Here's something I didn't really expect to say: The Division 2 is awesome. It's not that I didn't believe Ubisoft's huge sequel could live up to its hype. It's just that I didn't care much for the first one despite recognizing its appeal to those more deeply entrenched in the number chasing and gear collecting and all that. It wasn't my thing in 2016, but now it is. I can't get enough of it this week and when I'm away from it I'm eager to return to play some more of the co-op which is truly fantastic, so I applaud the giant publisher and their approximately 45 studios named in the credits.
There's one part to The Division 2 which I find pretty annoying though, and that's the way it's been marketed. Last summer Terry Spier, one of several creative directors on the project, said to Polygon that "The Division 2 is not making any political statements." These are words he echoed with other outlets too, in what seemed to be an attempt to stop a run of bad press before it got going. More cynically, I wonder if he saw it as a back-of-the-box highlight.
I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I fully grasp the concept of a major AAA video game walking a tightrope so as to not upset anyone. After all, if you're Ubisoft it's not your job to pick a side in a messy, heated, political exchange. It's your job to sell your video game to all sides. Maybe that approach is inherently flawed, but even if you agree with that, I think it's still more than fair to look at Spier's words and look at The Divison 2's key art, plot synopsis, characters, and virtually all other aspects of the game and recognize the delta between its two very different representations.
The Division 2 takes place months after the first game which saw a bio-terror attack on the United States leave the nation in shambles, and left uniquely prepared Agents to rise to the challenge of restoring America, killing all villains across the 40+ hour play time. Gameplay-wise, it excels in all the right ways. Co-op is rewarding and addictive, the map is full of fun activities, the next great piece of loot always feels just one mission away. It's hard to put down. But I can't shake the uneasy feeling I get when games are presented in this way. When the game's box art features the Capitol building on fire, you're making a political statement whether you want to admit it or not. Granted, Ubisoft's forte is rarely narrative, so I think it's also pretty easy to play it without getting enraged because Ubisoft didn't take your side in a debate — they're known for not doing so. But it's this spirit of walking the tightrope that just comes off as not just dishonest, but childish. It feels like Ubisoft shops at a political supermarket, pulls their favorite political plot threads and imagery off of the grocery shelf, and then when they get to the register they act like they didn't intend on buying anything political and are confused how the cashier could think otherwise.
The game opens with the great premise of a post-post-apocalypse. It's a world where the virus that wiped us out is no longer a threat and now we just have to pull ourselves to our feet, lick our wounds, and rebuild for the common good — but we fail to do so. It turns out enough people thrive on the chaos and we don't know how to get back. Leaders fail us, factions form, and the few good people remaining are left to fend for themselves. What a brilliant, interesting, blatantly political premise, but according to Ubisoft, it's not political. Huh?
It's not just The Division 2, either. Ubisoft alone have taken a similar approach with Far Cry and Ghost Recon in recent years, but it's an industry-wide problem. It's curious that some players seem to miss the political allusions in games like Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed but think Life is Strange is political because your character can be gay. When did we lose track of what the word means?
Major video games are gambles. I get it. But so too are major movies, major books, major everything. No other industry has the same magnitude of issues in being honest with itself like games do, and I'm trying to figure out why that is. My best guess is that games are still relatively new, games saying anything worth taking with you after the credits are even newer. We're slowly getting comfortable with gaming growing out of its adolescence. Pac-Man and Galaga weren't commenting on our social, economic, or political world, but today games like The Last of Us and BioShock are the norm, not the exception, so why are so few admitting as much? Even fantasy settings such as The Witcher and Mass Effect have often very deliberate through lines that can be applied to our lives in meaningful ways, but you don't see it in the messaging very often.
We hear often from some gamers who say they come to games to "escape the real world," not to be reminded of it. Escapism is an important aspect of many things, no doubt — but again just like all other media, there are games you can consume that aren't trying to make those points. That doesn't mean when a game does decide to make a point and pick a side we should feel threatened by it. If you don't want to play a game with a real-world point to make or want to ignore those elements of a game, that's your right and you should exercise it. But there's a difference between choosing to ignore the political interpretations of a game and actively denying that they exist. Games and their players are allowed to explore that space. Neither we nor the games' creators should be afraid to simply admit as much.
Check out our Best Xbox One RPGs Available in 2019 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.
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