Release Date: March 15, 2019Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Massive EntertainmentPublisher: UbisoftGenre: Loot Shooter
After the dishearteningly poor launch of Anthem last month, it’s refreshing to jump into Ubisoft’s The Division 2, a polished loot shooter that’s a blast to play right out of the gate. What’s more, the game is significantly improved over its predecessor, offering a tighter, more engaging campaign, a smoother progression system, a plethora of endgame content, and more.
Co-op play is the focus here (though there is also PvP available in the PvPvE Dark Zone), and after playing through over 30 hours both solo and with teammates, squading up is the way to go. It’s really fantastic seeing the way your play style, custom loadouts, and special skills work in concert with other players’ setups in wildly different and exciting ways. Playing solo is doable, if at times insanely difficult (the turret skill is your best friend), but the matchmaking is smooth enough and the gameplay is so finely calibrated for co-op that there’s no excuse to not at least try teaming up.
The game is set in Washington D.C., and the map is staggeringly expansive, littered with recognizable landmarks and museums that provide a surprisingly varied array of exterior and interior environments to explore and wage war across. Graphically, the game is sharp, detailed, and performs well even in the midst of copious amounts of onscreen chaos.
Facial animations and weather effects leave something to be desired, and the overall art design is mostly typical post-apocalyptic future fare that doesn’t feel all that inspired or unique, though Tom Clancy fans will feel right at home in the milieu. There are a few spectacular sights to behold on the main map, like the Washington Monument and a downed Air Force One, and these areas really benefit from the game’s ability to convey an epic sense of scale.
The main missions showcase the most artful environments by far, with the standout being the American Art Museum, where you shoot your way through the trenches of a Vietnam War exhibit, and the Air and Space Museum, which boasts a dazzling planetarium light show and a Mars exhibit that uses mood lighting in a way that you won’t see anywhere else in the game. Other standouts are a half-functioning TV studio, the sprawling Outcasts compound, and the Space Administration HQ, whose alarm system highlights the building’s curvaceous architecture in a surprisingly cool-looking way. As I played, I became eager to tackle main missions almost exclusively to see what kinds of environments the designers would show me next.
The game map is perpetually peppered with main missions, side missions, and support activities to engage in, and unlike the first game, the tasks almost always feel worthwhile and substantive. While you will be carrying out some similar tasks multiple times over, the depth of the gameplay helps to avoid any sense of repetitiveness that might sink in over time. In my time with the game, while I did, at times, certainly notice that I was hijacking enemy radio broadcasts and thwarting public executions quite regularly, the different environments and enemy types helped break up the cycle to where no task ever felt like a chore.
It’s hard to overstate how impressive the enemy AI is and how much this adds to the experience. Your opponents seem to constantly be strategizing and communicating with each other in their attempts to flank and flush you out, which forces you to play dynamically, take risks, and adapt quickly. Because it’s so fun to lock horns with even lower-tiered enemies, even jumping into random gunfights on the street is fun as you sneak up on grunts from behind and help turn the tide of battle in favor of your allies.
There are three enemy factions to contend with—the True Sons, Outcasts, and Hyenas—each with unique battle strategies and enemy types, which extend the replayability of the various missions and activities. Control Points, for example, which grant you a fast travel point and additional exploration perks if overtaken, are fun to replay since enemy types can change. Plus, once you’ve beaten the game, each of these Control Points (along with most missions and strongholds) can be replayed with redesigned layouts and increased difficulty thanks to the Black Tusk, a new enemy faction with an affinity for deadly drones and robot dogs that plagues the map once you’ve eliminated the first three. These Control Point battles all play out in four stages, with you and your NPC allies breaking through the first wave of baddies defending the base, then fighting off the tank-ish leader, then defending the Control Point against another wave and another armored leader. These battles never got old, and they were terrific fun to tackle with friends.
If you didn’t care for the bullet sponginess of enemies from the first game, that issue has been more or less addressed this time around. The bigger brutes are outfitted with heavy armor that, once worn down and knocked off, expose a weak point that can be exploited with well-placed gunfire. There were certain occasions where I found myself balking at the fact that I could sink a dozen bullets into an unarmored baddie’s face and torso only to have them dice for cover unfazed, but this was a minor annoyance.
Another gripe I have is with the cover system, which at times didn’t feel snappy or responsive enough. Every split second counts when sprinting from cover to cover, and often times I’d die as I was trying desperately to duck behind a barricade or unstick myself from a cover spot to no avail. In these moments I definitely felt as though I was fighting the controls a bit, but this only happened occasionally.
Massive did a good job of designing the loot and progression systems in such a way that you’re constantly picking up interesting weapons, gear, and mods, while also acquiring new skills and improving old ones. This constant stream of goodies keeps you just incentivized enough to keep pulling you forward through the campaign without overwhelming you with too much at once. The balance here is truly impressive and, more importantly, makes the game a super fun playthrough even after you’ve completed the lengthy campaign.
Endgame content is great, with a steep uptick in difficulty and a new progression system that will surely keep you playing if you’ve enjoyed the gameplay up to this point. As you clear the remixed enemy strongholds, you work your way up five World Tiers, with each affording you access to more powerful loot. I found the weapons and gear to be delightful, especially the higher-end loot. Modding equipment really affects how they look and feel, and it even became exciting for me to pick up new backpacks just to see how cool they looked with my other gear.
The best thing about the endgame is that your skills are really pushed to the limit with the increased difficulty, which makes everything post-credits feel like the true meat and potatoes of the experience rather than just a shallow extension of the main campaign.
The Dark Zone returns from the first game with a few tweaks (PvP is optional this time around), and it’ll be interesting to see how these areas grow in the future. There are now three Dark Zones to explore: East, South, and West. Each of these areas has a different feel as far as the way the landscape and architecture are laid out, with my favorite being South, which is centered on the city’s waterfront and its more claustrophobic areas and tight corners.
The biggest change to the Dark Zone this time around is that player stats are normalized across the board, which makes PvP more accessible for less experienced players. I mostly shied away from the Dark Zone in the first game, but it was a much more enjoyable experience this time around. Linking up with friends to take down other squads and hunt for superior loot was a blast, and while more experienced players will often try to steal your loot and have the upper hand since they’ll most likely have better gear, it’s totally possible for new players to hold their own against the vets.
I actually found myself going on a bit of a rampage at one point, attempting to kill other players and take their stuff for myself, which labeled me a “rogue player” (if I had continued down this evil path, I would have been labeled a “disavowed” agent and marked on other players’ maps). This is totally uncharacteristic of my typical playstyle and speaks to just how much more approachable and balanced the Dark Zones are this time around.
The Division 2 is wonderful. It’s an immense experience that’s fun to play both solo and with a team, and I can’t imagine I’ll tire of playing and hunting for powerful loot any time soon—the endgame content is exceptional. There are some graphical hitches here and there, the campaign storytelling is utterly forgettable, and the cover-based mechanics aren’t quite perfect, but this is all easily forgivable considering how much value the game offers right out of the gate.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.