Day One – The Division 2 manages to hide the grind behind seriously compelling gameplay
I’m already enjoying The Division 2 more than Anthem. I’ve spent more than 70 hours with Anthem, but even after a day with The Division 2, it’s clear that there’s so much more to do in Ubisoft’s latest open world. Yes, Anthem probably has the edge on looks and super-cool exosuits, but Ubisoft has filled its post-apocalyptic Washington D.C with so much content that it’s far too easy to get distracted from the main mission thread just trying to reclaim a little patch of the city. From what I’ve played of The Division 2 so far, Ubisoft is doing this ‘games as a live service’ thing much better than BioWare has.
Of course, it helps that Ubisoft has had some practice – this is The Division 2after all – but the original game was far from perfect. However, this sequel already proves that years of polishing the original game, and no doubt learnings from other games in this genre, have paid off.
A great beginning
I was hooked from the opening mission of The Division 2, which sees you fighting your way through the grounds of the White House, its hulking great form dominating the horizon, while abandoned Christmas presents lie scattered among the dead bodies and patrolling soldiers. I’d forgotten just how satisfying the cover system is, which feels more akin to Gears of War in some ways in that you can snap onto and move around objects. But it’s also satisfyingly tactical. Identifying where you want to move to next is as much about timing as it is about working your way around enemies. Inevitably it’ll all go to pot as you get surrounded, and beaten down by the melee bastards with their health-crippling batons, but that’s just a sign of just how well-designed The Division 2’s levels are, and how well the combat flows.
Despite the fact Ubisoft has basically turned Washington into an open-world playground, missions and other side activities are much more linear, which is absolutely to their benefit. On paper, the missions may be fairly cookie cutter in terms of structure – basically go here, shoot everyone, move on, and shoot everyone there too – but the way the spaces open up, channel you into tunnels and corridors, or create little combat sandboxes is incredibly well thought through. It deals with the ebb and flow of action and combat so that you’re constantly dealing with the rise and fall of adrenaline in a way that’s utterly enthralling. There have been so many “just five more minutes” moments that have turned into “another few hours” that I am concerned how much The Division 2 may eclipse other games.
I also need to take a moment to thank the developers for a moment of genuine surprise that came when I interacted with a terminal to find that I didn’t then have to protect it from waves of enemies while it completed some inane task. So many games rely on this mechanic to build drama – Anthem, Destiny 2, I’m looking at you – that it was laughable how much of a shock it was to find it isn’t a staple in The Division 2. Nice work, Ubi.
Hiding the grind
It also helps that it feels like you’re constantly progressing. Not only is there an extensive levelling system that’s built around your weapons, equipment, skills and perks, but the enemies evolve too. As you rise up through the levels, the enemies gain new abilities as well – the ability to pilot remote control cars with proximity mines strapped to the back, being just one example – so you feel like you’re becoming a real menace, the centre of attention in the gossip circles of the many factions that control this post-apocalyptic world.
But you’re also making a difference to the city itself too. The more you take back control from these enemy factions, the more you’ll see your allies patrolling around, or heading out to forage for food. It incentivises you to deviate from the main path, regain command of Control Points, save civilians from public executions and more. In that sense, the grind that you need to undergo to level up in order to face the harder challenges the game has to offer is hidden away behind actually interesting, compelling gameplay set across a crumbling world that’s still, somehow, a joy to look at.
In fact, from the 10 or so hours I’ve played so far, the only thing that’s annoyed me is the character creation tool. It’s so limited that you can’t even get near a character that resembles anything like you’d want it to, and doesn’t live up to the graphical expectations set by the rest of the game. I’ve ended up with a custom character that I hate, who appears in cutscenes as this mute, odd-looking hero. Thankfully, I basically only see the back of her 80% of the time I’m playing, which is great because just look at those dead eyes:
The only other slight gripe about The Division 2 is that it really is better with friends. The going can be incredibly hard for a soloist agent, particularly in the early stages if you try to push forward in the story, before going through side quests and other activities, without the proper kit and skills. But that’s exactly how it’s been designed – targeted for teamwork and communication. Thankfully it’s got a lot easier now I have a pet drone who’s as devoted to taking down bad guys (and gals) as I am.
Character concerns aside, The Division 2 is proving to be quite the epic adventure, jam-packed with the kind of glorious time-sucking content that’s made the Destiny series so successful. It sounds stupid, but it’s just so fun, which is exactly what you want from a game like this. Yes, there’s a grind in there, but when everything you’re doing to rank up is so enjoyable, it’s not really a concern. Anthem really need to watch its back.