Played on: PlayStation 4.
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4 & Xbox One.
Winter. Present day New York. A new variant of the smallpox virus has been introduced in Manhattan via the vast amounts of cash exchanging hands on Black Friday, and within 5 days the entire US Government has crumbled. Chaos follows as gangs, private military units, prisoners, and looters all take to the streets to lay claim to their prize: The Big Apple. You are a member of the Strategic Homeland Division (or The Division for short). To outsiders you’re a seemingly normal civilian, but in reality you’re a highly trained sleeper agent, ready at a moments notice to step in to restore order when the normal chains of command have fallen. You’re job is to protect the citizens of New York, uncover the truth behind the virus outbreak and, most importantly, prevent civilization as we know it from crumbling.
That’s the setting for Tom Clancy’s The Division, the third-person online role-playing game that has been been in development at Ubisoft Massive since before E3 2013. Now, after a tantalising taste of the action via both closed and open beta tests earlier in 2016, The Division is finally available for one and all. And it’s more addictive than crack!
It’s taken me a while to write this review thanks to that addiction. Since the The Division came out on 8th March I’ve sunk well over 56 hours into the game, reaching the PvE level cap of 30, and making good in-roads in the game’s PvPvE area, The Dark Zone. The Division, much like Bungie’s Destiny, does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of the thrill of the chase – simply put, the pursuit of seeing larger and larger numbers popping out of enemies when you shoot them.
It would be easy to spend this entire review comparing The Division to Bungie’s Destiny, but it doesn’t feel very fair on either game – there are similarities between the two, but there are also some important differences. Both games involve a lot of shooting, and both involve a seemingly never-ending and increasingly addictive quest for better loot and bigger damage numbers. The Division, however, tries to base itself within the sensibilities of an Earth-based setting and in this works in its favour as often as it works against it, whilst adding more depth to it’s RPG systems than Destiny managed at launch.
You begin The Division by choosing the basic look of your female or male Agent from a limited number of basic character model options (heads, hairs, eye colour, scars, etc.). It’s not anywhere near as in-depth as many character creation systems in modern day role-playing games, but there is enough customisation available that you should be able to create a character you are relatively comfortable spending a huge chunk of time with. Once the character creation is out of the way, you’re thrown into New York’s mostly abandoned streets. Your mission begins in Brooklyn, but after a brief introduction to the game’s main systems you move to the beautifully re-created streets of Manhattan.
New York City is the true star of The Division. Roaming the streets of Manhattan never stops feeling impressive and it’s easy to find yourself staring at the beauty and true-to-life scale of the streets laid out before you. In true Ubisoft style you’ll find a number of safe houses to visit in New York, with each one revealing new side missions, encounters and collectibles on your world map. Compared to other Ubisoft open world franchises, such as Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Watch_Dogs, The Division’s map is relatively scaled back in terms of the sheer volume of activities to do, which is actually a nice surprise. There isn’t enough variety to the encounters or the side missions though, but importantly this repetition is not as noticeable in The Division as it is in many other open world games. That’s because the quest for slightly better gear, and the sight of bigger numbers bursting forth from an enemy combatant, makes you want to carry on. The compelling nature of The Division’s RPG elements help make it one of Ubisoft’s finest open world games, even if it is initially jarring to see numbers coming out of enemies during combat in a game that, on the surface at least, appears to mimic the realistic style of Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon.
The Division’s fiction is another area in which the game stands apart from Destiny. Where Destiny lacked any real narrative and failed to give players the emotional incentive needed to explore and care about its universe, The Division manages with ease. The plot is bleak, and at times overly so, but it is gripping nonetheless and it is this drive, alongside that ever-present obsession with seeing your stats heading skyward, that pushes you forward towards The Division’s level cap. There’s a nice irony, whether intentional or not, in The Division’s narrative too as you find yourself roaming around New York looting gear from the corpses of men you killed to save New York from looters.
There’s no shortage of weapons, armour pieces, mods, and cosmetic items for you to buy, or scavenge from crates and fallen enemies in The Division. Balancing your load-out is important as different tiered weapons and armour have different strengths, meaning that it’s not always a clear cut choice on what to equip to be the most powerful Agent you can be. Ultimately it depends on your play style, your team mates, and the mission at hand, but this tactical element further increases the amount of time you’ll spend obsessing over your current gear and wading through menus to examine, compare, and tweak your weapons and armour.
It is a shame, however, that The Division’s loot isn’t actually that interesting. Destiny, and other similar games, have many exotic-looking weapons and armour mods, but it’s a lot harder to get excited about another suppressor or set of knee pads. It’s a minor complaint, and it won’t stop that number-chasing obsession from setting in, but the realism of The Division’s setting and fiction works against it a little bit here. Even the clothing variants, which don’t impact your character-level at all, aren’t very exciting – “My last wooly hat was blue. Oh look, this one is green!” With a bit of luck Ubisoft Massive will get a little bit more creative here, once the dark and gritty setting of The Division stops being brand new and the game can afford to take itself a little less seriously.
The Division is all about tactical progression. The third-person cover shooter mechanics are extremely well-refined and the game relies on you popping out of cover, firing off a few rounds, and then switching cover to progress. This leads to some intense firefights as you slowly knock down an enemy health bars. Unfortunately, many of these enemies feel overly similar and The Division suffers from a lack of variety in its encounters. Bosses, in particular, mostly just have bigger health bars that are harder to wear down and this just doesn’t quite have the same enjoyable impact as a proper big boss.
The Division’s systems and mechanics are, for the most part, faultless and clearly refined from games of a similar ilk, with Ubisoft Massive encouraging players to explore and experiment with all of the game’s systems. Your Agent’s perks and abilities can be upgraded in the order you want, but you can also switch between them on the fly allowing you to run into battle with a grenade launcher and homing mine one minute, and enemy-locating sensors and healing packs the next. Once you unlock an ability it is there to be used at any point and Ubisoft Massive allow you to constantly tweak the class-type of your character to suit your immediate needs, whilst also using mods and specialisms to strengthen the characteristics of your character that you want to keep embedded. It’s a shame then that there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to compare your Agent’s abilities and gear to those of others in your party, or create custom sets of gear that you can quickly switch to; The Division’s inventory and upgrade menus are not quick to sort through.
Alongside the main PvE campaign, which you can complete solo if you wish to thanks to a well implemented scaling system (though it is more fun with friends if I’m being completely honesty), is The Division’s other game area, The Dark Zone. This middle slice of The Division’s map is its PvPvE environment. Within the fiction, The Dark Zone is an infamous chunk of Manhattan that was walled off in an effort to contain the outbreak, but that now houses tougher members of The Division’s gangs as well as other Agents who may choose to help or attack you. The Dark Zone contains better, rarer loot, but you have to extract it for decontamination via specific helicopter collection zones. Using these extraction points draws The Division’s AI enemies to you, but also alerts other Agents to your presence. These rival Agents might turn up, help you clear out the enemies and then extract their own loot alongside yours, or they might turn on you, kill you, and take your loot for themselves. You can enter The Dark Zone alone, but it’s much more fun, and a lot easier, with a squad of players. The gameplay can be tense and exciting, and just as often rage-inducing, but at the moment the balance isn’t quite right. The punishments for attacking other Agents and ‘going rogue’ are too high – you’ll lose a lot of Dark Zone credits and experience. That means that currently, the enemy AI is the biggest threat within this section of New York, though this week’s update looks set to tweak The Dark Zone’s balance to address this. Once you hit the main game’s level cap of 30 all of the AI players within The Dark Zone are also level 30 and The Division’s grind becomes a lot more noticeable – so you shouldn’t wait until you’ve completed the main story to explore The Dark Zone. It’s still fun to play in a squad at level 30, but it suddenly becomes overly punishing if you’re playing alone. It’s clear though that The Dark Zone has the potential to become something truly exceptional; it just needs a few tweaks here and there.
The Division is a beautiful game. It may have seen a visual downgrade since it’s original E3 presentation, but it’s certainly still no slouch, with fantastic graphics and a superb level of detail (and yes, your Agent will still close car doors as she or he moves around a car in cover). There are some glitches now and again, and textures can take a little too long to load (with particularly noticeable pop-in for items in the distance), but overall this doesn’t detract from The Division’s fantastic experience or immersion. Frame rates are also solid, with only minor dips occurring when there is a lot of explosive action going on with multiple enemies and online players on screen at once. The Division’s servers have also been relatively stable since launch, which is refreshing given the issues Rainbow Six Siege had for quite sometime on release. I have experienced a few connection errors in my time playing The Division, but nothing that hasn’t fixed itself with an immediate re-attempt to connect, and that’s not bad in over 56 hours of online gameplay.
The Division is, without doubt, a fantastic game that’s learnt a lot from Destiny, and other similar online RPGs, whilst combining this with the third-person tactical shooter heritage afforded to Ubisoft through games like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon. The Division’s mechanics are for the most part solid and the online matchmaking makes playing with others effortless. Further tweaks and enhancements are coming to The Division, and it’s hard not to feel like this latest Tom Clancy game will be around for the long-haul, especially as it has the potential to draw players away from Bungie’s behemoth by being just a little bit better in almost every way.
There’s not much left to say about The Division, other than it is most definitely worth your time, money and attention. In fact, The Division might just be the best new Ubisoft IP in a long, long time. And with the updates and tweaks Ubisoft Massive already have planned or on the way, The Division looks like it’s only about to get better.
Images from http://tomclancy-thedivision.ubi.com