I was just complaining the other day about being tired of “it gets better” criticism. With so many options out there for your entertainment dollar, who’s got time for a TV season that isn’t worth watching until its fifth hour? And yet there’s something different about video games. Maybe it's because we spend $60 on new ones, but patience is sometimes just a part of the game. They often require you to recalibrate your playing style and get accustomed to a game’s aesthetic and gameplay before you can really appreciate it. That certainly captures my experience with “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2,” a game that almost infuriated me for several hours before becoming a title that I’ve plugged more hours into than anything else so far this year. Maybe it’s a form of Video Game Stockholm Syndrome, but I can’t stop returning to the world of this game, one that the developers promise will keep changing and updating all year long. This is a fascinating trend in games—titles that don’t want to just be finite experiences but things that are a part of your life for months or even years. Consider the success of “Fortnite,” “Overwatch,” and “Destiny”—games that become phenomena more than standalone titles. “The Division 2” wants to be that for millions, and I think I may be addicted.
One of the reasons for that first wave of frustration (other than playing a fast-paced game like this and a slow-paced one like “Sekiro” at the same time can lead to whiplash) is that this is an undeniably repetitive game. That’s part of the structure of it. You will shoot the same enemy over and over and over again as you try to reclaim Washington D.C. after the end of the world. And you have to come to terms with basically doing slight variations on the same thing again and again. It’s a traditional open-world game, in that it’s broken up into “Main Missions” and “Story Missions” with a bunch of optional things to do in between, like taking control points from the enemy or just wandering the streets looking for people to have target practice on. It’s a not a game with a ton of variety in setting or objective.
So what makes it so addictive? A wonderfully structured system of upgrades and what the kids call “loot.” Each mission brings new weapons, armor, mods, even outfits—and it’s incredibly tempting to “just do one more” to see what you can unlock next. The story of “The Division 2” is almost an afterthought—it’s about what you can find out in this deadly, dangerous world. You’re always looking for a new weapon or new way to present yourself to fellow gamers, and that’s an interesting, relatively new dynamic in the world of gaming in that it makes your experience distinctly your own. No one looks or plays exactly like my “Division 2” officer, and it’s not merely cosmetic (although his outfit is currently pretty bad-ass)—it’s also interesting to see how different weapon and gadget loadouts impact the experience and make it personal.
And what’s interesting is that all of this customizable experience is happening alongside a deeply co-operative game. Most of the main missions are impossible without fellow soldiers to help you. They can be your online friends or strangers with whom you ally just for that mission, but the game encourages teamwork. And so “Division 2” becomes not only a place where you author the experience through the many choices you can make through your character choices but then you show off your creation in a way with fellow players. And the game promises to offer more and more choices for both—challenges that will offer gamers new ways to make the experience their own and something they share with others. In that sense, these games are mimicking the culture’s addiction to social media in that much of what makes that world so addictive is the blend of self-expression and community.
It feels like there could have been a stronger narrative under the world of “The Division 2,” but it’s a minor complaint for what feels like a major game of 2019. The first game was dogged by a weak endgame and a few too many bugs, but both of those issues have been ironed out this time and it’s one of those titles that feels like has only grown in cultural prominence over the month it’s been out. People keep finding new loot, new strategies, and new ways to play the game. More than any game since the first “Destiny,” it’s one I personally know I’ll be dropping in and out of for months to come. See you in D.C.