Hey, come here. Come closer. No, closer.
Despite criticism, I always thought The Division was a terrific game, and I think the second is going to be exponentially better. There, I said it. It feels good to get that off my chest.
I spent the weekend plunging into The Divison 2‘s private beta, and boy, are my arms tired. I played the ever-loving heck out of the first game, so I have been chomping at the bit to get my hands on the follow-up, which is out in just over a month. Though the first game was not perfect by any stretch, Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment created a deep, RPG-heavy looter shooter that emphasized stats and customizable builds; everything I love about video games. It also helped that The Division‘s recreation of New York City was beautiful, lonely, and downright eerie, making exploration feel interesting and voyeuristic as I picked up leftover cell phones, messages, and notes from survivors. Over the course of three years, Massive also added a bevy of interesting DLC, from replayable dungeons to an excellent survivor mode. Though they started off shaky, Ubisoft proved that they want their game to succeed through relentless updates and free add-ons, positioning it nicely for expansion with a second game.
After playing the private beta, I am not only excited but relatively certain that The Division 2 has learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, and is making the right decisions with its direction.
In the first game, although the world was large — and did a terrific job at nailing the loneliness of an empty NYC — it felt too lonely far too often because there was nothing to do. Sure, there were missions, side missions, encounters, and collectibles strewn about the city, but they felt like individual parts rather than a whole. Any reason it did give you to explore, like the side missions and encounters, were so thin and boring that I barely remember anything. The side missions mostly boiled down to, “Go to this place and then defend against bad guys”, and the encounters were the same three types over and over again. Worse yet, unlike its contemporaries — namely Destiny, which was the go-to comparison at the time — you didn’t see fellow players roaming around the city to make things more alive, only the occasional NPC that could not be interacted with unless they needed water.
Within the first hour of playing the beta, I could already tell that Massive is going to great lengths to make their virtual Washington D.C. far more realized than NYC. After my brief tutorial mission, in which I straight up told terrorists to get off the White House’s lawn with my gun, I entered the city for the first time to head to a mission. On my way to the waypoint, I encountered pockets of fighting between enemy factions and friendly resistance, NPCs working to fix an electrical array and tending to a garden for food, enemy-held outposts that I could overtake with the help of reinforcements, supply drops, public executions, a propaganda signal that I could retool to help the resistance — are you starting to get the point?
There is so much to see and do in The Division 2. For the first few hours, I was completely overwhelmed by the onslaught of tutorial messages introducing me to new features and the sheer volume of activities on the way to any given objective. Perhaps it was so shocking because of how stark the first game is in this regard. Even the wildlife, which was basically just one stray dog in the original Division, is teeming with life. I saw deer, birds, raccoons, squirrels, and, yes, dogs. The world, although derelict and destroyed, is gorgeous and bursting at the seams — and I haven’t even gotten to all of the added base and settlement mechanics.
As you complete missions, the more features open up to you in your base of operations and settlements. While everything looked mostly familiar from the first game, there are a few changes and additions. First and foremost, settlements and projects. The beta didn’t go deep into explaining how exactly settlements will work in the full game, but from what I saw, they are a big deal. There is only one settlement available in the beta, so it’s hard to say if the intention is for there to be others. If there are, it remains to be seen how they will impact gameplay and interact with one another. With that said, the settlement I saw was cool as hell. Similarly to the base of operations, the settlement has vendors, upgrades, projects to work on throughout the game, and littered with NPCs. Not only do players have to think about upgrading their base, but they will also have to run missions and collect materials for settlements.
Projects are objectives that players can complete for their base and settlement to add new areas, like a game room to keep the kids of the apocalypse occupied, or acquire new blueprints. It’s a nice, subtle addition that encourages players to actually interact with the world. Most projects require materials, finding tech, resupplying friendly NPCs (which I think is so darn cool, and a welcome addition), or defeating enemies within the world.
All of this sounds great, but it would be nothing if the game itself did not play well. Don’t worry about that, though, because the second installment controls like a dream. Though it can still feel like a water level when you’re moving quickly from cover to cover, everything around the gameplay mechanics has improved significantly. Shooting is more punchy, cover continues to be smooth, and enemies die in an instant. Say goodbye to bullet sponge enemies — this time around, I poured through enemies easily. Even shielded and elite enemies die within 2 or 3 clips, which is a far cry from the first game. With enemies going down faster, your player can also go down quickly.
Players now have armor and health. When armor is depleted, health goes down in a blink of an eye, putting a stronger emphasis on cover, strategy, and tactical movement. Rather than medkits, you now have armor kits at your disposal, and they take around three full seconds to apply — a contrast to the instant healing from health kits in the first game. It’s no longer safe to simply create an overpowered build and run around outside of cover like the Hulk. If you move outside of cover and start to go Rambo, you will be on your ass quickly.
I also had the chance to play an Invasion, one of the endgame missions included in the beta, with a fully kitted, high-level character. I lost connection just as I was entering the last portion of the mission, but I played enough to get the gist. Outside of a few new weapons, skills, and enemies, I don’t have much to say. It was definitely cool, but it was such a small part of the endgame (I would imagine) that it’s hard to get an impression. Although, what I did get to do was try out the new signature weapons, which take place of signature abilities in the first game. My badass commando lady had an explosive crossbow (think the torque bow from Gears of War). At any given time, I could whip my bow out and stick an explosive arrow on an enemy. I’m not sure if there will be more to the signature weapons in the main game, but it was still cool to see.
For the most part, my experience with the beta was exceedingly positive. At one point, I completely forgot that I was dealing with a beta, and found myself playing for hours on end. However, I do remain hesitant toward the number of bugs I saw. Texture pop-in galore, framerate hitches, and audio bugs plagued each and every one of my play sessions. As much fun as I was having, it was annoying to see all the textures load-in around me and hear the enemy yell the same threat on a loop because the audio glitched out. I know how much trouble the original game had with bugs at the beginning, so I am hoping they can at least solve the more heinous problems for launch day.
Regardless, I had a great time. I won’t say these games are perfect. The first game was littered with gross messaging: military fetishization, the over-policing of a populace, and the backward logic in the Division’s message as an entity in upholding order by gunning down looters. And, this time, The Division 2 is even more rife with political tension, given the setting and the trash fire happening in the news every day. I am interested to see how the developer handles that, assuming they do decide to address it. For the fifteen hours I spent with the beta, though, I didn’t think much else than, “Dang, this is awesome” as I felt my excitement grow. I can’t wait to get my hands on the full game. Who knows, maybe they will say something poignant about modern politics too.
This preview is based on time spent with PlayStation 4 version of The Division 2‘s private beta. Access was provided by Ubisoft.