by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 12th April, 2019
Filled with content, with engaging endgame and constantly showering players with new loot, The Division 2 is the best looter shooter in years.
Playing The Division 2 is like roaming a toy store while constantly being shot at. Everything is bright, shiny, and colorful. New and interesting toys (read: loot) are hiding around every corner, you simply can't resist the urge to explore some more and find even better toys, but have to clear bad guys constantly because the store (read: city of Washington D.C.) is filled with them.
And it's great; the carrot on stick gameplay loop works wonders here because everything is perfectly balanced and catered towards looter shooter fans.
This means great shootouts against capable (most of the time) AI, realistic weapon behavior (sans shotguns), enemies that hide their sponginess behind ten different layers of body armor making it much easier to swallow it this time around, and tons and tons of new loot, creating a near-perfect gameplay loop in which you kill some bad guys and get rewarded and do it again, and get rewarded even more generously.
The thing about loot in The Division 2 is that it's all around the player. Do a bit of exploration and over the course of ten minutes, you will find at least one armor and one weapon chest just lying around the city.
Complete a hostage rescue and the hostage will tuck some gear in your pockets instead of simply thanking you for your effort. Overtake a control point and you will receive access to multiple loot chests that can be opened every 24 hours as long as you keep the said control point in your hands. Embark on a main mission and earn a bunch of new loot dropped by high profile targets and bosses.
The Division 2 finally did the loot loop right, for the first time since Borderlands 2. I tried to play Destiny 2 and Anthem but both of those ultimately lost me because they weren't generous enough (especially the latter).
When I play a looter shooter I want to be showered with new gear; I want to find new and shiny armor and weapons lying around after each set piece; I want to be awarded new gear for completing even the tiniest and easiest side activity; I want to explore and be rewarded for it with that sweet image of a loot chest waiting for me just around the corner.
And that's not what I get in most of these games. It's like developers tried to hook players by implementing extremely infrequent varied-ratio reinforcement in past looter shooters, which makes us more addicted but at the same time more susceptible to quit playing a game if the frequency of rewards spawning goes too low, which happened to Anthem.
But in The Division 2, there are no operant conditioning tricks that should make you addicted to the game; there are simply a plethora of rewards that keep you hooked to it. And the best thing is that the gear you discover isn't made 99 out of thrash.
Even the simples of side activities can reward player with gear good enough to equip it. These constant dopamine shots The Division 2 offers are extremely enjoyable and extremely addictive.
But, an excellent loot system cannot be the only reason for a game to be great and The Division 2 delivers on almost all fronts. Visuals are excellent, for instance. The city looks amazing and each part of it is built with maximum care.Buildings are rendered in extreme detail, streets filled with all kinds of litter and overgrowth that create a solid look of a city after a major catastrophe.
Sure, there are too many cars around and too many pieces of concrete that serve as cover but overall, it looks pretty believable. Next, we have amazing weather effects with the fog being the clear champion. It's so thick and all reaching it can completely change the whole scene, turning a bright morning into a Silent Hill-like stroll around the city, with danger lurking beyond the fog.
Next, we have storms that are another example of great design. Loud sounds of thunder, with constant pouring rain and dark grey clouds that look like they are carrying the whole ocean of water ready to descend on the poor city make any storm to look amazing. And then you have the fantastic post-storm effect of sunshine getting through clouds and streets slowly getting dry.
And that sweet summer sunshine is making D.C. look much more appealing than the snow-covered New York from the first game. Everything is bathing in colors with massive amounts of green and thick foliage present even in downtown.
Shrubs, trees, grass overtaking the concrete and growing on the base of each wall create an image of a post-apocalypse that doesn't make you turn around in aversion.
Quite the contrary, the post-apocalyptic world of The Division 2 is inviting and beautiful in its decay. The summertime makes colors saturated turning the whole town into an inviting playground that is beautiful even when you're attacked by a dozen of enemies. Massive did an excellent job with world design, lighting, and particle system creating a game world that looks amazing.
But, the denizens of that world are not as pretty as their surroundings. Facial animations (and animations in general) are poor and comic at times and the quality of character models is well below the detail of buildings and streets.
They detriment the experience, yes, but cannot create a noticeable dent in the game's appeal because you'll rarely see human NPCs from close range making their poorly detailed models easier to swallow. And during a firefight you definitely won't be troubled by poorly done movement animations or less than pretty faces of your enemies so that's okay.
And while character models are subpar, visuals as a whole are great and detailed, making The Division 2 very attractive game as long as you don't stare in other people's faces.
Moving to gameplay, where Massive scored another huge win. Gunplay isn't the best in the business but it feels nice. Weapons have a noticeable kick and most of them aren't the most stabile pieces meaning you have to regularly adjust your aim during long burst with ARs and LMGs.
Even semi-automatic rifles demand constant aim adjustments and can be difficult to handle at times. Sadly, shotguns and pistols behave like toys, especially shotguns.
Yes, they have a kick but their sound and behavior makes you think you're carrying some overgrown toy instead of a dangerous weapon capable of reducing enemies to a bloody pulp from close range. There are weapon mods with which you can slightly adjust weapon stats to be suited more towards your play style.
They won't completely change how a weapon behaves but can change a few critical stats, making a weapon much more useful. For instance, you can trim down reload time of every LMG by installing a mod that at the same time shaves off 15 rounds from the clip.
This is extremely helpful for people playing with LMGs but it doesn't make the weapon OP in any way. You can also increase a weapon's range for the price of reducing critical hit damage, making some ARs excellent at long range while keeping their automatic fire and short reload times.
Mods can be crafted and once you craft one you can use it for any weapon that supports it, making weapon modding fun and extremely fast, which is great for times when you find your next primary weapon in the middle of a mission.Cover based shooting mechanics also work great. You are safe and sound when behind a cover but come out in the open and your armor will melt faster than ice cream in Sahara.
This makes arcade combat from the first Division a thing of past and favors tactical approach relying on fast movement from cover to cover.
You have to be careful, stay in cover, and wait for a perfect time to advance in case your build prefers ARs, SMGs, or LMGs. Sniper-loving folks can play defensively thanks to the plethora of defensive abilities and the fact that other team members can prevent enemies from flanking your position.
Combat is tactical and filled with intense moments like when your whole team focuses fire on a boss, or when you enter an area filled with enemies and then barrage them with grenades and abilities before taking cover.
Enemy AI is another thing that makes The Division 2 stand above its peers. Enemies are aggressive and they will constantly try flanking you, always moving towards a spot that allows them to shoot at you. Later on, bosses and stronger enemies will simply rush at your position, and often making their way behind you, which can be deadly at times.
They also love throwing grenades at your position, which are extremely accurate but their comically slow speed of travel gives enough time to find new cover. Constant movement and smart usage of cover, combined with teamwork and active ability usage are keys for victory.
Each set piece is filled with flanking maneuvers, enemies rushing at you and creating constant tension and fear of being shot at from behind, huge explosions, cover fire, and lots of shouts. Most enemies announce them every move meaning you can know where you will be flanked next, or from which side to look for an incoming grenade.
But they can get dumb at times, with things like rushing past you just to take cover behind your position and staying there without thinking of firing their weapon (it seems that, once they start running for cover their behavior cannot change until they finish the action); running into walls; getting stuck in a loop that sees them climb a surface and them immediately descend, or simply getting stuck behind some prop.
This doesn't happen often but there are enough AI glitches to make them noticeable. It isn't really annoying and can be completely ignored most of the time (read on about endgame AI problems) because AI is usually pretty aggressive and deadly especially on harder difficulties where they become killing machines capable of perfect cooperation and deadly synchronization.
You can notice actions like one enemy throwing a grenade and seconds later, once you start running to another cover, other enemies start rushing towards you while you're out in the open forcing you to stop and shot, turning you into a sitting duck that usually results in death screen.
This is great and makes harder difficulties fun to play. Instead of simply making their damage output and armor higher, developers made enemies smarter and more aggressive, which can make missions on the hard difficulty a challenge even for seasoned teams that use voice comm. AI of friendly NPCs also works pretty well.
They move around the city, on patrol or scavenging for materials, can get into firefights with enemies and can help you in taking control points and are actually helpful in combat.
Yes, their damage output is laughably low but they are perfect for distracting enemies and throwing grenades. The player can accompany them while they're out scavenging and this works pretty well, rewarding you with additional resources, making you explore the city and find more sweet loot.
While weapons and combat in general work great, the story is poor as they can be. You'll hear uninspiring talk about the resistance, how The Division keeps the flame of freedom alive along with the classic Tom Clancy story about a human-made pathogen that spread through the whole of the US, creating national disaster and putting the country in the state of chaos.
There are three enemy factions, each controlling a chunk of the city, each of them uses some unique units and each has a backstory but that's not important for a game like this so the game won't push to tell you everything about enemies. Characters are bland and emotionless as they come and none of them will make a lasting impression.
You can collect various sources of additional data but, besides audio logs on cellphones and weird holo scenes, they don't offer anything worthy of your time. Audio logs can be interesting, emotional sometimes, but in most cases they are more or less cringy pieces of a bland script.
Overall, the story is pretty weak but that really doesn't matter much in a game with an ultimate goal of collecting better and better gear. It's there to inform the player of why they're here and what they should do to advance (and get even better loot) and that's enough. Environmental storytelling is the complete opposite, offering a huge selection of epic moments that unroll one after another during the campaign.
You start the game literally in front of the White House, which becomes the main base of operations as soon as the first main mission ends. And then the game takes player across the city, allowing them to visit various museums, places of historical significance, which are all superbly designed.
Story missions, while bland on presentation, are extremely rich when it comes to level and environmental design. They are multi-stage set pieces filled with strategic combat, tense atmosphere, and lots of great moments of absolute enjoyment.
Each map contains a couple of routes for advancement that are often filled with weak points where players are prone to get hit from multiple sides. Verticality in the game isn't really pronounced but many maps contain one or two levels and there are also cover placements up high that give players an advantage over incoming enemies.
Level design is marvelous not only because maps are designed in order to offer multiple ways to advance and approach gunfights but also because many missions take place inside museums and sites of historical significance, and each of them looks excellent.
Strolling through the Vietnamese War exhibition while 60's psychedelic rock plays in the background while you kill bad guys with a minigun is a multilayered experience filled with positive moments and strolling through Martian setting filled with rovers gives that particular missions a Sci-Fi atmosphere that completely breaks the rules and makes the game even better.
And The Division 2 is filled with those rut breaking moments during main missions that make it fresh and enjoyable even after you spend 50 hours wandering through Washington.
The city is large and stuffed with stuff to do like we come to expect from every Ubisoft open world game. And while this formula isn't the best way to produce most open world games, it works wonders in The Division 2. Let's take Far Cry 5 for instance.
That game was bursting with activities and map markers but after I completed the first third of the game I become extremely tired with most open world activities.
They are fun at first but soon enough turn into chores that aren't worth the time or rewards you get for clearing them. Here, however, a bunch of stuff to do is great because the combat is amazing and it simply cannot grow old and because each activity comes with a bunch of new and shiny loot, the reason players are diving in The Division 2 in the first place. And since literally any activity may reward you better gear the motivation to play side missions and activities is always there.
Take down a control point, open a couple of cases filled with loot; take down a broadcast tower and take some loot; neutralize enemy convoy and receive some more loot; take down a random enemy elite unit and get some more loot.
This constant influx of rewards works great and makes The Division 2 a highly immersive game that gives players rewards that are more than adequate for their troubles, which is great to see. Really, when it comes to loot and reward systems this game is designed near flawlessly and represents the second best looter shooter of all times, just behind Borderlands 2.
The world is large and represents the most notable parts of the D.C. such as the White House, Lincoln Memorial Park, The Capitol and area around it, along with the Museum district and the city center. And the map is filled with content.
As I said there are plenty of story missions (it would take about 15 hours in case you just want to finish the game without playing anything else) as well as side missions many of which are designed with the same level of care as main missions. There are also plenty of activities to take part in as well as Three Dark Zones (just one in the previous game) and four enemy strongholds which are (for now) the endgame content.
Each part of the map is divided according to your level. If you don't want to simply storm through main missions the game can take between 30-40 hours to finish, depending on the number of side activities you partake in. I often wandered around the city, helping friendlies and taking down enemies, doing various activities and taking down every single control point and it took me almost 35 hours before I finished the last stronghold.
The game comes with an RPG-lite leveling system that upgrades your HP and allows to equip more powerful gear. It is simple and easy to understand. There are special abilities and they are unlocked by completing main missions.
You can have two of them equipped at the same time and most are fun to use. You can pick between defensive turrets, various drones, a riot shield, and other gadgets such as small movable weapon platforms and something that looks like a futuristic lampoon and can be thrown around.
Each ability has variations and there are some that are fun and some that are utterly useless. For instance, the fire turret variation is great for choke points but on the other side, the drone that deploys a magnetic shield that keeps you safe from enemy fire is useless because it can only take about 20 second-worth of enemy fire before shutting down.
As you do missions (main and side) you upgrade the White House and two settlements (each for one half of the map), unlocking new features such as crafting, a firing range, Dark Zones, Clans, and other perks. This gives The Division 2 a sense of constant progress that, along with the constant income of new loot, gives players motivation to play the game more and more, addicted to its phenomenal gameplay and level design.
Once you hit level 30 and once you liberate all three Strongholds the game releases its endgame content. The whole map gets invaded by the fourth faction (Black Tusk), which takes down settlements, control points, and strongholds.
Your level gets replaced with gear power and endgame begins. You replay certain main story missions (that are this time slightly different than the first time) and advance towards each of the three strongholds.
Once you finish all connected missions and reach a certain gear power the first stronghold gets unlocked and once you liberate it the game switches to the next World Tier (it start with World Tier 1 after you complete the main story), increasing gear power requirements for the next stronghold and toughening up enemies.
Then it's time to loot better gear and to unlock the new World Tier. At the moment, the game has five World Tiers in total, with the final Stronghold being unlocked at gear power of 450. After that, you can either grind missions and strongholds for better gear or wait for the first raid that should arrive near the end of April.
There are also Dark Zones but those are literally empty because spending time there isn't worth the loot you find making Dark Zone missions much less rewarding than in the original Division. Overall, the endgame content can last for about 20-40 hours, depending on your pace. I finished everything in about 65 hours meaning that endgame took me a bit more than 25 hours to reach the final World Tier.
The Division 2 is a game with many virtues but it isn't perfect. As I already mentioned the story sucks. Next, animations are poor and comic at times, and the problem is tied to control issues.
Jumping over obstacles sometimes doesn't work, making you stuck in front of cover, walls, and other objects. That can be infuriating when shooting at. You try to jump over, which isn't working, leading to your character being killed because the game failed to respond to commands.
This happens relatively often and can really kill the vibe and motivation to continue. Next, AI can go nuts and I already talked about it. Nothing major but can be annoying. The game also glitches from time to time, making missions impossible to start, or getting them stuck on a certain checkpoint, making you wait for enemies to spawn. And when talking about enemy spawning, it's done poorly.
They enter through doors right in front of you, or magically appear behind your back. Sometimes they get stuck in the spawn point so you have to manually make them out with grenades and drones.
It can be really problematic when playing levels during endgame because your team might clear the run only to find out another wave of enemies spawning behind them through doors that were locked because the game decided to wait for them to appear just after you moved past those locked doors. Other problems include some visual glitches and lack of love for solo players.
You can play the game solo (And I play solo while wandering through the city), take down control points and play side missions. At the start, main missions are also great for solo players. But near the end of the game, The Division suddenly becomes near unplayable for one man teams.
Missions become too hard and yes, they can be finished on your own but that makes them dull and much less exciting than when playing in a group.
That's because you cannot move, have to stay in cover the whole time, and pick only the abilities that are great for covering flanks, limiting you to defensive turrets and healing drone. Luckily, matchmaking is great and the game is awesome even when played in a pick-up group with complete strangers.
The Division 2 is one the biggest release of 2019 and the first game-as-service looter shooter that launched without major issues. Everything works great, servers are stable, the game is well optimized, and there are almost no bugs.
Open world design is excellent, visuals are attractive and the game looks gorgeous. Gameplay is engaging, rewarding, and highly dynamic.
And the loot system is generous almost to a fault and I simply adore it. It is the best loot system I saw since Borderlands 2. There are piles of content that can be played for hundreds of hours and by the look of it, with The Division 2 we finally have a flat-out excellent GaAs (games-as-a-service) looter shooter.