The Division has a wealth of content, action, and graphical wonderment to find in your cover-to-cover move through New York’s plagued areas.
To call this latest Tom Clancy game a departure from formula would be both apt and an understatement. From tight, linear levels doth this open-world MMO-lite spring, offering players a chance to branch out as much as this series. The result is not entirely positive with a few backwards design decisions and the single-flavor, repetitive gameplay, but nowhere near negative. In fact, The Division may well be the destination for cover-based shooter fans, becoming one of those rare multiplayer games that survive the initial wave of popularity.
Insertion of your particular agent into the decrepitude of New York’s current state comes after the first wave of sleeper agents has been almost entirely wiped out, making your wave the last of the last hope the city has. It’s not long until you’re in Manhattan and see a version of the island that looks like a mixture between I Am Legend and The Last of Us to create a well-crafted backdrop for your ground war. The New York here has nothing new to offer visually and does little to recreate the isolation or desperation of either of those titles, but it’s a fine playground with changing weather (between snow and blowing snow usually) and a day/night cycle.
The main feature of the original tech demo for The Division made it into the game, allowing you to basically write your name with bullet holes on most surfaces. Beyond that, the world is reactive to your shots; hoods will pop on cars as their alarms sound, water jugs will explode, signs will fall on enemies, and various pieces of the enemy can be used to your explosive advantage. This almost makes up for the fact that the few citizens still wandering the streets are nothing but back-patting audio loops that may sometimes ask for food or water for a drop-in-the-bucket bit of experience. They run and scream when you point a weapon their way, but this facet feels looped way too tightly as you will see repeats very soon into a long, long game.
Then, there are the bugs and glitches that can be found like flowers in a field. Enemies will disappear and reappear without a clue, the game will halt almost completely for upwards of ten seconds as your squeezing a lead magazine into an enemy to no effect, civilians will do shuttle runs from one point to another with humorous, Benny Hill-style flailing, and the list goes on. The most crippling issue so far are Ubisoft’s servers that will pick the worst times to waver and drop you. This cost me personally three missions worth of progress and while the ability to pick up your partners’ connection again quickly when you log in again is appreciated, it doesn’t give back those three missions or the time lost there.
In a fascinating way, The Division doesn’t exactly scream length and variety when you unlock your first real safe zone inside the city. You zoom out, see a lot of map without many indicators, and move along to the three main missions that open up the world to you, basically. As you move to further safe havens, situations boards unlock more and more for your attention to the point where – at about level ten – you realize how much there is to do in the world. Those activities include about 300 collectibles that fill in vignettes of survivors and otherwise, side-missions for the local JTF police force, and main missions that help research the virus or strengthen your various, metaphorical offensive fronts. Moving between zones is clearly marked by an overlay that tells you the recommended level range for entrants, prompting many a confident swagger or a nail-biting sprint to the closest safe house respective to your boldness and level.
Stripping the various wordings away, there are about three mission varieties in The Division outside of the main ones: light environmental traversal, protect and/or make whole a shipment/civilians, and a very, very diluted version of Batman’s Detective Vision. That makes this large city filled with markers of interest seem full of quantity instead of quality, coming dangerously close to that grindy feel after saving the hostages again, or repairing an uplink again and again. Even the main missions don’t have much variety beyond their objectives and a few boss encounters of note, but at the very least offer you the purest way to experience the shining, flying flag of The Division: the shooting.
In a strange mixture of Gears of War and Rainbow Six, there might not be another game on the market that encourages both tactics and round-pumping in equal parts. Your angle of attack, positioning, and even order of enemy engagement all matter inside these confines that encourages you to find your groove as an agent and beef them up to the limit. Unlike Destiny where cover only matters as a damage deterrent, agents here can get the drop on an entire line of enemies, ending their resistance in way fewer rounds because of your crafty approach. Your skills are often good for more than one kill when properly used, and area-specific damage does give buffs depending on your aim. That’s not to mention your various talents and weapon abilities that can one-hit enemies above your level. All of this blends into a shooting experience that feels fantastic and engaging over the long hours this dive will take to see fully.
Along that way though, you’ll notice that the gameplay area also has its fair share of hiccups and all out flaws. One of the latter comes from movement that is as stiff and unappealing as it can be from the slow roll to the clunky cardinal-direction walking. This is certainly a more methodical shooter than most will be familiar with, but that’s not an excuse to weight down everything to the point where the line between death and life depends entirely on cover and not one ounce on your ability to evade attackers. Hiccups include item acquisition which seems unusually specific with what angle you’re allowed to engage bags and boxes on the ground and how frequently you’ll be seeing the same enemies. Cleaners, Rikers, or red hoodie gang members are about 80 percent of your variation with charging melee guys being flanked by another three variations that won’t pose much of a threat without a specific configuration. When you’re going against an equal-level group with a grenadier, a tech, and a sharpshooter, you have a problem. Otherwise, just stick to your cover and chip away.
A really big let down with these enemies is in the boss battles that, beyond the few mentioned earlier, might as well be pallet swaps with larger HP and armor bars. Anytime you see a yellow energy bar, that’s a Named Enemy (a boss) that is proposed to take quite an effort to bring down, but to very little effect. The world doesn’t change when you dismantle a Cleaner factory or take out a specific bounty, leaving you with a mostly-the-same boss fight ending with the world feeling almost no impact from your actions. That’s a double-negative that shouldn’t fly in a game that otherwise feels reactive to your bullets and gameplay based attempts to save New York.
Each of those efforts will land you more and more of the various currencies – there are about ten different ones – The Division offers. Three of those banks will go towards unlocking pieces of your home base, gradually expanding your capabilities, intel, arsenal, and area in which survivors can congregate for help. The loops here are smooth and welcoming as you’ll gain more perks, talents, and skills to further boost your agent while gaining other pluses to the job such as a scavenging crew that will dig up goodies and weapons as you’re away. You won’t run into other players here; this is your own little slice of viral paradise to cultivate.
Matchmaking in the world is a two-step process that feels about as simple as it can be. Anywhere in the world, you can pause and enter matchmaking immediately, or you can wait and do so at the gate of a main mission. Loading into someone else’s instance can seem a bit arduous after a few minutes, but you’ll quickly find yourself smashing down enemies with ease just by the mere presence of a cooperative party. There are no co-op locked areas, despite the game boasting a required online connection, but there is more than one area and scenario where you’ll feel compelled to grab a friendly agent.
Enter The Dark Zone, which, following a few scripted trailers, has been built up to be an original, organic space for you to take on enemies of the human and bot variety. This is the only area in which you can interact with other players in the streets outside of matchmaking, and is, thusly, the only area where the evils of greed can be on full display. Only one of my many excursions into The Dark Zone ended peacefully with most others becoming either a panel-by-panel explanation of the term “turncoat” or gang warfare not falling my way. While that may sound like a negative, rest assured it isn’t. This isn’t a mode that allows for camping or insane perks, instead working on a simplified free-for-all mechanic with the added boon of looted guns pushing you ahead. It is certainly original and feels brilliantly executed for the most part.
Still, there is something about this area that just doesn’t completely work out, and it has almost entirely to do with The Division’s own design. While there are the same level warnings when you move into a different area, those established rules are broken repeatedly by level 20 veteran units wandering into a zone that’s marked for level 14 or under combatants. Also, it wouldn’t be all that surprising to me if some pieces of loot have just been traded from person to person since launch, none of them able to airlift the supplies to safety. That’s because the time for the chopper to arrive is tantamount to hours when you’re in a small group or solo. Multiply in the threat of other players, and you’re worthy of the rarest loot in the game should you survive that length of time. It’s not an all-around negative for the experience, but it just seems off that the only way to excavate contaminated, Dark Zone-exclusive items is through an extremely long process that could lose you everything you’ve mined.
As far as beyond level 30 action, The Division rides high on Dark Zone, Phoenix Credits, and the hunt for loot in that rarefied air. Phoenix Credits can net you the top of the line equipment that can make you the best agent you can be ala Exotics in Destiny, but are awarded only after completing the toughest difficulties available and limited, probably compelling only the die-hardest of players to fly that path. The story here, beyond the pretty ridiculous premise, isn’t worth replaying missions or the game for either as it’s just basically living with the virus and making some small push back against its virulent exposure. There’s very little in the way of scripted moral dilemmas or any of the personal, heart-touching stories that the advertisements have shown. Gameplay will ultimately fill or empty your tank here, and the post-game content isn’t particularly impressive without that punctuation mark of a raid-like, highly strategic mission that would put all of your accumulated skills to the test.
Still, in this fractured Big Apple, The Division and all of its agents stand tall as one of Ubisoft’s best approaches to an open world and third-person shooter all rolled into one. Gunplay rattles your soldier in the cold while you move from tall box to pile of bricks, gaining the edge on a tough enemy that has your partner pinned down. That is the summary of a lot of scenarios in this Tom Clancy shooter, and while it does feel a little bland in some spots and ill-designed in others, there’s no doubt a wealth of content and competency that other games in the same genre haven’t yet shown. In the walled off city of New York, The Division has the fewest walls of any console MMO-lite to date, giving its present prospects a very bright future.
Going exactly as far as the gameplay takes you, The Division hands you a New York you’ve seen before with enough extras to keep your eyes entertained, for better or worse, along the lengthy journey. Cover-to-cover gunplay forces you to get the drop on a small roster of enemies that, nevertheless, you should enjoy mowing down for hours on end on the strong back of the Dark Zone’s originality and the many ways to build up your toxic avenger.