When I first started playing Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, my initial impression was that it was a zombie game except the zombies also have guns. You can say that about most shooters, but The Division 2’s scenery just makes the comparison more prevalent. Here’s a mostly abandoned city, modern entertainment’s go-to signifier for the apocalypse. The detritus of humanity is strewn about like one big crime scene: abandoned cars, shuttered businesses, survivors living in makeshift fortresses above the flooded streets. You walk the city alone or with a small group of likeminded gun-toters, and every now and then, you come across a pack of wandering, blood-thirsty enemies who are defined as cannon fodder. You aren’t meant to die in The Division 2. You aren’t even meant to survive. You’re meant to kill, and kill a lot.
But The Division 2 isn’t a zombie game, as much as it looks like one. It isn’t just a shooter with RPG elements, either. It’s Good Guys with Guns: The Game 2.
Massive Entertainment has stated that The Division 2 isn’t political. Specifically, COO Alf Condelius said that taking a political stance is “bad for business.” That’s obviously bullshit because everything is political. More specifically, everything can be political and therefore will be political, given enough time and the right inclination.
The Division 2 makes getting into a political mindset easier than some other games do, thanks to its setting. Washington, D.C., is alight with civil unrest. The White House has been converted from the austere home of our country’s leader into an improvised base of operations, with a gated off security system and sweaty people with guns licking their wounds. The Washington Monument has a giant chip in it, as if the manifestation of human barbarity has dug a giant ax into its side. Somewhere in the distance, Air Force One’s beached carcass smolders. On the surface, this imagery doesn’t seem any more politically charged than an enormous UFO blowing up the White House in Independence Day. But the bad guys in The Division 2 aren’t aliens. They’re people. They’re other Americans. They’re us.
Within the first hour or so of starting The Division 2, it quickly becomes apparent that this is a better game than Anthem. Loot drops often, so often that you might run out of room in your inventory before you even realize how much stuff you’re picking up. The story exists to enhance the gameplay, not in spite of it. The world is open and all your objectives are presented to you on the map, like a buffet of missions and collectibles. You don’t have to return to some ontologically separate world, where your perspective literally changes, to get your next assignment. In The Division 2, you venture out and can disappear into the warzone for days. It’s the kind of open-world design that even Destiny has never fully embraced.
The Division 2’s map is perfect in the way that mathematical proof can be perfect. Beneath its messy, apocalyptic paint job is an austere machine made entirely out of boxes. Ubisoft studios have designed every manner of open world, and The Division remains the most geometrical of them all. Both cities in this series, for better and worse, are beholden to X and Y axes. This means there’s always cover and combat lanes are carefully determined, more so than in any other series besides maybe Call of Duty. And it’s true that D.C. provides some relief from unnatural urban density in the form of natural, mucky swampland, but even then there are cover-friendly right angles everywhere. If Ghost Recon Wildlands’ Bolivia is a sandbox and Watch Dogs 2’s San Francisco is a jungle gym, then The Division 2’s D.C. is a maze. You’re the rat, and loot is your cheese.
The Division 2 showers you in cheese. Dressed in color-coded towers of light, the game’s armor and weapons come to you like Christmas presents. Your nucleus accumbens will drown in dopamine with the amount of loot you get and the regularity with which you get it. Some of it will fit nicely in the jigsaw puzzle of which brands of gear you want, but you’ll discard most of it. Still, whether you’re scrapping gear or equipping it, the effect is the same. You’ll just want more.
The same principle applies to combat. Shooting isn’t complicated in The Division 2, but it’s effective. More significantly, it’s affective. Color-coded hitmarkers pulse with energy. Getting a body shot earns you a red X. Hitting their tech nets you a yellow X. The white Xs—the most disappointing of them all—means you’ll need to break through their armor. An intense gunfight in a moldering Thomas Jefferson Building becomes a disco of murder.
I can’t decide if The Division 2’s approach to rewarding murder is more or less cynical than Anthem’s. Sure, Anthem masquerades the carnage by making its enemies nasty old aliens, while The Division 2 constantly drops gifts in your lap for killing humans, but there’s some part of me that wants to applaud Massive. At least they’re being honest.
There are many reasons we’re drawn to apocalypse narratives. Simple morbid curiosity about what our world would look like totally destroyed is one. The fantasy of complete freedom from societal restrictions is another. The apocalypse is a playground for our ids. In The Division 2, you’re playing as the last remnant of society, trying to keep it all together, and your tools for doing so are assault rifles and submachine guns.
The Division 2’s version of the apocalypse is the most recognizable of any apocalypse because we’ve seen it before. Modern society has been expunged by conflict, and bodies of the innocent decorate the streets, props for the end of the world. The Division 2’s apocalypse is happening right now in Syria. It’s happening in Libya, Yemen, Sudan. We’ve seen this imagery many times in the news. Hell, we’ve seen it here, with the ash of fallen buildings flooding the streets as people run for their lives.
My Division agent looks like he’s been waiting for this moment his entire life. He looks like he’s been looking for any excuse to pick up his gun and fight. When field leader Manny Ortega gives him a mission and an ideological pep talk, my nameless agent just nods. If he’s looking anywhere, you can’t tell behind his mirrored sunglasses. He’s on the side of the righteous. Officially, he’s protecting the innocent. He’s got a gun and a license to kill.
When Massive said The Division 2 isn’t political, they meant they aren’t taking sides. But politics isn’t just red or blue. It isn’t just right or left. Everything is political.
My roommate and I were having a conversation about Representative Ilhan Omar’s recent statements about Israeli lobbyists influencing our policy. Neither of us thought her statements were antisemitic, but as a Jewish person, I felt the need to argue that the language she used was a little short-sighted. My roommate thought I was overreacting. He agreed with her. As much as I dislike Netanyahu’s government, I wasn’t willing to go that far.
Later, we dropped into The Division 2’s Washington, D.C., and head to the Dark Zone to see what it’s like. When we get there, we see a black, monolithic wall, tinseled in barbed wire, separating us from the best loot in the game.
“How messed up would it be if we saw something like this wall downtown?” I said.
“Oh, you mean like how Palestinians see this wall every day,” he said, only half-joking.
We tried to enter the Dark Zone, but we couldn’t. We’d only done one story mission so far. We hadn’t even met Senait Ezera. Right now, I’m only level 11. I will probably never beat it, but you’re not meant to beat it. You’re meant to keep playing it, forever. I’ll try to reach its endgame, which basically kicks off a full-on civil war. I’ll know that the side of the war I’m on is the right side because the game will keep giving me presents. There’s no way that my actions are wrong as long as I keep getting loot. This isn’t political. I’m just another Good Guy with a Gun.