The Division 2 Preview: Into the Dark Zone

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Time to get sweaty.

There are few experiences more game defining than the Dark Zone in The Division 1. Pounding pavement through an oppressive, snow filled environment where danger lurked everywhere. You could round any corner and be suddenly face-to-face with a gang of elite enemies;  you were never really sure if that figure looming out of the mist was a friendly agent or a rogue waiting to roll you for your loot. Few games have ventured into this Player vs Environment vs Player space, and given the teething problems developers Massive encountered with the Dark Zone it’s easy to see why.

From blatant hackers, gankers and an over-reliance on loot gained from the area, the Dark Zone was a controversial affair at launch. Over time it’s been tuned and refined into a good experience that benefits from no longer being the crux of the end game. As such, I jumped at the chance to pop over to Massive’s Malmö studio to check out the Dark Zone in the upcoming Division 2.

Three is better than One

From the time we first launched into our demo, the first and most obvious change was in the layout of the Dark Zone itself. For those unfamiliar with the first game, the quarantined area dominated the centre of the map. Originally reaching from 29th Street South all the way up to 55th Street North (and eventually all the way up to 65th Street in later patches), the area effectively split the map in two, providing an unavoidable reminder of the failings of the in-game Division and JTF. The Division 2 does away with this central design and instead features 3 separate Dark Zones, each with a distinct feel and atmosphere.

Split into groups of 4, I began by dipping my toes into the easternmost zone located around Union Station, conveniently known as Dark Zone East, with low-level characters. Access to each of the three PvEvP areas is gained via a story mission and, while we were unable to play the mission itself, we were given level-appropriate characters and set loose to explore.

The Tropical Wasteland

Stepping out of the east entrance I was immediately hit with just how different the new Dark Zones feel. The move from snowy New York to a sweaty, sun-baked Washington is a brave one by Massive, and nowhere is this more apparent than when comparing the new and old Dark Zones. With its limited Shade Tech coverage, reduced visibility and full on blizzards turning street lamps into pale dots, the Dark Zone in the The Division was an oppressive place. Instead, The Division 2’s Dark Zones feel wilder.

Trudging through these new locations feels like walking through a sweaty mire, with the occasional rain storm washing through. Deer and other creatures wander about, fleeing from gunshots that are a little too close for comfort. While all of Washington is run down, these Dark Zones are places in total disrepair, bearing scars of the infection and the attempts of the Army to cleanse the populace. The worst of these areas are coated in a substance known as DC62, an untested yellow powder deployed by the Army in an attempt to halt the infection. Spoiler: it didn’t work.

Venturing out as lowly level 10s, my part and I had limited access to equipment and skills, meaning any engagement could get out of hand quickly. Landmarks, the mainstay of gear acquisition in the Dark Zone, now have several waves of baddies to contend with, making it easy to find yourself surrounded and overwhelmed if you’re not cautious. In much the same way that the DZ and other end game activities were unforgiving to under-geared players in The Division, so too is The Division 2’s offering. Enemies hit hard, and it can take some work to grind through their armour if your gear isn’t up to scratch. You’re able to pick up and equip new gear within the quarantined areas now – not all gear obtained there is toxic anymore – if you’re in need of a boost, and mercifully enemy health bar drops rapidly once that armour is gone. Massive has done a lot of work to make sure that the Dark Zone is accessible to all now, including levelling the playing field by squishing some stat numbers once that DZ threshold is crossed. Yes, you read that right: Gear Normalization is coming to the DZ in The Division 2.

It’s OK to be Normal

Gear Normalisation is undoubtedly the single biggest change coming to The Division 2. Yes, no longer will that 100% optimised, min-maxed build solo your whole squad in a matter of seconds thanks to their perfectly rolled weapon and performance mods — instead player skill will play a greater role in determining an engagement. While Massive has done away with the current weapon mod system entirely, with parts having fixed rolls rather than flexible ones, many other gear stats will be normalized down to put players on a more level playing field. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still be rolled by someone specialised heavily into a playstyle or gear set, but there’s more room for your high fashion mixed set in The Division 2’s Dark Zone.

Stepping out into DZ South in our second session of the day, my team and I were now geared to the teeth with exotic items, gear sets and access to the end game specializations. These specializations come in three flavours — Survivalist, Demolitionist and Sharpshooter —  and each has access to its own special weapon. My character was a Survivalist, providing access to a crossbow (the other two specs gain a grenade launcher and heavy sniper, respectively) that fired explosive tipped bolts which, unfortunately, wasn’t as cool as it sounds. Ammo is very limited for these specialized weapons and, while the crossbow can stagger larger enemies and even one-hit other agents, it’s hard to argue with the raw damage and stopping power available from either of the other options.

With our new duds fitted and the full gamut of skills available, our merry band decided that we’d make a bee-line for the nearest checkpoint to test out the gear for ourselves. Landmarks have received somewhat of a makeover too from the original game and are now no longer fixed locations. Instead they can appear at various places within the DZ and also feature a difficulty level that affects the gear they drop, with the best gear coming from those marked “Challenging”. Once cleared these landmarks fade away to be replaced with another of random difficulty, making it imperative to clear them before other teams. Arriving at our first landmark we found another group of agents trying to claim it for themselves, and decided it was time to be the bad guys.

Goin’ Rogue

Rogue agents are perhaps the most feared thing in the Dark Zone, often taking you by surprise just as you picked up that shiny new exotic or as you went to extract your contaminated goodies. The Division 2 doubles down on this, building further on the original system and offering a greater incentive for those agents who choose to disavow the Division. That was rather convenient as my little ragtag band wanted nothing more than to murder any other agent in view. Who’d have thought games journalists would be so blood thirsty?

Rogue agents now have a new, lower tier for those who aren’t in to mass murder; it begins by taking another agent’s dropped gear or breaking into a Dark Zone cache without a key. This level, represented by a grey symbol, will still see you hunted by fellow agents on site, but will allow the PvP averse to exercise their roguish desires without needing to mow down fellow agents. Advance far enough along this new rogue path and you’ll eventually gain access to the Thieves Den – a new space only for those rogue agents who are dastardly enough to plunder their way through the DZ. Try as we might, we weren’t able to reach the fabled room in our playtime though, mostly due to the insatiable bloodlust of my fellow agents.

While venturing into the DZ at a low level was rough, once I’d had the chance to flex some muscle with a kitted-out endgame build I was fully on board with this updated DZ experience. Going head to head with elite bosses and murdering fellow agents felt smooth, with spongey health bars a thing of the past. A normalised Dark Zone means that bosses don’t need to be brick walls that only the toughest, most optimized agents can crack, and any run in with other agents is more likely to be a fair fight. While Massive may still have some creases to iron out in their leveling curve, I’m excited to see how this and the other upcoming changes play out when The Division 2 releases on 15 March.

Hamish Lindsay was sent to Malmö, Sweden as a guest of Ubisoft. All travel, accommodation and meals were paid for by the publisher.