It’s easy to think of The Division as Destiny: Tom Clancy edition, but Ubisoft’s looter-shooter has one important ace card: the Dark Zone. A lawless stretch of central Manhattan filled with high-level enemy gangs, it is here that players get mean; turning on former co-op pals and attempting to escape with high-level loot.
It comes as no surprise, then, that there’s more Dark Zone in The Division 2. Sorry, more Dark Zones. This time there’s three of them. Because that’s what you do with sequels, right? Make more of the good stuff.
Your goal in each of these three zones remains exactly that of the original game’s Dark Zone: get in, grab powerful but contaminated loot, and call for a helicopter extraction to have your spoils sent for cleaning and eventual addition to your collection. This time around, however, there’s a wider variety of ways that you can achieve that goal.
In The Division 2’s 1:1 scale Washington DC, a trio of areas are locked off for the hybrid activity. These are:
- Dark Zone South – the district located in Fisherman’s Wharf, close to Washington’s waterfront.
- Dark Zone East – an area around the Capitol’s Union Station, with wide open streets offering fabulous sight-lines for snipers.
- Dark Zone West – the Georgetown neighborhood of DC; the most built-up zone available, designed for inter-building close quarters fighting.
So, onto the nitty gritty of what’s changed.
You can happily enter the Dark Zone and remain a loyal agent of the Division; staying out of the way of other players, fighting the AI, and extracting what you find at the opportune moment. Alternatively, you can flip the bird to Tom Clancy’s operator rule book and go rogue, opting to follow your own loot-focused agenda rather than help eliminate the terrorist threat.
Abandoning protocol is nothing new for The Division, but the sequel offers more freedom; now you can choose exactly how far you bend and break the rules. There are a trio of Rogue Agent variants. The standard form – designated by red skull HUD markers – will be familiar to veterans of the original. These players have signalled that they’re aggressive and will open fire on anyone who gets in their way. Joining this for The Division 2 is a revised version of Manhunt – which we’ll get to later – plus a brand new Thief option.
Being a thief is the least rebellious option (although considering that The Division has always opted for lethal force when it comes to looters, this is clearly still a serious infraction of the unit’s handbook). Opt for this path and your end goal is to unlock the Thieves Den – a safe room that can provide rewards – rather than slaughter other players in the streets. Accessing the den requires your team to triangulate its location by finding a series of terminals and lock boxes before a timer ticks away to zero. It’s a relatively safe and easy method of drawing loot out of the Dark Zone. But because of that low risk, the rewards aren’t quite as tempting; caches of enhanced ammunition are useful, but hardly equal to a fancy new assault rifle.
To get that fancy new rifle, you may have to resort to not just going rogue, but embarking on a Manhunt. Similarly to the original game, killing a handful of players will upgrade you from standard Rogue status and begin a Manhunt, but the goals of this status have been adjusted and refined. With this status active, you are required to hunt down and activate a series of terminals that escalates the value of the hunt. Activate all terminals and you’ll be rewarded with the Dark Zone’s best riches. There is a catch, though: enemy teams are alerted to your progress, and so each terminal you activate narrows down your next potential objective, allowing opponents to guess which terminal your team will be heading for next. If they can put a halt to your rampage, they’ll be showered in goodies.
On the surface, The Division 2’s Dark Zones feel somewhat cut-and-paste from the original game. I actually found during my hands-on that I pined for the creepy subways of NYC, which added so much tension to the proceedings. But the more I reflect on the small changes to the Dark Zone, the more they sense.
For starters, there’s a slightly less ‘endgame’ feel about it. The zone is normalised; all weapon and character stats are set to a standard level, so your uber SMG won’t offer you any advantage over someone wielding low-end weaponry. As such, the Dark Zone offers the same level of challenge to all players regardless of their time investment, and emphasises skill and tactics over simply having ground out the highest level gear.
If you’re suddenly repulsed at the idea of a normalised Dark Zone, fear not: you’ll be well catered for with periodic ‘Occupied Dark Zone’ events, which take the activity back to its roots: all your gear stats remain intact, friendly fire is on, and better rewards are up for grabs.
But using that style of play as an event and not the norm makes the Dark Zone a fairer, more accessible activity. Combined with the new Rogue system, it also makes it a place that less competitive players can enjoy, too.
While the Dark Zone will always have PvP, the addition of Thief status provides more PvE-focussed players a set of objectives that allows them to progress without actively hunting down other players. Suddenly the impossible bloodbath of the Dark Zone seems like a much more achievable mission for those with less hardcore sensibilities.
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While the changes to the Dark Zone make it a more friendly mid-game activity, it still seems poised to be one of the main experiences for players to engage with long term after completing the campaign.
The Division 2’s take on the Dark Zone suffers from a lack of novelty, but there’s no denying that on paper this is a refined, more balanced take on one of Ubisoft’s best ideas. Hopefully that theory translates into prolonged excitement when The Division 2 launches in March.