesting loot system than Bioware could manage with their creative freedom. So let’s delve in and review Tom Clancy’s The Division 2.

The Story, Or Rather The Lack Of

Considering that Tom Clancy was a prolific and skilled writer known for crafting great stories the original Division didn’t manage to tell a compelling story. I was hoping to see improvement in The Division 2, but sadly the plot here is arguably more forgettable and stingy than the prior game.

So, to recap the basic premise of the franchise: a deadly virus was unleashed on America by infecting money during Black Friday. As one of the Division agents – a group of sleeper agents living among the population who are activated for situations such as this – you head to Washington D.C. and must aid survivors in dealing with the numerous factions who have risen from the ashes. Your ultimate job is to help re-establish the government, using the White House as your base of operations.

Prior to the launch of The Division 2 a lot was said about Ubisoft shying away from the inherently political themes found within The Division. This is certainly true with Ubisoft placing plenty of politically charged concepts into the game. Hell, in the intro alone the cinematic points out that some people had guns and others did not, and that this played a large role in who survived and who perished.

However, while it does annoy me to see such things brought up but never explored the game’s story problems are much simpler than that. There’s a lack of any interesting or memorable characters. As before your own Division Agent is completely mute, an awkward trope that requires stellar characterization in the rest of the cast to counter which The Division 2 doesn’t manage. I can’t remember a single person’s name.

The story itself is largely drivel, too. It tries to introduce interesting things like rescuing the president but manages to both it at almost every point. There’s nothing of substance, no plot points that grab your attention.

The Combat Loop, And Why It’s Great

The big changes come in the form of the enemies you face down. In The Division the various goons you battled where a stupid bunch who made up for their lack of smarts by being able to soak up bullets. This tended to make firefights a chore because you could hunker down and just pop up to shoot the targets, only occasionally moving. However, in The Division 2 the enemy A.I. has gone to college, gotten a few diplomas in How To Kick Agent Arse and deployed onto the battlefield with an urge to prove itself. Enemies are aggressive, will flush you out with grenades and melee attacks and then flank you constantly. As a result you have to always be watching with a keen eye and you need to move smartly to avoid being flanked or pinned down.

The developers intelligently mix the enemies, too, so that you wind up with a heavy gunner and sniper pinning you down while shotgun wielding nutcases move in from both sides. In the first Division you could have still popped your head up, soaked up the bullets and downed a target or two. Here, however, the health system has been reworked so that you’re now quite squishy. It doesn’t take much to blast through the new armor system, which can only be replenished by an armor kit that takes time to apply or a few special skills that also take time. Once your initial armor is gone your health is limited. In other words, if you get pinned down and those shotgun goons are closing in, you’re in a crapload of trouble.

This all encourages better use of your two chosen skills because in general cooldown times are longer. Clever use of a turret, for example, can help lock down a potential flanking route so that you can feel a little bit safer, while having a drone marking enemy locations is invaluable, especially if playing solo.

As for the enemies the developers have reworked them, too. In the first game they were made harder by simply ramping up the amount of damage they could take. In sci-fi games this works, but in a more realistic setting a human being taking entire magazines worth of bullets was strange. Apparently this was because The Division could only have a small number of A.I. at a time, so health was bumped up to make fights take longer. Now, though, there are a lot of bad guys with standard red health bars who can be put down surprisingly quickly, mixed in with enemies who have chunky armour. The armour is a smart way to explain their ability to soak up damage, but you can focus your fire to break off specific pieces of armor in order to expose the flesh human inside. Skills like the Chem Launcher also let you deal with heavily armoured foes more effectively.

Speaking of which, let me rant about the enemy that consistently caused me to panic; the hammer wielding, armoured lunatics. There’s nothing subtle about these guys, they just charge at you with a freaking sledgehammer and can take you down scarily fast. Their heavy armour often resulting in me freaking the fuck out while running around, because the game loves to pop them into tight environments with a few regular enemies for good measure. Imagine desperately jogging around trying to evade regular bullets while some lunatic with a sledgehammer tries to turn your skull into a jelly dessert.

What I’m ultimately getting at is that while combat in the first Division felt rote and often like a chore, every fight in The Division 2 was thrilling, fun and challenging. I’d usually run into combat in the first game without a thought, knowing I’d blast through it easily. But in The Division I went in knowing that I could get killed quite easily and that it was going to be a genuine challenge.

Mission Design, And How To Make It Pretty

It’s a good thing that the combat has been so vastly improved because the basic mission structure in The Division 2 has been left largely untouched. You waltz in and proceed through numerous arenas, gunning down everything in your path before it usually culminates in a named enemy.

But the developers have seemingly realized that while the looter-shooter genre basically boils down to doing the same thing over and over in the name of shiny loot, the way to handle it is to disguise that loop. To that end, mission locations are more varied and interesting. One fight takes place inside a planetarium while images of Earth and space are being projected onto the walls. Another one has you shooting away in a Vietnam war recreation. You’ll get to visit museums and various Washington D.C. landmarks, all of which serve to help hide the fact that you’re just doing fight after fight. It’s like sticking a dress and lipstick on a pig. I mean, yeah, sure, it’s still a pig, but at least it’s a pretty pig, amiright? Anyone? No? Okay, then.

Improved Open World

The original Division’s world was an atmospheric place to explore, a ruined version of New York covered in a dusting of snow. For the Division 2 the setting has shifted over to Washington D.C. and the snow has vanished in favour of a brighter colors and a dynamic weather system. At first the more eeiry atmosphere of the first game seems like it might have vanished, but in reality it hasn’t. There’s still a sense of loneliness as you explore the abandoned streets, but now there’s also a little more life to be found in roving civilian patrols and the occasional settlement where people are trying to make a life.

The new weather system is a superb addition. There are times when a thick fog will settle on the streets, obscuring your vision and turning firefights into a much more tense affair since you rely on sound to pinpoint the baddies. Other times a storm can roll in, the echoing boom of thunder and the downpour of heavy rain making a fight feel dramatic.

One of the things that I didn’t enjoy in The Division was how exploration often felt pointless. There was a vast city that looked beautiful and detailed, yet there wasn’t much reason to venture off the main streets while you moved from one mission to another. For the sequel it seems Massive knew this time and now there are loot boxes to be found everywhere, as well as a few special side-missions and even some unique boss characters waiting to be found.

Now as you explore the streets random activities will pop up, things like rescuing some hostages or disabling a propaganda broadcast. The XP and loot rewards for doing these things has been bumped up a lot since the first game, ensuring that taking the time to tackle them feels worthwhile.

Everything feeds into the few Settlements strewn around the map and their associated Projects. Completing a project usually requires that you donate some gear, complete activities around the map or perhaps collect SHD Caches that have been sprinkled around Washington D.C. Your hard work is rewarded with big chunks of XP, new bounty opportunities and crafting recipes so that you can mod your weapons and armour. It’s a solid economy that helps you feel like you’re always making progressing, always getting new stuff, always levelling up.

But What About The Loot?

By comparison The Division 2 rains down loot like its afraid you won’t love it any more if it doesn’t give you lots of shiny, shiny toys. New chest pieces, knee guards, assault rifles, shotguns and mods are dished out at a fast pace. Perhaps it’s because the realistic setting of The Division means even its exotic gear is still pretty tame, so to make up for that the game just gives you loads and loads of stuff.

There’s certainly plenty of room for focusing your Agent’s build, even if some of the new stat changes take some getting used to. Skill Power, for example, doesn’t actually increase the effectiveness of your chosens skills, rather you just need a have enough Skill Power to equip certain skill mods.

Speaking of mods they’ve been changed slightly, too. In The Division you could slap a new scope, suppressor and grip onto your favorite assault rifle and they would all provide stat boosts. Now, though, each and every modification offers positive and negative boosts, thus a certain scope might improve accuracy by 20% but drop the damage you do to elite enemies by 15%. It’s an interesting change and one that I personally like as it makes modifying weapons a more thoughtful experience.

The Endgame Review

The end game is where we’ve seen The Division, Destiny and lately Anthem fail to deliver. Everything leading up to the endgame has often felt lacking, and then once you get through the story there’s been…nothing. Instead we’ve had promises of things being better in the future, a nebulous promise at best. Companies seem more intent on ever than selling customers on roadmaps rather than the game at hand.

So I’m quite pleased to say that The Division 2 offers up a robust and fun endgame. Once you hit the level 30-cap and finish up the campaign missions an ominous cutscene plays that shows a new faction named the Black Tusk invading D.C. These guys are a former paramilitary group packing technology to rival your own as well as stompy robots and a variety of new tricks. They immediately reset your map, which is actually rather saddening since all the work you put in capturing control points and freeing D.C. essentially gets wiped out.

Once you hit the end game the levelling system you’ve been adhering to is ditched in favor of gear being given a Power rating. Your new goal is to boost this rating until it gets high enough to let you tackle one of the Black Tusk Strongholds, although first you need to complete Invaded missions which are the campaign missions with a Black Tusk twist thrown in for good measure.

In some ways it’s a lazy system since it does re-use all the existing missions, strongholds and Control Points, but the Black Tusk offer enough of a new combat experience to keep things feeling fun. They are aggressive, bring new tricks to fights and offer up new enemy types such as attack dogs.

You also unlock Specialization options, three unique classes that offer a signature weapon and a new skill tree. The survivalist, for example, nets you a grenade launcher, while another Specialization gives you a crossbow. You’re free to swap between Specializations whenever you feel like it, so you can have some fun experimenting.

Control Points become a larger point of contention as enemy factions will battle for control of them, fighting each other and you. It make fast travelling around the map harder, but taking back a Control Point lets you access the supply room again for a pile of loot. Normally, a Control Point’s supply room will restock every 24hrs to give you a constant supply of loot, but factions retaking Control Points sort of speeds things up.

Once you power through the missions and your first Stronghold your World Tier level will increase, making enemies harder and gear more powerful. You do the cycle again, completing two missions and a different stronghold to increase yourself to World Tier 3. Then you do it one last time until you reach World Tier 4. At which you’ve done most of the major content, but a fourth stronghold remains locked, a tantalizing glimpse at your next objective whenever Ubisoft opens the gate. At this final World Tier you’re free to kick back and tackle strongholds, do activities, fight for control points and soak up loot. Raids and new content are all promised for the future with everything apparently going to be free to all players.

Along with the main campaign which took me about 25-hours to get through the end game feels substantial enough to keep me playing for a while yet. Other smaller things such as a new NPC that appears offering up tricky bounty targets which in turn unlock a special vendor help keep me interested, as do the weekly and daily challenges.

The Dodgy Dark Zone

The Dark Zone was arguably the most divisive feature of The Division, a portion of the map where players could turn on other players if they choose while also still fighting the A.I. It was a fascinating idea on paper, but in practice it never did manage to sort itself out as players with high level gear would make mincemeat out of newer players. The first big change combats this, because now when you head into the Dark Zone your gear stats get normalized, putting you on relatively even footing with other players. With a proper fighting chance stepping foot into the Dark Zone should be viable for new players.

There is a single area, though, where stats don’t get normalized so anybody who spends the time required to obtain higher loot will be able to obliterate players who have lower tier gear. This area is referred to as being Invaded, a chunk of Dark Zone where the Black Tusk hang out and all players are classified as Rogue, meaning they can engage each other without penalty.

Speaking of going rogue the temptation to gun down a fellow Divison agent is always present, especially as you watch them hook up their valuable loot to a chopper for extraction. The rogue system has been expanded so that it’s now possible to go rogue by hacking into certain loot containers. Like before, though, turning your back on the Division means other players can gun you down freely, thus to survive you can either hold out until a timer hits zero or you can attempt to find the Thieves Den by performing certain activities around the city. Find the den and you get a nice hunk of XP for your troubles, plus some bonus loot.

The Dark Zone remains a wonderfully tense place to hang out. There’s now normal loot that you can pick up and keep, so even if you get gunned down at least you’ll typically have something to show for it. But as always the star of the show is the contaminated loot which must be extracted via helicopter, which in turn alerts everybody that a player is trying to get some tasty loot out of the Dark Zone. The wait for the helicopter to arrive feels like an eternity, and the terror you feel as a solo player when a few other Agents come sauntering by is immense.

The Dark Zone can still be a place of friendships, too. Just as much as I ran into squads hunting for lone wolves like myself or smaller groups I also encountered friendly agents who tagged along on my excursions. Sometimes we chatted, sometimes entire partnerships were formed without a single spoken word, just a couple of emotes like waving and jumping jacks. At times the Dark Zone can be infuriating, and at others its capable of producing fantastic stories.

Some Technical Hiccups

The Division’s launch a few years back did not exactly go smoothly, so I’m glad to report that The Division 2 is certainly a more polished product out of the (digital) box. With that said there are still issues to be found. Personally I experienced numerous crashes back to desktop, frequently making me lose considerable progress in Strongholds or longer missions.

Connection problems also hampered a lot of my time with the game. Some were simply due to poor Internet on my end, but there were also a lot of times when it seemed to be on the game’s end, especially when it came to grouping up with other players – they’d often just lose connection and vanish.

As smart and satisfying as the A.I. can be to battle against they’re also capable of performing some truly stupid acts. They’ll run madly across a big open space, then proceed to charge back again while you rain down bullets.

I also ran across a couple of examples of things failing to trigger during missions. Luckily they were relatively easy to fix as going backwards through the level and then moving forward again usually resulted in things triggering properly.

I have no doubt that there’s a variety of other problems to be found since its a huge game. But the developers seem to be working quickly to fix what needs to be fixed before moving onto balance changes and future content.

Closing Thoughts

Frustratingly we live in a world where a game needs to be praised for feeling complete and satisfying on launch. Yet here we are: The Division 2 actually feels like a whole package capable of providing hours and hours of fun straight out of the box. The promise of more content to come only sweetens the deal.

But let’s talk about the important stuff, shall we? The Division 2 feels like what the original game should have been. It’s a good sequel, taking almost everything about The Division and improving on it. The core loops of fighting and looting feels superb, while the open world has been fleshed out with more interesting activities and a sense of dynamism that was missing from The Division.

It’s just a shame that The Division 2 doesn’t have a strong story to support it. It’s baffling to me that with games like Far Cry 5 and The Division being built on intriguing political and ethical foundations that Ubisoft then seems so intent on claiming that their games are free of politics.

Still, what we’ve gotten is a robust looter-shooter that feels like it runs rings around Anthem’s slim end game and miserly loot. It’s still a looter-shooter at its core and thus the trappings of the genre are present, so if the idea of doing the same things over and over in the name of better loot doesn’t appeal to you then The Division 2 simply won’t change your mind. If piles of shiny new gear haunt your every waking moment, though, then The Division 2 is arguably the best looter-shooter since Borderlands 2 introduced the idea of a diamond pony called Butt Stallion.