With Tom Clancy's The Division 2 taking a major spotlight at E3 this year, I was determined to go hands-on with the sequel despite not being a fan of the original. Though I do feel some open world fatigue and general Ubisoft dubiousness when it comes to demos versus reality, I still felt my trip would be incomplete without giving the game a try. The original became a massive success (no pun intended) and maintains a healthy community even today.
My time with the game showed me a few cool new things but they felt mostly minor in a game this big. I imagine I'd need more than a half hour or so to really begin to feel all the changes. What I did notice, however, is how the story sets up a world in which humans have lost hope, civility, and maybe even the ability to persevere. It was stark, and it may be the shot in the arm The Division 2 needs.
My demo, with two other journalists and one developer for the game leading the way, began in a lush forest, which is certainly a new look for the franchise that spent its entire first game in the snowy streets of Black Friday period New York. The snow has all melted and the scenery has been moved to Washington D.C. where the messaging seems quite clear: for many today, the world feels like a hellhole, and The Division 2 is playing off that with its premise.
It's been said that post-apocalyptic fiction often rises in popularity the more society has to think about existential threats. It's as though we seek catharsis through stories to make sense of a world that often terrifies us. That means it should be easy to draw lines from tales like The Walking Dead and The Road with real-world nuclear proliferation, anthropogenic climate change, AI's unceasing march toward general intelligence, and pissing contests among world leaders. We have no shortage of things to worry about, so the abundance of post-human fiction makes sense. What's interesting about The Division 2's nuanced brand of post-human fiction is that it's not nearly as post-human as other stories. It's just post-human competency.
The virus that ravaged innocent lives in the first game has been defeated. Now the world seeks to rebuild. As far as we know, there are no zombies, no mutants, no plagues. It's a world coming back from the brink with nothing but a coordination problem in its way and it's failing to kick itself into gear — a post-post-apocalypse where humanity has lost its sense of direction. Villains now fight for the scraps while infrastructure remains in chaos. What happens after the world-ending threat is overcome and it's time to replace the glass in the windows, get the broken down cars off the roads, and get society back to school and work? In The Division 2, the answer, at least early on, is that nothing happens. We fail to respond appropriately. It's a cynical view, but it makes for an interesting look at world-after fiction and it may be exactly the catharsis some of us need in today's global sociopolitical climate.
If you think this is bad, wait until you see who's in the White House.
My demo saw us shooting from cover, taking on bullet sponge enemies, using gadgets, and tending to each other's needs as a cohesive unit. It was fun, but it didn't feel decidedly new compared to the first game. But this narrative outline is ripe for something unique from Massive Entertainment and it's there where I came away most excited about what The Division 2 could be.
It's often the case that Ubisoft sells what looks like a fantastic premise, only to abandon the story in favor of gameplay, as though one must choose between them. I'm skeptical that The Division 2 can follow through in a way that Far Cry 5, Assassin's Creed, and so many other games from the publisher failed to, but that's not to say I lack hope. A lack of meaningful story content is what ultimately pushed me away from The Division despite putting in two dozen hours. I'd definitely make a more enthusiastic trip to D.C. if it seems this throughline of a world that can't find the means or motivation to return to normalcy will be there for the whole game in important ways. It's a timely message, and somehow even a unique one in an industry long obsessed with post-apocalypse.
The Division 2 arrives next March — assuming we live to see it.
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