One of the weirdest things about writing about games is playing them before release. This often means that we'll have to play through the same sections of a game multiple times before we're allowed to enjoy the full experience in our own homes. At times that has led us to almost dread starting from scratch all over again and has, on occasion, lessened our enjoyment of the first hours of a few games. The Division 2 has managed to avoid that in many very promising and impressive ways in the first twenty hours.
We've already spent a lot of time praising the visual diversity Washington D.C. offers in our previews, but it's worth repeating. Now that we've been able to explore a larger part of Washington it's become clear why they chose this location. Manhattan was and is excellent in the original, but the amount of visual variety and detail around every corner in The Division 2 is simply outstanding. Washington is filled with landmarks and architecture that makes each area feel distinct and eye-catching, making it difficult to stay your course. It's a cliché, but we've lost count of how many times we've been making our way to an objective just to catch a beautiful view or intriguing detail in the corner of our eye, making us delay that important rescue mission for a few minutes. Whether it be nature taking back its turf in fascinating ways, a group of enemies guarding a Control Point, a loot chest locked behind a fence, or one of the many OCD-triggering collectibles, The Division 2 is filled with things that will make hours go by in the blink of an eye. And we haven't even mentioned the gameplay yet.
The core experience is mostly unchanged. You'll still be spending a lot of time behind cover, using different weapons and abilities to eliminate an endless stream of enemies. It sounds extremely similar to the original on paper, but some minor tweaks make all the difference. Things may change towards the end and in the endgame, but the fights we're experiencing right now feel way more intense and realistic than they did in The Division. Enemies are far less bullet-spongy but make up for it by being more lethal than before. Taking part in fights that last for minutes is a rarity this time around, which removes the duality between realism and "gamey" aspects the original struggled with.
This also makes each weapon feel more lethal and punchier. Getting close with a shotgun will make most common enemies fly through the air after one or two shots, you'll see them lose their balance when being shot in the shoulder with an assault rifle and limp towards cover when near death. Just seeing how the bigger enemies' armour falls off to expose their more vulnerable flesh as you focus fire on it makes it seem like The Division 2 is more about tactics and precision than seeing who can endure the most damage. Again, our previous hands-on with the endgame content makes us somewhat worried that some of the sponginess will return later on, but not to the same tedious degree as before.
Tedious repetition has also been alleviated by a wider variety of enemy types. Each faction has a few types that require wildly different approaches. Where the Outcasts' suicide bombers will draw your immediate attention and force you out of cover, the True Sons' snipers will make you think twice before leaving your safe hiding place behind a police car or conveniently placed roadblock. Encountering two of these factions at the same time really highlights these differences and will truly test your tactical awareness and nerves. Having great weapons and gear also helps, obviously.
We all know that the things that will make us return to the game even if it's just for ten minutes before an appointment is progression and loot. The loot system itself hasn't changed much (a positive) as you'll be rewarded for doing pretty much anything. Killing enemies, exploring, helping other players, and even emoting with other players can end up rewarding you with experience points, better gear, and cosmetics that make you stand out from the other agents running around the world. A focus on lethality and some minor tweaks to the menus also make each weapon feel more unique. Like it or loathe it, you're now getting more detailed information about each weapon in the menus. Having to compare damage, rounds per minute, damage drop-off and perks might feel a tad too much for some but it is quite useful for those of us who care about the finer details. Those of you who prefer the original menus can also change over as there's a version that's more similar, so there's no need to worry.
What we do worry about is the story. Sure, we haven't cared all that much about the stories in any of the recent Tom Clancy games, so we didn't expect much here either. Having a silent protagonist just nodding to every command without asking why or how just feels sterile and boring, which makes the reasoning behind each mission thin at best. That's not important in our book though, as gameplay is king in these kinds of games, and things might improve towards the end.
That said, the thing that worries us the most is that the gameplay, despite the improvements and new activities, has already started feeling repetitive. A large majority of the missions and activities have us running from A to B, interacting with something, killing hordes of enemies, and then listening to a person we barely remember before getting our rewards. Having diverse enemies helps, but not enough to make the game feel fresh the entire way through the campaign. Having the Black Tusk enter the fray and getting access to Specialisations in the endgame might freshen up things enough until the expansions arrive, so we're still hopeful. Not that we're complaining because we're still having a lot of fun after spending close to forty hours in The Division 2 (preview events and beta access included). Like we said before, some games have made us hesitant about returning to the same sections we played ahead of launch, but Massive has thrown those concerns straight out the window by giving us an engaging, living world that's filled with stuff to do, and we can't wait to spend a few more hours there before delivering our final review sometime in the coming days.