The Division 2 turned me into a post-apocalyptic photographer

When the game's story isn't doing it for you, sometimes you just have to go and take pictures of the wildlife

My time as an agent in The Division 2 was short-lived. I strayed from the story long ago and have since become lost in the pursuit of dark tourism. The wildlife that roams Massive Entertainment’s post-apocalyptic depiction of Washington, D.C has stolen my heart and now I’m struggling to return to the firefights. Rather than shooting gang members I’m shooting adorable photographs.

The Division 2 tasks you with taking back America’s capital from a tyrannical government. The people behind the game insist that they’re not trying to make any political statements. Funny that, as within moments of starting the campaign, a scene plays out that heavily implies that those who don’t bear arms are likely to succumb to those that do. That definitely feels like a political statement, but I guess I’m wrong – silly me.

As the story progresses there seems to be more and more situations that reflect real-life politics. One mission sends me into a museum that’s stuffed with recreations of Vietnam’s jungles, where I engage in a firefight, barely able to distinguish the model soldiers from the real one. I wonder if Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment could be referring to something here? Anyway, instead of continuing along those beats, I decided to switch my focus and explore the city with a camera in hand – chasing dogs and rats to see where they go. If The Division 2’s developer is “absolutely here to explore a new city,” then I may as well be, too.

Despite appearing ravaged and broken, Washington hums with activity. Racoons scour the bins for rubbish, foxes dart between abandoned cars, and deers roam what remains of the streets. Survivors can also be seen collecting supplies and water while enemy factions hawkishly watch over their territory.

Better yet, every living being in the capital is wonderfully independent, but will react whenever I come near. Some look on in awe because of my status as a Division Agent, while others sheepishly confess their unease, scared of who may be hanging out in a nearby graffiti-sprawled alley.

The freedom that Washington gives me to wander makes it an oddly well-suited setting to hone my photography skills. Which is handy as I soon learn there are several tricks to the trade. To snap into photo mode, I need to pause the game and hold down the F key.

That’s simple enough, but the perfect moment can be tricky to capture as animals will get scared and run off if I get too close. Unfortunately, the lens zoom only goes so far, and it’s often not enough. And so a game emerges in trying to figure out the optimal distance at which to get to take the best picture possible of each creature.

I soon fall into a rhythm with the wonderful mix of randomness and predictability within the behaviour of Washington’s birds and beasts. Racoons, for example, can only spawn in bins, so if I’m looking for one I skim along the pavements and back alleys like a fly looking for dung. If I see a fox making a break for it, I know that it’s heading towards a car, where it’ll take a second to squeeze itself underneath before disappearing.

Being a post-apocalyptic photographer is far from a safe profession, however. While factions of goons tolerate my meandering, they won’t hesitate to open fire should I overstep the line. Little else will startle them more than a rogue agent sprinting frantically after a deer that is prancing through their land. That sense of danger enhances the thrill of sleuthing about enemy camps for a good photo opportunity, though, especially when it goes off without a hitch.

Going it alone: how to play The Division 2 solo

What’s most surprising about my snap-happy drift is how it’s helped me engage with The Division 2’s city without needing to chase loot or story beats. Each area of Washington is cordoned off into sectors with recommended power levels. Sure, there’s a certain excitement to upping the stakes and heading into the high-level areas to pursue the perfect photo, knowing that a single slip-up will mean a quick death. But, equally, I’ve found a reason to enter those areas without engaging in hostilities, finding within them a sense of calm. That is until I panic a raccoon and the sound of it knocking over the bins gets confused with gunfire and, well, damn trash pandas.