The Division 2 beta gave players a decent taste of nearly every aspect of the game, from early leveling and intro missions, to PvP and Dark Zone. Eventually, Ubisoft Massive even allowed players to sample a fully decked out character in one of the endgame missions. While the early beta content felt like a subtle improvement on the first game, this endgame mission felt like Ubisoft Massive doubling down on everything I hated about high level play in The Division.
Most of the beta throws low level, red health bar enemies at you — a faction of scrappy nihilists known as Hyenas. Your objectives are typical looter-shooter fare, but thanks to a bumpin’ soundtrack and a balance toward a large quantity of low-health enemies, The Division 2’s regular beta missions are far more fun than the glacial, bullet-sponge-y battles of the first game. For my first few hours, I felt sure this was a game I would enjoy and buy, despite feeling burned by the original game.
But after two runs through the endgame mission (once to experience it, and a second time to make sure it was REALLY as bad as it seemed), I came to an unfortunate conclusion. The game that The Division 2 aspires to be, the version of the gameplay the developers want players to invest weeks or months into, is either very bad, or very much not for me.
The Division 2’s endgame enemies are not bullet sponges…
They’re bullet coral reefs, ready to take a clip of ammo for each chunk of their segmented armor bars before giving access to the manageable health bar underneath. Just as in the first game, they have free reign to run right up to you while you plink away at them, even running right past your firing line.
This completely unrealistic but extremely effective flanking maneuver forced my team to fall back, and fall back, and fall back. Most of my fights devolved into awkward corridor battles in which my squad had to retreat to the hallways between encounter rooms. These rooms are typically a transitional space that isn’t really designed for a firefight, making these endgame battles awkward for 4 players who are supposed to concentrate their firepower to win.
The Division has always been like this, and the prevailing excuse is that you need to think of it more like a tactical RPG than a fast-paced shooter. That’s fine, but this argument falls apart when a flak-jacketed monster with an audacious health pool can just do whatever the hell they want while you try to hold them off with a hail of ammunition. Lack of realism aside, the metaphor breaks down for me because the enemies do not adhere to any logical tactics.
Other less realistic shooter RPGs have done this better
The big mental hurdle with The Division has always been this idea of regular people getting shot hundreds of times without turning into swiss cheese. Defenders of the series tend to point out that if you just suspend your disbelief there is a deep and rewarding RPG underneath. They also note that if this were a sci-fi game like Destiny or Mass Effect, bullet sponges wouldn’t be so weird.
My qualm with this argument is that the bullet sponge endgame enemies of The Division go so far beyond anything that either Destiny’s endgame or the hardest missions of Mass Effect’s co-op throws at you.
Destiny’s strongest enemies are typically singular bosses or minibosses among swarms of smaller enemies that can be defeated with a single clip of ammo. Or, in many cases, these enemies can be defeated in a single headshot. Destiny fans revel in maximising their damage output, eventually figuring out ways to kill endgame raid bosses faster than the lowest armor warriors of The Division’s endgame.
With Mass Effect, the comparison is even more revealing, as the game is essentially the same arrangement of cover shooting and abilities against enemies with large health pools. What’s wild is how much better Mass Effect’s co-op PvE balance feels compared to The Division. It even has the same issue of powerful enemies abusing their health bars to flank you, and yet it never felt as unfair and demoralizing as it does in The Division 2’s beta.
Despite complaints, it seems like this is the game we’re getting
The design of The Division 2’s endgame feels intentional. Despite years of players complaining about bullet sponge enemies, it seems the hardcore fans of this series enjoy them, and Ubisoft Massive is making a point to cater to them.
Perhaps this is for the best. After all, Destiny 2’s post-launch endgame was a massive fumble because it didn’t cater to the hardcore. If Ubisoft Massive is taking lessons from Bungie’s mistakes, then they’re technically doing the right thing. Maybe, the real issue is me. Maybe, this series just isn’t for me.
And yet, I can’t shake this feeling that a better experience could be had by tweaking damage numbers and putting a tighter leash on the enemy AI. Mass Effect feels, to me, like a blueprint for a better version of this game.
Mass Effect co-op as a live, always-evolving, open world looter-shooter? Now that’s a game I’d love to sink dozens of hours into…