After 25 hours of wrestling with BioWare's Anthem, it's funny how grateful I am for the little things in The Division 2—stuff like being able to switch my loadout on the fly, without first exiting a mission or sitting through a loading screen. No one's tried to make me and three other players sit through a boring mid-mission cutscene, either. In fact, The Division 2 barely makes me pay attention to its story at all. What a treat!
The Division 2 presents a much stronger campaign experience than the first game, with fewer filler missions, and better open world side activities. Its endgame, too, is a satisfyingly different offering to the preceding hours, remixing levels, making the world feel more alive, and escalating the difficulty of side activities to keep you playing. I will say this: if The Division didn't grab you at any point during the past two years of well-considered updates, I don't think this will necessarily be the right game for you now. It's largely a superior version of the same thing: tough third-person co-op shootouts, interlocking player skills, incremental loot rewards, and a familiarly dry Tom Clancy military tone.
Where it improves is in the cadence of its rewards, pelting you with loot and experience points from various sources, and making the next upgrade feel like a natural result of your journey through the game rather than being arduously earned. If you're looking for a strong looter shooter you can enjoy with friends in the wake of Anthem's troubled launch, or you want a mid-season break from Destiny 2, this will likely be a strong fit. It helps that the main mission design is mostly terrific, taking you through a variety of real-world tourist spots for shootouts with the game's three enemy factions: the Hyenas, True Sons and Outcasts, all of which behave a bit differently in combat.
Enemies don't feel as bullet-hungry as they did in the first game, and some of the elite enemies—whose armour is peeled off with gunfire—are genuinely fun to fight. It's a mostly great shooter, let down by the occasional AI issue where an enemy will get stuck on the spot, or spend so long climbing around that you can easily pick them off.
Each main campaign mission feels like a real event. Given that no one really makes linear third-person shooter games now—here they're isolated parts of a massive open world looter game—it's easy to forget what these kind of levels feel like when they're designed well.
There's an amazing excursion into the American History Museum, where there's a (probably tasteless) firefight in the midst of a Vietnam recreation exhibit, complete with royalty-free version of The End by The Doors playing in the background. Then there's a gunfight in the Air & Space Museum's planetarium and Mars exhibits, which for a few minutes make you feel like you're playing a sci-fi shooter. The finale of the campaign, meanwhile, offers a long battle on the roof of the Capitol Building, which is a great location for a selfie with the game's photo mode once you're done. The choices of setting for the main missions give them a lot of flavour. The longer strongholds that bookend the campaign, with one for each of the three factions, offer the biggest and most exhilarating set pieces in the game.
As someone who's never visited the city in real life, Washington DC isn't as immediately recognisable as the first game's New York, barring a few obvious landmarks. It undoubtedly feels more alive than the first game's world, though, with plenty of friendly NPCs breaking into firefights with the various enemy factions. It can be exciting to arrive halfway through a battle to turn the cause in your side's favour, bravely shooting unsuspecting enemies in the back while they're distracted by your allies.
DC is also beautiful in places, especially when you move out of the drab opening urban areas and into wide open spaces like West Potomac Park. The weather effects and day/night cycles contribute so much to the game's atmosphere, with the world looking almost entirely different when covered in rainfall, and the odd thunderstorm making firefights particularly dramatic.
It's almost post-apocalyptic—you could see this being used as the setting for a Resident Evil game, particularly the Dark Zones. If Manhattan in The Division was set the day after the end of the world, here it feels like that same event is a distant part of America's history. Empty streets are overgrown, buildings are run down, and abandoned cars are everywhere. Some sights in this environment are truly spectacular, like the image of a destroyed Air Force One outside the Capitol Building (of course it contains loot).
Most of the activities dotted around DC's map are genuinely good, particularly control points, which you liberate from enemy factions with the help of AI pals. They each have the same objectives—clear the area of enemies, fight an elite, then defend the same area and fight another elite—but they're laid out differently enough that they challenge you to think about the space and enemy positioning. At endgame, too, they'll be taken back by enemies, continually climbing in difficulty as you keep reclaiming them for better rewards.
It feels like The Division 2 has launched with an extremely healthy supply of things to do
The journey to level 30 has a little filler in the form of side missions or repetitive activities, like stopping propaganda broadcasts, but not much. It's a swift journey. I can't fault The Division 2 for a lack of distractions, either: coming out of the barren world of Anthem, it's almost refreshing to be attacked by the classic Ubisoft array of map icons. I wouldn't recommend soloing the main missions (the matchmaking is decent for those), but you can enjoy most of the open world stuff alone, if that's your preference—at least until you reach the harder activities in the endgame.
Progression is a lot comfier than the first game. You unlock skills (your character's abilities, basically) at a fast clip throughout the campaign. You can also open up variants for them with the game's plentiful SHD Tech points early on, rather than having to upgrade different wings of your base like you did in The Division 1. It feels much more flexible, like the developers want you to experiment with your ideal loadouts in advance of reaching the endgame. I'm particularly fond of the Hive skill, which I immediately unlocked with a Stinger variant, which basically shoots small robot killer bees at any enemy that walks within its radius.
It's also refreshingly common to see enemies using novelty weapons and ammo types on you, sending deadly remote controlled cars in your direction, or gumming you up with the Chem Launcher's riot foam while other enemies open fire on you. This gives some real variety and surprise to the game's many shootouts.