The makers of The Division 2 have waited until nearly the last possible moment to give their frustrated player base a heap of potentially good news. After spending weeks failing to announce a release date for an expected small extension to the game, they’re revealing today that that mini-expansion—a free, two-mission excursion to Brooklyn’s Coney Island—is but a prelude to much more content, which is all coming out less than three weeks later.
“It’s true, it can create some frustration,” the game’s associate creative director, Yannick Banchereau, said in a phone interview with Kotaku last week. “But we also know by experience that this is the kind of thing that, once we are at the end of the line and players know what this is all about—why it’s been going that way—they will, you know, focus on the exciting and the positive.”
On February 12, Division 2 players who bought the game’s year-one pass will be able to play through the two Coney Island missions. All other players will be able to access them on February 19.
On March 3, the large, $US30 ($45) “Warlords of New York” expansion will move the action to downtown Manhattan in a map set across four zones (compared to the base game’s 11), from Wall Street to Chinatown, as players hunt for Aaron Keener, the rogue agent antagonist of the original Division game.
A week later that expansion will kick off a major overhaul of The Division 2 that will transform it into a seasonal game. Existing endgame content will be reconfigured and tweaked to tell three-month narratives, complete with new tasks, game-changing global events, new audio logs and hunts for new enemies.
Ubisoft is also drastically cutting the price of The Division 2, selling the base game for just $US3 ($4) starting today, though we believe that’s a temporary promotion. The expansion will be bundled with the base game for $US40 ($60).
All of this is meant to spark new interest in a game that Ubisoft expected to be a major hit when it launched last March, but that stumbled quickly as post-release problems mounted and fans grew annoyed. The Division 2 stumbled through the summer, though that struggle was largely forgotten by the fall when Ubisoft’s next expected hit, October’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, faceplanted at launch and sent the mega-publisher into a soul-searching panic that triggered delays of its next three big games.
Bancheareau described Division 2 development since the Breakpoint debacle as “mostly business as usual in making sure we make the best game,” but there’s no doubt that the pressure’s on for the main team at Sweden-based Massive and its partner studios to rejuvenate the game the way major expansions and overhauls turned the likes of Diablo III, Destiny, Destiny 2 and the first Division from first-year problems into largely crowd-pleasing successes.
A Game In Need Of A Comeback
The Division 2, released in March of last year, is a third-person cover-based shooter set in in the sweaty summer of post-disaster Washington DC. Players live the questionable Tom Clancy-branded fantasy of civilian-turned-domestic-soldier as they use their guns to help less geared-up civilians retake the city from heavily-armed enemy factions. The Division 2 initially impressed fans and critics with its striking visuals, solid gunplay and unusually deep amount of endgame activities. Like Diablo and Destiny before it, it was ultimately designed to be played regularly for long after its release. Players would hunt for better weapons and gear, and then use what they obtain to hunt for even better stuff.
But The Division 2 faltered as its most hardcore fans exhausted even its extensive offerings. Its convoluted gear and loot systems left its endgame players unmotivated to keep playing. A promise of episodic updates fizzled as those episodes, released in July and October, primarily added handful of new missions that were fun to burn through once, but a bore to repeat.
The game’s third announced episode, the return to Coney Island, has long been slated for February, but the game’s creators had awkwardly avoided offering a release date during their weekly developer State of the Game livestreams, and conspicuously failed to acknowledge fan complaints that this third episode was seemingly going to consist of the least amount of new stuff of the year-one releases.
“There is a clear disconnect from what they are saying and what the community wants or thinks is happening,” said one fan last week who dedicated one of their nearly daily Division-related videos to a 15-minute rant entitled “Worst State of the Game Ever.” They were fuming over the lack of a release date for Coney Island and predicted that the game’s Loot 2.0 update might be months away. “To me it’s two and two make four, but to them it’s like two and two make fucking blue or something, I don’t know.”
Bancheareau chuckled at the video’s title when it was mentioned to him, but acknowledged that it was only natural for fans to be getting ticked off. “You know the expectation of the players, and you know how they feel about episode three being two main missions and a specialisation,” he said diplomatically, before proceeding to understatement. “This is a format you’ve seen in the past, and that in itself might not be the most exciting for them.”
But all of this stinginess with information of late has been a feint.
What The New Expansion Is All About
Banchereau said “Warlords of New York” has been deep in development for some time and, along with the seasons to follow, is the “full focus” of the game’s main development team. He noted that as far back as early September, the development team was talking to fans about it, even if those fans didn’t realise it. When Ubisoft flew a group of devoted players to Sweden as part of their Elite Task Force initiative, they were discussing aspects of the then-unannounced expansion. “So we also had conversations with them about changes we were planning for Warlords of New York without giving them the context of what it was for,” he said.
The Coney Island missions will give players the set-up for the series’ return to New York City, where the first game was set in the immediate, snowy aftermath of a biological weapons attack. The Division 2 moved the calendar up eight months, and the Coney Island missions will be players’ first chance to see what’s been happening in the New York area in that timeframe.
“Warlords of New York” will continue the story with a change of venue to lower Manhattan, more than a dozen blocks further downtown from where the first game was set. The snow is gone, but the city has been hit by a hurricane, a new disaster that has inspired The Division series’ already meticulous art team to create some extraordinary spectacles of flooded streets and wrecked ships.
Banchereau described the map’s four named areas as “very dense” zones, containing numerous main and side missions, eight control points for players to battle computer controlled enemies over, and living world activities. He teased that there are “a lot of things to discover; a lot of puzzles to solve.”
The main goal of the expansion will be to hunt down Keener by first taking out his four lieutenants. Players can go after them in any order, doing a series of activities to identify them, fighting them, and, in victory, obtaining a skill they can use against Keener. The developers are introducing the idea of fog of war to their game map, requiring players to clear it as they explore.
“Warlords of New York” is meant to be experienced as part of the overall Division 2 game. Newcomers can start a new level 30 character to access it, but veterans will be taking their level 30 endgame character to the expansion and level them to 40 in the process. They’ll be locked to the “Warlords” campaign until they finish it, but then will be able to freely travel between DC and NYC to play various endgame activities.
People who own The Division 2 but don’t buy the expansion will still experience an increase to the game’s gear score cap, a number that indicates how powerful the armour and guns they find in the world can be. That number will increase from 500 to 515 to give those players something to strive for.
All players will be able to experience the overhauls to the game’s loot and gear systems, which involve a host of granular but potentially meaningful changes, including a better display of how close a discovered item is to its god-roll ideal and the ability to strip a great stat affecting offensive, defensive, or gadget abilities from a piece of gear, store it, and apply it to something else.
The Division 2 Goes Seasonal
Ubisoft is clearly hoping people will pay for “Warlords,” though, and is providing a transformed endgame that will roll out as a series of narrative-progressing seasons. That seasonal model will begin a week after “Warlords’” release.
“It’s going to feel quite different from what you’re used to from the base game,” Banchereau said of the seasons. Each one will be a three-month-long campaign with story elements and a manhunt for new targets, who players will have to investigate and take down. Massive is promising new activities each week, including player challenges called Leagues and the return of Global Events, a concept from the original Division that involved temporary game-spanning changes, such as players doing more damage to enemies the closer they get to them.
“Basically, it’s a really clear and transparent calendar of three months of weekly activities,” Banchereau said. “Each one of them contributes to a season progression system, and then as part of that season progression you rank up your season rank, and you get rewards with each new rank.”
Banchereau said seasons would use a lot of the game’s existing content and systems, but with “a new twist to it every time.” In a given season, players will be completing a series of endgame activities to locate a rogue agent who then spawns through the bounty system in a “unique, tailor-made encounter,” take down four of these agents, and then hunt down the season’s ultimate target in a “completely repurposed main mission.”
We must note some confusion about the extent to which the seasonal model will be available to the playerbase. While Ubisoft told Kotaku that seasons will be for expansion players, a video hyping the update today showed that there would be a free reward track during seasons and a premium one that players have to pay for. We’re following up to find out if that means that Warlords players need to pay more to get the premium seasonal progression or if, in fact, there is a free seasonal progression available to all.
The developers aren’t saying if March’s expansion and the subsequent seasons are the entirety of what is being built for the game’s second year. Banchereau said that approaching things seasonally should give the team more ways to react to player feedback and tune future seasons accordingly.
What About Underground?
The changes coming to The Division 2 do not include the return of Underground and Survival, two modes added during the first Division’s post-release lifespan that played out differently each time. The sequel’s most hardcore fans keep asking for their return, and the developers keep offering something else (there’s your two plus two equals blue, again).
Banchereau said seasons should finally help satisfy the fans’ appetite. “I think what they really want is they want to make sure they don’t get bored playing the same thing over and over again. They want the game to feel fresh.” Seasons, he said, should feel like a constant roll-out of fresh experiences and challenges.
A tantalising tidbit for Underground fans: the seasons will include “Directives,” a concept from that expansion that will allow players to apply challenge modifiers to the main missions to customise the challenge.
It’s fitting that The Division 2’s big shot at renewal is being announced just a day after Electronic Arts studio BioWare confirmed Kotaku’s reporting that its beleaguered early 2019 sci-fi shooter Anthem is being radically overhauled. That game is having its seasonal model put on hold as BioWare tries to salvage a game that miserably failed to sustain player interest the way it was supposed to after release.
These massive games that are designed to be people’s forever pastimes often flop badly. With conspicuous frequency, many of them are able to correct themselves, as developers reinvent their work, take on useful feedback and, at times, just keep their heads down and make them into something new and better. With luck, the fans come along.
“We’re hoping that by seeing “Warlords of New York,” they will understand that they should still trust us,” Banchereau said of The Division 2’s restless fanbase. “That we’re here, we’re listening, and we’re actually working on things.”
And There’s More...
Banchereau said the expansion won’t split the playerbase, as Level 40 expansion players will be able to matchmake with Level 30 non-expansion players. The game will scale those players to the same level.
People who don’t buy the expansion will still get “some of the new things” offered in the overhaul, including new loot and new gear.
All players will be able to play Heroic versions of the base game’s main missions, and can face any of the core four enemy factions.
Expansion players will also be able to play missions at Legendary difficulty.
The game’s long-delayed second eight-player raid is scheduled for a spring release and will be set at level 30, allowing people who only own the non-expanded Division 2 to access it.
The new overhaul will not include World Tier 6, keeping the stratum of endgame difficulties capped at World Tier 5.
The overhaul to the game will include new in-game brands, brand items, and even new base items as well as new exotics—though we’re unclear on how much of that, if any, will be available to non-expansion players.
There will be new Hunters—tough enemies who fans could only discover by decoding in-game puzzles—offered to both expansion and non-expansion players.
“Warlords of New York” is being developed by the game’s main team at Massive as well as satellite Ubisoft studios Reflections, Lemington, and Annecy in France. The Coney Island missions were developed by Reflections.
The low-key best additions to The Division 2 in its first year were short narrative-driven missions called Classified Assignments, which were set in locations such as an aquarium and an underground NSA bunker. Two more of those are coming with the Coney Island episode. They’ve been exclusive to people who paid for the game’s year-one pass but will be sold, along with instant unlocks for a few new player classes, as a paid bundle during year two.
One of the Division series’ signature elements is the Dark Zone, a part of the game’s map where players can help each other against computer-controlled enemies—or turn on each other. Banchereau said that part of the free overhaul will involve a change to The Division 2’s Dark Zones that is more focused on players making split-second decisions to help or hurt each other, a la the Dark Zone in the first Division. There won’t be a new Dark Zone added through the “Warlords” expansion.