The Division's latest update makes it worth playing again

A loot box gave me the best gun in The Division. My group of agents had completed a Legendary difficulty mission and finished our run by opening our reward caches back at the safehouse. Hums and groans floated over voice chat as our prizes fulfilled or dashed hopes. I kept silent. I wanted to savor my unbelievable luck for just a bit longer. When I finally told everyone that I had landed a House SMG, it felt like hearing a dog-howl quartet over my headset. One squadmate despaired at whether he’d ever see a House after opening dozens of gear boxes.

“That’s alright,” another said. “At least you aren’t playing Destiny 2.”

Picking on Bungie’s troubled FPS might be easy nowadays, but for the growing enclave of Destiny 2 players filling The Division’s streets, having something worthwhile to chase again feels good. They, along with an increasing trickle of new and returning players, are searching for The House with a fervor not unlike the old fingers-crossed hunts for Destiny’s now-immortalized Gjallarhorn

Reaching the max level of 30 immediately turns on the loot fountain. This pile of gear stretching down the street came from defeating a single group of enemies.

Beyond its allure as a powerful weapon, The House is symbolic of the excitement coursing through the community since the major 1.8 update released in December.

Crucially, 1.8 proves that The Division is fun to play again.

With 1.8, the biggest (and free) influx of new content has restored the passion for chasing gear god-rolls. It isn’t the angelic end-all to the entirety of The Division’s longstanding problems—Dark Zone PvP still suffers from hilariously ludicrous gear imbalances—but it’s to dissipate the thundercloud that's been hanging over the endgame since Massive’s underwhelming roadmap early last year.

Piggybacking off the incremental quality-of-life improvements from previous patches, 1.8’s extensive update notes lists multiple efforts to diversify endgame activities, so you're not forced to visit the Dark Zone to get sniped by xxDarkLordxx on repeat. There’s so much to do at any point that going down the checklist of weekly activities is like reading off psalms from a prayer book to the RNG gods. 

Here’s what a sample to-do route could look like:

Strike down roving elite squads in the West Side Pier 

The new West Side Pier area is filled with elite-tier and above enemies that like to appear from behind and shoot you in the butt.

The marquee addition in 1.8 is the sparkling new West Side Pier area of the city. Essentially a PvE version of the Dark Zone (but still instanced to your character), the two dockside sections of the northwestern corner of the map host clusters of tough elite enemies, a sprinkling of large loot lockers, and special zones for kicking off a round of Resistance (more on that below). Experiencing that high-risk, high-reward structure in the detailed overworld is a great change from the similarly formatted Underground’s dark and cramped passageways. 

West Side Pier’s biggest draw is its dynamic way of throwing threats and incoming objectives at you at random instead of at set points, so an empty alleyway can suddenly spill out a swarm of thugs the moment you turn your back. The pressure is near constant as soon as you cross the pier’s threshold, but the higher toughness of foes in the area means a higher chance of set piece and Exotic item drops. It’s like a neverending Left 4 Dead map with a treasure bath pitstop every 100 meters.

Try surviving just one more wave in Resistance’s endless hordes 

Resistance is a typical horde-style mode run either solo or in a group set to the West Side Pier’s naval warehouse/dock theme, and the format sticks to tradition with increasingly complex waves, mixing defend or attack objectives to force constant movement. The difficulty per wave ramps up quite significantly after the first few easy clears, especially during sequences with brawny boss enemies sending herds of minions to your position or having to tangle with the vulnerability of standing in place to hack a computer or disarm a bomb. 

Dropped Shade Tech currency from slain enemies can unlock side routes and new rooms for extra breathing space, or you can pour your funds into special Resistance caches for a boosted roll for a coveted Classified armor piece. Solo runs are a savage test of skill, and the psychological lure of edging your total score ever higher encourages return trips. Resistance is easily one of the best additions to The Division in a long time.

Live through a Hunter ambush in the revamped Underground

The Underground is The Division’s version of Destiny's Infinite Forest—except it works. Introduced as the first paid content expansion in patch 1.3, it brought a dedicated leveling structure to randomized mission layouts and objectives taking place in the bowels of Manhattan’s sewer and subway warrens. 1.8 touches up the available modifiers you can append to your mission parameters so they’re less harmful but more interesting (a boost to armor while moving and a reduction while standing still is my favorite). Checkpoints are thankfully a thing now, so death won’t boot you back to the beginning with a 'mission failed.' I’m still disappointed in the sameness of each room’s visual layout, still lacking the color and variety I had hoped the update would remedy.

The coolest improvement is the appearance of the Hunter enemy types first seen in the Survival expansion DLC. These teched-out ninjas sport black armor, black masks, and wicked AI that often apes player-like behaviors, such as spammy dodge rolls and aggressive ability usage to counter your own. I particularly love the jamming effect on your UI that signals their impending appearance. Hunters are a rare and deadly occurrence, but if you out-operate the operators, you’ll benefit from a fairly high drop percentage of Exotic weapons.

Die again and again (and again) in Legendary difficulty missions 

Making for the toughest dungeon-style content on offer, Legendary missions were included in update 1.6 as another incentive for heavily geared players to go out and do something instead of chasing dust bunnies back at base. Changing a mission’s difficulty to Legendary swaps out the normal spread of enemies for special Last Man Battalion squads that exhibit Hunter-like enhanced AI and a surprising accuracy for sniping away most of your health while blind-firing from cover. 

I best enjoy the emphasis on teamwork Legendaries demand over the otherwise muted experience of easier difficulties and solo runs. Speaking up over chat and taking on dedicated tank, healer, and damage roles are key for victory, and the dangling carrot for sticking through the pain is one of the highest-rolled loot caches.

Farm for Classified gear sets 

Classified gear emerged in the 1.7 update last year as the highest tier of endgame armor to hunt for. Each armor piece’s stat rolls generate higher than any other available gear, and cobbling together a full set bestows a bonus effect independent of stat requirements. 

Classified gear, along with Exotic weapons, have overtaken crafted items by the simple virtue of flaunting the biggest numbers, but their functional advantage is being able to specialize a playstyle loosely modeled after classic RPG roles—the Reclaimer set vastly juicing healing powers or the tanky Nomad set generating gobs of health on each kill, for example. Anything and anyone can drop Classified equipment, making the achievement of attaining all Classifieds a matter of when and not if.

Make inventory space for the next Global Event 

No caveats for this improvement from 1.6: at the touch of a key, you can save a set of gear, weapons, abilities, and talents to a swappable loadout that instantly changes your equipment. Seeing as The Division still claims one of the most life-draining inventory menus around (seriously; count how many menus it takes to move an attachment out of your stash and affix it on your gun), this is nothing short of a Manhattan miracle.

Spend mountains of resources to improve gear at the optimization station 

The optimization station added in 1.8 is crucial for maximizing your gear, but be prepared to spend a ton of credits. 

Sure, it’s not as pleasing as shooting a Hunter in his stupid face with a sawed-off shotgun, but the new optimization station (found in the Terminal section of your Base of Operations) from 1.8 is a godsend for tempering the tedium of picking through multiple copies of items for a superior stat roll. At a staggering credit and Division Tech (a rare endgame currency) cost, you can slowly increase the stats and traits of weapons and armor to their maximum value. 

Eventually, you can transform a normally discarded Exotic or set piece with low stat ranges into a handsomely optimized heirloom that’ll never leave your stash. I’m happy for a method to get perfect gear that respects my time, but it doesn’t eliminate the grind entirely; it mostly shifts priorities to amassing as much wealth as possible to fund more optimizations. And yes, it wouldn’t be a Division feature if you didn’t stand around watching numbers go up.

Touch up a saved loadout for the next mission 

The loadouts menu, introduced in patch 1.6, swaps gear and ability sets at a single key press. (Ignore my terrible stats.)

Global Events showed up in 1.7 to spice up the doldrums of shooting the umpteenth hooded villain with the same result every time. An active event tosses in deadly combat modifiers to keep track of while trading lead, but also greatly boosts chances for a Classified drop from special reward caches. Last year’s event gave a wink and a nod to the Call of Duty series by having every slain enemy drop a live grenade on death, but the upcoming event at the month’s end will further twist playstyles by heightening armor and damage while in stationary cover (and vice versa while mobile).

Vent frustrations by joining an equalized Skirmish match 

1.8’s PvP side adds Skirmish to the roster of competitive modes, a team deathmatch face-off that strips out secondary objectives in favor of racking up enough frags faster than the opposition. Unlike the Dark Zone’s gear-up-or-die shenanigans, Skirmish joins Last Stand from 1.7 in normalizing your character’s equipped gear to their highest possible stats regardless of rarity. I applaud Massive’s intent to skirt world PvP woes borne from ever-present gear imbalances, but the glaring problem from Classified bonuses still remains as a significant upper hand for agents boasting 6-piece sets. (A specifically annoying culprit is the Predator’s Mark bonus bleed damage per hit, which can evaporate a health bar in seconds.) Still, Skirmish is a straightforward counterpart to Last Stand’s objective-oriented style.

A new New York state of mind 

I feel powerful playing my agent. Thanks to the time-to-kill reductions from 1.4 and the accessibility of so many endgame tasks in 1.8, there’s a freeing degree of choice and build diversity. Yes, cookie-cutter setups exist, but The Division doesn’t punish for trying the strange and unconventional. I can load up an Underground operation to test out a weird mobile shield and turret combo I heard about. I once donned a FireCrest set and hit the West Side Pier to see if I could kill a group of enemies faster with incendiary grenades than a normal gun (result: nope). I could tackle a Hard mode mission full of elites with a build based on regaining primary ammo via pistol kills.

'Do what you like' is now a dogma central to The Division’s drive for self-improvement.

Therein lies the crux of 1.8’s magic: out of all the major updates, it’s done the best job keeping pace with the player’s personalized choices for the endgame grind. The monotony of plugging away at computer-controlled bots is lessened by flexing the power to tune the game to the difficulty of your choice and be properly rewarded for it. 'Do what you like' is now a dogma central to The Division’s drive for self-improvement.

Crucially, 1.8 proves that The Division is fun to play again. What initially drove me away from fully embracing it at launch was the underlying need to no-life the game in order to get god rolls. With optimizations, boosted drop rates, and adaptable difficulty, that’s no longer the case. 

The wave-based Resistance mode is a great laboratory for testing new builds. Here's my "hide behind cover and let the turret do the work" strategy.

Some problems are still apparent after the update (enduring PvP issues notwithstanding). Cosmetic apparel hasn’t broken out of its uninspired funk, but the upshot is the inclusion of full face masks awarded from earning achievements and participating in events that help add some pizazz to the militarized Everest hiker look everyone wears. The story's progress still lingers on the campaign’s cliffhanger, and 1.8 hasn’t really done much to proceed the plot in any meaningful direction. It’s high time we get to out-smug Aaron Keener and learn the ultimate fate of the infected city as a whole. If anything, stitch up poor Faye Lau’s busted face already.

Think of 1.8 as The Division’s heartfelt swan song. It’s unlikely we’ll see another update of this caliber before a sequel announcement, but it’s been quite a ride. Some improvements fall squarely in the “about time” bracket—waiting nearly two years for loadout functionality is a straight sin—and they may not fully entice those who’ve hung up their beanie, but The Division still deserves its comeback crown.

In broad terms, The Division is in the best position it’s ever been, and it’s well worth easily sinking triple-digit hours into it if loot-shooters intrigue you. “There is a future for The Division,” Massive wrote in a recent state of the game report. It’s a bright one.

Omri Petitte

Omri Petitte is a former PC Gamer associate editor and long-time freelance writer covering news and reviews. If you spot his name, it probably means you're reading about some kind of first-person shooter. Why yes, he would like to talk to you about Battlefield. Do you have a few days?