As predicted in my Anthem review, The Division 2 has ended up being a significant beneficiary of The Bad Game Effect.
This ties into my theory that you should play a bad game every once in a while to stop yourself from taking the good ones for granted. It’s quite easy, on a normal day, to totally overlook the things a good game does that are so seamless, so natural, so well-executed that you simply don’t notice them; they’re doing their job so well that they blend into the background as if they were always supposed to be there. It’s only when you play a bad game, that tries to do the same thing but, for example, locks the inventory behind a loading screen, and then locks the loading screen to get into the inventory behind a bigger loading screen, that you truly realise just how good the good ones are.
And yes, The Division 2 is good. I didn’t get on with the original Division all that well, as it seemed an entirely unremarkable, average game with no ambition outside of its interesting Dark Zone experiment, and at first glance The Division 2 is an entirely unremarkable, average sequel. If Anthem is responsible for anything here, though, it’s that some of those “unremarkable” features that I otherwise wouldn’t have given much thought to have been thrown into rather sharp relief. It is important not to lower the bar too far, so I’m not going to give The Division 2 many points for having a inventory system that you can access at any time or for only hitting you with a single (fairly lengthy) loading screen when you first boot the game, because those should just be part of the minimum required featureset you try to fulfil when you make what has (against my strong objections) come to be known as a “looter shooter” game: an always-online co-op focused experience where you gun down hordes of NPC baddies in constant search of better guns and equipment for your character. Of course you need a working inventory system, and that The Division 2 has one (barely) shouldn’t be seen as some kind of stunning success on its part.
There are other areas where I’m prepared to give it more credit than I was previously, though. Take the core loop, an industry term which basically means the smallest possible quantum of self-sustaining activity contained within your game. The core loop of a looter shooter is the same as the core loop for an ARPG: kill enemies, get better loot, equip better loot, kill bigger enemies. I think the loot part of Division 2 is not particularly exceptional; there have been improvements made that I’ll get into later and it’s held my interest longer than in the first game, but it’s also messy and flabby and something of a pain to interact with. The part where you kill enemies, though, is interesting, as a point of comparison to both Anthem and the original Division.
I had some big, big complaints about the combat in The Division. It had a decent enough cover shooter system, but all of its enemy types were broadly similar (except for the PMC faction, introduced far too late to make a difference) and it had gone for the approach of making its elite, high-tier baddies gigantic sacks of hitpoints who you’d have to empty several boxes of M60 ammo into to kill. Not only was this breaking the game’s internal fiction of a newly post-apocalyptic New York city set in something approximating the real world — which is supposed to be filled with regular human beings who should fall over when you shoot them, not alien supermen who can soak up absurd amounts of punishment — but it also made gunfights less satisfying because it felt like your weapons were absurdly weak. Hell, they were absurdly weak relative to the stat scaling. And that’s basically the same complaint I had about Anthem’s combat: the guns felt like peashooters and had zero character, which together with the totally braindead enemy AI made combat tremendously unfulfilling once the novelty of the various Javelin abilities had worn off.
The Division 2 has taken heed of the criticism directed at the first game, however, and has charted a new route via both big and small changes to its internal mechanics that ensures it successfully avoids all of these pitfalls. It’s no longer set the day after the apocalypse, but several years afterwards; this means it’s a little more divorced from reality1 and so the factions and enemy types can be a little more distinct than “a bunch of guys with guns”. There are enemies with goo guns that’ll immobilise you and make your vulnerable; grenadiers who can be shot while they’re throwing grenades to make them drop it just after pulling the pin (and who carry around big red bags full of grenades that can be shot for a similar effect); snipers who will try and blind you with strobe lasers; techno-wranglers who’ll send out RC cars full of explosives or which are covered in sawblades like they’ve just been plucked out of an episode of Robot Wars; and when you get into the endgame the Boston Dynamics robot dog will show up and start shooting at you. With a railgun. And he’s got a friend who looks like a big, angry Johnny-5. There’s enough variety here now to sustain the game past the first few hours of gunfights, so much so that the stock flamethrower guys and suicide bombers are positively pedestrian by comparison.
More than that, though, Division 2 makes the actually sensible choices around enemy health that the first game should have — namely, that a standard enemy that takes four headshots to kill at level one will still take four headshots to kill at level thirty with the appropriate level gear and talent build. (And yes, four headshots sounds like a lot, but it’s an acceptable balance of enemy vulnerability versus needing to provide some baseline level of challenge versus not breaking the game’s internal fiction that these are normal human people you’re shooting at.) When you have multiple people in your party and the game needs to scale the difficulty up to compensate, it doesn’t do it by adding an additional 300% onto everyone’s health bar, it does it by spawning three times the number of enemies it would if you were playing solo. Individual enemies are still vulnerable and go down in a few shots, but so do you if you get flanked or caught out of cover, and so by piling on more enemies you really, really have to be paying attention to enemy positions and managing their numbers so that they never get too close. There’s a lot of gunfire and — thanks to the wider range of enemy abilities in the sequel — a lot of explosions, incendiaries, jamming effects, stun effects, and generally harmful shit flying around a combat zone that you need to be keeping track of. That is where the challenge is: your ability to think tactically, change up your position and prioritise enemy targets based on a dynamically evolving threat level. Not “Here’s a guy with a million hitpoints, have fun shooting him for the next fifteen minutes!” It’s a much more interesting problem than either Anthem or The Division managed to create.
But what about the elite and boss enemies you fight? Those guys need to have a level of toughness appropriate to their boss status, and the solution Division 2 has gone for here is a fairly good one: armour. Again, it’s not just a matter of “This enemy’s health bar is longer because he’s wearing armour”, because that would just be justifying lazy difficulty scaling with words; instead, elites and bosses are wearing physical bits of armour all over their bodies that can be shot off if you punt enough rounds into them. Until the armour is gone you can’t even scratch their health bar, but once you’ve punctured it in one or two places they’ll fold just as quickly as a regular enemy, kind of like the Elite shields in Halo. Armour is a mechanic that rewards precision targeting and focus fire: blowing off the armour on somebody’s left arm isn’t particularly helpful if they then turn so that you can only see their right side. Similarly, having three people in your party shooting a boss enemy in three different locations is very inefficient because each of you is chipping away at a separate armour piece; it’s far better to just coordinate — even if it’s just visually looking at where your teammates are shooting — and shoot at the same spot, as you’ll down the boss in a third of the time. Having armour that can absorb hundreds of rounds of ammo is almost as unrealistic as having an enemy absorb them with his face, but it doesn’t matter so much now because there’s now an actual, visible reason why my bullets aren’t doing damage with some very tangible feedback that introduces new and interesting gameplay considerations — again, just like the Elite shields in Halo — and it turns out that’s all I really wanted.
All of these tweaks, changes and additions come together to ensure that combat in The Division 2 is fun. It would be fun without the loot — you’re barely even thinking about loot when you’re fighting through one of its encounters — and something almost worth doing for its own sake, and that’s a surprisingly rare quality in a loot-driven game. And when contrasted against Anthem, The Division 2 makes an admirable effort to ensure that there’s always a fight happening somewhere in its rendition of a ruined Washington D.C if you want to get stuck in, with rival factions of bad guys sending out patrols that will tussle with each other if their paths cross, or if they run into a strongpoint. You can constantly hear the echoes of gunfire and distant screams as you pick your way through the streets, and if you run towards it you’ll likely be able to clear up a weakened control point or elite patrol and get the corresponding loot rewards — that, or you’ll end up fighting two factions’ worth of enemies at once and get overwhelmed. Either way it’s all about making that combat experience constantly available, even outside of a mission.
Ah yes, the missions. They’re… okay? They suffer mostly from two things. One is that The Division 2 doesn’t really have a story to speak of, with your mute agent glaring at people during cutscenes and then swanning off to murder another 300 people in the name of Democracy. It’s never really explained why you’ve gone to Washington D.C, or what on earth you’re doing now that you’re there (something about turning a computer off and on again, I think — rescuing the President was entirely incidental to this). So the missions are mostly just a sequence of combat encounters in some interior locations; they get quite a long way on the strength of those combat encounters, on their own, being quite excellent, but the locations suffer from the second problem The Division 2 has here, which is that Washington D.C is a very dull place to set a game in. This isn’t a slur on D.C. particularly, but rather an observation that most US cities are built around a repetitive grid system that optimises traffic management and thus tend to lack character compared to their fictional equivalents. I had the same problem with New York in the first game, and while Washington isn’t quite as bad — some time having passed since the outbreak of the superbug that wiped out the world means that everything is crumbling and overgrown with wild animals running through the streets, which at least injects some colour and life into the proceedings — it still struggles to identify memorable locations for its missions. Even the ones that take place around recognisable monuments like the Lincoln memorial end up being a fight through a series of murky underground rooms beneath the Lincoln memorial; the best missions end up being the ones set inside museums where you’re surrounded by the artifacts of somewhere else that isn’t Washington D.C. There’s also very little flair shown with encounter scripting or objective design, with most missions just spawning enemies and then leaving them to fight as they would in the open world. That’s not to say they’re bad, they just have few redeeming qualities of their own and wouldn’t get nearly as far if the core combat experience wasn’t quite so well-tuned.
The loot is also okay. Probably being merely “okay” would be a damning indictment of any other looter shooter since it’s half of the name, but it does a decent job of providing you with a range of outfitting options for your next brawl. The armour isn’t particularly interesting and mostly exists to make armour value and gearscore go up, but the guns are — and this is a marked improvement from the first Division, where I’d seen all of the guns ten hours in and wasn’t interested in using most of them because they were so weak. There’s a much wider range of them available in the sequel, and because there’s less emphasis on damage — there’s a range of time-to-kills across the guns, but the smaller enemy HP pools make it a lower consideration than it was — there’s much more room to experiment; the gun you end up using tends to be the one that feels the best to you, even if it’s not the best in terms of pure stats, and that’s a perfectly viable approach to take. There’s even a significant degree of variation within weapon categories, with different brands of shotguns, assault rifles and LMGs having different characteristics. Probably the biggest improvement over the original, though, is that nearly all of the guns feel powerful. They look great and sound great, as they did in the original, but this time around they actually have the in-game impact to match the meaty booms and metre-long muzzle flashes, and this makes them a pleasure to use.
In terms of drop frequency The Division 2 is probably more towards the Destiny 2 or Diablo 3 end of the scale, except dialled up to eleven. Loot is dropping all the goddamn time, with encounters with even a few random mooks having a good chance of coughing up an equipment drop, and thanks to the way the gear scaling works (it’s a more sensible version of Destiny’s light level system) it’s almost always going to be at least a small improvement on what you’ve currently got equipped in terms of raw stats. As somebody who likes picking up loot I found this very agreeable; what I didn’t find agreeable was the frankly pathetic interface for managing these huge quantities of loot pickups. I’ve been playing the endgame for a little while now and I have a 100-slot inventory. It fills up from empty to full in around an hour and a half. I have eleven slots into which I can equip items, so even if I wanted to do a complete equipment replace I’d still have eighty-nine items that need to be sold or deconstructed. To do this I need to go down a list and individually mark each one as junk. Eighty-nine times. The game is sorely missing a “Sell all except favourites button”; that or an inventory system that isn’t a giant list. It gets worse when you take equipment and skill mods into account since these go into a separate 100-slot mod inventory, doubling the amount of logistics you have to handle — and to add insult to injury skill mods are completely broken right now, with nonsensically low bonuses and ridiculously high skill requirements in order to equip them making them functionally useless. It’s just pointless cruft that clogs up your inventory and generates make-work, and it is terrible.
Speaking of the endgame, the last interesting thing that The Division 2 does is actually have one. That is, it doesn’t just pat you on the back after finishing the story (if only because it doesn’t have a story) and then tell you to repeatedly run slightly harder versions of the missions you’ve already done, as most looter shooters do on release when they’re waiting for the dev team to finish the actual endgame content. Instead, after you finish the final mission it’ll show you a short cutscene of the fourth faction — the Black Tusk PMC — attacking Washington and taking over the map; this introduces new activities and makes the open world far busier, and it also sets up remixed versions of the story missions that have Black Tusk as the opposition instead of the faction you originally fought there. This is where the standard RPG levelling system stops and the World Tier system starts; you’re no longer chasing XP to level up but are instead looking to boost your gear level to the point where you can tackle the next tier of these remixed Black Tusk missions, which is a nice short-term carrot to keep you playing through the 3-4 hours each of the first three World Tiers takes. Once you get to World Tier 4 the world changes slightly yet again, with the standard control points scattered around the world now gaining an alert level that can be manipulated by the player; raising it dramatically increases the number of veteran and elite enemies that will be defending the point, but will also yield much better rewards should you manage to clear the point. Taken all together there’s about 15 hours of structured content here that Massive have planned out for after you finish the story, which is 15 hours more than anyone else working in the genre bothers with, and a very pleasant surprise for someone like me who really dislikes repetitive grind with no distinct goals; this should be the standard approach for one of these “games as a service” things, and it’s absolutely shocking to me that The Division 2 is the first one I’ve played that’s actually done it.
This review has been generally positive so far, and deservedly so. The Division 2 is very far from perfect, though, since I have a huge laundry list of minor and not-so-minor flaws that I could take the game to task for if I were feeling particularly mean. In general its biggest problem is that it’s not particularly joined-up in its design thinking; there’s a lot to the game, and enough of it is good that the parts it doesn’t do so well can generally be ignored, but they are a significant minority that will require some attention from Ubisoft and Massive in the months to come. Things like the already-mentioned problem with the skill mods, and skill power in general being rather meaningless, and talent recalibration being an arcane process that isn’t explained to the player at all, and a fair chunk more besides. I can get by without really worrying about any of these things too much, but the fact that they’re there and they don’t really work takes some of the sheen off of what’s otherwise a quite polished experience. Probably the biggest of the minor criticisms I’d make of The Division 2 is that the enemy spawn system seems set up to punish player aggression, which is a weird thing to do in a game that’s all about cover and flanking. Enemies will spawn from fixed points on the map during a fight — usually a one-way door that you can’t go through — and these points don’t change based on player proximity, so what will usually happen if you’re being aggressive and pushing forward to a good flanking position is that you’ll clear out one set of enemies and then find that five enemies have all piled out of a door directly behind you into an ideal flanking position on you, and so you die extremely quickly when they start shooting a split-second later. That’s not to say that a good flank is impossible, but you need to be extremely bloody careful of where the spawns might be coming from; if you’re not it’s usually better to stay where you are, stick behind your cover and trade shots from the front, even if it turns some of the fights into ridiculous Naked Gun shootouts.
I should probably start wrapping up now, but I’m sure there’s something else I should mention before I do… oh wait, the Dark Zone! I almost forgot to talk about it, and for good reason: The Division 2 basically forgets about it as well. I thought the Dark Zone’s mix of PvE and PvP was one of the few high points of the first game and I was looking forward to seeing what the sequel would do with the idea, but unfortunately it turns out the answer is “Split it into three much smaller separately-instanced chunks that dilute the player population to the point where I’ve seen a grand total of one other player in two hours spent in the various Dark Zones.” There’s very few other players bothering with the Dark Zone this time around, likely because this time around there’s much more efficient ways to get good loot outside of the Dark Zone, and also because the actual Dark Zones themselves are much duller than they were in the first game with nowhere near as much to do — and without other players who might go rogue providing that sense of tension, all the Dark Zone is is a worse version of the PvE experience you can get elsewhere. There’s a special Dark Zone called the Occupied Dark Zone that I haven’t tried yet, and it might be that this is where all of the actual cutthroat players are spending their time. I’m not holding my breath though, and I think the Dark Zones are possibly the biggest failure of The Division 2 in general since they’re a regressive waste of a good idea that had been proven to work (more or less) in the first game.
The Division 2 is a big improvement over the original game, and a dramatic contrast to the shitshow that was Anthem. It’s gone from being something of a misfire to having some of the tightest combat mechanics of any third-person cover shooter I’ve played, and it is extremely technically accomplished; it runs very well on my machine, there have been very few network problems and I have experienced a grand total of one crash in fifty hours. Even the bugs have been comparatively minor, with the worst of them (involving highly inadequate level scaling for players in your party who were lower level than the host) being fixed a week after launch. There’s plenty in the game that misfires, or doesn’t land, and there’s unfortunately rather more systems that got the “fix after launch” label attached to them than I’d really like, but there’s enough content and structure to Division 2 that this simply doesn’t matter in the way that it might for something following the usual AAA developer strategy of putting out the minimum viable product for release and hoping they’ll be able to fill in the gaps later. It’s got a solid enough foundation that it can stand strong despite the weight of its not inconsiderable list of issues — and importantly for The Division 2, that foundation will make it much easier for Massive to deliver the “service” part of this game-as-a-service. I’m still not wholly on board with the looter shooter as an ongoing concept2, but The Division 2 is about as good an attempt at releasing one as I’ve seen so far.
- Not that Tom Clancy games aren’t totally divorced from reality anyway, but they usually at least try to pay lip service to it to try and maintain their techno-thriller and cyber-wankery credentials. ↩
- It’s mostly the cyclical nature of them I object to. There’ll be 1-2 years of content doled out for D2, and then I’ll be asked to shell out for D3 in 2022. It feels a bit much to ask me to spend years of my life playing something that’s so ultimately ephemeral; I’d much rather do the initial burst of content and then move on to something else, but that then means I’m not seeing these games at their best because they usually release in a pretty barebones state. ↩