A few days after The Division 2 first went on sale and after an initial wave of positive reactions, the game’s players discovered a big problem.
Some of the gadgets in this giant Ubisoft game about shooting bad guys in a ravaged Washington DC weren’t working correctly. In battle, I could crouch my pseudo-soldier hero against the front fender of an abandoned sedan, hiding from a nearby foot patrol of armed enemies. I could then toss a small attack drone into the air and hope it would fly toward them and attack. Too often, however, the drone would just hover above my character’s head for a few seconds and then disappear. The on-screen icon indicating whether I could use the drone would start counting down from 15 seconds. No more drone until the time was up.
This worrisome bug made combat in this city-spanning third-person shooter harder by rendering some key skills useless. Worse, it augured a repeat of the calamitous 2016 launch of the first Division, which was so riddled with bugs (some more ridiculous than others) and balance issues from day one that its expansions eventually had to be put on hold so its developers could fix their game.
The gadget cooldown bug hadn’t shown up in The Division 2’s beta a month prior to launch. The developers would later say that it appeared in the full game due to a coding problem that only manifested once many people were playing. The Division 2’s beta had been really impressive and had gone pretty smoothly. The full game had also had a successful early launch for people who paid for a special $100 version. By the time it was coming out it had weeks of praise at its back. Now this bug was ruining a major facet of the game’s combat system. You could play around it, but it was really annoying. Maybe calamity was about to kick in again?
Not so fast.
On the Saturday after release the developers declared that fixing the cooldown bug was their top priority.
On Monday morning they said a fix was coming soon.
On Monday afternoon, they took the game offline for about 15 minutes. When it went back on, the cooldown problem was largely fixed.
Days later, it was a non-issue.
One reader who saw my coverage of the bug even joked to me on Twitter that it made them a better Division 2 player, since it forced them to learn new tactics.
It may seem strange to praise a new game for the quick fix of a bug. We usually praise games for what they do well, for which there is plenty to laud The Division 2. For a game like this, though, its huge size and myriad modes and systems make some bugs and balance issues inevitable. Launches of games like the Division 2 (think: Destiny, Anthem) have been rough. Save for this bug, The Division 2’s launch was smooth, and the swift fix to the cooldown bug signaled one of the most exciting things about the game, something that has been proven repeatedly in the month since launch: that this large and complex game is existing as a well-managed ongoing event, one overseen by people who seem to have learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, including how important it is to fix unexpected problems swiftly.
Since launch, The Division 2 has been updated and expanded through an ongoing series of updates, some obviously planned, some not. Ubisoft has added some new missions, enhanced its open-ended endgame, made numerous fixes, and overhauled a controversial system involving weapon mods. The developers are now in dialogue with players about the power levels of exotic weapons and the aggression of the game’s toughest enemies. There’s always something with a game like this. Most of it is being handled well. There’s been no calamity, no repeat of the launch fiasco of the first Division or similar loot-heavy, so-called games-as-service games, just a largely enjoyable and ever-changing ride.
At its core, The Division 2 is an action game about a group of American government-backed sleeper agents who are activated at times of disaster to serve as a domestic fighting force. It depicts a battle to control America’s capital in the wake of a biological weapons attack and subsequent lockdown as it moves the franchise’s timeline and location from the first game’s wintry New York City to the summer in a wrecked Washington DC where deer sometimes run through its gun-blasted streets. Playing it is all about steering a character through hundreds of firefights, collecting, unlocking, and equipping better and better guns, gear, gadget skills, and more as you endeavor to hunt down and wield the rarest, best stuff you can find.
Like the capital itself, The Division 2 is incessantly referential to America. It makes the White House the player’s base of operations and sets some missions amid museum exhibits commemorating past presidents or American space exploration. It invites players to reclaim the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives, drives them toward a climactic battle in the Capitol, and offers, for an extra $1.50, the opportunity to decorate the side of your character’s machine gun with the Constitution.
The game’s virtual Washington DC is a stunner. It is a vast, richly detailed, nearly one-to-one transposition of the central part of the real DC, complete with iconic landmarks and museums that players can visit for a gunfight. Its streets are filled with abandoned vehicles and infiltrated with beautiful vegetation. Its landmarks are majestic, its buildings covered with spectacular commissioned graffiti, and its trees webbed with fallen parachutes. It’s unfortunate that at least for PS4 Pro players like me, some of the game’s graphical details initially appear blurry before snapping into focus, something most notable when running down a street. The system clearly struggles to keep up with showing the impressive abundance of what Ubisoft’s artists have drawn in it. Move more slowly through it and it is consistently sensational.
A lot of the action in The Division 2 takes place in the open city. Enemy patrols and civilian resistance fighters roam the streets. You can fight the former and aid the latter, which helps make the game world feel more alive. Missions generally take place indoors, and as you walk to the starting point for one, you’ll likely encounter other activities. Maybe you come across members of the Hyena gang about to execute some civilians or you find an enemy base at a construction site that can be liberated and turned into a nexus for civilian supply runs. Down alleys you may find boxes filled with new gear and supplies. Up in trees you may spot parachutes that dangle crates filled with loot. There are unique, named enemy bosses roaming some corners and an enjoyable amount of collectible items that are placed throughout the city in ways that make accessing them brief, fun climbing puzzles.
The game’s main combat missions are good. Their settings and overall flow are a significant improvement over the forgettable sequences in the first Division. In this sequel, Ubisoft uses its army of developers and DC’s geography to the fullest, placing missions in stupendously detailed versions of places such as The Air & Space Museum and the Newseum (known as the Viewpoints Museum), both filled with multiple exhibits detailed with abundant wall text. Come to shoot the enemies, and learn the history of space travel or journalism in the process. Missions flow well thanks to a satisfying combat and loot discovery loop that tends to reward player effort with effective, better gear. Enemies are fun to fight. In general they are smart enough to flank but dumb enough to talk about it, which is a pretty good mix.
After the player completes all of the game’s main missions, a cutscene plays and a new phase kicks in. Ubisoft calls it the “endgame,” but it might as well be called “the game,” because it introduces the rules that run The Division 2 for the foreseeable future. Player power ceases to be counted in character levels and instead is a tally of the potency of your collected gear. Players are required to choose a character class, which unlocks a special weapon and a new tree of attainable skills. You can still roam the city, taking on regular enemies, hunting down 52 special ones or replaying missions at harder levels. It’s not all clean-up or replay, though. A new faction called Black Tusk—armed with mini-tanks and robot dogs—arrives and invades the locations of many of the game’s main missions. Players can now go through those missions while facing off against a more formidable fighting force and pursuing slightly modified objectives. The invaded missions cycle weekly as part of Ubisoft’s effort to make the opportunity for combat in the game perpetual.
I’ve not tired of the combat system, thanks to the range of tactical choices that keep it fresh. I can choose to tackle missions solo or in co-op. I can collect a bunker’s worth of ever better guns and armor, all of which bear stats and perks that allow for different approaches to combat, from specializing in explosives or close fighting to, perhaps, sniping from afar. I can modify and deploy dozens of gadget-based skills, including the aforementioned attack drone, as well as a shield that deflects bullets back to enemies, a gun that shoots a gaseous cloud that can be ignited with a bullet, and more.
In my 105 hours with the game, I’ve had stretches where I focused on delegating my death-dealing to a special drone that tags multiple enemies and detonates an explosion if any two of them get too close together. I’ve switched to fighting closer in with an assault rifle and a turret. There are many more configurations I’m eager to try.
I have mostly spent my time in The Division 2 virtually killing people, but I enjoy the occasional break. Within the city are two major civilian settlements, which players can upgrade by running missions and doing favors. Put enough effort into the first settlement and you can add solar panels, an aquaponics area for raising plants and fish, and a game room for kids. Keep helping the second settlement and a nearly empty library will fill with books and people reading them. These settlement upgrades are a showcase for Ubisoft’s artists with their vivid details and gradual visual improvements. Upgrading the settlements feels good. It’s a simulated good, of course. You’re not actually helping anyone on this planet by playing The Division 2, but given how much time in the game is spent on virtual killing, it’s pleasant to be able to spend some of it on virtual help.
Despite all you can do in The Division 2 and how long it goes on, the game is oddly uneventful. It doesn’t have a story so much as it has a situation. DC is under siege by cruel gangs. It needs some heroes. Little of consequence happens in the game’s main campaign, which took me 35 hours to clear. Even less happens in the tiered endgame, which is more about introducing the Black Tusk faction and giving players webs of new enemy targets. Players coming to The Division 2 to find out what has become of America since the terrorist attack precipitating the first game or wondering what happened to major characters from that adventure will find out very little in this new one.
The very thrust of this new game—the fight to reclaim DC from various attackers—is stunted by a mesh of gameplay systems that requires a state of unending battle as opposed to delivering a final success or failure. Clearing one of the climactic factional stronghold missions of, say, the enemy Outcast gang can’t remove the Outcasts from the map. They still need to roam the city and fill a chunk of its missions as potential threats. If the bad guys actually lost for good, there’d be nothing left to play in a game largely about fighting computer-controlled enemies, and the fun would be over.
I don’t mind The Division 2’s narrative near-stasis, since I don’t feel as if I’m yet playing the full game. The story has the potential to progress through The Division 2’s three announced narrative expansions, all free and coming through the rest of the year.
I was more put off by the distracting extent to which The Division 2 distinguishes its world’s conflict between good guys and bad guys. The game’s DC may look real, but it presents as much moral gray as Galaga. The Division 2’s enemies are almost uniformly super evil, and its good guys are unexcitingly good. Cutscenes and audio logs spend a disturbingly inordinate amount of time depicting the depravity of enemy factions (Witness: a finely rendered cutscene that shows us that those asshole True Sons who we’re always fighting are led by a guy who once casually shot a doctor in the head. That bastard!). Civilian settlements are full of gardening and book reading, which is nice, but they’re also a paradise of folks who never squabble. All those rescued people just get along, they’re so kind and good. I found myself missing the peripheral storytelling of the first Division, which featured a slew of great audio logs that told tales about how, in times of crisis, regular people could find happiness, humor, doubt, despair, and new levels of honesty with each other. I’ve yet to find anything as relatable and grounded in The Division 2’s audio files, which are mostly focused on politicians, gangs, and other people defined by their power.
In the lead-up to the release of The Division 2, many game critics and reporters questioned the extent to which the game would, did, or could convey a political point. Sure, there are entirely geographical reasons why you might map your Washington DC action game to, say, put you in the White House and some of your worst enemies in the Capitol, but what might such a game’s message be? The game’s developers have said they’re not trying to make one, and they’re certainly not emulating something like Assassin’s Creed III, the recently remastered 2012 Ubisoft game that highlights the hypocrisy of the founding fathers and features criticism of the Conserative judicial philosophy of Strict Constructionism. Not that Ubisoft needed to labor hard to make a point in The Division 2. One of the most salient is simply how believable it is that a game set in modern America would be filled with troves of handguns and assault rifles.
The Division 2 mostly adopts the accoutrements of political concepts and lets them linger to occasionally awkward effect. An optional paint job that can cover your machine gun in swirls of red, white, and blue is called Partisan. A dossier file for an unremarkable enemy named The Fearless mentions, in part, that “Growing up in DC, you are exposed to a lot of shit. Especially, if you’re a young black man in the 21st century.” Sometimes, the game creeps toward making a point. A side mission about rescuing hostages that is set in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library forces the player to wage gun battles not far from in-game murals of the assassinated civil rights leader commonly associated with non-violent protest. Guns are… good and bad. Yes?
What the game says most powerfully about society is expressed by playing through its version of Washington. It is expressed in the player’s ability to explore the inside of the Lincoln Memorial and multiple floors of the National Museum of the American Indian, all while in machine gun firefights. Thanks to its sprawling fidelity, The Division 2 is one of the most vividly rendered methods for letting people around the world virtually explore some of America’s most culturally important museums and landmarks. It is both weird and unsurprising that such an offering would come via a blockbuster video game about shooting your way through Washington DC. Then again, no other enterprise may be lucrative enough to pull this off.
As I’ve played The Division 2 for the past month, I’ve been struck by how expansive the experience is, and I don’t just mean how far the game world stretches. I play the game, watch the weekly dev stream, and read the detailed messages and notes passed between the game’s makers and players. For me, the true cast of The Division 2 has become more than just my character, that guy Manny at the mission table in the White House, and the helpful Agent Kelso. It’s also my occasional co-op allies and the people on the subreddit and forums driving discussion about the myriad aspects of the game. It’s the guys on The Division’s weekly developer livestream providing updates about the state of the game, and it’s the fan who cracked a cipher hidden by the developers in pieces of graffiti.
The game is what you play and the curation and iteration of it. It’s the push and pull of requested and delivered changes, the rapid bug fixes, and the impressive transparency about what’s working, what isn’t, what’s intended, and what’s coming next. It’s the 6000-member Discord community trying to crack the game’s secrets. It’s the debate about whether the Pulse skill sucks (okay, not actually a debate; it sucks).
Just last week, the game’s developers published a lengthy post explaining a roadmap for changes, grappling with and seeming to largely agree with some fan complaints about issues involving the aggression of the game’s toughest enemies and the relative weakness of its rarest guns. They’ve also promised to add the option for your character to be bald in response to player requests. When I loaded the game to check some details for this review I saw they’d already delivered on a promise mentioned just last week to add a handy fast-travel spot near the game’s version of the Smithsonian.
As all this give and take has been going on, Ubisoft’s teams have already begun adding more to the game. Two weeks after launch, they added a new mission that slightly furthered the narrative around the Black Tusk and introduced the potential betrayal of a key character (to be continued). The next big update, two weeks after the previous one, will add an eight-player raid. The three new expansions, including one that adds the Pentagon to the game, are still coming in the next year.
I’m on board. I’m on board to explore more of The Division 2’s map and hunt more in-game bounties. I’m on board to spend more time in the Dark Zone, the sections of the game where other players show up and you can surprise each other by being allies or foes. I’m on board to keep searching for audio logs in the hopes of finding batches more to my liking. I’m on board to follow the community discussions, to watch the dev streams, to sample each major new round of changes.
To have played The Division 2 for a month has been to experience an ongoing conversation with the developers and to have witnessed rapid iteration—some of it planned, some clearly not—atop an already impressive game that looks and plays great. The Division 2 is the new standard for how to launch an evolving game and an experience I’m looking forward to playing and following for a long time.