When I previewed The Division 2 earlier this year, my excitement level was over the moon. As I’ve said before, I hold the original Division near and dear to my heart — despite all of the criticism against it — and The Division 2 seemed to be a big improvement. Well, I am exceedingly pleased to report that the full-game is everything I wanted, and a whole lot more. Though there are underlying themes that made me uncomfortable throughout my playthrough, Massive Entertainment has delivered an excellent looter shooter that, um, may take the sour taste out of your mouth left by that other game (*cough* Anthem *cough*).
The Division 2 takes place seven months after terrorists released the Green Poison, a variant of smallpox that decimated the entire globe. After the SHD (Strategic Homeland Division) network shuts down, resistance forces receive a distress signal from the Division in Washington. I, of course, as an esteemed member of the elite Division, did what any other Agent would do: I answered the call. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive the welcome party I thought I would when I got to the capital. The Division, it would seem, is not what it used to be, and Washington D.C. has been taken over by three violent factions: True Sons, a paramilitary group that are effectively white supremacists; Hyenas, a mixed bag of criminals, raiders, and drug addicts; and The Outcasts, individuals that were left in the various quarantine zones and feel abandoned by their government.
What is left of the Division and the Good Guys are a ragtag group that has taken refuge in, wait for it, the White House. Apparently, none of the enemy factions thought to capture the iconic building, so it was left conveniently for the taking. If it sounds like I am making fun of the story, you would be right.
Before I get to the good, I want to ask a really quick question: Hey, Ubisoft, do y’all just not care when it comes to story in Tom Clancy games? Judging by The Division, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and now The Division 2, I imagine that story is either last on the priority list or forgotten completely. As much as The Division 2 has improved on from the original, the story and writing continue to be glaring blind spots. Each mission’s story is a variation on 90s action films, but they never do it well, not even ironically. I don’t know how many times I scrunched my nose at a piece of a dialogue that was on the level of Air Force One-era American exceptionalism — where the good guys are the ones killing in the name of the red, white, and blue, and the bad guys are everybody else. And don’t even get me started on the voice acting!
I think Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann said it best in his Ghost Recon: Wildlands review, where he rightfully criticizes the voice acting as if “someone forgot to replace it with the ‘real’ voicework.” This, too, can be said about The Division 2. Save for a few of the main characters, the bulk of the voice acting sounds like Massive forgot to hire someone, so they settled for anyone with free time to read the lines. Early on in the game, I was tasked with saving a resistance member’s daughter. Sounds emotional, huh? You would think that would be the case, but when you find the daughter stashed away in a dingy closet, her voicework is so stilted that I am honestly curious if she even was her daughter.
With all of that said, the actual level design is terrific. It’s easy to ignore the subpar dialogue and absurd story because the missions are that good. While the formula for each level stays relatively the same — go to building, shoot bad guys, kill boss, get new loot — they were so interesting and memorable that I didn’t care. Whether I was fighting a mini-gun-slinging boss in the basement of the Air and Space Museum, or in the midst of a skirmish between two enemy factions outside of the Washington Monument, every scenario was unique and made me feel like a tactical mastermind. By the end of each level, my palms were sweaty, my breathing was haggard, and I just wanted to do it again. Whereas in the original game I can’t remember anything of significance, there are many fights in The Division 2 that will stick with me for a long time.
I’m also happy to confirm that the gameplay much better than the original. My impressions from the beta have not changed, so I don’t want to rehash in detail what was said there. Time to kill is quick, weapons feel great, and movement can still be a pain. However, I do want to talk about the phenomenal difficulty. I don’t think I felt challenged throughout the entire campaign in the first Division. Maybe I am bad at games (I don’t think I am?), but The Division 2 is tough as nails, especially for someone who plays solo. Enemies hit harder, they are smarter, your character dies faster, and tactics and strategy are much more emphasized. During the beginning of my playthrough, I tried to Rambo enemies by firing out of cover, only to be ripped to shreds in seconds. It was frustrating at first but quickly became exciting as each firefight played out differently. If the first game felt mostly mindless to get through, The Division 2 is the exact opposite, and it has been an absolute delight.
But it’s not just the missions and difficulty that makes the game stand out — it’s how complete The Division 2 is as a package. In the age of early access and live service, it’s common for AAA studios to release unfinished products and assume that their audience will accept it. In the past, reaching 1.0 meant that the game was done. There may be a patch to add some new features or fix bugs, but for all intents and purposes, 1.0 implied that what you see is what you get. Now, with titles like Fallout 76 and Anthem (games that I would charitably describe as alpha or late beta builds), “finished” no longer has the same meaning. We are given products that lack vital features, function poorly, and have content missing.
The Division 2 does not suffer from this problem. In fact, in some ways, it almost has too much to do. There are story missions, side missions, bounties, random world events, projects — all of which are interesting and never bored me. This doesn’t even include the PvP activities, like Conflict and the Dark Zone, both of which have their own leveling system and activities to complete. Not once did it feel repetitive. Whenever I got tired of completing world events, I would start a side mission. If I didn’t want to move on to the next story objective immediately, I could liberate an outpost.
Better yet, the world and its inhabitants behave dynamically. Friendly and enemy NPCs are not static; they roam the world, busying themselves with their own routines and reacting to the world realistically. Once, when I was attacking a True Son base, a pack of enemies on a supply run happened to walk by the fighting. Rather than continue on their merry way, they started to fight me as well. The funny thing was, this group was a band of Hyenas. This split the True Sons attention, so I took advantage, picking them off one by one. I took control of the base, but I still had the Hyenas to worry about. Luckily, resistance fighters close by heard the fighting and decided to help. In the midst of all the gunfire, it started to rain, lacing an eerie gloom over the bloody battleground. I love player-created stories, and The Division 2‘s world makes it easy to have your own adventures.
After finishing the main game, though, the real game starts: the endgame. At level 30, the world is invaded by a fourth faction, the Black Tusk, a private military group with a mysterious background. They are harder to kill, more organized, and relentless. To combat Black Tusk, the player is given the option of three specializations: Sharpshooter, Survivalist, and Demolitionist, which are akin to the signature skills in the first game. The endgame is a combination of figuring out what the Black Tusk wants and beating them back so D.C. doesn’t get overrun… again. A select few main missions become “invaded”, meaning they are more challenging, filled with Black Tusk soldiers, and feature different objectives. In addition, the player is thrust into the first World Tier — think of World Tiers as Torment levels in Diablo. There are four (technically five, which is supposed to come with an upcoming update) and each drops better loot while making enemies much more difficult.
It’s a lot to explain, but it illustrates how robust The Division 2‘s endgame is. Right when I thought it was done giving me content, it threw even more at me, a direct reply to the first Division’s lackluster state at launch. There is plenty to do and even more enemies to shoot, which is what makes me innately uncomfortable about this franchise.
As I tore my way through The Division 2‘s virtual Washington D.C., ripping apart bad guys to and fro as if they were made of papier-mâché, the rifleman’s creed kept pounding through my head: “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine”.
The Division 2 is many things. It’s a dense RPG, replete with stats, character builds, and gear scores. It’s an action-romp with cheesy characters and even more cringe-worthy voice lines. Even more so, it’s an online looter-shooter where you and a friend can team up to take on an endless number of paramilitary warlords, raiders, disenfranchised outcasts, and black op agents, all in the name of shiny loot.
Perhaps, above all though, The Division 2 is a game about guns. When you kill enemies, they drop new guns. For every new puzzle or objective, my gun was usually the solution. Throughout the entire campaign, there is not a single mission where I was told, “Hey, maybe we should try to talk this one out”. More often than not, the phrase “whatever means necessary” was relayed to me as I pumped bullet after bullet into an enemy.
I have been playing video games for a long time. On that note, I have been playing violent video games for about the same length of time. The Division is not the first game to ask players to use their weapon as a means to an end, nor will it be the last. For the entirety of the fifty hours I spent picking up loot, taking over enemy control points, and saving resistance members from executions, I had some of the most fun I have had in a video game in a long time. I’m not saying all of this to condemn The Division 2. For all intents and purposes, The Division 2 will end up on my game of the year list. But there is something inherently off-putting about a game that fetishizes gun use and lethal force as much as this one does.
In my reviews, I often bring up current events as a way to contextualize my feelings within the world at large. Just last week, a white supremacist terrorist killed over 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. As I kept acquiring better, more deadly weapons, this news was always in my head. This is a game that is built upon winning through superior firepower. Between all the fun I was having, I often wondered, “Why isn’t there an option for non-lethal force? Why can’t I communicate with words rather than bullets?” I understand that this is an online shooter where options for non-lethal force would most likely break the game, and yet I still have these questions.
My answers, it seems, were always in plain sight, in the ancient text of the United States military. As it says in the Rifleman’s Creed, “Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless.” Violence is intrinsic in military conflict, an ethos The Division 2 plasters and glorifies on every corner, every enemy, every derelict building, every resistance fighter, and every gun I used.
I am fairly good at using games as escapism, and in the end, I was able to appreciate The Division 2 for what it absolutely nails, and it nails a lot. The Division 2 is an excellent video game, one that — if the original is any indication — I will be playing for a long, long time. I have already formed a clan (we’re the Comedy Fans, hit me up if you want in), I am planning out the perfect build for my playstyle, and I am closely following the news to see when new features will be added. In short, I am all in. The questions above will always be in my head whenever I play, and, quite frankly, I’m glad — they will help me think critically about a medium I love. Hopefully, more developers can start earnestly exploring these themes. The Division 2 is not that game, and I don’t know if it has to be. What I do know is it is a game I thoroughly enjoy that forces me to think about uncomfortable things, however unintentional it might be.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided by Ubisoft.
Although The Division 2 is not a perfect game, most evident in its story and murky politics, it improves on almost everything from the original.