I'm not sure about the title of this piece, it feels misleading. I don't think either the Division och Wildlands needs defending, they're pretty competent games that can stand on their own merits. They're competent, but flawed, and they're both games that get the "another Ubisoft sandbox"-treatment, both from the developers themselves and by the press.
"Another Ubisoft Sandbox" (Uboxes? Yeah, let's go with that because typing it all out is tiring and making up stupid words is fun) is a term I'm quite familiar with. As it happens, I've played alot of them, I guess most people have. But what I can say is that I don't hate them. I've never really felt the ire that Uboxes get. Some are good, some are bad, some are meh and some are actually "quite good". I guess the worst I can say about Uboxes in general is that there haven't really been a "THAT Ubox"-game yet. No great tent-pole to rest the laurels on. But with all that said, let's talk about something I find interesting about Wildlands and the Division.
What does the two games have in common? They're both shooters! Yes... well, no, not really. One is a tacticool squad-shooter that takes its inspiration from earlier Tom Clancy games like Ghost Recon and the other is a multiplayer focused tacticool shooter that takes its inspiration from... Diablo? Really? Okay then, let's go with that. The Divisions heavy focus on looting and stats makes its combat more plodding and sluggish. This feels very jarring when compared to Wildlands more quicker and fluid shooting. So, no, not the shooting. that is not it. This fundamental difference in how the games are played are felt almost throughout the entire games. From the way you engage in combat, to the way your character moves, to where you focus your view when entering a combat arean to the bloody progression system.
No, what I want to talk about is this:
Above is an image of the structure of Wildlands. You're tasked with investigating, and dismantling a drug cartel. Likewise, the Divison is about investigating the "green plague" and figuring out what happened to the first wave Division agents. What I'm trying to point out here, is that both games have an investigatory foundation for their stories. In both games, you, the player, arrive after the fact and you're tasked with piecing it all together. This, in my opinion, is a devilishly clever way to handle stories in open-world games (or Uboxes).
The focus on the investigation allows the player to feel justified in going off the beaten path. It facilitates a need and a reason for your exploration. It also handles the generally chaotic nature of the player, in that they're not obliged to follow the whims of the developer or story-writer. Sure, both games deliver their stories in sectioned off, scripted, missions, but how you travel to, and engage in, the mission is up to you.
The investigatory nature of the stories also alleviate the problem that Skyrim had with its story. In Skyrim, every main-quest mission was urgent, and needed your attention. The NPCs would talk about how you needed to GO there and DO this, NOW, or EVERYTHING is lost. This approach to storytelling in and open world was like oil on water. "Sure", the player says. "I'll go over and kill the dragon that is burning down the watchtower, as we speak. I just have to steal each and every sweetroll in Markarth first." Neither the Division nor Wildlands has this problem, because what you do in those games are finding and following up on leads in a greater case. You can go do a mission, find some clues as to what is happening. And after that you can just walk about and take pot-shots at the enemy. Maybe you'll stumble into some flavortext that might contextualize what's happening, maybe not. It's all done in the name of the greater investigation that is happening, and everything you do can be justified by "I was just following up on something." Where most open-world games offer you agency and take away freedom och justification, the Division and Wildlands offer you freedom for the price of a disjointed storyline. Then again, can anyone truly say that there has been an open world game without a disjointed story. My best bet would be the Witcher 3, but in my playthrough Geralt tended to disappear onto the road at the most inconvenient moments for the story. "Hey Geralt! We need you to square things away with all this end of the world shit!" the storyteller shouted.
- Sure buddy, I just got to go pick flowers for like a months first, and I hear there are some sweet trolls hiding in a cave somewhere around here. My Geralt dismissivly answered and hopped on his horse, not to be seen again for quite a while.