The Division 2 Beta is proving divisive.
I didn't really get on with The Division when it first launched. I liked the premise, but didn't like the floaty feel of the combat or the bullet-sponge bad guys; it just took me out of the experience completely. I can suspend disbelief enough to accept that a murderous space God could be hit by half a million rounds of ammunition and be left standing - but when you're dealing with human enemies, it ended up feeling a bit ridiculous. It was famously broken when it first launched and was later patched and patched and patched until it ended up in the state it is today - which is a state pretty much universally acknowledged to be 'pretty good.' I re-visited it late last year and had more fun with it in the bit I re-played than I had the first time around. It wasn't enough for me to stick with it and see the campaign through, though.
So, with this backstory now explained you can probably see why I felt little enthusiasm when The Division 2 was announced. It seems like the inevitable sequel, another online looter shooter trying to carve a space for itself in the increasingly crowded online looter shooter space that I have to remind myself didn't even exist only a couple of short years ago.
Ubisoft are shipping the game at a comparatively challenging time, this time around. When the first game dropped, the only real competition for it on consoles was Destiny - it was widely referred to as a 'Destiny-killer' at the time, and for a couple of weeks put a noticeable dent in the player count for that game. Eventually though the dust settled, people picked a side or straddled the fence and both games nestled back down into their content plans. This time though, it's dropping a mere couple of weeks after its new big competitor and new kid on the block - EA's Anthem. Both of them have had recent demos (OK, OK... The Division 2's is calling itself a beta - it's a semantic difference at best when both games are out in the next 6 weeks!) in the pre-launch hype-whipping-up period - as Anthem drops on 22nd February 2019 and The Division 2 follows a couple of weeks later on 15th March 2019.
The real question though is probably this: based on the beta/demo/cycnical-marketing-exercises-masquerading-as-some-kind-of-laughable-pre-order-incentive-that-none-of-us-should-fall-for-anymore-yet-somehow-still-do that we've just experienced for each of the games, which one's likely to come out on top when it comes to the actual live launches?
I'll admit it: I didn't expect to like The Division 2. I was quite surprised when I was sent a beta key - I don't recall ever having signed up for one - but figured I may as well give it a whirl to see if that particular hype train was really a cattle truck. No-one was more surprised than I was when I found myself having fun a comparatively short time later. The movement feels less floaty and disconnected that I remember the first game being. The guns sound louder and more destructive. I'm playing on Xbox One X, and performance has been pretty solid - I've had one disconnect but no crashes, which is more than can be said for PS4 and PC players, who are apparently suffering more than I have. It's graphically a little inconsistent - some of the external areas look incredible, while some textures look really flat and lifeless. The sheer amount to do in the demo is almost bewildering - I've put in about 4 hours at this point, and the game's still throwing up story missions and side-quests. I remember the novelty of moving through post-apocalyptic New York wearing off pretty quickly in the original once I found that it was possible to walk for block after block without any sign of threat or danger. Post-apocalyptic Washington DC is another kettle of fish though - it sometimes feels like you're being shot at from every possible angle as soon as you engage a single enemy.
Speaking of the enemies, they behave like pack animals. Constantly flanking, maneuvering, and throwing grenades to flush you from cover - they feel like a proper threat. I don't mind admitting that gangs I've stumbled across while travelling to a mission location have left me bleeding to death in the street a couple of times. The weapons, loadouts, equipment, and perks all tell of a game with some serious strategic depth for those willing to dig into it. The other thing I like though is how the environment itself tells the story. This was probably happening in the first game too (in fact I may even go back and have a look to see), but if it was I wasn't paying attention. Here, it's the first thing I noticed. Piles of books outside a library acting as barricades and cover - blood spattered, with spent ammo casings all over the concrete - which looks amazing, by the way. Seriously. If you fire it up, take a look at the ground. I think that's the best concrete I've ever seen in a game, bar none. But, I digress. Looted food stores are empty, while the TV and audio shops have smashed windows and destroyed content. It makes sense - who's gonna steal a TV when the power has gone? The more I think on this, the more I think the first game must have been full of this stuff and I just didn't notice it. I wish I had - maybe I'd have appreciated the game a little more for it.
In comparison to the recent Anthem demo, The Division 2 feels much more self-assured. Being a sequel, developer Massive Entertainment have already been for a ride on this rollercoaster, and it shows. The demo feels far more complete. There's more to see, more to do - the spoon with which we're being fed seems so much larger. It's a tablespoon, to Anthem's teaspoon. There is confident talk of endgame content, being delivered with a confidence that Bioware can't imitate. That's not a surprise - but where Anthem leaves you wondering if the studio have bitten off more than they can chew with their first foray into the online looter shooter space, The Division 2 is stating its intent. And it's coming at a time when a lot of players, for a variety of reasons, have wandered away from Destiny 2 and are looking for something to replace it with.
For my part, just as I described myself as "cautiously optimistic" for Anthem, I think I'll call myself "surprisingly interested" in The Division 2. Will I buy it? I'm not sure - just as I'm not sure with Anthem. But the fact that I'm even contemplating it speaks volumes about the quality of what I've played in the last couple of nights. If I were a betting man, I think I'd be putting my money on this rather than Anthem to be the successful looter shooter of 2019, even if Anthem's premise appeals to me slightly more.
Time will tell. She always does.