By genre standards, this shared-world shooter has launched fully loaded.
More than any freshly launched shared-world shooter to date, Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 presents a polished, well-thought-out initial progression path with at least some gas left in the tank after the fact. Its great gunplay, worthwhile loot, and beautiful world brimming with reasons to explore it kept me engrossed for the vast majority of my 60 hours of playtime. After all that momentum, it was a bit of a shock to the system to discover that the difficult endgame content that I had been looking forward to in World Tier 4 didn’t produce any worthwhile rewards or meaningful new mechanical challenges. The Dark Zone, too, was far less interesting that I had hoped it would be. But the good news is that these late-game shortcomings don’t take away from the great journey that I underwent to reach them. The Division 2 gets so much more right than it does wrong.
Things in The Division 2 seem to pick up right where the original post-pandemic story left off in terms of both plotline and cover-based shooting, but it quickly becomes clear that many aspects of the gameplay have improved in meaningful ways. Gunplay is impactful – enemies react to being shot sooner and die faster, and the world is teeming with enticing reasons to explore it. There are chests and collectibles around every corner, and this generous distribution of loot goes a long way in the context of The Division 2’s phenomenally well-realized recreation of Washington D.C. The capital is painstakingly populated with a fanatical amount of detail and boasts much more in the way of environmental variance than the first game’s depiction of New York City. The series’ familiar and predictable urban grid gives way to lush, open vistas and iconic monuments overtaken by vines. It all comes together to provide a space that makes it okay to stop and smell the roses, I never regretted indulging my inner explorer.
The phenomenally well-realized recreation of Washington D.C. is teeming with reasons to explore it.
There is a clearly similar progression structure to each of the 11 PvE zones as you’re leveling up: you’ll find a safe house or settlement, scour the landscape for Strategic Homeland Defense (S.H.D.) caches, run missions, and capture the handful of control points. However, new activities, like battling roaming patrols of elite enemies, are introduced as you progress and the freedom to tackle your laundry list of tasks in any order you wish keeps it from feeling like an obligatory grind. The missions themselves are well crafted, and many succeed in delivering a bitesize storyline. The Jefferson Trade Center mission, for example, effectively establishes the stakes: a Division agent has been taken hostage, and then it executes on that premise. Some missions, like the Federal Bunker or Lincoln Memorial, even introduce welcome new mission-specific mechanics like shooting a valve to douse flames, or tracing a power cord to a destructible circuit in order to open a door. It’s a pity that these unique elements aren’t incorporated into The Division 2’s lackluster boss fights because they certainly could have used the variety.
All main-mission and stronghold bosses, on all difficulty levels, just seem to be normal enemy archetypes with more health. This deprives the PvE encounters of sorely needed stand-out moments and mechanical intricacy. The only one who (barely) breaks this rule is Diesel, from the District Union Arena, who briefly takes control of a turret on a stationary armored car but then just turns out to be another armor-clad Hyena machine gunner. Bespoke boss mechanics are a staple of the shared-world shooter and action RPG genres, so I was expecting to see some more elaborate encounters, especially in The Division 2’s strongholds, but came up empty. The good news is that enemy variety elsewhere is significantly better than the first game.
The expected assortment of enemy archetypes, like rushers, snipers, and engineers are all here, but some factions like the Mad Max-esque “Outcasts” take some entertaining creative liberties with these roles. Their rusher is a suicide bomber, their engineer controls a Battle Bot, and their heavy tries to crush your skull with a giant hammer. Most adversaries can spawn as more a difficult version of their basic role, and get a correspondingly colored health bar to indicate who can take a few more hits. A sneaky improvement over the first game is that harder content doesn’t strictly mean more high-health enemies, even challenge-difficulty strongholds provide you with plenty of “red bar” fodder to cut your teeth on. These lowly grunts may melt quickly, but they pack a punch and can spell trouble if they get behind you. As a result of these factors, combat remained demanding and fun, if a little predictable, throughout my 60 hours with The Division 2.
There were a handful of times when encounters felt a little spongy, but this was usually a result of attempting content I wasn’t quite ready for in terms of gear score, which is the primary measurement that The Division 2 uses to determine your power after level 30. For the most part, I found even bosses died reasonably quickly and that time-to-kill was a non-issue, which again, is an achievement for a stat-based shooter. The handful of baddies that can take a beating are generally covered in bulky, hard-to-miss kevlar that breaks off as you shoot it, making their superhuman durability more believable. It’s easy to wince at the idea of an intentionally spongy foe in The Division 2, but these tanky brutes move at a snail’s pace and always added a welcome bit of variety.
Gunplay is impactful, enemies react to being shot sooner and die faster.
Combat also benefits from a massive selection of firearms, and while many are variants of one another I’m still finding entirely new additions to my arsenal even after looting almost 2,000 items. One recent highlight is the old-timey, lever-action 1886 rifle, which stands out among other near-future firearms even if it isn’t particularly effective. The Division 2 does a wonderful job of making one gun feel unique from another by way of recoil patterns, rate of fire, and sound, the latter of which is particularly well done. Weapons and equipment can drop with beneficial modifiers called talents that take the loot from serviceable to genuinely interesting. The First Blood talent on a sniper rifle causes the first bullet fired from a new magazine to deal headshot damage anywhere on the body, while the Unhinged talent adds a whopping 25% increased weapon damage but causes your gun to kick like a mule. You can even transfer your favorite talents to new gear by recalibrating, which comes at the cost of destroying the old item in the process.
Tinkering with your build is easy and intuitive thanks to a well-detailed stat summary and DPS meters in the form of the firing range. I had loads of fun eeking out every last drop of damage from brand set bonuses, weapon attachments, attributes, and talents. This welcome clarity does shine a harsh light on The Division 2’s weapon balance, or lack thereof. LMGs, assault rifles, and sniper rifles all perform as you’d expect them to, but shotguns especially felt weak by comparison even after tweaking my build.
While gunplay is much improved in The Division 2, the abilities we get to use still feel clunky and ineffective. Deployed turrets get destroyed almost instantly, and anything that requires a second activation, like the Bomber Drone, took too long to set up relative to the middling damage it delivered in my initial playthrough. The handful of skills that did feel useful like the healing Chem Launcher, Reviver Hive, and Ballistic shield were already serving their purpose at their base power and therefore didn’t provoke much exploration into a “skill power” build. Even if I wanted to, the required skill power to equip an ability mod was always way above my means and therefore the whole concept was a bit a non-starter. Specializations, on the other hand, do offer phenomenally fun-to-use signature weapons up front, as well as useful bonuses like different grenades, skills, and passive effects as you level them up.
There are a lot of excellent activities and progression that await you after the critical path, at least for a while anyway.
The ever-present motifs of progression, exploration, and challenge do a wonderful job of gradually becoming more prominent as you progress through the story and temporarily reach a crescendo shortly after beating the main campaign, which took around 22 hours at a leisurely pace. The main plot is serviceable, but the majority of standout story moments come in the form of short, direct, but effective subplots during missions. I was happy with this delivery as it respected my time and didn’t get in the way of playing with friends. Speaking of which, it’s nice that you can invite a lower-level friend to join your game regardless of their progress. While they might be a little squishy, it’s much better than being unable to play with them at all.
There are a lot of excellent activities and progression that await you after the critical path, at least for a while anyway. You’ll unlock powerful signature weapons, be introduced to dynamic world systems like the priority target networks, and even go up against a new faction that’s introduced after the campaign in “invaded” versions of previously completed missions. Item levels are replaced by gear score, and for a brief time between World Tiers 1 and 4, everything works beautifully thanks to the new, rewarding content. But this “endgame” is really more of an epilogue due to its brevity – it only lasts about six hours. Once you’ve completed the invaded missions and progress to World Tier 4 you lose the ability to replay them and instead gain access to challenging variants of missions you’ve already played with no mechanical difference from the main campaign and rewards that stagnate very quickly. This is the real endgame, and it’s where things start to fall apart for The Division 2’s intuitive and well-communicated progression loop.
It’s easy to find high-end items in World Tier 4 through simplistic means like looting chests, killing enemies, and completing normal-difficulty activities and missions. Before you know it, you’ll reach the gear score cap of 450 and be inundated with hundreds of randomly generated high-end items that aren’t clearly better than what you’ve already got. This is where things get a little confusing because of the unintuitive and inconsistent ways in which The Division 2 allows you to circumvent this soft cap and continue making progress. You can get hold of items with a gear score higher than 450 by opening proficiency caches awarded for gaining normal experience, Dark Zone experience, or by winning matches of The Division 2’s organized PvP mode called Conflict, plus a few other ways. I was shocked when all of the other places where I would expect these better-than-average rewards to come from, including daily and weekly projects as well as challenge-difficulty strongholds, missions, and high-value bounties only gave me more of the same 450 gear level items I could obtain from much easier sources. The result is that The Division 2’s once broad and replayable content is arbitrarily cut into two halves – one that advances your gear score, and one that does not.
The good news here is that gear score isn’t nearly as important as itemization when it comes to effective power.
Playing at higher difficulty does grant more specialization points and experience, which gets you a proficiency cache sooner, but winning a brief Conflict PvP match awards up to three caches and seems to be much more efficient than any other method. Conflict itself is enjoyable enough, but the Division 2’s at-times clunky cover-based movement and sluggish ability usage have a hard time holding a candle to the fast, fluid pace of the other PvP shooters of 2019, and spawn camping is a real problem. The point here is that grinding organized PvP shouldn’t be one of the only routes to circumventing the gear score limit in a game as multifaceted as The Division 2, much less the hands-down best. I’d like more reasons to repeatedly engage with challenge-difficulty PvE content.
The good news here is that gear score isn’t nearly as important as itemization when it comes to effective power. Progression after 450 takes the form of identifying the most advantageous talents, attributes, and brand sets (which are basically mini set bonuses) and distilling your hoard of hundreds of high-end items down the absolute best one percent. And mercifully, there are still a lot other things to do in the interim between now and the upcoming Tidal Basin update, which Ubisoft says will “soon” introduce a new stronghold, World Tier 5, gear sets, heroic difficulty, weekly invasions, and increase the gear score cap.
Capture points, which are fun the whole game through, become even more enjoyable when dynamic difficulty ranks are introduced. Completing activities in the surrounding area increases the difficulty of the closest capture point, which at ranks three and above awards essential weapon attachments. There are also an enormity of fun and fruitful Easter egg hunts that I can see taking up the majority of my time in between now and the first update. Cryptic puzzles result in the appearance of mysterious enemies who drop coveted masks, just about every main mission has a hidden backpack charm, and two of the best currently known exotic weapons are the end result of a hunt for unique crafting components. Annoyingly, crafting the Liberty exotic is contingent on a specific high-end weapon dropping to complete the recipe, but I suppose this isn’t that unforgiving as far as ARPG grinds go.
So with all that risk, you’d expect a big reward, right? Sorry, but no.
While the convoluted end game progression can be forgiven to some extent in the context of the alternatives it provides and what came before it, the Dark Zone is a different story. The Dark Zone, which I expected to be a dynamic, high-stakes PvPvE zone where you have to be crafty to escape with your excellent rewards turned out to be sterile, shallow, and pointless. NPCs drop the same 450 gear that you can get everywhere else, in addition to contaminated items. These can be stolen by hostile players and must be extracted via a conspicuous helicopter, which is risky and fun. So with all that risk, you’d expect a big reward, right? Sorry, but no. Contaminated items are just more 450 gear to gunk up your stash. I often found myself simply exiting the Dark Zone without extracting my items since it just meant more tedious inventory management later on, even if I was missing out on a .01% increase in damage by way of recalibration.
So what about playing the Dark Zone for the fun of it? Well, it’s a less attractive and dynamic space without the consequence of potentially losing or stealing items that you care about, but it’s fun enough on its own. Combat in both the normal and occupied Dark Zones is much more intuitive than in the original The Division’s version, thanks largely to a faster time-to-kill. Killing a fellow agent in the non-occupied Dark Zone will result in you and your squad going rogue, an action that – if you repeat it enough – will trigger a map-wide manhunt where everybody’s out for your blood. You can hack away your bounty at manhunt stations or, if you’re so bold, double down and increase your manhunt tier. Completing the ultimate Dark Zone achievement of a tier 1 manhunt doesn’t offer any exclusive cosmetics on its own, which seems like a missed opportunity for getting people to chase bragging rights, but it does award gear score 250 items. That’s right: complete arguably the toughest achievement The Division 2 has to offer and you’ll be the proud owner of an item that’s a full 200 gear score less than that you’ll find off a run-of-the-mill red-bar goon. And, in my experience, none of these items offered any kind of Dark Zone-exclusive perks or talents. The rewards for successful bartering with the illusive Thieves’ Den vendor are much the same.
The only risk-reward dynamic that’s intact in the Dark Zone at endgame is experience gain and loss, but even that loses its potency eventually. Killing another player in the anything-goes occupied Dark Zone grants a large experience bonus, but dying is catastrophic, at times resulting in the spoils from a whole Dark Zone level being lost. Dying in the normal Dark Zone isn’t as brutal, but you will lose a fair chunk if you’ve “gone rogue” by scoring a kill on a non-rogue agent or by performing a handful of shady deeds like stealing chests and Dark Zone drops. I went “disavowed” rogue a lot because I’m kind of a jerk like that, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re just trying to hit max rank in the Dark Zone as the risks are not worth the reward. Once you reach rank 50 you’ll be rewarded with a proficiency cache for over-leveling, but you seem to lose the ability to rank down which makes the space that much less daunting. If nothing else, it is a good place to farm huge amounts of 450 items.
To be clear, my issue with The Division 2’s endgame is not that it is too short or lacking in content, but rather that it fails to effectively direct you to the best and most replayable content that’s already there with worthwhile rewards. It’s also disappointing that the challenge difficulty option which is kept from you until the absolute endgame offers nothing new in the way of mechanical variance.