Let’s go to D.C.

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The Division 2 came out a few weeks ago and has been met mostly with praise. The looter-shooter post-apocalyptic grinder follows the same formula from the first entry in the series, and I think this is much to its benefit.

At launch, the first Division had numerous issues, so I know a lot of folks didn’t play it. We played through it about halfway through all the changes, and it was weird to see how it evolved in real time. The sequel seems a lot smoother on interfacing and progression from the start, and this is another good thing about the game.

One thing that held the first entry back is that playing alone kind of sucks. A crew is needed to fully appreciate the world, and not having someone to bounce off ideas and strategies makes it seem a bit lonely. Why the games don’t provide NPC support in missions (a la Payday) seems like a mistake to me. I think the second one would be as equally unfulfilling to play alone. I suppose buyer-beware if you’re looking for something to crack into solo.

I’m going to break this into technical stuff, gameplay, and story.

The Technical Stuff

The game looks good-to-great most of the time. D.C. is in shambles, and you will see numerous historic locations as you traverse around. I am not terribly interested in graphics—some of my favorite games have crap graphics, but I know a lot of people do want that visual spectacle. I think this game will satisfy most folks on the visual front.

The sound-editing is also quite nice. I do wish the guns had more of a bang to them, but I imagine they toned this down on purpose. Explosions feel volatile, and the shouts of enemies gives you interests cues to what is going to happen.

User-interface is fine. I didn’t like the map in 1 and I don’t really like it here. I don’t want to hear radio chatter as I am scanning for a safehouse, and it never really shuts off. A major problem with this game is that the characters (not yours) never stop talking. Want to go to the map? Listen to a bunch of crap. Going through your inventory in a settlement? Be shouted at by vendors. Stalking around? Get radio chatter non-stop. Perhaps the most poignant example was listening to a phone recording at night that talked about how quiet nights were now, only to have the recording cut short so someone could bark more orders at us over the radio. The nights might be quiet for the survivors, but for you it won’t be.

The only person who should talk more is the one who doesn’t. Your character is eerily silent through cutscenes that make him (or her) seem more like a robot than a person. I have no idea what my character’s motivations are, and the silence doesn’t help this in any way. I’ll expand more here in the story section.

Transitioning from light to dark is kind of a pain in this game. It might be the first time I have considered a game to be too dark. I can’t see shit in some of the underground areas, and without the yellow “follow me” line I would be in trouble. Do the members of the Division not have flashlights? Worse, these moments aren’t there to build tension, but rather transitional paths between areas, so why make them difficult to traverse?

The new upgrade system allows a bit more versatility in skills and perks. I don’t like that I have to return to the Base of Operations to unlock anything, but this is a small complaint. A bigger complaint is the crappy selection from vendors and the drip-drip of schematics for crafting. You’ll end up with tons of resources with nothing to do before hitting the end-game stuff.

The biggest question a lot of folks had was whether the new setting worked or not. I for one miss the snow. Every shooter is in the summer time and having to think about how cold it was changed The Division in subtle ways. New York felt oppressive and like it was a knife’s edge from completely collapsing. D.C. doesn’t capture the same feeling for me. The Dark Zone is reminiscent of some areas in The Last of Us with overgrown plants and ruined cars, but I have seen that before.

The first game captured a level of desperation that this one simply doesn’t. I can’t blame Ubisoft for wanting to change things up, but I find myself less in awe of how dangerous the world is. Choosing D.C. also smacks of familiarity as it is such a common location. Why not Chicago? Houston? Phoenix? I have heard some folks say they prefer the D.C. layout, so this is probably going to vary player to player, but this one feels more familiar.

Gameplay

The cover and shooting mechanics work quite well. Folks familiar with the first game will be able to jump right in. Newbies might have a slight learning curve, but the game does a better job introducing things.

The new skills (including a drone) are fun, but I wish the drone would auto-target instead of needing manual input. The Hive healing unit seems to work about 10% of the time and seems to do nothing the other 90% (at least for us). Getting new skills feels easier now, so experimenting is certainly an option.

Loot drops a lot faster as well. When we played 1, we might only get one or two items on an entire mission—this is no longer the case. You will receive a lot of loot as you go, but I noticed something a bit weird: the loot seems grouped. I received 5 shotguns in a row and 4 pistols right after. I am not sure if the game is wanting us to experiment but getting 7 holsters in one mission seems a little odd.

The game stops the action for more cutscenes this time but chooses to do so at odd times. In one mission, we rushed to save a hostage who is eventually executed. I was second in the room and caught the tail-end of the execution, our third and fourth didn’t get to see the action. Whoever is taking point in your party will receive more of the visual storytelling than anyone else, and I think this is a major flaw. However, don’t worry too much as the story isn’t worth anything anyway.

The Story

How shall I put this? The Division 2 has an abysmal storyline that is on par with the narrative quality of Harlequin Romance. Ubisoft made a big deal about the game not being political (despite the D.C. setting) and instead chose to say absolutely nothing.

There are no characters in this game. We have empty place-holders who tell you who to go shoot in the face and little more. It is amazing how much this game talks despite not having anything to say. I don’t know (or care) about the motivations of any of the factions. Why we are fighting them beyond “we good they bad” isn’t given much thought.

Perhaps most insultingly is when the game tries to make a point. Poignant moments about the limits of power, duty, and America’s position in the world don’t go anywhere. Ubisoft seems to be more willing to dip its toe into making a statement, but certainly doesn’t want to follow any of the ripples such a statement will make. People looking for a decent story will be sorely disappointed after the competent set-up of the narrative.

The chaotic nature of the faction warfare makes this seem more like a war-game than post-apocalyptic. People say they need water or food, but we don’t see or feel these desires. Everyone is armed to the teeth (on the enemy side) and the AI on your team sometimes brings in golf clubs and assault weapons—so continuity doesn’t exist.

The first game didn’t exactly have a well-written story, but it all hung together a bit more. Aside from not wanting to make any sort of point, the game also refuses to deploy sophisticated narrative techniques. Any double-cross is laughably telegraphed to the point of absurdity. Character relations are tense just to have them exposit the situation for your mute avatar.

I constantly hear the argument of whether video games are art or not. I think they are, but this is basically the equivalent of mass-genre-fiction. We have a by-the-numbers shooter where the good guys are good because we told you so.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is fun. I am enjoying my time with it. For a looter-shooter it works quite well. For storytelling, this is one of the worst games in recent years. If you know this going in, I think you’ll enjoy your time. Story-hungry players may want to avoid this one.

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