Ubisoft listened to the feedback it received after the launch of the original The Division, and spent the following months improving an already great game. With that being the case, why not just continue polishing and adding content instead of making a sequel? Because The Division 2 offers several huge improvements that just wouldn't have been possible in the original, and the result is one of the best looter-shooters out there.
That's a very strong statement that you'd be hard-pressed to believe after the first thirty minutes or so, as the story and characters that start things off are boring at best. We'd have a tough time explaining why we were on a given mission or even remembering the name of a character who gave us instructions just two minutes after watching one of the game's overly-dramatic cutscenes. The Division 2 is all about liberating Washington D.C. but the story feels forced and the characters try to make up for it by having a "no bullshit attitude" that makes The Expendables look like Shakespeare in comparison. Fortunately, we don't care, as gameplay is king in The Division 2.
List the shortcomings of The Division in your head, and get ready to erase most of them as we explore a range of improvements and changes made in The Division 2. Let's start with the world. Manhattan was and still is very impressive with its awe-inspiring skyscrapers and sense of scale, but Washington D.C. takes everything to another level. It doesn't matter where you go in the American capital, every nook and cranny is filled with interesting details that make the city feel real and alive. As if Washington's endless selection of historical landmarks and museums weren't enough, the world's ravaged environments usually have some weird beauty or intriguing details that put your imagination into overdrive as you try to process the environmental storytelling. What happened to the little girl who drew that image of her family before leaving the house so suddenly that she left her teddy bear on the bed? Why did the truck crash into that convenience store? Some of these questions are to some degree answered in recordings or the fascinating still-frames called Echos, while others are completely left up to our imagination. 'Show but don't tell' often works very well in these cases, which makes the world feel real, and this sense of realism is reflected in the combat as well.
Do you remember those pesky enemies that apparently had bulletproof jackets in the original? They're mostly gone in The Division 2. Both you and your enemies are now far more lethal this time around. Sure, the strongest enemies will require you to empty a few magazines into them, but it feels more realistic when they are wearing what are basically blast suits and you have to shoot different parts of the armour off to reveal vulnerable areas. This, combined with weapons that really feel distinct and a wide variety of modifiable gadgets, makes every fight a thrill, and you'll get goosebumps when you do things like shoot a suicide bomber with the very last bullet in your clip and then watch as the accompanying explosion blasts their nearby allies into oblivion. Having a large variety of enemy types keeps encounters feeling fresh, especially as the dynamic world might have a thing or two in hand to change things up even further. Maybe another enemy faction will arrive, forcing both you and your original opponent to not only widen your focus but also adapt to the new enemy's tactics. Top this with a weather system and day/night cycle that will have you fighting through intense rain, extreme fog, the sunniest of days, or a lightning storm and you can be sure to never experience the same encounter twice.
The only problem is that the game is mostly encounters. Almost everything you do tasks you with you going from A to B, interacting with something, and then fighting hordes of enemies. It's not quite as bad as most other games in the genre, as The Division 2 includes puzzle-like sequences where you have to find a way to open closed doors or get inside buildings by using the environment in clever ways, but this is still not a game for those of you looking for varied gameplay around every corner. Not a particularly noteworthy problem for us, as we loved the balance between combat and doing the odd brainteaser in between.
This is true even after forty hours in the game. One of the reasons for that is how the world changes based on your actions. Ubisoft games are known for borrowing different mechanics from each other, and The Division 2 has improved Far Cry: New Dawn's settlement system in a multitude of rewarding ways. Killing all the enemies in one of the many Control Points spread around the city will leave it in the hands on your friends. That doesn't just give you a new respawn or fast travel point, you also have friendlies patrol the district, giving you a helping hand when encountering foes. It's also worth paying them a visit once in a while, as sharing resources with them will reward you with a lot of experience points and other handy things. Having a rewarding gameplay loop is essential in a game like this, and The Division 2 doesn't disappoint.
Every weapon and piece of gear has a seemingly-endless pool of perks and attributes to choose from, which means that every drop has our heart beating slightly faster. It's also well-worth simply walking around the city and seeking out random encounters, loot containers, or one of the many different side-activities. Pretty much everything you do will reward you in some way, whether it be with experience points, loot, in-game currency, vanity items, crafting recipes, or SHD points to upgrade your perks. We've rarely spent more than ten minutes just walking around without our eyes or ears being drawn to something that either rewarded us with a fun experience and/or exciting equipment, even in the endgame.
That's because the folks over at Ubisoft weren't exaggerating when they said that the endgame would be an essential part of The Division 2. When we spoke with game director Mathias Karlson before launch he said that the Black Tusk faction was saved for the endgame because it would spice things up and it definitely does. This highly-skilled faction, like each of the others, offers unique challenges with their specific tactics and gadgets. You'll suddenly have to fight against enemy drones, robotic dogs and more professional soldiers. We thought that having this faction overtaking Control Points and other important areas would ruin the experience by forcing us to repeat the stuff we'd spent hours upon hours doing through the campaign, but the developers have made things feel fresh with some very smart choices. The so-called Invaded Missions have new objectives and force you to change tactics because of the new enemies, while the three Specialisation classes and new weapons give you even more options that almost make it feel like a completely new game.
In fact, you could well argue that The Division 2 is made up of different games. You have the campaign and endgame, but let's not forget about the PvP Dark Zones. We've already spent an entire preview sharing our very positive thoughts about these deadly battlefields, so we'll keep it short here. Neutralising the level of the gear makes for a far better experience, but most of us will still get obliterated by a team if we venture into the areas filled with some of the game's best loot on our own. It's worth it though, as you won't necessarily have to extract the gear you find in order to get it. We've been able to equip high-end gear right away on several occasions, so playing hide and seek with rogue or disavowed agents is a real option.
Then there are the Conflict modes: Skirmish and Domination. These are still not what we're looking for in a game like this, but we can appreciate that they'll keep many of you entertained for hours due to how great the weapons feel and the continued action and sense of progression. These modes take you out of town to some new locations, but we have to say that we prefer the uncertainty and atmosphere in Washington D.C. itself.
As we're talking about the less fantastic parts of The Division 2, let's make it clear that the game has its flaws. Games with complex, shared worlds have always struggled with different technical problems, and this is no different. While the game has been surprisingly stable (we played on Xbox One), but we encountered enemies who don't register our shots and, on occasion, our character suddenly died several seconds after being shot; two things that are extremely frustrating when they happen. Then there's the way our skills suddenly reset right after being activated, often putting us in a very tricky situation (Ubisoft has said that the server update yesterday made this rarer and that an upcoming patch will fix it completely). Sprinkle in a few server crashes, closed gates forcing us to restart missions and a few audio issues, and you have a perfect example of the straw that almost broke the camel's back.
Still, as you might have gathered from the first paragraph, those straws just vanish in the wind seconds after they appear. The Division 2 has improved upon absolutely everything from the original, and the game is breathtaking both visually and in terms of gameplay. Washington D.C. is beautiful and diverse, while at the same time filled with different things to do, all of which reward you in one way or another, from the prologue through to the hours upon hours you'll spend in the endgame after the credits roll. Massive's online-RPG comes with a very forgettable story, some technical hiccups, and gameplay that still feels a bit repetitive despite offering more variation than most other similarly-styled titles, but these faults don't detract from the fact that The Division 2 is one of, if not the, best looter-shooters in years.