Tom Clancy's The Division 2 Review
Pros: Stunning, well-designed environment, Gunning and grinding gameplay is fun and rewarding, Matchmaking is easy and simple, Well done game launch.
Cons: Story is barely existent and badly written, Missions become repetitive
After the long-running, sometimes warm, sometimes lukewarm reception of Destiny 2 (I never made it more than half a dozen hours or so), the far more recent consumer disappointment in Anthem, and with Borderlands 3 still off in the distance, The Division 2 has found itself in both a state of opportunity and trepidation. Loot shooter enthusiasts, hungry for the next generation of games, are also weary of dropping triple-A cash on another game that either stumbles out of the gate or limps to the finish line over its expected multi-year lifespan. With those concerns in mind, I am happy to report that The Division 2 lives up to nearly every expectation. The post-apocalyptic city is home to action-packed story missions in unique locations, dangerous open world encounters, three thrilling Player vs Player vs Environment Dark Zones, and enough to see and do to satisfy both short-time players and long-term gear grinders.
The Division 2 takes place 7 months later and 225 miles further southwest from The Division in an evacuated Washington D.C. The Green Flu epidemic that devastated New York City, killing millions, throwing the city into chaos, and triggering mass evacuations, has become a global pandemic. The Division is an organization of seemingly ordinary people who were activated to prevent the downfall of society, strengthening and restructuring governments at every level, to help preserve the way of life.
A ruined Washington D.C. is a beautiful disaster. Much like The Division’s New York City, Washington D.C. is lovingly recreated in exhaustively researched detail, and then filled with post-apocalyptic horror. The streets, parks, monuments, offices, apartments, and overgrown foliage are filled with executed civilians, body bags, mountains of contaminated biomaterial, trash, furniture, and all kinds of combat cover like abandoned vehicles, emergency response checkpoints, concrete barriers, and some unusually robust tarp covered fences. D.C. itself is a living, breathing organism, with a day/night cycle and weather system that offers rainy nights and foggy mornings that make the same street feel very different when approached from a different angle at a different time. Office building blocks, the National Mall with its monuments, underground tunnels, building interiors, and apartment blocks all look and feel very different and make for fun exploration and sight-seeing, and wildlife such as deer, raccoons, foxes, cats, and dogs wander the city uninhibited.
Missions take place in unique, distinctive environments that are as interesting to explore as they are to fight in. Famous monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial and the US Capitol become strongholds for enemy factions, and missions find you fighting through the Air and Space Museum, American History Museum, the Space Administration HQ, and many other locations. The added benefit in a loot shooter such as The Division is that as long-term players go back and replay missions, there’s plenty of variety of environment, plus plenty to see that wasn’t noticed on previous playthroughs, and make good use of The Division 2’s built in photo mode.
I played The Division 2 on the Xbox One S in 4K. The One S had a difficult time keeping up with the intense graphical requirements. Graphic rendering is a constant issue, as textures at moderate distance appear significantly blurry for several seconds until fully rendered. Running through the city augments this effect as the graphics struggle to keep up. Once rendered, however, the attention to detail and the horrible beauty all around cannot be ignored.
The combat system stays true to the first Division, which is a welcome comfort. The Division 2 is a 3rd person cover shooter that allows players to carry two primary weapons – choosing among rifles, assault rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, marksman rifles, and shotguns – a sidearm with unlimited ammunition, and two skill powers with a large variety of offensive and defensive capabilities. After completing the story and reaching the highest level, one of three specializations that offer a high-end weapon with rare, specialized ammunition. Upgrading these weapons and wearable armor with higher level version with better stats, specializations, and modifications is the name of the loot shooter game.
You’ll need every advantage you can muster, as enemy AI is clever and will constantly keep you on your toes. Enemies will constantly reposition, making use of different types of attackers to keep you off balance and moving. Some attackers will rush in and try to flank you with melee attacks, suicide bombs, or flamethrowers. Machine gunners will lie down prone and try to keep you suppressed while other attackers do their work. Snipers hang back and above and deploy some devastating attacks if you stay in their view for too long. And heavily armored elites will constantly move toward you, sometimes carrying large machine guns, sometimes swinging a devastating sledgehammer. Taking on a squad requires strategy, patience, and proper use of skills and weapons or you can be quickly overwhelmed.
Bullet sponge enemies from the first Division have changed into enemies with armor that will break off if you keep attacking certain pieces of it, so while you can still empty multiple magazines of the hardest hitting weapons into one guy without killing him, a strategic player can take them down far more quickly by focusing on one place until the armor breaks off and their health can finally be damaged.
Every part of the game can be completed single handed. At no point are you required to join in with a squad of friends or random other players to be take on the open world, missions, side-missions, the Dark Zone, or anywhere else in the game. However, playing through missions on even a normal difficulty level alone is challenging at least and near impossible at worst. Fortunately, there are a number of easy, low/no commitment matchmaking options for teaming up. I completed most of the missions in a group with random other players who were all at about my progression level. By simply walking up to the start of the mission area and selecting match make, I was joined in with a group already in progress at the beginning of the mission. While matchmaking with random other players isn’t perfect, and will sometimes send you back to saferooms away from the group, it was a reliable way to take on difficult missions, play to the end, and drop out of the party, never to see the group again. There are several other matchmaking options for open world exploration, side missions, the Dark Zone, and a rarely used feature for jumping in to help out someone requesting assistance. I tried this option a few times, but rarely found anyone looking. It’s a nice feature that seems to have been better in theory than in execution. But The Division 2 is truly at its best when played with friends. The heyday of couch co-op may be long behind us, but playing alongside people you know and sharing a mission with them is still the best way to experience The Division 2.
The Dark Zone is back from the first Division game, this time in three segments around the city. The Dark Zone is a unique region of the game map and these zones are the only places in the game where PvP takes place. Here, Division agents routinely betray each other to steal gear obtained from the AI enemies wandering the zone, as well as some specialty high-end gear unique to the Dark Zone. This equipment cannot simply be carried out – it must be extracted by summoning a helicopter and attaching the gear to a rope dropped down. This is signaled to every player in the area and makes for dangerous and thrilling attempts to both protect and extract your own gear, or to attempt to steal gear from other players. Groups of players who know and trust each other (and have to see each other outside the game!) have a greater likelihood of protecting their equipment while not betraying each other. So unless you are a highly skilled lone wolf player, the Dark Zone heavily favors group play.
The weakest part of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is unquestionably the story and writing. For everything that is great, this is where it really drops the ball. I’ve greatly enjoyed some of Tom Clancy’s classic novels such as The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, The Sum of All Fears, and Clear and Present Danger, and to have Clancy’s name included in the title of The Division 2 is an embarrassment. Clancy was an engrossing novelist, dedicating hundreds of pages to explaining in details character motivations, government strategies, personal vendettas, and a myriad of minutia of detail in regards to weapons, vehicles, aircraft, logistics, alliances, relationships, and everything else that goes into creating a vivid story. In fact, an entire chapter of The Sum of All Fears takes place in a time frame of 30 nanoseconds, as Clancy details each step in the sequence of a bomb detonation.
In The Division 2, you start out battling Hyenas, who are organized street thugs. Then you move on to fighting the True Sons, who seem to be a structured independent militia. Next come the Outcasts, which one loading screen described as a group of asymptomatic Green Flu carriers who seem to like playing with fire. And lastly, once you reach level 30 and complete all the main story missions, a screen pops up that says the Black Tusks have moved in throughout the city. This major development in the story is done through a 20 second map flyover, where areas of the map turn a reddish color.
I have never in my life seen a game with so much story potential so blatantly, so recklessly, so haphazardly mishandle its plot. The first Division set up such an interesting world, full of possibilities and intrigue, and The Division 2 does absolutely nothing with it. You play the team with the orange circles who want to make D.C. great again, you protect and fight with the guys with green health bars with the extra-cheesy dialog, and you shoot at the guys with the red health bars who swear a lot and seem thrilled to cause human suffering, fight bosses with yellow health bars that sometimes have names you’ve rarely heard before and will immediately forget, and occasionally get ignored and completely optional voicemails from the unseen antagonist from the first game.
While the plot junkie and story enthusiast in me weeps at the lackadaisical way the plot is handled, what would have killed an ordinary game for me is sadly acceptable in a loot shooter. Anthem has taken much flak for shoehorning story into a game where the majority of its target audience truthfully couldn’t care less. Sure, my first playthrough of a story mission, I’d like to know more about who I’m trying to take this TV station away from, what are the overall goals of the True Sons, and the emotional motivating factors driving level end boss Captain firstname lastname to beat me to death with the butt of his rifle, but in the overall scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. The Division 2 is neither going to force me to care about the plot and characters, nor make not knowing punishable. And even if I do care the first time, am I going to care the 10th time playing this mission as I grind toward higher gear?
Yes, the Division 2 knows that its longevity of enjoyment depends on players enjoying the grind, constantly getting better weapons and gear, and then having at each other in the Player vs. Player vs. Environment Dark Zone, and it does so exceptionally well. The city is populated with a base of operations for Division agents, various settlements around with their own projects, priorities, and people, plenty of landmarks to visit and explore, side missions to complete, loot of various importance and usefulness to discover and use, safe houses to unlock, and control points that need conquering and maintaining to upkeep. Even apart from all that, simply wandering the streets provides plenty of opportunities for engagement, as it’s common to find roving groups of enemies or allies out looking for supplies or on patrol. Frequently, you’ll stumble upon these groups engaged with one another, and can carefully sneak up on the group and finish off their remaining health before they even know what hit them. These engagements aren’t even limited to allies vs. enemies, and opposing enemy groups will also fight amongst themselves, allowing you to pick off the wounded remainder.
There are garden variety problems with The Division 2, of course. I’ve encountered my share of bugs that cause me to sprint full speed in place as my left pinky toe is caught on some invisible 2-inch high barrier. Matchmaking with random groups will sometimes spawn you several hundred yards away from the group, surrounded by higher-level enemies who are very quick to bash your head before you even get your bearings. The ambient dialog is badly written and almost unbearable to listen to. And for all its beauty and detail, I can’t help but wonder if Washington D.C. is just too similar of a location to New York City from the first game. As I pass through yet another trash-filled alley or ruined, flooded, wrecked basement, I can’t help but wonder if I’d know it if the scene were just lifted The Division. If the series continues, I would like to see Ubisoft tackle something more foreign and distinct, like a Hong Kong, Tokyo, São Paulo, or Mexico City, and really let a foreign ruined world shine through.
The Division 2 is a fantastic action-shooter that invites players to take their own approach to a beautifully ruined Washington D.C. Whether you’re just there as a single player for the story missions, a completionist looking to get every collectable and solve every puzzle, a PvP fanatic ready to take on anyone in the Dark Zone, an explorer out to take stunning post-apocalyptic photos in every type of weather and see the world, or a long-term player grinding out levels over and over to get the very best gear, there’s something for you. Though the story is a badly tacked-on afterthought and the writing is shoddy at best, and the nature of the game means repetitive encounters with similar looking enemies, The Division 2 delivers a winning entry in the loot shooter genre. It’s an engrossing way to spend 40 hours or 4000 hours and the relatively bug-free release and planned future content mean that it will be around and active for the long haul.