Making my way through the hauntingly deserted streets of midtown Manhattan, The Division instills a sense of loneliness that feels uncommon for a videogame. Here I am – a sole agent running through the streets of a city that once never slept, now silent to the point where a single shot from my assault rifle rings out through the empty alleyways and barren buildings. The Division’s world is one on the brink of death, and it’s in it that you’ll find a wealth of opportunity and relentless action waiting.
Ubisoft have been working on their latest new IP for a long time. Back in 2013, The Division was one of a kind. A shared world shooter that was daring, bold and full of ideas that were once thought only feasible on the PC. MMOs of any kind hadn’t really been a great success on console then, but the additional computing power of new consoles had opened up the flood gate. Destiny proved there was a hunger for it too in 2014, but The Division suspiciously remained concealed in the shadows.
It took a long time to reach shelves, but The Division has proven to be worth the wait on many different fronts. On the surface, the game shares a lot with games of this ilk. It’s a shooter, third-person this time, with roots deeply entrenched in Action RPG elements. You shoot bad guys, they drop loot, and you slowly watch numbers rise as you grow in strength – a numerical game that has time and time again proven itself as an incredible engrossing mechanic.
That’s boiling down The Division to its absolute core, which is an unfair way to look at any game. Because plainly it’s everything around it that not only makes it stand out, but also rather memorable. Playing as a nameless agent of The Division’s second wave of deployment, you’re tasked with clawing back control of New York from three opportunistic factions that have seized power in the face of a deadly virus terrorist attack.
You achieve this, of course, through various story missions which fall under one of three categories – Medical, Security and Tech. These three branches make up the bulk of your role-playing in the Division, which is surprisingly on the lighter side. Raking up points for each allows you to upgrade its specific wing at your Base of Operations, unlocking skills for you to equip, talents for you to experiment with and passive perks to enhance your chosen abilities.
The differences between these trees is rather drastic too. Specialising in the Medical tree makes you an invaluable assets to your team when other players go down, while Security is great for deploying counter-measures against brutish enemy types. Tech is the sort of magic in the realistically grounded Division, offering up some truly next-generation hardware for you to damage, distract and otherwise incapacitate your enemies. Such as enemy hunting Seeker Mines or deployable turrets.
Usually decisions on what to focus on have to be made early on in a game of this kind, but The Division subverts this in a clever way. Your Agent is whatever class you want him or her to be in any given situation, with the ability to chop and change your skill loadouts on the fly. It’s completely feasible too, with the game slowly rewarding you with points to burn on each tree as you unlock new and more powerful perks as you progress. By the time you ding the level cap of 30 it’s fairly easy to slip into whatever role you’re required to for endgame content, making the process of getting there a lot less stressful.
Earning points for each of the discipline primarily comes from the game’s story missions, which also happen to be where the PvE portion of the game shines most. Despite being a shared world shooter, The Division distinctly sections off where you’ll be playing with other player via invite only, and others where players are free to invade you on a whim. When you’re outside of the Dark Zone, The Division is anything you want it to be: a massive single-player adventure, co-op shooter or a mix of the two at any given time.
And in any case, it’s enjoyable. I played most of The Division alone, tackling story and side missions in equal measure while never needing the helping hand of an online buddy. Story mission in particular are well geared for this, scaling enemies well for your level, granted you tackle it when you’re appropriately ready. Many of these hog up most of The Division’s finest moments, offering varied and exhilarating gun fights in truly memorable locations. The shift between large, open courtyards to more tightly spaced office blocks forces you to shift from your comfort zone frequently, and it keeps the grind moving at a relentless speed.
Side missions are equally important to your progress, but lack the same compelling edge to them that keeps the adrenaline meter maxed in-between lulls of gameplay. You’ll be forced to undertake them to keep your experience meter ticking, but they’re simple, recycled objectives that you’ll learn to loathe around the 30 or so hours it takes to reach level 30. Some offer up challenges such as bounties on Elite enemies, but others simply shuffle you from one checkpoint to the next, offering titbits of The Division’s otherwise lacklustre presented narrative.
And that might be a problem for you if you’re looking for something beyond the moment to moment action of The Division’s cover-based shooting. Although the world itself is steeped in lore and intrigue, The Division never really capitalises on its setting to tell meaningful tales. Its main mission is a stereotypically depressing one of fighting back, but given the open-end nature of the game it never feels like its going anywhere. And even when it tries to make drastic strides of change (such as taking out enemy faction leaders) it’s easy to miss due to its segmented way of telling the story. There’s more lore of interest if you dig deep into the phone recordings, Echoes and reports you collect around the city, but it’s never worthy of the world-building that plays host to it. there’s a deeper, more meaningful and personal story here if you take the time to dig for it, but the narrative as presented isn’t all that compelling.
Thankfully the end-to-end gameplay more than makes up for it, with the cover-based shooting feeling weighty and punchy more often than not. Ubisoft isn’t new to shooters, but most of them have been from a different field-of-view. It would explain then why the actual act of shooting feels great, even if the mechanics around it crack under the pressure. The contextual cover system, for example, tends to borrow a lot of frustration from the likes of Assassin’s Creed – in that it often mistakes what you’re trying to do for something else. Having my Agent suddenly detach from cover head first into enemy fire or stick too closely to it with rushing enemies often resulted in cheap, unjust deaths. It’s a constant irritation too, but it’s alleviated somewhat when you’re not the only one taking fire.
The Division is of course at its best when you bring friends along (what game’s aren’t?), and it factors in heavily later on in the game. While everything up to level 30 is completely doable alone (but again, better with a buddy to heal you when you’re a moron and die), afterwards becomes a little trickier. The Division offers up more difficult takes on missions you’ve already completed as Daily tasks, as you grind your way through Phoenix Credits to purchase better loot, crafting materials and recipes.
But the bulk of the endgame involves The Dark Zone – the moral experiment that The Division doesn’t really nail on the head. In this walled off part of the city, the game seamlessly transitions into PvP, where you’ll see loads of other players accompanied by far more powerful AI enemies. In the Dark Zone you’ll pick up contaminated loot, which then needs to be extracted before you can use it. Problem is you’re open to enemy fire from other players, letting them go rogue and steal your hard-earned treasures just as you signal for an extraction chopper.
This is, in theory, meant to evoke a sense of tension whenever you’re in the Dark Zone, and it does in the earlier levels. But the further your Dark Zone rank increases – a separate levelling system to your core play rank – the risks for going rogue increase exponentially. You’ll lose XP, gear and currency for dying rogue, and the reward for surviving the ticking counter often never feels worth it. It’s created an imbalance in the Dark Zone, and lead to players being far more courteous to each than Ubisoft probably expected. The exact opposite of rampant griefing that many were expecting, but one that takes the bite out of the otherwise interesting premise.
The Dark Zone is also not a place for solo play (especially at high levels), so if you’re looking to The Division to stay clear of other humans your journey will be cut short. pairing up with friends is easy enough (when you finally get to grips with the sometimes puzzling UI), and public matchmaking is open at various points around the sprawling map. But aside from roaming the Dark Zone hunting for loot and completing the recycled daily missions, there’s little else to The Division’s end game right now. That’s changing soon with Raids in April, but for those already happy with the level of gear they have there’s little incentive to dive in everyday and improve.
It’s a problem Ubisoft really needs to tackle in its first year of post-launch support, with the team already indicating that balancing and improving The Dark Zone is their top priority. That certainly might make it more compelling, but right now The Division’s endgame is thin, and threatening to drive some people away with waiting.
Still, the time spent getting up to that point is nothing short of entertaining. Great story missions keep the action moving forward, and The Division constantly keeps you busy to avoid the feeling of repetition. Side missions break that up somewhat, but it’s hard put down even then when the action keeping it together is so tight.
Last Updated: March 17, 2016