It’s been about seven months since a smallpox epidemic wiped out most of the population of New York, the US, and probably other countries too but those don’t much matter because this is a Tom Clancy game, GO TEAM AMERICA. With things resolved in Manhattan, the agents of the Strategic Homeland Division are dispatched to Washington DC to deal with new problems that are more or less exactly the same as the old problems, but now with extra orange.
Launched in 2016 next to Far Cry Primal, Just Dance, and Watch Dogs 2, Tom Clancy’s The Division was an unconventional proposition for its publisher, and with 2015’s Rainbow Six Siege, also one of Ubisoft’s debut live services. The game’s emphasis on co-op, loot acquisition, and repetitive chores, with some RPG-lite mechanics and a mostly incoherent narrative of meaningless monologues and inaudible radio transmissions made comparisons with Bungie’s Destiny inevitable at the time, but the dev team consistently released updates, improvements, and new content over the next two years or so, and The Division now is a very different game to The Division then.
The Division 2 is The Division now, not The Division then, and the result of that iteration and innovation of its core concepts in between. This is a studio that knows its audience.
So like the first game, the sequel features a multitude of missions and activities spanning an elegantly decrepit urban sandbox, supports drop-in, drop-out co-op for up to four players (and up to eight players in the upcoming raid content), and includes a versatile assortment of futuristic tech gizmos to mess with (drone is bae, don’t even @ me). You’re not limited to predefined classes or other arbitrary restrictions, so you and your squad can mix up skills and equipment on the go according to necessity or impulse or one more desperate attempt to finish this fucking planetarium level, ONE MORE, for reals this time, because this is getting absurd and I told you to stop rushing out like that, Gareth, because this is a tactical game and you’re not even tacterising. Hypothetically, I mean.
Even if it’s kind of indistinguishable from New York, the Division 2’s grubby facades and cluttered streets build a credible (and uncomfortably plausible) meta-narrative of societal collapse, and it sucks that Ubisoft is so determined to pretend that the politics are irrelevant. The opportunity for a provocative exposition of US military fetishism, government corruption, class tensions, the consequences of capitalism, and other legitimately intriguing issues is instead substituted with one more flag-waving win for the gun lobby and DEMOCRACY because we’ve killed everybody who wouldn’t vote for us and saved Christmas. Gross.
I’m also sceptical of the game’s microtransactions. In The Division, custom cosmetics drops were frequent, and dressing up your agent was (for me, anyway, shut up) one of its most exhilarating diversions. The purple slouch beanie glamour was real, okay. In The Division 2, though, custom cosmetic drops are very infrequent, and if you want those rad hi-tops, you’ve got to buy them with actual cash. I guess the world ended, but consumer culture is forever like that.
Because also like the first game, the vapid plot pretensions, shoot-loot-loop, and other criticisms are mitigated by some ingenious level design, responsive and unpredictable enemy AI, and almost constant progression, with new swag and unlocks available at regular intervals, and even when it’s over… it isn’t. But if it’s more of the same – and excluding this, that, and one or two other things, it’s more of the same – this is an instantly compelling game, transitioning from one sphincter-clenching flashpoint to the next with no time to worry about déjà vu, questionable pretexts, or those hideous mom jeans.
If you played The Division, the immediate differences between it and the sequel are mostly subtle, but significant. Weapon mods like extended magazines and optics are now passive perk unlocks, for example, and available to use with every compatible gun in your inventory, without swapping these between one or the other. Looting a restock crate now drops ammo out for the other players in your squad, so no more of those silly queues, and the awkward, sometimes incomprehensible correlations because skills, stats, and gear are now more obvious.
The Division 2 also introduces settlements, a sort of upgraded version of the original game’s safehouses, each with their own objectives to complete for extra thingies, and control points to capture as you expand out into the DC metro. Safehouses, settlements, and control points provide plenty of fast travel destinations, so there’s a lot less of the dreary plodding between locations.