The Division 2 offers nothing but a funhouse mirror of America

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is an improvement on its predecessor in nearly every way, delivering more interesting missions, better endgame content, and more engaging combat. For fans of the original, it’s an easy recommendation, and that shoot-and-loot gameplay loop can keep you entertained for weeks. However, the game’s setting – Washington D.C. – feels woefully underused. What could have been an interesting look into how America’s capital would react in the event of an apocalypse is instead a complete fantasy. “Washington D.C.” no longer means anything. The Division 2 feels like a version of America that was traced, rather than drawn from a genuine understanding of its history, citizens, or conflicts.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

The Division 2’s setting obviously carries increased weight in 2019, with a cult of personality surrounding the real-life president and an increase in violence against racial and religious minorities. Recent Ubisoft Clancy titles haven’t typically tackled such sensitive subject matter, but they also weren’t set in the nation’s capital on the brink of collapse. A secret government agency sending in operators to protect the citizenry from violent gangs and neo-fascist rule certainly seems like it could work, even with the more topical elements removed, but The Division 2 has almost nothing to say about any of the subject matter it addresses.

One of the first things you’re told upon starting a new character in The Division 2 is that the outlaw group called the “Hyenas” wants only to make the average citizen suffer. It’s the kind of characterization we’d expect a politician to say in a press conference, but it isn’t what a government agent would likely hear in private. What are their motivations? Were they brought to this point as the result of some previous conflict? It doesn’t really matter, because they have guns and they’re trying to kill you.

This sort of black-and-white morality is nothing new in video games. Bowser is bad and Mario is good. Ganon is bad and Link is good. But in a game that – at the very least – masks itself in real-world settings and ideas, having an enemy this cartoonish and evil feels less believable than needing 175 bullets to kill one of them.

Past success

Even Ubisoft’s own Splinter Cell Blacklist managed to craft a menacing villain without turning them into an outright caricature. The “Engineers” planned to execute multiple terrorist attacks on United States territory, potentially killing millions of people, but their motivation was limited to western influence in foreign affairs. It’s a scary thought, but at the same time, it’s a position you could feasibly see a large group of people supporting. “Killing because it’s fun” sounds more like an excuse for underwritten characters than it does as an actual motivation.

The allied and neutral characters also fail to seem like real people, however, largely because of their homogeneous ideas. Every government worker you encounter essentially thinks the same thing: The Division is good, we need to kill every single enemy to regain control, and there’s no way that racking up a kill count in the thousands will have any negative repercussions. This isn’t to say that Ubisoft had to change the combat or mission structure in order to better fit the story, but we could at least have characters offer more resistance to this strategy. The Tom Clancy brand relies on material that is just a step or two removed from reality, and in reality, we’ve seen the consequences of this scorched-earth approach before. The War on Terror has been waged for more than 17 years, and groups like ISIS gained strength in the region after the United States and its allies appeared to have been victorious. Scholars have argued that the terrorist organization’s growth in the region was a result of United States intervention, radicalizing locals who may not have otherwise been interested in taking up arms. Do the government workers in The Division 2 not see how this situation could be repeated?

Removed from direct character interactions, The Division 2 also seems either ignorant or severely misguided in its use of certain imagery. One early mission you’ll complete takes place inside a Vietnam War exhibit at a museum – one that mentions anti-war protests explicitly. Naturally, you start an enormous firefight, using the real loss of life as the backdrop for make-believe. It comes across as tacky at best, and seems to illustrate a fundamental lack of understanding of United States history. Perhaps it was some sort of attempt at a statement, but the game is afraid to say what that might be. A similar “not political” moment occurs in the Oval Office itself, where a recording of the president talking about a Mexican border wall is found. Again, it doesn’t extend beyond a simple message of “Look! Real life!” It comes across as opportunistic, cynical, and sanitized.

Attention to detail

Across the board, these decisions lead to a sort of setting-wide twist on the uncanny valley, and they’re only made more apparent by the areas in which Ubisoft gave so much attention to detail. There are a ton of different weapons to wield, each with attachments and customization options to turn them into optimized killing machines. Real brand names are occasionally used, implying that this sort of gear could actually be utilized in the event of the apocalypse. This applies to the city itself, as well, which residents have applauded for its 1:1 representation compared to the real capital. The buildings and shrubbery are accurate, but it’s the equivalent of a portrait artist recreating someone else’s work. The lines and colors are there, but without realizing what they mean, they might as well be completely different.

The Division 2 gets so much right. In terms of raw game design, it’s one of the best titles from Ubisoft in years, and that’s what makes its remaining flaws so glaring. Ubisoft can give us a better story, because the company has done so before, but it can’t be afraid to actually say something behind its explosions and gunfire. The reason for playing The Division 2 can extend beyond getting better loot and beating a new boss, and given the potential for great storytelling in the D.C. setting, it should.

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