Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is about reconstruction, both political and personal. Set in Washington, D.C., the city is at risk of collapse after an essential government asset, Strategic Homeland Division HQ, goes dark. Without the technology of the unit, nationwide coordination between groups of agents tasked the save the world is impossible. Should things go even further south, the whole country could be at risk. Playing as an agent rerouted from Manhattan, where the virus that set off this apocalypse originated, you’ll pick up seven months after the events of the first game. Clearly, things haven’t improved. If anything, the country’s even worse off.
In The Division, a man-made virus was dispersed throughout the city, attached to dollar bills, on Black Friday. New York City quickly ends up on the verge of collapse, which is when super soldier-style civilian sleeper agents — that’s who you’ll play — are activated as a last stand to protect society. New York collapsed in the first game, and the problems have only spread since then. But The Division 2, available now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One from publisher Ubisoft, is focused on building things back up again in D.C.
The sequel tasks players with rebuilding settlements across the in-game area called the District, with the overarching goal of saving the country. But as much as developer Massive Entertainment is setting up large-scale goals in The Division 2, its main focus is on city-level life. These goals have larger implications in the game’s world, to be sure. As players complete The Division 2’s sprawling missions, settlements of survivors begin to thrive. Civilians use supplies found on agent’s missions to plant gardens, build new schools, and even collect bee hives for honey — it’s the little things, right? These settlements, along with Strategic Homeland Division HQ at the White House, act as home bases in The Division 2. As they fill up with life, the settlements act as visual indications of your progress. They’re also where you’ll upgrade your gear and pick up side missions.
During the 30 hours I’ve spent with the game so far — which is how long it took to complete the main storyline and some of the secondary content — it was hard to ignore The Division 2’s randomized activities that pop-up throughout the city. Sometimes it’s about shutting down a propaganda broadcast on a speaker. Other times it’s saving a civilian from a public execution, or helping a group of survivors reclaim a swath of land. Even though the instances are often repetitive — they call for a whole lot of bullets and not much else — I still felt compelled to complete them. After spending so much time and energy on building out settlements for the people of D.C., I felt bad to leave another person to die. Ironic, however, that doing so required leaving a whole other group of people dead in the streets.
There are four groups of bad guys to fight: opportunistic scavengers called The Hyenas, revenge-driven quarantine survivors called Outcasts, an unofficial army offshoot named True Sons, and endgame foes in Black Tusks. Motivation behind the first three is clear throughout the main storyline; like the people living in settlements or smaller communities, the Hyenas, Outcasts, and True Sons are doing what they think they need to do to survive. Black Tusk’s motivations are harder to crack, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of endgame content. But still, the stakes are clear. Our positioning in the game makes us the good guys and them the bad ones. Each of these four groups has to be eliminated if we’re to survive. To rebuild D.C., anyone rogue has to be taken down. And that means a lot of shooting. Taking out these enemies, whether on main missions or side quests, means finding better gear. And better gear means you’ll have an easier time taking on the enemies ahead.
The game’s happenstance moments were often its most compelling, a product of ignoring the map and just wandering around the city until I found something to do. And in D.C., there’s no shortage of that. The Division 2 has a 1-to-1 recreation of Washington, D.C., the developer says, with faithful recreations of monuments like Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. Indeed, I gazed at the stars in the National Air and Space Museum and trawled through exhibitions in the American History Museum. I even descended into the depths of the National Archive to retrieve the Declaration of Independence — eat your heart out, Nic Cage.
You’ll likely hear people say that The Division 2 is the most fun when playing in a group. The reality is that playing alone and playing with a squad are two very different experiences, but I didn’t find either better than the other. Playing alone, I was able to wander aimlessly; no one on the other end of the internet was there to push through a door and alert an enemy before I was ready for combat. Without anyone rushing ahead of me, there was no one to deny me the satisfying click of opening The Division 2’s generous loot boxes. It’s during these moments when I sought out echos (holographic recreations of the past) and sound recordings scattered throughout the city — both of which move the game’s plot forward — because I could listen to the city’s stories without a friend’s quippy interruption over voice chat.
But in a group, my focus shifted to gameplay, strategy, and steady aim. I called out enemies to my teammates. Doled out positioning. Poked fun at my pals when I got better gear than they had. Playing this way, it felt less important that the missions and gameplay can be repetitive. Shoot guys, collect loot. Repeat with higher-tiered enemies. Each scenario plays out differently depending on your team and their skills and load-outs. There are eight skills in The Division 2, a mixture of tank, support, and damage-dealing abilities. And within those eight skills, each have different customization options for further specialization. The system encourages you to mix-and-match abilities with teammates, with each player taking on a specific role for a balanced squad. With four players in a group, each with two skills at a time, that’s a lot of potential combinations to try.
One standout addition to this sequel: A unique system that allows you to call in another player for help when you’re struggling solo, bringing a real player into your own game. That was particularly helpful when I got myself into trouble while out exploring. Players didn’t respond every time I used the feature, but it was always a welcome surprise when they did.
At times, the two ways I wanted to play The Division 2 felt at odds with one other. It felt frustrating to be suddenly ambushed when I wanted to use the game’s camera mode to play tourist and snap photos at the Lincoln Memorial or weird graffiti. But the call-in system for some extra help felt like a through-line between the two modes of play. Regardless, the conflict between these two dualities worked for me, and that’s because I never felt unprepared for any given scenario. The developer is generous with its loot and gear upgrades, but being able to call-in for backup nails the sense of community that’s woven throughout the game’s narrative. Neither gameplay nor storytelling is particularly unique in The Division 2, but what’s been executed is a snappy, open-world game that’s satisfying to grind. There’s a rigidness in how you must complete the game’s objective — this is a loot shooter game, after all — but The Division 2 does enough to encourage a slower, more explorative playstyle.
Left unclear, however, is what the team behind The Division 2 is trying to say with this game, exactly. Massive created a game that’s centered on politics — government and personal — but doesn’t want to be political. Terry Spier, creative director of The Division 2 co-developer Red Storm Entertainment, told Polygon in June that the game’s “not making any political statements.” And yet the developer issued a fake press release that describes a scenario in which the Mexican government begins construction on a wall to keep Americans out. It’s hard to interpret that as anything other than a reference to current events.
Agents, too, are the good guys who do very bad things, but for the good cause. There’s a moment in the opening cinematic that touches on survival. Communities of people carried on in The Division’s apocalyptic world as infrastructure shut down, the internet went dark and medication became scarce. But then the developer boldly makes a statement about guns: “And with no police to protect you, did you own a gun? Did your neighbor? Some survived.” It’s a message that will undoubtedly find mixed reactions among players.
Do we need a game like this to deliver some grandstanding message about politics? Perhaps not. At least it’s enjoyable to play, adding new elements to a shooter that broke the mold in a notoriously dusty genre. And when it comes to politics, they’ll always be there, and players will see whatever they want to see.