Having spent over two weeks in The Division, I’ve come to the realisation that I would be terrible in the wake of a biological attack. For starters, I would be handing over all of my provisions in the hopes of being the height of fashion. Then there’s the fact I would be chasing any and all stray dogs I came across. And let’s not get started on my new found urge to close any open door I came across, because neatness.
But despite all of these ridiculous habits not having a practical use in a real world scenario, they most definitely work in Ubisoft’s latest title, to the point that I’ve been spending more time than I should have playing it. Part RPG, part cover-based shooter, and part open world, The Division offers players with a loot-focused online experience that is not only fun when the action starts, but incredibly addictive.
A quick recap for those not in the know; The Division takes place in a New York City six weeks after a virus decimates the population. As a sleeper agent of the Strategic Homeland Division, players must venture into the now-quarantined area and reclaim control of the streets from the various groups that have taken over. That’s on top of saving those lucky few who have managed to survive the horrors thus far and discovering the origins of the outbreak. In other words, you’re going to have your hands full.
And full they will be, because there is more than enough to keep players busy in The Division. While there are only 26 main missions, the increasing difficulty of the AI ensures that the action doesn’t become too stale over time, even if the enemy types do. The four factions certain have their own style and weaponry (especially in the case of the Cleaners) but it ultimately ends up being the same thing – a clear restriction thanks to the (relatively) grounded setting. At least fights get interesting in the high-level zones, as the different groups end up fighting each other.
Mission objectives also boil down to the same tried-and-tested formula – “kill X enemies,” “defend for X seconds,” “follow breadcrumbs for reward.” While missions and side missions are often a combination of these, it ultimately the same content we’ve already seen from the genre. The thing is, despite not offering anything new, what is there is refined so much that going between objectives doesn’t feel like a chore. It helps that you can activate side missions and encounters on your travels, too, as well as interact with the numerous collectables that litter the city.
It’s actually one of my favourite things about the New York hellscape – there’s always a distraction. You’ll be grabbing crafting materials one moment, then the next you’ll be fighting off a group of enemies that have pinged on your radar, perhaps to get to the collectable that you’ve noticed on your minimap. Actually, I tell a lie – it’s the world-building that I consider my favourite thing. You see, the story for The Divisions stumbles about for quite a while before finding its footing toward the end, but the scattered mobile phones and laptops do a fantastic job illustrating the terrible nature of the outbreak. The same can be said for the Echos, some of which are truly horrific in nature. In fairness, this is something Ubisoft have always excelled at, with the hacks available in Watch Dogs being a prime example of this.
Let’s move on to what I feel is The Division’s strongest aspect – the combat mechanics. While I wouldn’t say it is the best I’ve come across, I will say that the controls make The Division one of the most satisfying third-person cover-based shooter in recent memory. Ubisoft’s experience with its extensive library of Tom Clancy titles clearly shows here. Be it getting into cover, unleashing an ability, or unloading a weapon at an enemy, there is a level of refinement that elevates The Division over others titles in the genre.
It helps that the combat is backed up by a highly addictive loot system that is constantly rewarding the player. Upgrades always feel significant, and even useless items can be sold or broken down into crafting materials – another avenue for potential upgrades. While its roulette-style system may come across as frustrating if the RNG gods aren’t smiling upon you, there’s still a sense of jubilation to be had when things go your way. Of course, there’s always the vendors for those who can’t be bothered with resource collection, but the point is that as a loot grinder The Division is on par with the likes of Diablo and Borderlands.
And don’t even get me started on clothing choices. There were occasions where my group spent up to five minutes picking the right outfit for a firefight. No, really.
That said, I honestly don’t think it manages to achieve being an RPG, as Ubisoft claims it is. It’s not just because there are no set character choices, with all abilities & perks eventually being at the player’s disposal (which is arguably a good thing as it doesn’t restrict build choices.) The main reason is that there are no choices to made that affect the story – your mute character just blindly following orders of others, with the biggest decision being whether to give a can of soda to a stranger in hopes of receiving a stylish new hat. That said, I will say that the way the Base of Operations changes to reflect which missions have been completed does create an effective illusion, but ultimately it means nothing when you know it’s the same for all players.
No, this isn’t an RPG, but its persistent progression means it fills that middle ground between a co-op / versus title and an MMO experience. In that regard, it is highly reminiscent of Destiny, especially its use of instanced phasing, bundling players together in safe zones and separating them when in the open world. While this means it can feel rather lonely when running around on your own, it does ensure that heavy server loads are never an issue, while also removing the risk of other players taking your kills.
If you want some risk with your gameplay you’ll want to head to Dark Zone, though, which is an entirely different beast. The risk versus reward gameplay featured in the PVP/E area is just as tense as you might expect, as players kill high-level NPCs (and each other) for loot. The extraction process always puts you on edge, even with friendly players around, thanks to the possibility of respawns (and other players) rushing you. It’s that fine balance between any other loot-based title, and the unforgiving nature of losing everything in something like DayZ or H1Z1. If there is one complaint right now, it’s that there isn’t really that much to do bar killing named NPCs and other players, but it appears Ubisoft are already looking to address this (something I’ll discuss further shortly.)
In terms of its art direction, The Division manages to shine with the little details. Take its visuals, for example. While not adopting a hyper-realistic art style (and certainly not matching the original E3 reveal video) I still found The Division to be extremely pleasing to look at. With graphics settings set to high it became clear how much effort has been put into lighting and particle effects, especially as the sun sets or a blizzard rolls into the area (and in both cases, absolutely ruining your vision.) Then there’s the sound design which emphasises everything you do. Headshots in particular sound absolutely satisfying, and I’ve grown to love the Mission Complete noise after feeling it was just odd to begin with.
The same level of refinement can be found with the UI as well, which is both clean and informative. I do have one complaint though, and that’s with how interacting with the map can be temperamental. The number of times I was unable to select an objective, or how placing a waypoint wouldn’t work, proved incredibly annoying. It’s a shame how the issue persists considering how well Ubisoft have done in other areas, especially quality of life improvements. Fast travel options, menu navigation (especially gear selection), and shoulder swapping are just a few examples, but it really makes playing The Division a more enjoyable experience.
So the remaining question is whether or not The Division has the legs to go the distance, with many players having now hit the level cap of 30. As it stands the Hard and Challenging modes for daily missions provide a way to work towards top-tier items, as does killing bosses in the Dark Zone, but it is essentially the same content you’ve been doing all game. This lack of variety may not sit well with some, but I found the enemy AI to become much more aggressive and tactically minded to keep things interesting. With the impending release of Incursions and the promise of new activities in the Dark Zone, there’s hope that there will be more variation to the end-game experience. At any rate, I have faith in Ubisoft’s post-game support thanks to their speedy resolution of a number of issues since launch.
Of course, there’s also the matter of playing The Division solo or with others. I should make it clear that it is absolutely possible to play through the levelling process on your own (and even take on the Dark Zone) but I feel it really is a game best experienced with a group. The excellent matchmaking services certainly help in this regard, and features such as the mark and execute countdown make everything doable without voice comms, but nothing beats taking on the content with friends.
- Solid controls, clean interface, and excellent world building.
- Loot hunt aspects are incredibly addictive.
- Post-launch support looks very promising.
- As fun as they can be, enemy and mission types lack variation.
- While it gets better, the story doesn’t make a great first impression.
- While solo players can level to 30, their enjoyment may suffer at the end game.
The Short Version:
Despite not offering anything particularly new in terms of gameplay, The Division manages to be an enjoyable & addictive online experience thanks to its satisfying loot mechanics. With plenty of content in the open world, an end-game supported with both frequent balance patches, & new activities on the horizon, Ubisoft’s latest is definitely recommendable to groups looking for a challenge – be it PvE against the AI, or fighting other players in the Dark Zone.
Platform: PC (Tested), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Red Storm Entertainment / Masssive Entertainment / Ubisoft