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The Division 2: Warlords of New York Hands-On Preview and Impressions

The return to New York is both familiar and fresh.

by Brandon Adams

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A couple of weeks ago Ubisoft flew me down to San Francisco and revealed their upcoming expansion to The Division 2, Warlords of New York. After a short press briefing detailing the expansion and Ubi’s post-launch plans, I was able to sit down and play a preview build for a couple of hours. I ran around the dilapidated streets of lower Manhattan, blew up some Cleaners, and tackled one of the new missions being added to the game.

The early verdict? It’s looking great, and if what you wanted from Year 2 was a new playground to shoot bad guys in, a more dynamic endgame, and some much needed quality of life adjustments then you’re gonna dig what Ubi and Massive serve up March 3’rd. While Warlords of New York may not appear to deviate far from the established formula upon first glance, the underlying changes to gear and the variety seasons can potentially inject into the endgame demonstrate The Division 2 is perhaps entering its golden year.

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Warlords of New York builds upon and refines what came before it.

Here’s the elevator pitch for the expansion: Aaron Keener is still a right proper bastard, he is back in New York City, and obviously up to no good. He has recruited four rogue agents to his cause, who themselves have taken control of the Rikers and Cleaners. You need to return to Manhattan and kick their asses six ways from Sunday, acquire new skills from their still warm corpses, and save Manhattan from a larger bio-attack Keener is plotting.

As far as narratives go, Warlords of New York won’t be winning any awards, but it’s never been The Division’s strength as a franchise. The story is there to give agents an excuse to marathon about a massive, devastated city gunning down anyone bold enough to step between them and better loot. However, agents invested in the story know Aaron Keener has arguably been the lead antagonist since the first game, and they have been wondering not only what the High Hell he’s been up to since we stepped foot in D.C., but when they’d be able to take the fight to him.

Turns out the answers are, “he’s been working on a bio-weapon,” and, “now we need to put him down.” It’s with this premise our agents are jettisoned from Washington and into New York, intent on hunting down Keener and putting a bullet between his eyes. But, before any of us can do so we first need to eliminate his lieutenants – I.E. the titular warlords of the expansion.

This is where we started our demo – on the hunt for Theo Parnell within the new Civic Center zone. Thing is, we technically don’t have to start with him. The manhunt structure of the campaign means Ubi has removed level restrictions from the main missions, so players are able to hunt who they want when they want. Factor in each warlord is carrying a new skill to steal (like the returning sticky bomb launcher, which I sadly did not try out), and it’s evident Ubi wants players to earn the skills they desire in the order that best suits them. Considering it’s a sizable world to get lost in, it’s the right move.

It may not seem revelatory, but when one of your game’s key selling points is “explore this giant, detailed open-world we’ve built,” it probably behooves you to structure the main quest around that concept. And, from what I saw, the new campaign largely accomplishes this. We couldn’t explore outside the Civic Center in our demo, but it was clear I could have followed the trail of clues leading to each warlord in any order I wished had I not been locked to a single zone. Which – to me – is a smart way to spur players into poking their noses into all sorts of corners they normally wouldn’t have until they reached the endgame.

The fact that the remastered New York is a pleasure to get lost within certainly doesn’t hurt matters. I do have a complaint, however, so lemme get that out of the way upfront: now that a hurricane has plowed through New York, and the winter snows have given way to late summer sunshine, the Big Apple looks a touch similar to Washington. I swear the roads and buildings of the east coast were built with a healthy infusion of Miracle Grow, because flora has filled in every crack and crevice, overtaking whatever it could reach. The Christmas decorations have largely been swept or blown away. If it wasn’t for the numerous high-rises, narrower streets, and mountains of trash scattered everywhere you’d almost mistake it for a new D.C. district, at least the Civic Center zone we played in.

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Emphasis on “almost.” There is enough here to trigger the ole’ nostalgia engines that any doubt quickly fades away. The tone may feel a touch too similar, but the flavor is distinctly New York. Rounding a corner into a flooded alleyway blocked by a beaten yellow cab flanked by Cleaners was shocking enough. Being lit of fire, then beaten to death with a fire axe was enough to remind me I wasn’t in the capital anymore.

The return of the Cleaners and the Rikers could have easily been an uninspired copy-paste of the units from the first game, but Ubisoft and Massive have opted to remix the iconic factions, which I was not entirely prepared for. Flamethrowers and oxygen tanks on the Cleaners? Check. Riot gear and suicidal abandon for the Rikers? Also, check. Using those familar motiffs Ubi has gone and altered the two factions in a way that makes them more threatening and entertaining to engage.

I fought Riker snipers who carried a clear ballistic shield and loved to flank my sorry ass, and brutish tanks covered in impenetrable riot gear who bullied me with their massive flash-shield, like a beefier Blitz from Rainbow Six Siege. Not once did I feel like I was being confronted by opposition I was intimately familiar with. The return of both factions was equal parts nostalgic and painful, as I had to adapt to their smarter A.I. and more aggressive upgrades. I absolutely adored it.

It was these upgraded Rikers and a devious rogue agent that made the mission we played – The Tomb – more entertaining than it should have been. At a surface level, The Tomb doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before. Missions in The Division 2 were some of the best content on offer at launch, and The Tomb is as polished as any of them. But, the core design behind missions has become formulaic at this point, so much so that players openly groaned in dismay when an episode dropped with nothing but two new missions. They’re fun, sure, but they do become repetitive.

The Tomb doesn’t do anything daring at a basic level, but the new enemy units ensured I was always on edge. Furthermore, the mission showcases the skill you are about to acquire from the rogue agent at the end, cause by God does he use it frequently to dick with you. Theo has the decoy; Theo likes to distract you with the decoy and shoot you in the ass.  This in turn made what should have been a staid mission into a giant cocktease for the loot at the end. All and all, pretty solid stuff.

While not demoed, the changes to the Dark Zones sound promising as well. Ubi wants to return to the design philosophy that drove the infamous rogue-infested zone from the first game. That means all loot is contaminated (seriously, all of it), and Ubi wants to simplify the rogue system closer to what it use to be to better facilitate player-to-player interactions. Am I disappointed I didn’t get to see these changes in action? Yes. Do these promised alterations arouse me? Disturbing, but also yes.

Thing is, all of this is more of the same. More map to explore, more missions to complete, more control points to capture, and more skills to acquire. Warlords of New York smartly remixes a few of the systems already at play in The Division 2 and builds on them, demonstrating Ubi has learned a lesson or two in the last year. Yet, on their own, they don’t inspire near as much excitement as the promised changes to gear and the endgame do.

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The biggest changes overhaul the gear and bolster the endgame.

When The Division 2 launched all seemed well. There were a healthy amount of activities on offer, a plethora of loot to acquire, and new specializations that aimed to bring more guided, role-based play to the endgame. A few months later, however, cracks began to form in the foundation. The loot was convoluted, and finding the perfect piece quickly became a chore. Skill builds were a broken mess. Those various endgame activities started to bleed together. The Division 2 remained a solid looter-shooter, but only the truly dedicated found enjoyment in the post-campaign grind. Factor in a general dearth of new content, and players began to peel away from the game.

Warlords of New York is built to correct these issues, and Year 2 appears to have all the ingredients needed to offer a more compelling and dynamic endgame. The post-40 SHD Levels and new seasonal approach to updates alone look to give the endgame the adrenaline it needs, but the overhauled gear is truly the beating heart of this expansion.

Ubi and Massive have been teasing Gear 2.0 for a few weeks now, so upon loading up the press demo I dove straight into my inventory. We were given a level 33 character to play around with, so I didn’t have a whole lot to play with off the bat. Alrighty – fine – I was not to be deterred. I bolted about the Civic Center like a gun-crazed lunatic mowing down any errant Cleaners or Rikers foolish enough to patrol the streets. Loot exploded from their bullet-ridden corpses like candy from a Piñata, and, man, did acquiring new gear feel good.

The more informative UI alone sells Gear 2.0. I could tell what was a good roll, bad roll, or god roll without any fuss thanks to the progress bar underneath each stat; there were no more mysteries shrouding the rolls. The removal of the budget system also made itself manifest, as I picked up kneepads, gloves, and other bits that had multiple solid rolls. Hell, I picked up at least five pieces in the first hour that had two or more god rolls.

I hadn’t been that excited to filter through my inventory since The Division 2 launched, because every piece of equipment transparently told me, “hey, I do or do not suck.” I imagined potential builds and pieced them together in real time without need of an Excel spreadsheet to stave off the confusion. Gear was easy enough to understand, but varied in ways that made acquisition a joy instead of a chore.

Also, knowing I could bank any of these rolls in the new Recalibration Library only enhanced this sensation. We didn’t get to play with the library in the demo, but knowing it’s there – that my poor stash can finally breath a sigh of relief – mentally changed my stance from, “I need to hoard as much as possible in case I never see this roll again,” to, “I am gonna fill out my Prepper Pokédex with all the god rolls I can find.”

Skill tiers were another victory evident in the demo, at least in execution. Not having access to a max-level character with top-end gear made it difficult to evaluate the impact each tier would have on a fine-tuned skill build (as opposed to the more immediate effects of a damage or armor build), but what I did play felt punchy. Moving up from tier 1 to tier 2 made my already deadly drone a whirlwind of destruction, with a shorter cooldown, longer duration, and noticeable improvement to health.

Instead of having to grind the perfect amount of skill power needed for a skill build to even function, I was able to jump in and tinker with one immediately. Do you understand how amazing that felt? To no longer be held hostage by the skill power rolls on my gear? This elation carried over to weapon damage and armor builds as well: the return to three main attributes made establishing a build simple, and allowed the secondary attributes greater room to breath. The complexity was still there – you’re just not battling capricious randomization as much as you were before.

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Gear 2.0 would justify the price of admission alone, but it’s not exclusive to owners of Warlords of New York. It’s a portion of a greater overhaul the endgame is receiving in Year 2. No, no, no –  dear reader – it’s the more dynamic endgame that has me the most excited, though I do have a couple concerns.

Much like Destiny 2, The Division 2 is adopting a seasonal update schedule. Every three months will be a new season, with new activities and events to complete. Okay, sounds fine to me. Maybe not the most inventive solution, but it stands to provide more variety than the Episode system ever did. It also opens the door for beloved modes like Survival and Underground to return, as compared to our current, “wait a couple months for a couple of missions,” endgame. That idea alone has me all hot and bothered.

Oh, what’s that Ubi? You’re bringing Global Events back!? Now I’m losing my mind. Global Events didn’t dramatically shake up the endgame in The Division 1, but they made the game infinitely more enjoyable when they were running. Wait, you say, there’s more?

The Division 2 is also getting Leagues – timed limited challenges and trials for all players to compete in. I enjoy a good leaderboard chase, so long as it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it appears Ubi is shaping leagues to add to – rather than replace – existing endgame pursuits. It means more loot and better rewards for players who obsess over their builds, and like to tackle missions on the hardest difficulty as fast as they can. I dig it, seeing as it provides min-maxers a legitimate pursuit.

Throw in the new Legendary difficulty, SHD Levels (an infinite leveling system akin to Diablo 3’s Paragon system), and the much improved loot, and you’ve got a recipe for a more varied and diverse endgame that shifts every few weeks, with larger upheavals arriving like clockwork. It’s the sort of formula that makes the grind for better loot and bigger numbers less a chore and more a goal.

There are a couple potential issues I see seasons running into, however. First, the new activities have to be fun and rewarding. If the new activities are a slog, overly repetitive, and/or unrewarding they’ll steal the wind from the season’s sails, and capturing that breeze back is not something Ubi can do overnight. That said, Ubi stated the first seasonal activity will be a mini-manhunt similar to the campaign, and it appears Ubi and Massive are bringing Hunters back, so the first season stands a good chance at succeeding.

Second, seasons mean a Season Pass: A.K.A. a battle pass. Yes, The Division 2 is getting a battle pass. I’ll be candid here: I don’t care for battle passes. They seemed like a good idea initially, but more and more developers are designing them in such a way to ensure players are committed to their game, and their game only. The amount of time and work required to get anything worth two shits tends to skew towards the painful end of the spectrum, and what should be a decent way to earn additional stuff just by playing instead turns the game into a FOMO-driven second job.

We were not able to preview anything coming with seasons in the demo we played, so I don’t want anyone to think I am accusing Ubi of implementing a crap battle pass or grindy season, but I am wary. We currently have the Annual Pass, the cosmetic store, and the cosmetic crates. Are these being rolled into the battle pass? Are they being layered on top? What will be in the free track as opposed to the premium track you pay money to access? We know the new content coming with seasons will be free, yet there are plenty of questions still worth asking and no real answers.

I hate to be a downer, but there remains one final pertinent question concerning Warlords of New York and Year 2: will it actually see meaningful updates every season? Year 1 was pretty damn spartan in hindsight, and anyone who bought the Annual Pass or a more expensive edition of the game certainly felt short-changed (granted, the vast majority of content that was added in Year 1 was free to all players, and those who paid for the pass were essentially given early access, instant unlocks of the specializations, a handful of story “assignments”, and some cosmetics). If seasons are to succeed then Ubi and Massive need to deliver the goods at a regular cadence, which is what seasons promise.

After seeing the scale of the expansion, it’s clear to see where all that development time in Year 1 went, so calling Ubi lazy would be a grossly inaccurate claim. Still, will the next expansion hoover up all the resources this year too? It’s easy to be cynical after Year 1, but one can hope that the Global Events and Leagues are enough to pad over any prolonged droughts. However, if Year 2 proves to be as barren as Year 1, then I fear we won’t see a Year 3.

We’re gonna have to wait and evaluate how the battle pass and the seasonal activities land when they drop a week after Warlords of New York deploys, but I want to be cautiously optimistic. The new content and improved Gear 2.0 alone instill within me a belligerent confidence, and the return of Global Events paired with the other endgame pursuits not tied to the battle pass will provide a more robust endgame on their own. It’s just a matter of seeing what Ubi does with the rope a battle pass and seasons come packaged with. Climb or hang, we shall see.

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Warlords of New York Hands-On Final Thoughts.

What I was able to play may not have been a dramatic overhaul of The Division 2, but it showcased a more confident, driven game. The New York map was a joy to explore, the combat remained punchy thanks to a smart refresh of the returning factions and improved gear, and the new campaign will reward players who want to play at their own pace. The refreshed endgame for Year 2 appears poised to provide more variety than what was on offer in Year 1. At the end of my time with the demo I wanted nothing more than to have Warlords of New York back in my lap, ready to launch.

All said, I enjoyed what I played – all the nitpicking above aside. I adored The Division 2 when it launched last year, but I was also deployed to the Middle East at the time. I couldn’t play it near as much as I had wanted to, and by the time I came home I found myself overwhelmed by a game with obtuse gear and a stale endgame.

Warlords of New York has me amped and ready to dive back into the game. I’ve had a taste of its muddy waters, and I thirst for more. As a lapsed agent that’s the highest praise I can offer: not many games are able to recapture my heart, but Warlords wormed its way in, warts and all. The quality of the new seasons may be a coin-toss at this point, but the promise of what could come next is enough to justify returning to the small-pox devastated streets of New York and Washington.

I just hope, for the love of all that is still good in this world, that the battle pass and a lack of updates don’t cut the feet out from underneath this expansion. It would be a crying shame, considering how rock solid the rest of The Division 2: Warlords of New York is. This expansion could be the beginning of a bright new era for the franchise.

Let’s hope that it is.

The preview event was sponsored by Ubisoft, and airfare and accommodations were provided by the publisher.

- This article was updated on:February 11th, 2020

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