From the snowy vestiges of New York City, The Division 2 heads to Washington DC to battle for the future of the United States of America in the streets of its capitol. It’s with a fitting pomp and patriotic action film cheesiness that you stroll into the White House a hero after cutting through the gangs attacking the survivors there, and use this as your base of operations to branch out and fight for the American Dream.
It makes for a good change of pace from New York City, with that game’s almost monochrome snow and ice blanketed city giving way to more life and colour. There’s a little less distinctive individuality to the game because if this, the city gradually being reclaimed by nature, but it’s prettier and more visually engaging as the weather turns from grey, foggy misery to gorgeous mid-summer sunlight. Massive Entertainment say it’s a 1:1 recreation of Washington DC, from its landmarks to the grid-like layout of multi-storey buildings that every US city adheres to. I’ve never been. I’ll take their word for it.
This being a private beta, we’ll also have to take Massive’s word on the final stages of polish and refinement bringing the game together. Playing on Xbox One X the game looked simply gorgeous and plays really well, feeling tight and responsive. Less good were the smattering of streaming issues, as over the course of a few hours audio gradually cut out, I was starting to be attacked by invisible enemies and then butted into invisible walls. It’s a known issue, and Ubisoft advised restarting the game every few hours. Then there was the awkwardness of getting Dom to join my game, the need to log into Ubisoft Club to be allowed to play (a separate app on Xbox that needed my permissions before it could launch, and the game simply refused to work until I figured this step out), and the incessant barrage of calls for help from other players. They’re kinks that should all be worked out by the time of launch in mid-March.
Of the growing crowd of time-sucking online shooter RPGs out there, The Division is easily the most grounded of them all. Where Destiny has its space wizards, Warframe its space ninjas, and Anthem its fantasy mech suits, The Division’s initial wow factor stemmed from its tactical cover shooter origins and a Tom Clancy techno thriller world.
Admittedly, it was then jarring to have the RPG elements and hit point popping shooter slapped on top of this – seriously? That yellow health bar “fireman” is going to take 73 clips of machine gun ammo to take down? – but the more methodical approach of shifting between cover when threatened, popping out and using futuristic tech made for a refreshing change of pace.
None of that has changed for the sequel. This is still a comparatively slow-paced and methodical cover shooter, where positioning and flanking are vital to success. That makes it a very defensive experience, where your natural inclination is to find a nice vantage point and then work your way through the enemies, but the game constantly pushes you to move. It could be a grenade, an onrushing enemy with a melee weapon or shotgun, an explosive-laden RC car, and more. It tries to keep you on your toes.
When you’re appropriately levelled, dashing into the fray with a full team of four, the combat feels well balanced. You have high powered assault rifles and the like at your disposal, grenades and a pair of gadgets on your shoulder buttons, such as the iconic homing rolling grenade, throwable turrets and drones. You likely won’t have too much trouble against the Hyenas gang that raids Washington during the early game, though they can surprise you in numbers and with explosives. It’s when you get to the end game that there’s a real challenge.
A snippet of this featured in the private beta this past weekend, letting us revisit the Jefferson Trade Centre level, but with fresh voice overs, and a different, much more capable foe: the Black Tusks.
These, it seems, are steeped in the game’s conspiratorial story, emerging to challenge the remnants of the US government for power. The come equipped with advanced gear of their own, from thick military body armour and weapons, to technological threats that rival your own. Boston Dynamics’ quadrupedal robots are walking gun platforms here, there’s flying explosive dart missiles to worry about, and their soldiers are just that bit more aggressive in how they push and flank you. It’s much more challenging, which is what you want from the endgame!
Of course, we were also given endgame characters and their new specialisations with which to try this out. Picking from prebuilt Sharpshooter, Survivalist and Demolitionist, it was interesting to see the greater variety Ubisoft could inject. Most of that comes from the specialisation weapons, which add a touch of unwanted complexity to weapon switching — tap to switch main weapons, double tap for pistol and hold for the specialisation weapon.
I went with the Demolitionist, toting a shotgun as a primary weapon for front foot play and a fitting grenade launcher that dished out a lot of pain in a large area. The only problem is the severely limited ammo, giving me just a handful of grenades to launch, making it a weapon for the rare occasion rather than as a mainstay gun. Still leaning into these sub-classes will be a big part of the overhauled endgame for The Division 2, going beyond min-maxing your gear and opening up a new skill tree to work through. There’s plenty more for us to look forward to and explore when the game is released, including the big eight player raids.
Of course this beta was just a taste, but The Division 2 feels like it’s a straight up sequel to the original. Massive learnt a lot of lessons through that game, refining and improving it over the following years, and this is the steady, level-headed follow up. In many ways it’s exactly what it needs to be, it’s more of The Division, but it could leave The Division 2 lacking that wow factor to stand out in a crowded start to 2019.