It's been two years since The Division originally saw light of day. It was a bold new direction for Massive Entertainment, but one that got off to a somewhat rocky start. Twenty million players later, and you've got to say that they did a good job turning things around, even if it wasn't always smooth sailing.
The sequel, which we got to see more in LA, was first revealed earlier this year, a simple announcement confirming its existence back in March. However, at E3 we got to learn more about the game and we even played a 15-minute mission (see the gameplay below) and see firsthand the changes being made by Massive as the studio explores the next chapter in this post-pandemic adventure.
The Division 2 is set in Washington DC, seven months after the fall of America following the introduction of the smallpox virus in New York. Operatives in DC have gone dark and as an outside Division agent, you're sent in to investigate. When you get there what you'll find is an interesting take on a city where society is trying to re-establish itself. Civilians will play a more important role this time around as they have formed small camps where they grow crops and keep each other safe, defending themselves from other factions that are much more cut-throat. Apparently, behind the scenes, there's even someone pulling the strings.
Massive seems to have learned many lessons from The Division, whether it was weapons tweaking and quick responses to balancing issues or making sure players are well stocked with meaningful endgame content. The latter has, in turn, informed their "endgame first" design approach. This is something that permeates every facet of the game, perhaps most notably via the introduction of specialisations, a new skill tree that unlocks when you pick a signature weapon at level 30. Whether you choose the Demolitionist (grenade launcher), Survivalist (crossbow), or Sharpshooter (sniper rifle), you'll gain a special tool with which to tackle the endgame content (as long as you have special ammunition for the signature weapon on hand).
"In many ways the more you play the more there is to do," says game director Mathias Karlson on the subject of the "endgame first" approach. "You're growing the buffet of activities. The living world is going to be there, it's going to change and react and transition into endgame. For you as a player, on top of the vertical power climb that you've been making and the skills and gear and everything, growing in width throughout the campaign with levelling journey, we introduce specialisations. So at the start of endgame, you have new progression tracks to latch onto, set on top of this existing toolbox that you already carry with you."
We played a mission as the Demolitionist, who in addition to carrying a grenade launcher also packed a special "hive" ability that basically sent a swarm of nano-bots out to attack an enemy. Interestingly, they target the enemy's weak spot as well as creating a distraction that allows for flanking, and so it proved very useful when going up against tougher opponents. Then there's your standard arsenal of assault rifles, shotguns, and pistol (as well as grenades).
During the mission, we got a better look at the state of DC. It's a beautifully rendered decayed urban environment, and the finale of the mission, where we saw a crashed Air Force One overlooking The Mall, was something special. The almost tropical climate of summer-time Washington, along with the narrow streets of Georgetown, the riverside vegetation of the Potomac, and the sprawling stretches of open space offered by The Mall should make for a more varied experience in terms of environments.
"The setting itself is a fantastic opportunity for us, not just because how iconic the city is with all its landmarks and history and iconic significance, but it's super diverse," says Karlson. "For people who haven't been to DC we have a lot of variation in the city, its almost sub-tropical nature up along the Potomac and wherever green grows in the city, and then we have the wide-open spaces of The Mall area and narrow almost European-looking streets in Georgetown. And we have everything in between. That doesn't just give us a lot of visual variety and contrast to enjoy while playing the game, it also translates into gameplay."
Apart from the novelties associated with the specialisations, the gunplay comes across as very familiar for anyone who has played The Division. That's not a terrible thing, by any means. At first, newcomers may feel that enemies absorb too much damage, but this is a cover shooter that wears its RPG systems on its sleeve. It's a numbers game, a game about taking out armour and creating tactical distractions, and yes, focusing in on that weak spot for massive damage. This is also where teamwork comes into play and setting yourself up in good positions and moving as a team is going to be key here, something that's taken up a notch with a new feature that Massive only briefly mentioned during the reveal, raids.
Hammering home the notion of the endgame first philosophy, the eight-player raids will challenge the best players and offer up some of the best loot the game has to offer in PvE scenarios. We're curious how these raids will play out, but it's clear that Ubisoft has a roadmap leading up to the release of the game where they will reveal more about raids and, perhaps most importantly, how the Dark Zone (PvP) has evolved in the seven months that have passed since the incident in New York City. Expect a steady stream of intel drops between now and March 15, 2019, when The Division 2 is set to PC, PS4, and Xbox One.