Hands-on with The Division 2: The mother of all government shutdowns
In The Division's trip to Washington, content is king and the player's time is respected.
End-game content decides if a shared-world shooter lives or dies. Genre-virgins like Bungie and Ubisoft Massive found this out the hard way a few years ago with Destiny and The Division, respectively. The former developer course-corrected a little with Destiny 2 (though super-fans like me will tell you not enough vanilla game was supplied). Very soon it'll be time for Massive to show us what it has learned in The Division 2. If my hands-on with preview and beta code are any indication, the team's off-season training time has been well spent.
Because what we have here is a packed suite of cooperative and competitive content that ought to make players think twice about hanging up their agent beanies when the final big bad goes down. And it's worth noting that will occur after about 40 hours of solo campaign (allegedly). Be that as it may, best clear your calendar accordingly. Book some time off work. Break off your relationships with any time-needy significant others. Book the kids into a local kennel. Whatever it takes.
When that campaign finally gets knocked on the head, there's going to be almost too much to do. You'll soon be staring down the barrel at co-op missions, dark zone backstabbings and a much more coordinated approach to PvP than we've ever seen in this series. Recently I travelled to Sweden to get a sample of all of the above, plus I've been tolling around in the recent private beta, too. Every time I've played The Division 2, my fondness for it has multiplied.
For those of you who never played the original back in 2016, a short recap is in order. The Division 2 commences roughly seven months after The Dollar Virus (think: a pandemic smeared onto bills on Black Friday). In the first game we were cast as activated sleeper agents of a clandestine group known as The Division. After scooping up a fancy watch, a beanie and an assault rifle, we liberated Manhattan from looters, militant clean freaks and each other as well. Honour, compassion and duty to country tend to go out the window if there's some sweet loot to take from some other schmuck.
The Division 2 is more of the same, but also technically a holiday. It swaps the snowy Big Apple sandbox and its looter gangs with an unusual policy of only hiring guys and girls named "Alex", for sunny Washington D.C. Yes, you're in the mother of all government shutdowns and whoever is the POTUS in this universe has gone ahead and built the wall (in this case a big-arsed barricade around The White House, your base of operations). Once again, it's your time to step up, collect tons of guns that ought to be given to you for free (but aren't) and deprive ne'er do wells of their lifebars.
Interestingly, the art team at Massive has delivered a 1:1 representation of the US capital but has cut loose with the environmental changes. Craters and burst water mains make for impassable moats, the surrounding vegetation has exploded and the streets are mini-mazes of security barriers and/or makeshift hospitals. That'd be awful news for any civvie trying to drive out of this hellhole, but for a cover-hopping spec-ops soldier, the more to hide behind, the better.
It's a deadly ballet of dive-rolling away from fire and into more-advantageous positions
Speaking of, it's an absolute pleasure to return to The Division's brand of gunplay. I'd simply forgotten how well this all works – it's a deadly ballet of dive-rolling away from fire and into more-advantageous positions. I also still get a weird kick from buffing my butt along the side of cars to make my agent close them shut. Don't judge me.
And, once again, those firefights only get better with a full fire-team of four. In my many pre-launch hours with The Division 2 I've been lucky enough to pal up with folks who actually knew what they were doing. I've played post-game co-op missions where everybody put their beanie'd heads together to coordinate gear and skills in a complementary fashion. Working as individual cogs of a killing machine whole, we'd call out threats, focus fire and deliver more pincer movements than an angry bucket of crabs.
That sort of teamwork came to the fore in PvP matches, too. Honestly, I've played a lot of the Gears of War franchise online in my day and I'm happy to say that The Division 2 offers an experience of the same high intensity. Intelligently shifting across the map as a group is paramount, as is communicating threats and making those agonising decisions about whether to save a downed teammate (who has crawled, quite pathetically, to your cover). Downside one: spending five seconds to patch somebody up will take another gun away from your defensive perimeter. Worse, the animation to rescue the player might pop your head above cover and earn you a new blowhole installation.
As frenetic as the dedicated player-on-player environment can be, The Division 2 is at its nerve-shredding best in the Dark Zone. Make no mistake, soloists, you're going to want to find some friends and roll deep in this mode. These three separate areas on the map are killing fields where the next bullet you cop may just come from some random frenemy who has been "watching your back" for the last 30 minutes. It doesn't matter if you've just shared a macarena emote, spent five minutes defending one another against a rival group or mowing into ludicrously difficult mobs of AI enemies. When the time comes to extract your loot at that chopper zone, man, you'd best keep your head on a swivel (lest it be turned into a canoe by your BFF's shotgun).
Rock-solid foundation from which to build an experience you'll come back to again and again
I've been lucky enough to have sampled all of the above in The Division 2 over the course of double-digit hours. My impressions so far: I'm more than ready to give this franchise another go and it's the same sentiment with my old crew. We loved the original but drifted away from it a few months after launch due to various reasons – mainly glitching DZ players, a lack of new things to do and an underwhelming raid. While the jury is still out, it seems to me that Ubisoft Massive is very much aware and on top of those issues. Tons of anti-cheating barriers have been erected and the long-tail of the experience looks to offer meaningful challenges in the form of free downloadable content and existing content "mutators" that jack up the difficulty and rewards.
Basically, I get the distinct impression that Ubisoft Massive has peeked over the fence at Bungie and recognised what not to do one's playerbase. Content is king. Player time is to be respected. And, most importantly, the vanilla experience itself is a lengthy, rock-solid foundation from which to build an experience you'll come back to again and again.
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