I don’t know why I’m in Washington DC; some lady just told me to be here. But there are civilians in distress, armed gangs roaming the streets, and me, my pals, and the second amendment are apparently the only ones who can actually do anything about it. I have no idea what, if anything, is going on with the seemingly important people I meet. But so long as I’m helping folks, sending (presumably) bad people to bed, walking the pretty streets, and picking up a new pair of gloves every so often, I’m very happy to hang around.
In the world of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the USA has been ravaged by a virus and society has crumbled. While those who remain try to survive by banding together in groups of various dispositions, the Strategic Homeland Division activates highly specialized sleeper agents to try and restore order. It’s a setting ripe in potential, perhaps to tell a ripping techno-thriller story that scrutinizes the structures of our modern society and government, or perhaps to make a video game that leverages the chaos that occurs when multiple idealistic groups clash in a vie for power in a lawless city. The Division 2 only does one of these things.
It’s not the story. Throughout the entirety of The Division 2’s main campaign, never did the game spend a satisfactory amount of time on any semblance of an overarching plot, or the predicaments of its supposedly important figures. There are no character arcs, only abrupt setups and consequences. Narrative devices, like audio logs found in the world, add little of consequence. Even the game’s biggest macguffins–the President of the United States and his briefcase containing a cure for the virus–have a minimal amount of absolutely forgettable screen time. The opportunity to use The Division 2 to create meaningful fiction is wasted.
Instead, The Division 2 focuses its narrative chops into worldbuilding. The city, a ravaged Washington DC, initially feels a little homogenous in the way most Western cities do. But after some time, the personality of the different districts–the buildings, the landmarks, the natural spaces, and the ways they’ve been repurposed or affected by the cataclysm–begins to shine through. It’s this strength of environment which lays a very strong foundation for The Division 2 as a video game, creating an engrossing, believable, and contiguous open world.
Moving from your safehouse to the open world and your next mission area is almost entirely seamless. It’s something that was also true of the original Division, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the simple act of going from place to place in The Division 2 is one of the game’s more rewarding aspects. One road may lead to a skirmish with a rival patrol or an optional activity, another might simply give you another stirring scene of urban decay in the morning sun. An obscured shortcut through an apartment block might turn up some useful items in an abandoned home, which you might decide to donate to the makeshift settlements where civilians have attempted to rebuild their lives.
Visiting those settlements–initially as hovels, before they gradually grow and become more charming, vibrant places thanks to your efforts in the world–becomes a strong motivator early on in the absence of a plot to chase. Outside main missions, which are dedicated to the weakening of rival factions and achieving indiscriminate objectives, the game’s “Projects” are one of the most lucrative means of earning experience to better your character. Projects ask you to donate resources you find out in the world and participate in side activities, encouraging you to spend more time in the world, see new areas, fight new battles, search for new equipment to use, and find enjoyment in that. The Division 2 is, after all, a game devoted to providing you with a continuous stream of gripping conflicts, valuable rewards, and a perpetual sense of progress and satisfaction from doing these things. It does those things very well.
You spend a lot of time hunkered behind cover, popping out to fire at any enemy dumb enough to expose themselves. With the large amount of weapon variety available, this familiar facet of combat is solid in itself. Add to that the ability to equip two special skills from a possible eight–which include tools such as riot shields, drones, and from what I can gather, robot bees of some sort–and combat gets pretty interesting. But the vector that really keeps The Division 2’s combat lively for upwards of 60 hours is the behaviour and diversity of its enemy types.
That time you spend in cover? The Division 2 doesn’t want you to just stay there. You can go down very quickly if you’re out in the open, but the game has a dozen ways to always keep you taking those risks and finding better firing positions–aggressive melee units, remote control cars equipped with sawblades, even the regular assault units frequently attempt to outflank you. Those special abilities? You absolutely need to use them to their full potential to survive some encounters, whether by throwing out the seeker mines or the automated turret to keep enemies at bay while you focus on a priority target, or perhaps utilizing the chemical launcher to start a fire and create a zone of denial.
The effort needed to take out an adversary is relatively reasonable for a shooter that prioritizes the RPG nature of its combat model, but some of the tougher enemies have additional, visible layers of protection which you need to focus on breaking if you want to land critical hits. On the flip side, some enemies have additional, obtuse weak points which can work to your advantage, but only if you can hit them. The fuel tank on the back of a flamethrower unit might be feasible, but when you start running into the terrifying robotic quadruped in post-campaign activities, whose tiny weak point only reveals itself seconds before it fires its devastating railgun, you have to assess whether you can afford to take on that challenge among all the other things pressuring you. The Division 2 throws a lot of hurdles at you, but also gives you the means to quickly counter and resolve them. Whether you can juggle that many balls at once is what keeps combat continually tense and exciting.
What’s also exciting is the treasure at the end of these gauntlets. The Washington locations, refashioned into memorable combat arenas, are often rewarding in their own right (a fight in a planetarium is an early standout). But improving your equipment is the vital, tangible part that keeps you feeling like you’re making progress. You receive new gear in generous amounts, some dropped by an enemy or looted from a container found in the world, others rewarded for completing a mission, and the next dose always feels in reach. The weapon variety forces you to consider something completely different to take advantage of a power boost, and the armor variety provides an impressive number of different cosmetic looks. The Division 2 incorporates a microtransaction and loot box system for its inconsequential clothing options, though these can be found in the world and earned of your own accord, too.
Like combat, gear remains intriguing throughout The Division 2 not just because of the abstract desire to have bigger numbers attached to your person and progress further through the game’s challenges, but also through a raft of “talents.” These add unique perks that complement particular skills or styles of play, like providing bonuses within a certain range or when enemies are burning or your armor is depleted. The brands of armor also have a part to play, whereby equipping a number of pieces from a single manufacturer provide additional advantages. These bonuses become particularly attractive to obsess over in the endgame, when the world is retaken by a tougher, more merciless enemy faction called Black Tusk, and you need to ensure your ability to fight them is the best it can be.
For the hundreds of pieces you will inevitably want to discard, the ability to sell or dismantle them for parts to either purchase or craft pieces you want gives value to everything you pick up. Or you might retain them in order to move their talents to better gear of the same type, And, as a wonderful convenience, The Division 2 implements numerous features to inspect, mark, dismantle, or equip things you find so quickly and elegantly–sometimes without ever having to enter a menu–that it improves the whole experience of being in its world.
The same can be said of the game’s multiplayer integration, which allows you to easily group up and progress with friends (the game will scale any underpowered players to match the most powerful). You can also start or join a clan, which opens up a variety of weekly challenges, granting valuable rewards, and features integrated game-wide group communication options. Even if you’re only interested in playing alone (which is more challenging, but entirely feasible for everything but the most demanding of endgame activities), the ability to matchmake with other players at any time, whether that be in the open world, before you start a mission, or when you’re at a final boss, is a very welcome and useful feature.
And when you beat that final boss of the game’s final mission (though, such is The Division 2’s lack of plot framing, I honestly couldn’t tell you his name to save my life) and you think you’ve finally run out of treasure to keep luring you through more fights, the metaphorical table gets flipped. Flipped hard. The Washington DC you spent so long liberating from rival factions becomes completely retaken by the aforementioned Black Tusk. You unlock three unique class specializations, each with their own skill trees to build out. Your focus on growing two-digit numbers on your character (your level) moves to three-digit numbers (the quality of your gear). The wealth of activities available to you once you complete the campaign is enormous, and it capitalizes on your momentum. It motivates you to continue seeing more, doing more, and growing more.
More challenging, remixed versions of campaign missions and lengthier stronghold missions featuring Black Tusk become available. These “Invaded” missions often leverage the new enemy types to create terrifying new combat scenarios that maintain the steady ramp-up of challenge, and they give you a fantastic reason to revisit the memorable combat arenas with purpose. Open-world events become more dynamic and riskier–factions clash more frequently for control of territory, and your involvement in certain activities can dramatically increase the danger and rewards in others. Limited-time challenges, which take the form of new Projects, higher difficulty missions, and additional bounty targets found in the world, offer avenues for more lucrative bonuses. There are even more activities beyond that, and the strength of The Division 2’s endgame is not just in the wealth of content available, but how viable it all is in improving your standing in the world.
The journey to bolstering your Gear Score to qualify for higher tiers of challenges and content is always clear. The game continues to make sure you’re always meaningfully rewarded no matter what you do, and that feeling of bettering your character persists throughout.It’s remarkable how straightforward the game makes it for you to see the full breadth of its content and maintains that feeling of continual advancement all the way to the bitter end, especially in spite of its unsubstantial plots, characters, and narrative themes. Once I finally hit the game’s current soft cap for progression, I was impressed by how much there still was to pursue.
The world of The Division 2 also features three separate Dark Zone areas, systematically accessible throughout the campaign, which promise the possibility of high-quality equipment but pose more risks beyond the regular open-world. The power dynamic between you and enemies are normalized, and there’s the uncertain element of having other players to interact with. In the Dark Zone, players can choose to cooperate with others in the world to clear out enemy outposts and explore the regions for equipment, but the option to go ‘Rogue’ and undermine the work of other players provides the opportunity for greater rewards at the risk of greater losses if you fail to get away with it. Exploring the Dark Zone is a fascinating aspect of The Division 2 that adds additional facets of tension, distrust, and dishonesty to a game that already features high-stakes combat. Moreover, it is a completely optional pathway to reaching the game’s highest tiers of achievement. The game’s similarly optional Conflict activities offer gear incentives for participating in traditional team-based multiplayer modes, which felt serviceable in the few matches I played, but were comparatively underpopulated compared to other avenues of matchmaking at the time of writing.
The setting of The Division 2 is ripe for potential, and it’s a shame the game doesn’t use it to say anything. I have absolutely no clue why I’m here, what anyone’s motivations are, and I wish I had a strong narrative driver to fuel a purpose behind my endless hunger for progression. This letdown is hard to ignore for the game’s initial hours, but the strength of the systems and design that fuel The Division 2 as a game are compelling enough to keep you captivated for dozens more. The range of enemy types continues to keep combat encounters challenging, the equipment I earn and pick up continues to feel different, valuable, and asks me to consider new ways of play. The ravaged environments continue to intrigue, and sometimes they’re so stunning I find myself needing to take screenshots before I move on. It might not have much to say, but The Division 2 is a perpetual cycle of tension, relief, and reward that’s difficult to stay away from.