Note: A PS4 review copy of this game was provided by Ubisoft. This in no way affects the writer's opinions or criticisms.
Video game obsession can really mess with you. When a game grabs hold of you, it destroys your sleep cycle, takes over your free time (and maybe a little of the not-so-free time) and turns you into a veritable hermit.
There have been numerous occasions when a game has become an obsession for me. I'll tear through a meaty campaign or progress through levels in a multiplayer shooter with relative speed. But in all my years of avid playing, nothing has dominated my attention quite like "The Division 2." It's made me nocturnal. Every time I blink, I see the orange-flecked UI. I dream of gold loot drops.
This is relatively ironic because, on face value, Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment's open-world shooter had the potential to be totally run-of-the-mill. Its world has the structure and activity log that Ubisoft has basically patented with franchises like "Assassin's Creed" and "Far Cry." Gamers have been beaten over the head with similarly multiplayer-focused "looter shooters" ("Destiny 2" and "Anthem" being its most pressing competition). And its cover-based, third-person action appears pretty standard on the surface.
However, "The Division 2" goes far beyond the criteria set by its predecessors and peers to create a fully-realized, endlessly engaging and utterly addicting experience.
You play as "The Sheriff," an unnamed agent of the Strategic Homeland Division. As the SHD, you're tasked with restoring order to America after a deadly virus wipes out the population and unleashes anarchy in the form of scavengers and radical militias. "The Division 2" takes places in Washington, D.C. Using the White House as your base of operations, you rid the nation's capital of enemy factions and restore its place as the heart of American government.
The story doesn't delve much deeper than this. "The Sheriff" never meets the enemies, except through vague description, audio files and the inevitable boss battles; side characters such as Manny Ortega and Alani Kelso are woefully underwritten; and the missions only tie together in the sense that after you complete one, you're one step closer to liberating D.C. Add some subpar voice acting - especially from the lesser NPCs - and you've got a stew of weak storytelling.
If you're looking for compelling narrative, then "The Division 2" is not for you. In the early hours, this fact really bugged me. I searched for a hook to grab onto and couldn't find it.
Eventually, I did get hooked. Not by a story, but by the game's fantastic progression system. Once it had its claws in me, I couldn't put the game down.
There is a huge assortment of weapons and gear that you collect as you play through missions, discover loot crates in the large world, and defeat enemies. Like most "looter-shooters," this gear is tiered based on quality and varies in stats like damage and rate of fire, special bonuses and slots for modifications.
Early-level gear is modest, but as your level increases, you increasingly discover high-tier loots. By the final levels and leading into the endgame, a victorious encounter will award you a battlefield littered with purple and gold items.
The timing of loot drops is truly astounding. In my 50-plus hours, I have steadily risen to level 30 and beyond, raising my gear store to around 400. Every encounter rewarded me exactly the right amount. While a minor skirmish or world activity might give me a nice weapon, the more time-consuming control points offer a few tantalizing pieces of loot, and the game's longest missions, Strongholds, are a veritable gold mine.
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It helps that this recreation of D.C. is magnificent. The environments are stunning, and the day/night and weather systems do wonders, not only as eye-candy, but also for combat visibility. All the missions are named after the real-world locations they inhabit, and it makes for interesting differentiation even in the most repetitive moments of missions. Roaming amongst iconic monuments and buildings adds a grandeur to the game, as well as a tangible reminder of the best ideals you're fighting to reclaim.
Working through every main mission, then replaying them while facing off against the formidable endgame opponents, the Black Tusk, didn't get old. In what might be a first for the genre, there wasn't a minute of my playthrough that felt like a grind. Though that could change after many more hours of repetition, the fact that "The Division 2" accomplished this throughout the main experience is commendable enough.
Make no mistake: some issues persist besides the lackluster narrative. Sometimes, the deliberate pacing means that you're trying to input commands faster than your agent can execute them. Some bugs with squad play cause the occasional crash. The PvP Dark Zone is enjoyable as long as you like being punished by trolling players.
But in a genre defined by false starts and steady improvement, "The Division 2" set out to make the biggest splash and put out the most fleshed-out, "content-complete" experience. While it's not perfect, I'm hard-pressed to find one that's gotten closer.