Video games are so often about maintaining one illusion or another. Take an urban environment, a sprawling city like New York in Insomniac’s Spider-Man or The Witcher 3‘s Novigrad. Developers spend a ton of time filling those cities with lots of visible detail, populating the world with NPCs that roam around, doodads on the exterior of buildings, and other bits and bobs to make a city feel “alive”.
Something usually sacrificed in this quest for immersion, however, is the actual scope inside buildings. When a game lets you in, the space is often far, far smaller than what it should be. And this small, tiny detail, is something The Division 2 nails really well.
As video games advance closer towards photorealism, leveraging ever-increasingly powerful machines to populate and simulate all sorts of things in their in-game world, buildings are something that have generally been ignored for the most part. People care mostly about external environments, and if you can fill the streets with junk that blows around, realistic looking grass, and lots of things to talk to/shoot, then gamers are generally happy.
The fact that you can’t walk inside a building, let alone explore that space fully, isn’t a big deal for most games. But The Division 2 sets the vast majority of its missions indoors, and so there’s a bigger need for those rooms to be size-appropriate.
Because of The Division‘s general design, many of these missions can’t take place in the open world. The original game had people wandering into bombed out buildings and underground tunnels for the more difficult engagements, and The Division 2 expands upon that. But being a sequel, there’s more story missions, more side missions, and therefore more interiors that need to be fleshed out.
There’s a lot more verticality in the fights, particularly early on. While The Division always pitted you against waves of enemies that would often spawn in from high ground, The Division 2 throws you into more battles where you’re dealing with enemies on three or four different levels. I also noticed instances where, if you tried to charge in just for the hell of it, the game sometimes varies what level enemies spawn on as well.
Given that The Division 2 doesn’t offer a great deal in the way of stealth – structurally you’ll approach everything the same way as you did in The Division, only that you’ll have some newer gadgets to play with and, in some cases, more weak spots on enemies to target – the game really needed these massive indoor environments. It helps build the illusion that you have more variety in how you tackle engagements, even if in practice the AI’s aimbot-like qualities restrict how much you can get away with constantly changing positions.
Take this side mission from the first few hours of the game. After unlocking the first safehouse and running the main mission, you have the option of securing some rooftop gardens so the survivors have a better shot at growing their own food. Getting to the gardens themselves involves running through multiple hallways before your first fight, though.
That fight takes place on the bottom level in the middle of an apartment block, and after clearing out the initial wave of Hyenas, you then have to make your way through the complex. Before proceeding ahead, however, each quarter of the complex has a few hallways of its own with loot that you can wander through.
The whole mission is a solid 15 or 20 minutes of duking through ruined homes, shootouts through windows, climbing up elevator shafts, and working out one side of the apartment complex after another. Eventually you reach the top of the complex, firing over the levels where the fights took place previously, before a final battle taking place over three separate platforms. This mission also doesn’t double back with a final battle where the mission began, which is a cheeky way of extending a mission’s scope and breadth without needing additional space.
The scope and size of the interiors really comes to the fore when you hit the strongholds later on in the game. They won’t all necessarily feature multi-storey fights throughout, but you’ll often be thrown into battles with expansive rooms and concourses with plenty of nooks and crannies for enemies and allies alike to use.
All of this is partially out of necessity: fleshing out the indoor environments means the developers have more room to make missions and challenges more interesting, which is part and parcel of any good loot shooter. But actually achieving that scope, and doing so without compromising performance or falling back on massive loading times, is a significant technical accomplishment.
But it’s also just refreshing to see from an immersive standpoint. Blockbuster games like The Division build their sense of immersion by bringing the real world into a video game. Washington DC in The Division 2 might not be a complete recreation of the city, but it’s a close enough recreation that you could walk a route in-game and relive that experience on holiday.
“We are very mindful of virtual tourism as a pillar of our production … we want that exact experience for players,” Chad Chatteron, The Division 2‘s lead environment artist, told Kotaku alumni Amanda Yeo in an interview pre-launch.
Part of that virtual tourism comes in the streets. Some of it is allowing players to roam through the city’s extensive suite of museums. And another element of it is making sure those buildings are actually fit to scale. It’s not the most impressive thing The Division 2 does, and it’s not a feature that players would hinge a purchase on.
But that interior scale is something that’s often sacrificed for something else – performance, a bigger focus on the external environments, or maybe just a lack of development time. The Division 2 doesn’t make that trade-off, and it’s a real pleasure.