The latest in a long line of slick, callous military simulations from Ubisoft, The Division 2 isn’t about saving society but preserving it in a state of profitable disarray. Set in Washington DC following an apocalyptic epidemic, it sees you fighting to protect what’s left of the US from insurgent groups, either solo or alongside other players. The opening sequence casts you as a torch-bearer against those who’d rather steal than create, but, in practice, you are as much a raider as the people you’re shooting. The result is an accomplished but rather tedious and macabre game.
Clashes between premise and execution are common in video games, but they’re seldom this pervasive. Like Bungie’s Destiny, The Division 2 is built around loot. It’s a glorification of gig work and piecemeal rewards in which the point isn’t really to kill opponents but to endlessly improve your capabilities by performing repetitive tasks for new equipment.
The insipid, techno-thriller plot is really just an on-ramp to a network of earning opportunities you are free to undertake in any order – from assaults on bandit camps to random errands that unlock facilities at the settlements in your care. Completing the story simply reveals another enemy faction and another layer of equipment to pick at, with still more activities and trinkets to be added via update after release.
One consequence of this format is that The Division 2’s struggle for civilisation can never be won. Like its predecessor, which was set in a post-pandemic New York, it needs its landscape of vulnerable survivors and violent discontents to keep you trundling away at its upgrade treadmill. Another consequence is that the game’s vaunted nuggets of equipment soon blur into one. New varieties are thrown at your feet from moment to moment; you equip them after a brief thumb-wrestle with some headache-inducing menus, only to find another, slightly better shotgun in the next room along. You’ve no option but to participate in this churn, as the city is split into regions designed for characters with a certain calibre of gear.
The bombardment of loot never abates, but you learn to filter it out, breaking down unwanted weapons for materials or combining them to pool their traits. The glut of missions is exhausting but at least keeps you moving around the city, and the firefights themselves are quite engrossing. As in the elderly Gears of War series, players slide around cunning arrangements of chest-high cover, trying to get the drop on opponents who range from resilient juggernauts to sneaky flankers. The experience is lifted above mere gunplay by quasi-magical support gadgets, which include drones you can send to pester dug-in snipers and gel launchers that bog attackers down.
The game can be played solo, as it scales the odds in each mission to the number of participants, but it’s more enjoyable when tackled in company. You can team up with other players everywhere in Washington, and while the online networking has a few hiccups – like being teleported to another player when you want them to come to you – it’s largely reliable. There’s also a basic head-to-head mode, waged on small sealed-off environments, in which power gaps between players are sportingly erased. This serves as a vital stress-relief valve. It allows you to enjoy the combat without spending hours amassing the means to compete.
Washington’s architecture has been splendidly reimagined, its roads transformed into mazes by abandoned vehicles, its buildings delicate studies in devastation. There are some fascinating ironies in the recreation of landmarks, such as the American History Museum: one mission has you fighting through a mock-up of a Vietnam battlefield, simulation engulfing simulation in a flash of propane. However, the numbing emphasis on loot prevents the game from investigating such ironies, and, though there’s plenty of backstory to dig into, the writing is Ubisoft’s characteristic blend of provocative and squeamish.
It’s dotted with reaction-baiting nods to hot topics – there’s mention of “walls” and “swamps” – but it’s reluctant to engage with these parallels in depth. There’s a strong sense that the game is ducking such conversations because it is, in fact, a celebration of weaponised inequality. For some, the US is already a place where harsh social divisions are maintained by violence, where straying into the wrong region as a member of the wrong demographic can get you killed. The Division 2 takes place after the country’s collapse, but it operates on much the same landscape of systematic discrimination, and it has nothing of worth to say about it.
The closest it gets, perhaps, is in the returning Dark Zones, quarantined areas where you’ll encounter AI opponents and other players, all searching for top-grade gear that must be extracted by calling a helicopter. It’s possible, here, to betray other players, pinching their spoils or ambushing them for kicks. Ubisoft has grandly styled this side of the game a “social experiment”, and it’s certainly a thrill to meet other players in the undergrowth, never quite sure of their intentions. But the real value of the Dark Zones is that they’re the places where The Division 2 finally agrees with itself. They are the part of the game, in other words, where you’re encouraged to think of yourself as a villain.
• Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is out now; £52.99