The Division 2 Is Actually Fun – At Launch!

Last year ended with a flurry of huge, time-intensive games to play, and so far 2019 is following course. Live-service games are becoming more and more prevalent, and while I like the idea of having a game I can play forever (besides Yakuza’s mahjong mini-game), my real-world experience hasn’t lived up to the fantasy. My love affairs with games like Monster Hunter: World and Destiny 2 have been passionate but short-lived, and while I’ve been having fun with Anthem, it’s also made me mutter more obscenities than Yosemite Sam.

While I’ve entertained the notion that I just might not be a huge fan of live-service games, I’m not willing to dole out the it’s-not-you-it’s-me reprieve. Most times it is definitely them, to the point where “live-service” feels synonymous with “half-done,” or “broken as all get-out.” In fact, I think we tend to give live-service games too much slack; because they are (ideally) continually updated and added to by the developers, we view the launch of a live-service game as a starting point and not, you know, a sales transaction with paying customers that expect a full, functional product?

As the headline of this week’s column suggests exclaims, The Division 2 is breaking from this dubious transition. Here, now, at launch(!), The Division 2 is fun game packed with more than enough content to keep you busy. Way more than enough – probably too much, really. Like a mukbang’s worth of game.

I wasn’t even through The Division 2’s lengthy epilepsy warning before my wife cued up her favorite question, and my dare-I-say-competent attempt to explain the game’s premise didn’t impress her much.

My wife: “What’s this one about?”
Me [in my best grisly movie announcer voice]: “America has fallen to a deadly, biological terrorist attack, and it’s up to an elite group of agents to rebuild the nation…by shooting bad guys.
My wife: “Mmm, boo.”

Her reflexive disapproval didn’t stop her from immediately taking over the character creation process, however, approving and vetoing the different options as I tried my best to generate a vaguely human-looking agent. Turns out she’s not any better at the process than I am – every time I selected a new slider, she would tell me to move it back and forth repeatedly, then just shrug and say, “Okay, you decide.” The only time I really overrode her opinion was when it came time to pick pants – there’s no way in hell I’m marching out into the post-apocalypse in skinny jeans.

After putting the final touches on my agent, I started the game – only to find myself in yet another silent protagonist scenario. Seriously, how is this still okay in 2019?! Does anyone really believe that having NPCs talk at you in an endless series of one-sided conversations is somehow more immersive or believable than having a protagonist that might not sound exactly like you think they should? It’s such a lousy way to deliver a narrative – you could resurrect Hemmingway to write the story for your game and it would still suck. Not to mention the practical consideration that 90% of the dialogue in The Division 2 is delivered via walkie-talkie – how do your handlers even know you’re listening to their instructions if you don’t at least bark back a “copy that” every now and then?

And thus concludes my mini-rant on silent protagonists. Let’s proceed.

Ubisoft was adamant in the lead-up to The Division 2 that the game wouldn’t be political, which is why your first mission involves storming the White House lawn. Granted, that grim scenario feels a lot more plausible now than it did a few years ago, but I digress. As I made my way towards the objective, however, I couldn’t help pausing to gander at what may just be the COOLEST DUDE in The Division 2.

I’m still not sure if he was drunk or dead, but popping a squat on top of a generator with a six pack and an acoustic guitar seems like a perfectly reasonable response to the apocalypse to me. Regardless, I used the opportunity to try out The Division 2’s photo mode. As regular readers of this dumb column know, I love a good photo mode, and The Division 2 offers up a decent suite of options. You can even do emotes, though there doesn’t seem to be a ton of dances. I guess Ubisoft is less likely to get sued by the guy who invented clapping?

Also along the way, I ran into my first bug, which according to the running objective timer, happened four-and-a-half minutes into the game. As far as bugs go, a floating bottle isn’t that bad – it even broke when I shot it. It’s also worth noting that the game has been surprisingly solid in the hours since, and the two crashes I ran into during multiplayer sessions allowed us to jump straight back into middle of the missions we were in. Nevertheless, we salute you, first bug of Division 2!

After storming the White House lawn and shooting a bunch of bad guys as Division agents are wont to do, we wasted no time in…taking over the White House for ourselves? Was that the actual mission goal from the beginning, or just an audible they called when they saw how cool the building was? Because it doesn’t seem particularly patriotic.

That said, as far as an improvised base of operation goes, it doesn’t get much cooler than the freakin’ White House.

Most of the pictures in this column were taken in the aforementioned photo mode, which strips out the UI overlays. During the actual game, however, all the onscreen indicators look a bit like the UI designer barfed all over his keyboard and called it a day. Button prompts are constantly springing up to let you know that you can take cover behind cover (go figure), and the transition mechanic shows you the exact path your character will take when running to the next spot like you’re playing a turn-based strategy game, which seems a little silly since it’s almost always a straight line.

On the bright side, you can tweak most of the indicators in the options menu, and there’s even a UI editor that lets you change the size and orientation of some elements. On the…dim(?) side, the one thing you can’t manipulate is your loadout overlay, which floats right next to you like an ethereal sidekick whenever you have your weapon drawn.

Seriously, is it supposed to be some kind of augmented reality thing? Cuz my character ain’t wearing Google glasses. Why can’t I just tuck that info neatly to the side with the other overlays? I’ll gladly sign a liability waiver to assume the added risk of glancing at the side of my screen for a split-second during firefights.

On the other hand, I do like the dozen or so options the game gives you when picking up loot on the battlefield, allowing you to inspect, equip, loot, compare, or junk it without even opening your inventory. Then again, I’m just happy I don’t have to sit through three loading screens just to switch to a new weapon like Anthem.

Comparing The Division 2 to Anthem is inevitable; both games are live-service, multiplayer-focused looter shooters, that for some reason came out within three weeks of each other. So, how do they stack up? Well, for starters, The Division 2 works! It’s not crippled by load times or damage numbers that don’t make any damn sense or an invisible choke collar or the same mission template being repeated ad nauseum. The Division 2 also doesn’t follow the Destiny blueprint of slowly fixing all your problems over the course of the first game and then burning it all down with a sequel that makes all the same mistakes. Ubisoft made a lot of strides with the post-release support of The Division, and most of it seemed to carry over to the sequel. Who knew building on the lessons you’ve learned would be a good thing!

All that said, it’s time to be real about the story, which – silent protagonist aside – doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The Division 2’s narrative tagline is “If Washington D.C. falls, humanity falls,” a sentiment that’s frequently reinforced during missions. But how is that true, exactly? It’s not like there’s a government anymore – we’re squatting in the White House, for crying out loud! If you’ve got weapons dealers set up at card tables in the lobby of the West Wing, I’m pretty sure you’ve already lost. Not to mention the fact that by this point NYC has been overrun by flame-throwing garbagemen for seven months. I’m sure they’ll stop and go right back to their routes when they hear you’ve killed a couple thousand goons in D.C.

One of my narrative complaints about Anthem also rings true with The Division 2; the game features several enemy factions, but it’s not particularly clear who they are or what they want. One group is called the True Sons, which I assume are some kind of annoying biker gang if only because their name reminds me of that FX show. Another group is named Hyenas, i.e. the jerks of the animal kingdom, so you know they’re bad too. Considering the fact that they all shoot at you on sight and you’re incapable of communicating anyway, there’s not a lot of room for growth.

No, I won’t introduce myself, Mr. Boss Man, because I CAN’T!

Where The Division 2 does have a leg up, however, is it knows what it is. Destiny and Anthem want to tell big sweeping sagas of intergalactic conflicts and centuries-old lore – via a few lines of dialogue while you shoot waves of the same enemies over and over again and collect candy-colored loot. The Division isn’t trying to gussy up its premise, and feels more authentic for it. World collapsed. Gotta rebuild. Shoot baddies. It’s practically a haiku.

It also helps that, unlike Anthem, The Division 2’s missions feel unique. Each one plunders another D.C. landmark or museum to create a memorable shooting gallery. Seriously, whoever thought of using D.C. as a backdrop is a genius – or incredibly lazy. Maybe an incredibly lazy genius?

The enemies are also smart enough to keep you on your toes and force teamwork with your squadmates – I can’t count the number of times I’ve had an enemy sidle up beside my while I was taking potshots at his allies, leaving me to mutter “clever girl” as I die like the dinosaur expert in Jurassic Park who somehow fared worse than the little unarmed kids and old guy. Skirmishes are still doled out at predictable intervals like Anthem, but they feel more exciting and unique because, well, they are – you are constantly running around, diving behind cover, and doing your best to keep everyone in your squad alive. The only thing missing are the sweet Iron Man suits.

Like all open-world Ubisoft games, The Division 2 blasts you with things to do, so much so that they should’ve called it The Diversion. Get it? Anyway, the systems are also utterly overwhelming. You’ve got weapons and skills and weapon mods and skill mods and a whole bunch of crafting materials to, well, craft those things. All of your different armor pieces have different brands (bullet-proof is the new black), which give you various stat bonuses if you match them up. These bonuses are different from attributes, which also improve your stats, and different from talents as well, which, you guessed it, give more bonuses! On the activity front, you got the main missions, side missions, strongholds, control points, SHD tech caches, bounties, specializations, conflicts, and a whole host of other activities like public executions – which for the record you are stopping, not carrying out.

You like progression? Cuz The Division 2’s got progression! You’ve got your character progression, skill progression, Dark Zone progression (complete with its own levels and skill trees), clan progression, and multiplayer progression, not to mention commendations, challenges, settlement projects, and probably about a billion other systems I haven’t discovered yet. Word is colleges are going to start offering a bachelor’s program in The Division 2 just so you can figure out what the hell all this stuff is.

There’s actually plenty of lore too if you want to read to a bunch of logs and crap.

Despite my constant confusion, this is exactly what you want from a live-service game – tons to do! The Division 2 can actually be a hobby if you want it to. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to put a ring on it, but I have enjoyed playing the game with my coworkers every night this week, even if I do occasionally leave them to bleed to death while taking stupid pictures. Which I do for you! So, rather than keep on wording at you, here are some other random thoughts and impressions I accrued over the hours, in picture form!

Here’s a twist you didn’t see coming: Your character is actually huge! And yeah, Ubisoft, we get it – a giant woman stepping on the White House. Could you be any more blatant with your gender politics? For shame…

Early in the game you find another group of survivors that have built their settlement inside of a theater. It’s pretty cool-looking – not as cool as the White House, obviously, but whatevs. You help build up these settlements by completing various projects, which unlocks different stations.

One of the upgrades creates a game station for the kids in the settlement, which seems really unnecessary. Also, while I appreciate the nepotism, those kids are way too young to play For Honor, Ubisoft! Apparently as soon as society collapsed the ESRB guidelines just went right out the window, huh? Wait a minute…wasn’t For Honor an online-only game? Are we to believe they’re running For Honor servers? This is a very confusing Easter Egg that I’ve clearly thought about way more than anyone else.

Unfortunately, the theater settlement isn’t all underage gaming and goofiness. Ubisoft injected yet another heavy-handed political message into the environment. So now we’re “all Americans” and we should “be civil” to one another, huh? Disgusting…

Oh god, here’s another one. This one sounds like straight-up socialism to me! What happened to supply and demand? Society really has crumbled. Thanks for ruining the game, Ubisoft.

When the first Division launched, I became mildly obsessed with how literal Ubisoft was naming shops and items in the city. While there aren’t a ton of shops around D.C., I have spotted a few examples of this peculiar practice in the sequel. I sure do love me some Juice brand orange juice!

Here’s an even better example – who names their pizza restaurant Pizza Restaurant?! Would it kill them slap a stereotypical Italian guy’s name on there, like Mario or Giovanni or any of the Ninja Turtles? Also, $8.65 is either an outrageous price for a slice of pizza, or a pretty good deal for a whole pie. I’m not sure which Pizza Restaurant is charging, but will update if my investigation turns up any more clues.

Speaking of food: It might be the apocalypse, but at least the menu at your base of operations looks great! Which is confusing, considering one of the main resources you’re scrounging for is bottled water. If you’re thinking, “Don’t be stupid, Jeff, this is obviously a pre-apocalypse food menu,” you’re wrong – the sign is outdoors. There’s no way dry erase markers would last seven months in the elements! Regardless, this meal line-up is agent approved!

LOL, you just know this doggie pooped on the rug in the Oval Office and is feeling guilty about it.

Few people know that the Chelonia mydas, or green sea turtle, is actually indigenous to – oh wait, that’s just a stuffed animal. That’s weird.

One mission tasked our squad with saving the Declaration of Independence from a bunch of hooligans who were intent on destroying it for some reason even though it’s just a piece of paper. When we finished, a group of NPCs thanked us for preserving history. They didn’t say anything about preserving this painting of Teddy Roosevelt, though, so I spruced it up while they looked on in abject horror apathy – much like my character’s soulless selfie face. Fun Fact: I may have let Miller bleed to death while taking this picture. See? I wasn’t lying earlier!

Look, I’m no art connoisseur, but maybe don’t make the central focal point of your painting a giant horse ass?

Speaking of ass, you sure can bet there are microtransactions The Division 2! Or as I like to call them, microcrapactions…? Or microtransuckions maybe? Oh whatever. Like this entry they are easy to ignore.

Every mission in The Division 2 is basically a morality test to see if you will abandon your teammates during the middle of combat to nab some sweet loot. I fail that test often. You gotta admit though, the idea of an elite soldier sprinting across the battlefield to compare knee pads with the guy they just shot as the firefight rages on around them is pretty funny from an emergent storytelling perspective.

I’ve only done a few treks into the Dark Zone so far, but it is an exciting and tense gameplay loop. Having to extract your precious loot while enemy NPCs – and perhaps other human players – swarm your location has you frantically scanning the environment for hostiles. At least when Miller’s big dumb head isn’t blocking your camera.

What do you mean this picture is confusing? It’s clearly a Division agent playing rock-paper-scissors with a stack of floating paint cans outside of a deadly quarantine zone. What is confusing about that?

To sum things up, I’ve been enjoying my time with The Division 2, and unlike my last column, I don’t have to twist myself into a knot to say so or hit you with an encyclopedic list of caveats before recommending it. The Division 2 certainly isn’t perfect, and I still don’t know how long I’ll keep playing, but the fact that it launched as a full-fledged game that is already fun to play is encouraging. Actually, I guess that being noteworthy is more depressing than anything else. Hmm, kind of a bummer to go out on, huh? Oh well – nothing another soulless selfie in front of the White House can’t fix!

The Division 2 is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Expect Bertz’s actual review sometime in the following days, or listen to our less-ridiculous impressions in the latest episode of the The Game Informer Show.

Source: Gameinformer