Before diving into exactly what makes Tom Clancy’s The Division tick, there’s something that must be addressed before anything else.
Much has been made of Ubisoft’s decision to forgo sending out advanced copies of Tom Clancy’s The Division in favor of having reviewers play in a real world server environment. Because of this, everyone knows that certain players experienced long queue times initially, as well as server time-outs and other networking issues around launch. The thing is, when you’re a reviewer, you have to judge the product in front of you, rather than criticizing a game based upon things that you heard or saw on the Internet. With that said, let’s get one thing out of the way: I personally did not experience any issues with The Divsion‘s online functionality, or, at least, nothing that would qualify as something worth mentioning in a full review. Some people out there might find this misleading or unjust, but in fact, it’s actually quite the opposite. You’re getting a review based entirely off of my personal experience, not the experience of those who have tweeted or posted about issues that they have experienced. Yes, according to a number of players, there were issues over the first day or so of The Division‘s life out in the wild, but since I wasn’t able to see any of these issues live, in real time, it doesn’t help you, the consumer, to simply insert the conjecture of others into a review about my personal experience with this product. In short, if you’re looking for a review that details what it’s like when The Division doesn’t work, then you’ll be better served elsewhere. Call me lucky, but The Division has been a smooth experience that, while not without its flaws, is a great way to get your shoot ‘n’ loot on.
It’s totally weird that a video game review has to mention something like this, but this is the world we live in now. What’s important is that all signs point to The Division as a title that has more stability as the days have progressed, despite reports of European outages sporting the error code Mike at the time of writing. Yes, if you’re one of the players who has encountered issues, then that should, justifiably, make you upset, but for someone who is not part of this contingent, The Division lives up to the hype. Through a combination of flexible, yet robust RPG mechanics, shooting that simply feels right, a fascinating setting from a conceptual point of view and a wide array of PC customization options, The Division is a title that should be firmly on your radar as one of the biggest titles of 2016. All of that said, there are some narrative cohesion issues that prevent Ubisoft’s biggest launch to date from being the game that ends all games, and there’s a fair bit of jank to work around, but those looking for a solid title that is well worth the price of admission should consider giving The Division a shot.
From a purely conceptual point of view, The Division is leaps and bounds above most AAA titles out there. Imagine if terrorists unleash currency coated with a hyper-powerful version of the smallpox virus upon Manhattan on Black Friday? Every person who handles the infected cash falls ill; likewise for every person that either comes in contact with a carrier or touches anything that they touch. It’s easy to see how society would rapidly devolve, what with an epidemic growing at epic proportions and those who avoid infection absolutely losing their minds. The government completely collapses, social norms fall by the wayside and everyone who remains faces life in a world without rules or any sense of meaning. Players take the role of an unnamed agent of The Division, a group of sleeper agents who are only activated in the midst of absolute chaos (think of a super secret version of the National Guard whose only goal is to better society). Once a Division agent’s special glowing watch illuminates, her or she is required to drop everything that they were doing and The idea of the apocalypse taking place in a version of Midtown Manhattan permanently stuck in Christmas mode is, frankly, super cool. Though Ubisoft often gets criticized (including major complaints from yours truly) for making the same game over and over, it’s hard not to credit The Division for being different from pretty much everything that has come before it. Of course, from a gameplay perspective, running through largely open streets in this setting can grow a bit tiresome, especially if you’re in the middle of a grind towards your next level or awesome piece of gear. Still, The Division‘s core concept completely horrified my own mother, so it certainly stands out in a medium loaded with harrowing settings.
The Division does falter considerably a bit more from a narrative point of view. Certain story missions will trigger cutscenes, but there is a great deal of time that players will either have to enter their player menu in order to initiate a video or an audio log or rely upon environmental storytelling through collectibles. Because The Division is definitely a long game, and there’s an inherent issue with the amount of time spent between story beats considering that players will do a considerable amount of grinding to get to the minimum recommended level for the next mission. It’s not hard to completely forget what’s going on, who certain characters are and the actual narrative forces driving you forward. On one hand, this is certainly disappointing considering how awesome The Division‘s setting is, but, considering the main story isn’t as big of a draw as the core gameplay loop, this ends up being a minor flaw as opposed to a glaring issue. Make no mistake, this is not the type of sandbox experience where you’re doing things just for the sake of doing them, a la Rebel Galaxy, but it doesn’t quite scratch the narrative-heavy RPG itch like, say, The Witcher 3.
It’s easy to poke holes in aspects of The Division‘s concept, and those without a strong ability to suspend disbelief are going to find themselves constantly distracted. Why are we shooting random looters? Why are said random looters, whose main motivation is to survive, able to organize in a manner that threatens quasi-military forces? Wouldn’t people notice that their significant others have exceptionally high-tech watches and closets loaded with weapons? If society has collapsed, why doesn’t the rest of the world look like Manhattan (Brooklyn is, comparatively, doing okay)? Oh, and perhaps the strangest thing: in a space clearly riddled with resources, why do we have to fight so hard over them? Yes, there are aspects of The Division that border on straight up dumb, but, considering this is a work of fiction, there are three choices here. The first is to play along with the fantasy and enjoy The Division for what it is. The second is to embrace the insanity and use it to entertain yourself in a sarcastic fashion. Finally, if you’re a member of the contingent who simply cannot look at these minor logical loopholes without getting a headache, then this is absolutely not the game for you.
All narrative hooks and follies aside, The Division makes for an awesome third-person shooting experience. While the sponginess of enemies, with many requiring multiple clips to kill, is going rub some players the wrong way, the combination of tight, but not perfect, shooting and a solid cover system make for a fun experience, even after a significant number of hours. Imagine if you were to take the general mechanics of Gears of War, make the enemy characters a bit spongier and throw in a progression structure similar to Destiny. Now imagine if that game had some of the traditional Ubisoft collectibles and ample side missions on top of sprawling, dynamic main story missions. This would be The Division in a nutshell. By using traditional modern weaponry and a number of high-tech skills, players will lean behind walls, barricades and cars, slowly whittling down the health bars of waves of enemies coming at them from all angles. There are multiple types of enemies, ranging from flamethrower-equipped Cleaners to the dynamic Rikers (yes, these are militarized prisoners who escaped from Rikers Island), each sporting different combat tactics and tiers of power. Whereas the shooting in Destiny is the glue that holds that entire experience together, The Division sports a far more gripping loot and progression experience, but finds itself a slight notch below its genre counterpart. The thing is, Destiny isn’t necessarily the definitive place to go for solid shooting, but The Division has clearly become the more interesting multiplayer RPG shooter thanks to a downright addictive progression system. It’s for this reason, not the fact that its shooting feel more good than great, that you’ll wind up sinking dozens of hours into Ubisoft Massive’s magnum opus.
- Two main weapons and a sidearm
- Six different armor slots, ranging from backpacks, to gas masks to knee pads
- Six cosmetic item categories
- Two skills, mapped to the Q and E keys, as well as a third signature skill unlocked after significant progression
- Up to four passive talents that dynamically affect how your character reacts during battle
- Forty passive perks that stack on top of one another
Now, the fact that a bullet point list was the clearest way to illustrate this shows that there’s a lot that you’re going to be working with here. The above list doesn’t include your upgradable Base of Operations, though building up your central hub is going to be what gives you those skills, talents and perks (along with some other cool bonuses, like an advanced weapons vendor), the robust crafting system built on the back of consumable collection or the fact that there are two player levels and two types of currency (for the main game and for the multiplayer arena known as the Dark Zone). Oh, and the cherry on top of the sundae is that every item has one of four rarity classifications and, potentially, multiple slots that modifications can be added to. All in all, you’re going to be balancing a ton of different RPG mechanics at the same time, but the freedom you’re given in terms of how you handle these mechanics is what makes The Division a special role-playing experience.
What makes The Division such a fulfilling RPG experience is that there is true joy coming from all of the numbers and loot drops. Whereas Destiny locks you into a character class and often teases you with loot drops for other classes, The Division boasts and extremely open experience, where any piece of gear or any character trait can essentially be swapped out at any time. Gone are the days where you will be forced to turn down missions because your character’s class doesn’t necessarily compliment the rest of your squad. A perfect example of these free RPG mechanics came during my time grinding up to Level 22 before a story mission about seventy-five percent of the way through the core campaign. My entire playing experience was spent simply doing whatever I wanted with completely open privacy settings, meaning that players were constantly coming and going as they pleased, never once leaving me without ample companionship on higher level missions. When I was matched up with a group of players all using light machine guns, I was able to quickly turn my character into an SMG-wielding, close-quarters bullet sponge, which gave our entire team an advantage. These mechanics also give you a constant sense of value and progression, as you’ll constantly be finding better items and unlocking more powerful skills as you progress. There’s a real sense that you’re always earning or unlocking something whenever you play, and, considering The Division involves a ton of grinding, this manages to make the potentially mundane into a bona fide highlight of the entire experience.
There is a stark dichotomy between the quality of the main story missions and some of the side content, with the larger, more robust missions feeling far more fantastic. The vast majority of the story missions strike that perfect balance between all-out combat pandemonium and eerie lulls of silence, a balance that is absolutely required for any shooter mission to feel compelling. Whether players are tasked with defending a certain area while waves of enemies appear in various directions, clearing off a rooftop in order to gather information or simply blasting through a line of enemies to weaken their forces, every main mission contains a satisfying sense of purpose. Side missions, which differ from the smaller, one-off Encounters littering the map, aren’t as sprawling and dynamic, but they do offer some of the extended gameplay that allows The Division to shine. Encounters, the weakest of the bunch, feel like the type of repetitive tiny quests in traditional open-world Ubisoft titles, and are easily the weakest bits of content present here. In general, the longer the mission, the more fun it’s going to wind up being, and this is a rule that the entire experience lives and dies by. You’re going to have to spend quite a bit of time upgrading your character through these missions in between the main story missions, which would be far more of a drag if the core progression wasn’t so well done. Perhaps the traditional Ubisoft formula could have been strengthened a long time ago with some awesome RPG mechanics, especially when you consider that, without these mechanics, The Division would go from being a great game to one that’s just okay.
The Dark Zone, perhaps The Division‘s biggest claim to fame, is essentially a feature that the world thought would be front and center in Destiny when Bungie famously hyped its massive shared-world shooter. The idea of a place on an open-world title’s map in which players seamlessly walk to, and enter, a multiplayer arena is about as next-gen as it gets, proving that there are certainly new ideas out there for how multiplayer experiences can be designed. A heavily contaminated area of the city, the Dark Zone contains the best loot in The Division and makes for a tense player vs. player experience where it feels like anything goes. Essentially, whenever you collect loot in the Dark Zone, you’ll have to find a way to extract it via helicopter, as it’s heavily contaminated. The catch is, whenever you extract your gear, everyone in the area knows what you’re up to, and they’ll have the chance to come and steal your loot if you have trouble defending it. Of course, there are consequences for attacking other players, as any attack on a non-hostile agent results in you appearing as a rogue enemy on players’ mini-maps. The result of all of these systems is a multiplayer experience heavily based around the delicate tug of war between morality and opportunity. Those who choose the correct moment to strike will be heavily rewarded, whereas those who play either too timidly or too aggressively will find themselves missing out. While it remains to be seen how long it will take for players to lose interest in this fascinating mode, those first few experiences in the Dark Zone are astoundingly tense and exciting.
From a technical perspective, The Division stands out on PC. From the multitude of graphics options that will make high end graphics cards scream to the gorgeous snowstorms, fires and explosions that constantly litter the screen, The Division is clearly a game that is aimed right at the heart of PC gamers. I’ve been playing The Division on a rig sporting an i5 4690K, a GTX 970 with 4 GB VRAM, 16 GB DDR3 RAM and a 75 Mbps wired connection, and the framerate never dropped below forty frames per second on settings that hovered somewhere between high and ultra. It’s always great to report that the vast majority of the gameplay experience on PC, at least in my case, was spent playing at sixty frames per second, which makes for a far smoother shooting experience than its console counterparts.
There’s also a ton of PC-centric options that improve The Division‘s overall quality of life level. From being able to customize every aspect of the HUD to Parkour Mode, which allows you to automatically vault over cover whenever you’re sprinting, the PC version of The Divsion feels like the place that it truly should be played. If you’ve ever found yourself annoyed at the size of a mini-map in the corner of your monitor, then prepare yourself for a title that absolutely feels your pain.
Despite a few noticeable warts, The Division‘s highs are high enough to warrant millions of players sticking around for a significant amount of time. The combination of fantastic late-game experiences, a fascinating setting, solid core gameplay and a freedom-laden set of RPG mechanics that make Destiny feel exceptionally restrictive makes Ubisoft’s fastest-selling title absolutely worth diving into. There is something to be said for the sheer amount of collectibles, the lackluster side content and the sheer number of plot holes that can be poked in the core narrative, but all of those flaws feel secondary to what is a dynamic online shooter experience. Add in the fact that the Dark Zone features seamless matchmaking technology that will surely be copied by future titles, similarly to how the Nemesis System is going to appear elsewhere, and The Division actually represents the rare AAA game that lives up to its promise. The Division isn’t perfect, but considering how wrong things could have gone, it’s fantastic to have such a solid online title to suck up hours of our lives this Spring.