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Hands-on with The Division 2’s Dark Zones and Competitive PVP

Christopher Coke Posted:
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Last month, Ubisoft flew us down to the Red Storm offices in Cary, North Carolina for a sneak peek at The Division 2. After the tumultuous launch and amazing recovery of the first The Division, we were curious to see exactly what they were up to. More importantly, since this was a PVP focused event, we wanted to see if they could actually sell us on the sequel’s contentious Dark Zone gameplay. Read on to hear our thoughts and get a lengthy first look at the game’s PVP for yourself.

Like many of you, I enjoyed the original The Division. I played through the campaign and dropped off somewhere before the biggest updates were released, always meaning to go back. Since then, I’ve heard nothing but good things about how the game had changed and how the Dark Zone was now one of the most fun parts of the game.

In my original playthrough, I avoided the Dark Zone after hearing how brutal and dog eat dog it was. Exaggeration though that likely was, I wasn’t alone and the team at Red Storm has a number of changes in store to make Dark Zone gameplay more accessible and fair without stripping away the high stakes fun so many enjoyed in the original.

What’s new to Dark Zone PVP?

Let’s start with the big reveal. The Division 2 will feature three separate Dark Zones. Two of these will require you to flag yourself for PVP, while the third is a no holds barred, all-out frenzy. Each is big and filled with activities for you and your group. I didn’t get to play any of the single-player campaign, but the design alone tells me that you’ll be expected to spend more time there.

To make joining the fun easier, you’ll be given a mission that sends you (and your group if you party up) into the first of the three zones and reveals its systems. You can see me play through this mission below - forgive the edits as there are some things we’re still unable to show. The mission does a good job of easing you in and assuring you that, no, this time around you’re not going to die right away by some heavy-handed player.

In fact, you can explore the Dark Zones and not worry about other players at all unless you’ve taken on a mission that flags you for it, you go aggressive, or flag yourself somehow. This little bit of extra control removes a good amount of the surprise and walking tension open PVP situations usually make me feel. If you do certain things, like deliberately attack another player, you’ll be flagged. Keep on killing other players and your position will be marked on the map for everyone sharing the zone with you. It’s high stakes and intense but something you opt into, not that’s thrust onto you.

The other major change is that weapons and gear are now normalized in those same two of three Dark Zones. Looter shooters with open PVP have a terrible tendency to eat their own tail, veteran players obliterating newcomers, putting them off from every trying again. In these zones, Red Storm told us that they want it to be about skill, not the gear you picked up before the other player even knew you existed. Gear does matter, though. We work hard for our upgrades, after all, so players wanting to put their full builds to the test can head off into third Dark Zone to see who’s kitted themselves out the best.

Making a believer out of me

Alright, alright. So what did I, a Division 1 snowflake, think of Dark Zone PVP? Put simply, running around completing missions with my crew of assembled journalists was some of the most fun I’ve had in a video game in years. We did flag and went on the hunt for other players. We collected loot, some of which you can wear right away and some that needed to be airlifted out to decontaminate, and fought off waves of enemies, real and AI, as our choppers came and squirrelled it away. It was tense and thrilling in a way few games that don’t leverage some kind of loss simply can’t be.

Death, though, didn’t feel punishing. Running in a group of four, more than once, one of us would come close to wiping it only to be revived in the last seconds before death. In the times I did die, I was usually able to make it back to rejoin the fight and keep contributing to the team.

At one point, our team caught wind of another and decided to hunt them down. We ambushed them in a courtyard nestled between a group of high rises. In was an intense stand-off that just seemed to go on. When things got hairy, the alleyway we used to get into the courtyard became the perfect choke point to draw them together and send out a heavy weapon. All the while, we’re strategizing over voice chat, they’re pulling back and strategizing, everyone’s calling out moves, trying not to get shot. It was an absolute blast and I knew then and there, even if someone else reviewed The Division 2, I’d be buying it on day one.

The Dark Zone can also be about spontaneous cooperation. At one point we came across another squad non-flagged for PVP. Instead of duking it out, we worked together to clear a building of a boss and his minions. I didn’t expect that going in.

I wonder, though: will it be as fun without a set team? I’m afraid it won’t be, especially when you’re going up against people who are. Playing in a group, though, was fun enough that I’ll be selling my friends on the game in a big bad way.

Later in our demo, we tried out organized PVP. I won’t lie. I did terribly. I’m not sure if it was that I’d already been playing for several hours and was getting fatigued but it just didn’t have the same appeal to me. The maps were well designed but felt small after playing in the two Dark Zones.

There’s a lot of neat mechanics, though. You can mix and match primary and secondary weapons and use special abilities. This is The Division, so of course you can send a drone to pluck away at the enemy team but there’s a number of other “future tech” combos too. Seeing the difficulty I was having, one of the artists at Red Storm suggested I try the shotgun/shield combo. I could never grab the magic the same way a few of the other players in our session did, but it’s clear that there’s a ton of potential here.

The Division 2 could be great

I don’t want to discount the fact that playing in tight group all trying an exciting new game for the first time might be coloring the experience here. There’s still a lot to be seen from The Division 2 before it’s release on March 15. What I saw excited me, however. I loved the PVE campaign in the original even when it released. It’s gotten better since then. The Division 2 will hopefully be better than that.  I love the Dark Zone in the sequel, which is something I never thought I would write. If Ubisoft has taken all the lessons they learned over the life of The Division, both PVE and PVP, this could be an massive release.


Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight