It's well worth taking a trip back to where it all started when the environmental design is best-in-class and boss fights are more unique than we're used to.
Turns out, the folks over at Ubisoft and Massive didn't just let us try out the very best part of the The Division 2's first paid expansion, Warlords of New York, when we got the opportunity to play an early build of it last month. They'd also put us in a section of the new campaign that gave a great overview of what exactly sets it apart, as the final product truly lives up to the potential we saw while visiting the studio in Sweden.
One of the core changes is obviously the setting, so we're glad to say that Warlords of New York absolutely nails Lower Manhattan. The game's art team manages to make ruins and war-torn environments look absolutely astonishing, while at the same time distinct from Washington. Some players aired their concerns regarding the lack of snow due to the summer setting, but the mix of Christmas decorations and more diverse weather conditions is something that has made us take quite a few screenshots lately.
Running around in the narrow streets, alleys and small apartments also really changes the atmosphere and maybe even your play-style, by giving those of you who favour shotguns and SMGs ample opportunities to ravage your enemies up close. That's doesn't mean you won't have shootouts in bigger, more open areas. Let's just say that the Financial District (and other parts of Lower Manhattan) is the home of several buildings where both parks and interiors give you more than enough room to explore both horizontally and vertically.
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The icing on the cake is the attention to detail and cool puzzles that are spread around the world. Abandoned vehicles, piles of rubbish, ruined skyscrapers, and stray dogs continue to impress in terms of environmental storytelling and overloaded our imagination with new theories. Having an environment a third or a fourth of the size of DC has allowed the developers to fill it with hidden areas that require some serious exploring/parkouring and/or straining of your brain. Being rewarded with some incredible gear feels even better after shooting a fuse box, tinkering with a few computers, or finally seeing and shooting a well-hidden rappel rope that almost makes you think you're the only person in the world who has found it. That's not only the case in the open world but during missions as well.
That's because you're obviously not back in New York to do some sightseeing. You're there to hunt down Aaron Keener and his four lieutenants, all of which are rogue The Division agents with their own unique skills and gadgets. And "unique" seems to have been the word of the day while making this expansion, as each of the encounters against these baddies is widely different from the next, both in terms of visuals and mechanics. Sure, some of the missions you'll have to complete (in whatever order you want) to find each lieutenant follow well-known recipes, but many of them and all of the boss fight missions include fun puzzle sequences if you look close enough. This gives you the opportunity to lower the pace and activate other parts of your brain if you're getting tired of just running around and shooting stuff. Fortunately, these puzzles aren't the only things that spice up the action a bit.
We spoiled the boss fight against Theo Parnell in our preview, so we won't spoil the other four here. We'll just say that none of the boss fights is predictable or boring since all of them take full advantage of the skills you'll be rewarded with after taking them down. This includes different environments, enemy types and tactics, which is why we doubt you won't find at least one favourite that you'll be more than happy to play again.
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That's why it's especially disappointing that the story is still about as engaging and memorable as counting the splashes of pigeon poop on the streets of Manhattan. Learning about why the five former Division agents decided to turn could have been fascinating, but many of the ECHOs and audio logs feel so hamfisted that they might as well have said: "We'll give you a cookie if you turn rogue". This is one of the reasons why what's meant to be a shocking ending just left us with an apathetic: "Sure, why not?".
This can also be said about working our way through ten new levels as the level cap has been raised from 30 to 40. We might be too dumb to understand it, but why include this when the entire gear and progression system has been reworked and streamlined in such a way that your level isn't as important anymore? The new progression system that unlocks when you've reached level 40 and completed the story is far more interesting, as it allows you to put points into a wide variety of attributes (similar to Borderlands 3's Badass Rank system), so why not just unlock that right away instead of making us go through a grind that leaves us with gear that becomes outdated extremely quickly? We suspect it's filler meant to entice people in who just want to see higher numbers faster.
These are fortunately just very minor scratches in an otherwise great expansion. Warlords of New York takes us back to a beautiful city filled with incredible and engaging details, but everyone has access to that since last month's update. What you won't get to experience unless you pay up are some really cool missions that show how much Massive has listened to fan feedback. Most missions will take you to interesting areas where secrets and puzzles are waiting to be found and solved before you take on unique boss fights where you have to adapt in different ways to survive. Succeed and you'll be rewarded with classic skills like the Sticky Bomb or new intriguing options such as the Decoy. Well worth it, and we haven't even mentioned that the upcoming seasons will include new takes on these innovations, so we're more than willing to call this a great revival, even if the expansion alone doesn't offer much new if it wasn't for the combination with the Episode 3 update that landed in February.
8 / 10
Astonishing environments, Lots of puzzles and secrets, Cool boss fights.
The story is still tacky, Ten new levels just feel like unnecessary filler.