When Division 2 started, a call to protect Washington went out to all agents. Almost all of them stopped what they were doing and headed towards the capitol. The people of New York have remembered this, and your return isn’t given the warmest of greetings. The people here, one of which is very vocally anti-Division who runs tech for your operations, are wary of Division agents. They have seen the massive upheaval that agents can cause, and a long string of agents gone rogue, a list that keeps swelling, has made them tired of agents and their power without oversight.
Division agents shoot first and leave asking questions to their AI companion.
The expansion delves into this through many audio logs as you learn a lot more about Keener and the crew he has assembled in New York. His gallery of rogues (the eponymous Warlords) is full of a spectrum of some of the most dangerous people you can imagine, all of which show a different aspect of what can go wrong in a world on the brink. One former Division agent gets enchanted by the creed and message of the cleaners, spewing out their rhetoric as she quickly climbs the ranks. Another is frustrated by the inequality of agent placement, realising that he and several others were placed in rich neighbourhoods not to do the most good when activated, but to look after rich people who used political clout to manipulate a system that was supposed to be above such influence. The list goes on, showing again and again how the very system of The Division is flawed, fractured and a lack of command structures, oversight and responsibility for actions can create opportunities for corruption, apathy and more to take root. No wonder some civilians hate you. Division agents shoot first and leave asking questions to their AI companion.
Heading back to New York is a bittersweet experience. Seeing some of the places you used to spend a lot of time in brings a twinge of nostalgia, that is almost instantly smothered because your old HQ has been attacked and taken over. Settlements have grown and people have settled into a lifestyle of trying to make the best of things, rather than spending all their time bemoaning what has been lost. Sure, there are still smatterings of “would love a hotdog right now” or someone complaining about coffee, but it is definitely toned down from our last trip here. The snows have ended and while the Christmas decorations are still up in places, this is a very different place. A Dark Zone from Division 1 has been broken open and people are trying to reclaim what they can of the city to live. Four regions make up the map of the expansion, with each offering new sights and challenges. The banking district is full of tall buildings and forgotten wealth, while in another a massive graveyard of forgotten taxi cabs becomes an area of intense cover to cover fights.
The looters of the first game are gone, and all that is left are the hardened and the worst elements. The Cleaners are still out in force, doing their best to kill everything to stop the spread of infection, burning people and buildings alike. The Last Man Batallion continues to play war games, looking for assets and intel and the Black Tusk are here too, hunting for Keener while trying to kill you too. The enemies you fight are well armed and often bloodthirsty or deranged. Where the first visit to New York might have had you question the use of lethal force on the people you encounter on the streets, this visit you won’t ever hesitate to shoot.
Speaking of the streets, things feel much more alive and dynamic than before. Patrols from each faction are forever looking for easy targets or fresh supplies, meaning you often run into fights between two groups, or some civilians defending against attack. Things quickly become a three-way fight as you join, and in these instances, you get to take advantage of the chaos to flank or pick off targets while they are preoccupied, before finishing off both sides after they have been weakened by the fighting. It also creates a great distraction if you are in a hurry to get by without getting involved in a firefight. Whether exploring or heading to an objective, you can hear the gunfire and shouts and stick to the shadows or move away from a busy intersection.
The hunt for caches and audio logs continues, and I spent hours trying to solve some of the puzzles to get SHD caches. Some were pretty straightforward, but there are one or two that are completely vexing me, meaning I am in the area long enough for new patrols of enemies to arrive. It gives a welcome change of pace, spending time scanning the surroundings and enjoying the attention to detail, instead of just running at full speed and shooting enemies. Warlords feels aware of the need for variation to keep players interested. Fun little puzzles dot the map, and some of the boss fights here will be remembered for months to come, compared to the general lineup of completely forgettable damage sponges. One enemy uses holograms to hide away and lure you into his scope’s crosshairs, while another forces you out of cover by releasing gas into the area. You have to be quick on your feet and ready to react to changes for these fights, and it gives something different from the heavily-armoured ultra heavies you fight, which are still almost impossible to beat solo.
A big part of this expansion is an increase to the level cap and a complete rework of many of the systems in the game. Skill power, a rather nebulous stat, is gone, replaced instead by the much more manageable skill tier system. Many refinements to the game’s RPG elements means a lot of reading and feeling out gear is required, but the end result is a much easier to use system. Every skill now has tiers of efficacy, so if you really like a skill and want it to do more, you just need gear that adds a skill tier to reach those aspects. The results are easy to identify too, with a tier 1 drone or a tier 3 drone doing different things and surviving much bigger firefights.
Gear recalibration has also been reworked, with you sacrificing weapons to unlock that specific property, rather than requiring a bag full of good stats to slap onto new inventory additions. It takes a while to build up your library of talents, traits and stats to apply to new weapons, but being able to slap you favourite talent on any LMG you acquire makes the gear hunt feel a lot more flexible and fun as you tweak stats off of weapons to put your faithful bonuses on them.
The biggest change is that you never stop levelling thanks to a system that unlocks at the end of the story. Similar to paragon levels from Diablo III, Division agents keep acquiring power, with small tweaks to health, crit chance, skill cooldown and more keeping you on that level grinding treadmill for a long time. Add to this the levels of seasons, which grant weapons and cosmetics, and there is a lot to keep chasing. New manhunts, complete with story breadcrumbs will keep you exploring old strongholds and clearing the streets for rewards, giving a much better tail to the game than the world level system of before. In its place is a risk/ reward system that players can control. Do you give enemies more health in exchange for more XP? Or perhaps you make ammo much more important by removing ammo icons from the minimap and losing ammo left in a clip when you reload? There are many options to fine-tine the experience to find the challenge you want, and I appreciate the choice being offered instead of being forced to make the world harder and harder just to progress for loot.
One of the toughest aspects of playing The Division 2 is how uncomfortably close it hits to home right now. As we sit in lockdown, trying to weather a pandemic, in a country where the police are often a little too enthusiastic with how they bring order, it is hard to concentrate on what the game offers without drawing similarities. The biggest difference here is that the release of the Green Poison was intentional. Society collapsed in a few short hours and one NPC mentions that there was no perfect storm that allowed New York to be ground zero for the virus, it just happened to be the target. Any city would have worked as the first place on the list, with medical services quickly overwhelmed by something new and highly infectious. Still, it paints a very amazing “what if”, and while society hasn’t collapsed to the extent of the game, we are living in a time where a virus has caused life and livelihoods to change drastically to cope with a pandemic.
If you can get beyond the haunting similarities to what is happening right now at home, Warlords of New York is finally offering up the political messaging in large quantities. While your character never acknowledges it, being the silent murder machine covered in loot, the enemies and NPCs around you have to fill the silences and a lot of it is politically charged this time. Whether it is Keener discussing motives and power vacuums, or listening to agents go rogue as they find too many flaws in the system, or the many NPCs around you that don’t trust Division agents at all, there is a lot levelled on a system that appears too flawed and too heavily influenced by political favour currying and elite manoeuvring to be work properly. The frayed edges are being shown in a spotlight, and you can slowly watch it all unravel for many agents as they go rogue. Those messages about a lack of oversight and culpability, operating without punishment or provocation all paint a strong picture, one of the strongest I have seen in a Ubisoft game, and it is refreshing to delve into this territory.