The Division 2 Review — We Can Walk Our Road Together
Ubisoft's latest entry in its third-person shooter franchise The Division is a breath of fresh air in a world filled with flawed loot shooters.
There is something about playing a loot shooter that has practical design sensibilities that are just refreshing. Especially, in my case, coming off Anthem, those feelings are increased tenfold, The Division 2 is a “games as a service” done right. Despite some bugs and one very frustrating mission, Ubisoft’s follow-up is a worthy sequel with a ton of content right out of the box.
Set several months after the original game, The Division 2 starts with your created character defending a settlement from bandits. As you assume control of the settlement, the SHD (Strategic Homeland Division) network–the network controlling the unit’s comms and tech–has unexpectedly shut down. You promptly receive a distress call with coordinates that lead to Washington, D.C.
Turns out the Green Poison virus wasn’t contained within New York and has spread to the nation’s capital. However, that isn’t the only thing that has taken control. Three rebel groups, the Hyenas, True Sons, and Outcasts have assumed control of D.C. and the Division needs to help take it back.
The story of The Division 2–which is usually the driving force for most games–feels as inconsequential as spilling a drop of water on my 12-year-old pair of jeans. There was hardly a moment I knew the reasoning behind my actions, nor did I care. All I knew was I had to do something to help the Division take back D.C. and this mission would help me accomplish that. Oh, and there would be about a small town’s worth of people trying to stop you, no matter how minor the matter.
A lot of my problems with The Division 2’s story stem from the mission structure and the subpar dialogue that goes along with it. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t repetitive. Every mission mostly follows a pattern: Help the SHD gain access to something they need, eradicate the threat, and get new loot. The dialogue behind these missions does not stand out in any way, shape, or form. It was just there for the sake of moving things along.
That notion carries over to basically the entire story. It really feels like it is there to just move you along a path rather than attempt to tell something interesting given the political setting they have housed The Division 2 within. It would seem like a waste, considering its political setting, if the game just wasn’t so darn good.
When it was announced the SHD would be heading to the capital, I didn’t really see how Ubisoft would get creative with level design beyond having a firefight at the White House or the Lincoln Memorial. Boy, I was wrong.
Not every mission was a unique set piece but each one felt cleverly designed to challenge the player while still feeling fair. There are a select few missions that do have great environments, namely the museum locations as well as the beginning of the subway mission. I was genuinely surprised at just how creative the developers were with some of these locales. From the Vietnam exhibit to the Mars set, many of the game’s environments were pleasant surprises and a clear deviation from the original’s redundant snowy streets and office buildings.
However, on a graphical level, there is nothing to get too excited about it. The Division 2 isn’t unlike anything we’ve seen in the past few years. In some ways, it’s worse considering the terrible texture pop-in that occurs even while playing on an Xbox One X. It doesn’t take you out of the experience by any means, but it isn’t some technical achievement, either.
An integral part of loot shooters is, well, the loot and The Division 2 has a whole lot of it. The loot itself isn’t supposed to contain crazy sci-fi weapons we’ve seen in other loot shooters since it is grounded in reality. This is all fine though since it all fits in this alternate reality of the U.S.
It was also nice to see that every mission throughout The Division 2 gave me better loot. The feeling of getting a purple or gold colored piece of gear at a low level is so satisfying. That is a key ingredient to a loot-driven game and The Division 2 hands out new and better loot consistently.
The only complaint I have about the loot is the actual variety of weapons and armor. While there is a ton of loot to grab, a lot of it is just the same piece of gear with different stats. Throughout the first thirty hours of play, I’ve received dozens of M16s or knee pads that look exactly the same as its inferior version.
Speaking of weapons, they control nicely too. It isn’t as tight as I would like, but for PvE scenarios, it works as intended. The only weapon type I thought were underwhelming were shotguns. It just felt like I was shooting a potato out of a canon. It didn’t feel like that powerful close quarters weapon I was looking for. I would have a better chance of just modding my sniper rifle to not have a magnifying scope and shooting oncoming enemies down in one hit.
The modding itself is actually one of the more impressive quality-of-life improvements in The Division 2. Just about every weapon you acquire can be modded. However, instead of weapon mods taking up an inventory slot, it actually acts more like a skill and can be used on multiple weapons at the same time. So, if the weapon allows it, you can use your one 4x scope on all of your equipped weapons. It’s a nice touch that gets rid of some of the hassles of inventory management.
These mods can be unlocked the same way you unlock perks for your character which can be found at the base of operations. In addition to some of the mods, this is where you can expend your SHD points which can be acquired from completing missions or exploring Washington, D.C. These perks will include increased inventory space to a boost experience from performing headshot kills.
On the surface, some of these perks seem inconsequential but as you progress, they all become very useful. Namely, perks like increased armor packs and grenades are incredibly helpful, especially if you are playing alone. You’ll also earn more and more loot as you go taking up most of your inventory space. The perks aren’t game changers but they certainly will help you out as you progress.
Another part of your arsenal includes eight skills you can choose to use: pulse, seeker mine, turret, hive, chem launcher, drone, firefly, and shield. As you complete missions, you will earn skill points which can be used to unlock skills or skill mods; unlocking the skill only takes one skill point while unlocking a mod will take five skill points. Each skill, which you can equip two at one time, has around three to four skill mods that work very differently from one another.
I would say the skills you choose directly influence your playstyle more than your weapons. In a way, the skills are the base of your playstyle and the guns complement that. For example, I ended up favoring the hive and the turret because I preferred a more long range style of combat. The hive can act as an AoE that distracts oncoming enemies while the turret can finish off closer enemies while I pick off enemies at long range.
I also favored a more offensive strategy because I played much of The Division 2 by myself. When I did matchmake, it made me want to try out some of the more defensive or healing skills. The problem with that is I’ve only found eight skill points total. Since an additional mod for a skill costs five points and I favored an offensive style, I purchased all offensive mods. It was a bit disheartening that, at some point, I would have access to all the mods but that didn’t necessarily deter me from playing in any way.
The moment-to-moment loop may be repetitive but it’s also ridiculously fun, satisfying, and rewarding. The gameplay is not unlike the original; it is still a third-person cover shooter with special abilities and difficult enemy encounters. It plays well but it doesn’t go above and beyond what the original did. However, it is how they fixed the problems from the previous entry that make The Division 2 a worthy sequel.
One of the most prevalent problems from the first was the bullet-sponge nature of the enemies. This meant that the challenge was less about strategy and more about outlasting your opponent. This time around, enemies go down rather quickly. Even armored enemies aren’t too much of a hassle. It’s not until you get into late and end game content where enemies get “spongier” but even then, it never felt unfair.
The Division 2 also has smarter enemy AI, leading to situations that require a more strategic approach to each encounter. Enemies would find ways to flank me, affecting both my choice in abilities and how and when I would use them. Instead of either taking out an armored enemy first or last depending on the situation, I found myself taking out certain enemy types that I found problematic like grenadiers or melee enemies. This meant using my abilities effectively and positioning myself in the most advantageous spot. Rather than being a glorified, high budget shooting gallery, The Division 2 made me think about how I tackle each situation.
If it hasn’t been hinted enough yet, all of this leads to a rather difficult experience, especially alone. Personally, I played every mission alone up until level 15. Once I got to the latter half, enemy encounters became too overwhelming for just one person. It can totally be done, but it would be so difficult and frustrating.
As such, matchmaking is available but only for main missions and Strongholds which are essentially harder main missions with better rewards. From what I found, you cannot matchmake for side missions which is kind of a bummer. There were moments when it would have been nice to even just have one more person in my group. The side missions are easy enough to finish by yourself, but it’ll require a little more strategery and time to finish.
The naming convention for these missions I found rather silly, especially considering the circumstances I found myself in while playing The Division 2. Using terms like “main mission” and “side mission” usually indicate some sort of priority level, right? A main mission seems like something that must be done in order to move the story along while side missions are there to maybe garner a bit more to experience to reach that next level. That is certainly not the case here.
Every mission you receive is a priority because of how leveling works in this game. There are cases where you are beyond just one side mission away from getting to the next main mission. Essentially, you must do just about every side mission in order to hit max level. It’s either that or do Projects, a new feature added to The Division 2.
Introduced early in the story, Projects allow you to garner experience while you do the main and side missions. They are sets of lists with specific tasks like “donate x number of gloves” or “take out three elite True Sons.” They aren’t too difficult and, typically, you wouldn’t really have to think about doing them since you’ll probably finish the tasks each Project asks of you just by doing missions.
I use the word typically because, during my playthrough, four of the side missions bugged. Even if I went to the area where they started, the mission would not start. When I look at the missions in the “Progress” menu, it shows that I am zero meters away from completing all four missions, which is clearly incorrect. Because of this, Projects were a necessity for me to level up. I had to finish these in order to reach the suggested level for the last few missions which was grueling.
It’s not that Projects are hard by any means, but they feel like a chore, especially when the game bugs out on you. It was frustrating to have to, for all intents and purposes, look at a check list and just go through each one to level up and it was never fun. If you played the Tomb trials in Anthem, it was basically like doing that but a little less frustrating.
Since I’m on the subject of bugs, despite being one of the most content complete games of the service I have played in recent memory, The Division 2 does have its fair share of bugs. Along with the side mission bug I mentioned, there were times when my special abilities wouldn’t work (which has now been fixed), certain instances where I wouldn’t queue up, and others where I would get booted from the game entirely. I know this may not be indicative of everyone’s playthrough, but it just so happens to occur during mine and it was infuriating — especially when I was getting booted from Stronghold missions. Luckily, I was able to load back into the exact same party but any time I died, which happens quite a bit because some missions are challenging, I would get booted.
To clarify a little more, there is one level 28 Stronghold which is arguably the worst mission in the game. The very last encounter asks you to blow up two fuel tanks and a couple of parts on a boat, all while a seemingly infinite amount of powerful enemies rush in to take you out.
This was the one and only time I felt like the design of a mission was truly against the player. The fuel tanks take an excessive number of bullets to destroy; there are two turrets that you can use to destroy them which makes that portion of the encounter much quicker. However, it never points you in that direction to use them. The infinite spawn was also infuriating as it just seemed like a cheap implementation to make the level harder.
That one mission almost soured my entire experience of The Division 2. On a real level, I wanted to quit right there. I am happy I didn’t though. Although that mission was one of the last missions for the story portion–which takes roughly 30 hours to complete–there are enough new things introduced in the endgame that will extend your playthrough even longer.
The endgame for The Division 2 introduces three entirely new things to the game: The Black Tusk enemy faction, invaded missions, and specialization weapons. Well, one of those is entirely new while the other two are different takes on things you’ve already seen.
The Black Tusk faction and the invaded missions are essentially hard mode versions of the enemies and missions you’ve already experienced. The invaded missions are variants of missions you’ve already played. They aren’t the same as they do mix up the enemy encounters in a variety of ways and slightly change the look and lighting. It’s not an entirely new experience but it does change things up enough to want you to keep playing.
The one new aspect that The Division 2 offers in the endgame is a specialization weapon. When you finish the story, you’ll pick one of three specializations–a sniper rifle, crossbow, or grenade launcher–that will give you more of an advantage against the Black Tusks. Each weapon has its own skill tree which will improve that weapon’s effectiveness as well as the effectiveness of your skills and other weaponry.
For example, I decided to use the crossbow specialization. This weapon is incredibly effective against just about any enemy since the bolts explode a few seconds after impact. However, ammo is much more limited and will randomly drop off enemies throughout a mission. After you finish a mission, you’ll receive points to use on the weapon’s skill tree. This skill tree allowed me to get the healing variant of the seeker mine, added armor, and increased damage to shotguns.
The endgame gives you more of a reason to spend hours in The Division 2’s interesting world. The story behind it all is still so bland but it’s still fun to explore and shoot in a dilapidated Washington, D.C. even 40 or 50 hours in.
There are also PvP components but they’re nothing out of the ordinary. The Dark Zone is back allowing you to team up with other agents to get some gear in contaminated areas on the map. I do like that The Division 2 eases you in to each DZ area–there are three total–with an introductory mission that pins you against AI, teaches you the ropes, and gives you the lay of the land. The DZ also has its own leveling system depending on how you perform. Unlike the traditional leveling system, you can actually lose levels if you perform poorly.
Personally, the DZ wasn’t for me in the first game and it isn’t for me in The Division 2. I like that there is a cooperative mode for my friends and I to convene and grab some good loot, but it all feels aimless. With the campaign mode, I’m constantly getting better gear, leveling, and have a goal, even if that goal is pretty benign.
There is also the new Conflict mode which brings traditional PvP to The Division 2. The gunplay works well in a PvE setting but transitioning that to PvP just isn’t fun. The controls aren’t responsive enough for it to feel any good. Again, Conflict mode would be fun to join with a couple of friends and play a few rounds but if I wanted to play a competitive multiplayer mode, I think I’ll play something else.
The Division 2 is better than it has any right to be. Considering how well everything works with one another, it is hard to not overstate how much this game does right. This is what “games as a service” games are supposed to be. Sure, it has the launch hiccups of its predecessors and that one mission that I loathed, but it is loaded with so much content that is both fun and challenging. The Division 2 is the litmus test for loot shooters from here on out and I will surely be playing more as its free DLC starts rolling out.