THE DIVISION 2 Game Review: Capitol Punishment

Guns and government in a slowly-refilling swamp.

The Division did not launch well. Visually and aurally, it was top-notch; narratively and ideologically, it was grim and inhumane; in gameplay, it was shallow and repetitive. While its essentially fascist themes never changed, Ubisoft gradually patched the Tom Clancy quasi-MMO into something with great replayability and depth. 

Those learnings are clear in The Division 2. While it’s still a muddled melange of mixed messages, it’s also an extremely well-built online RPG, full of things to do, see, and mostly shoot. It’s absolutely not for everyone, and it’s probably not for me, but for the game’s core audience, it’s a handsome sequel with handsomer prospects ahead.

This time, the post-plague military-police action is transplanted from frosty New York to sweaty Washington, DC. Ubisoft says The Division 2 isn’t political, but the introductory video’s gun-worship is in itself a political statement - as is the fact that the fractured military government makes its home in the White House, while the Capitol and other government buildings are occupied by gangs. Maybe none of that was intended to “say” anything, but it all does.

If nothing else, The Division 2 is a testament to how hard it is to establish consistent thematic clarity across multiple studios. Clearly, someone had something to say making in-game museum exhibits discussing manifest destiny and Vietnam. However, they probably aren’t the same someone who wrote a cliched Clancy narrative around assassinations, betrayal, and a private military coup, and filled those exhibits with fun-fun-fun gunfire.

D.C. in summer is unpleasantly muggy to begin with, but this version is truly repellent, if enticingly littered with pickups and environmental storytelling. The usual post-apocalyptic rules apply - busted-ass buildings, abandoned vehicles, cityscapes reclaimed by flora and (tragically unpattable) fauna - but this particular narrative adds its own twists. Thanks to the plague originally hitting in winter, the city’s littered with incongruous leftover Christmas decorations, even as it’s become a beautifully-rendered swampy mess of stagnant water, dust clouds, and insects. This city has a distinct flavour, and that flavour is rotting trash.

The actual shooting still feels tinny and imprecise, but it’s almost a secondary mechanic. The Division is all about tactical positioning, using a damn near best-in-class cover system. Look around while in cover and pathing lines appear, offering routes to nearby cover positions, and a single button press will take you along those routes. In practice, the game plays almost like a realtime XCOM, especially in its heavy reliance on teamwork. The various special abilities available - turrets, drones, seeker mines, healing nanobots, and so on - can synergise with other players’, especially when those players are positioned in tactically useful spots. Without co-op help, it’s often difficult to best the flanking-heavy AI.

The Division 2 improves in leaps and bounds over its predecessor in its range of activities. There’s so much to do, so many different progression paths to follow, that it quickly becomes overwhelming, especially given its confusing menu and quest-tracking system. Each region of the city has main-path missions, settlements to rebuild, side missions, collectibles, spontaneous events, “control points” that track factions’ influence across the map, and more. Missions of all sizes boast full voice acting, story implications, and unique environments, most emphasising holding ground and rebuilding civilisation. Even the side missions have narrative throughlines. And nearly all activities can be started in-world, without encountering a discrete loading screen. 

That includes the Dark Zones, PvPvE regions all about nicking loot from enemies in infected areas and extracting it via helicopter before enemies - or other players - nick it back. This time, there are multiple Dark Zones, each with slightly different playing conditions. The Dark Zones remain The Division’s most unique gameplay feature, and with expanded activities within them, they’ve become better - even with a somewhat split player base. Plus, for endgame players, there are opportunities to jump in without level-normalised gear, so you can put your hours of grinding to use.

Curiously, The Division 2 also adds a more traditional multiplayer activity, called Conflict, that takes place on contained maps and follows fairly routine game modes. You access Conflict through a menu, go through a sometimes-arduous matchmaking process, then spawn and respawn as your team attempts to defeat the other. It’s no worse than any standard multiplayer mode, but oddly, The Division’s core mechanics feel out of place in it. Placing turrets and drones feels broken in modes built around the player as the deliverer and recipient of damage. Tactical cover and movement feels too slow in a timed, corralled multiplayer deathmatch. It’s odd, and one of the few elements that seems like an afterthought.

No matter how many activities live games boast, they eventually run out, at which point the accumulation of loot becomes the endgame. The Division 2 suffers from the same inherent issue its predecessor did: slightly better-specced real-world guns, or new fucking kneepads, are not enthralling goals. Weapon perks, character specialisations, and a vastly-improved mod system make the loot a little more interesting, but the metagame is frankly dull. I’m not sure what more can be done with this IP - fellow online loot-shooter Destiny’s universe of space wizards has myriad possibilities for creative loot design, but a real(ish)-world military shooter can only support so many ideas. At least the activities get remixed pleasingly after the story concludes, with higher difficulties and a new faction that lends the game a faintly sci-fi flavour. It’s Boston Dynamics-style sci-fi, though.

The true question is how the game will play and evolve going forward. Ubisoft and Massive have learned a lot from the first Division - and if their post-game support is anything like before, patches and new content will be forthcoming and thoughtful. Your enjoyment is largely dependent on whether you can handle the regular time investment, and equally as importantly, whether your friends can. The Division 2 is playable alone, but it’s really built for multiplayer, and despite the presence of in-game matchmaking stations, multiplayer is best with friends. Obviously.

Ultimately, whether you’ll dig The Division 2 comes down to whether you’re keen to spend extended periods in a grimy US capital with a bunch of military grunts. If that’s your thing, The Division 2 will absolutely satisfy you - it’s well-made and fulfills that particular role-playing fantasy. But if you think that setting might get old, will. When The Division launched, it had a single viable competitor: Destiny. Now, the field is more crowded. Ubisoft’s live-FPS is one of the best-designed mechanically - but for me, and maybe for you, the IP surrounding it is an absolute turnoff. Blame the Tom Clancy brand, I guess.