Tom Clancy’s The Division is one of those games that has been in pipeline for so long, it actually feels a bit weird to be able to play it at all. Announced at E3 2013, Ubisoft have spent the intervening years making a lot of promises about the game. We were told to expect a game that brought something entirely new to the Tom Clancy’s brand, a game that fused a near 1:1 scale replica of New York City and its surrounding boroughs with the kind of MMO gameplay that has brought Destiny so much success. However, as the delays began to run into one another, people began to wonder if the game could possibly live up to its immense hype.
You can relax. For the most part, The Division works hard to keep its myriad promises and does so while trying to set itself apart in a sea of open-world third-person shooters. That said, it also suffers from a number of glaring issues, some perhaps more common to the Australian player than to those in the US and Europe. The Division leans on the MMO grind in a way that Destiny does not, and while its expansive map is beautifully designed and decorated, I haven’t done this much long-distance running in a game since Star Wars: The Old Republic.
New York City is a gigantic quarantine zone following the deployment of a weaponised pathogen dubbed the Green Poison. The Division are a sleeper agency plucked from the citizenry by the government in an effort to bring the city and its remaining population under control, and to root out who or what caused the plague. It’s also down to you to slowly rebuild medical and power facilities as well as local law enforcement to a state where they can make a difference. All of these things are accomplished by shooting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people and taking their shit.
In fact there are only a handful of activities in The Division that can be accomplished without shooting things. Pulling up your map, a neat AR overlay that shows you landmarks, mission markers and other events happening in real time, in tandem with a small Watch Dogs-esque screen overlay allows you to pinpoint things like past events, civilians in need, and missing persons cases to follow up on. In another similarity to Watch Dogs, these side quests don’t really go anywhere and feel a touch undercooked. Much of what you’ll be doing in The Division will be covering each neighbourhood of Manhattan on foot, shooting hostile gang members. I don’t really want to tag Ubisoft Massive over this — it’s pretty common to see this sort of thing in games these days — but it definitely feels like there’s room to improve here and I’m sure they will.
Given that you spend so much time shooting at guys, it’s good that Ubi Massive have worked hard to make it super solid. The map design is such that combat is always pretty interesting, full of different terrain and cover to leverage and because you’re always on the move, it changes wildly moment-to-moment, street-to-street. This leapt out at me as a player because open-world games like this aren’t known for solid shooting, and there’s also the fact that, when you get right down to it, The Division is a role-player.
If you’ve got experience with other RPG shooters like the aforementioned Destiny or Borderlands, then you should feel right at home with The Division. If you shoot a guy, numbers will fall out of them indicating the damage dealt, loot will fall out of them and you will accrue experience. There are many other games do the same thing, but I chose both of those examples because they strike a balance between the RPG grind and deeply enjoyable shooting where many others seem to flounder. The Division also exists in this rarefied air. When you spend as much time on shooting people as The Division does, the experience needs to be a enjoyable and rewarding one. It’s clear that this was a particular focus for Ubisoft, because this is some of the more solid third-person shooter design I’ve seen from them.
Don’t let the MMO-nature of the game keep you from playing if you’d prefer to run this thing solo, either. Ubisoft have pushed the “play with friends” angle pretty hard on this one, but I’ve found that as long as I kept my own level in line with the recommendation attached to each mission, I would be presented with a stiff-but-conquerable challenge. The game world is also filled with the sort of elements you’d expect to find in a single-player experience — central characters, cutscenes, story progression. It’s much more active with its narrative than most other games of this kind.
It is still an MMO though, so you can team up with friends and other players at just about any time you want. There are a number of little things that make getting into a game with others a very simple, fast experience. Pulling up the main map will allow you to see where your friends are and you can jump into a party with them at any time. Matchmatching is decent but, even when the game had just launched and the player count was at its highest, I occasionally struggled to get into parties at my level, frequently being matched with players far less experienced trying to push into areas they weren’t ready for. You can start the matchmaking at the beginning of each main mission or whenever you end up at a safehouse.
The game is definitely better with friends, but that’s true of most games. I’m a firm proponent of the idea that co-op makes everything better. Working as a team also means the game’s expansive skill trees work as they were designed to. There’s three different upgrade trees to choose from — tank, healer and engineer — and all are expanded through the reconstruction of your home base. When you’ve got someone from each class in the party, you’ll find there are moments when The Division feels like it could really execute properly on its immense vision. Sadly, it’s the game’s dedication to MMO principles that keep it from ever really getting there.
Despite the amount of upgrades, I never really felt like my character was growing that much. Picking up perks and new skills is fine and fun to do, but they only ever represent a miniscule percentage buff to things you can already do. Other skills, like increased carry weight or deeper pockets for holding more consumables, are good to have but they’re hardly thrilling to collect. By the time I hit Level 30, The Division didn’t feel all that different than how it felt at Level 4. I hit the level cap because I play games for a living and I needed to know how it played at the current high-end, but if I was playing for pleasure then it doesn’t feel like there’d be enough meat on those bones to pull me through.
Maybe this is a function of my own personal distaste for MMO’s, but I feel like I need more feedback than what I’m getting there. I can see that my character is getting stronger because the numbers tell me it is so, but the game never makes you feel more powerful. No matter what I equipped my character with in terms of gear or weapons, I would always be going up against AI thugs of a similar level. Enemies with only a level or two on me were still quite capable of wrecking me with very little effort. Compare this to games like Borderlands or even Diablo that are able to balance the power-vs-enemies dynamic well and the lack of such design in The Division stands out rather plainly, at least as I see it.
The rather singular experience of traversing a ruined New York with your friends is an idea The Division has been selling hard since it was announced, and the first few times you head out with your squad will be very memorable. The thing is, by the time we’d a bunch of support missions or mercy drops, it all started to feel a bit repetitive. It didn’t feel like we were helping the city by doing these side missions, which is the game’s central hook. It feels like everything you do should make you feel like you’re contributing to that goal. The one thing they do have going for them is that the difficulty goes up with each one which should help keep you and your squad on your toes at least.
Additionally, the solid combat and interesting level design keep things interesting, especially early on, but the further in you get the more it feels like the designers ran out of steam a little bit. While the early game is filled with interesting new gang and enemy introductions, it all becomes a matter of “yellow are these guys” and “purple are these guys.” Further, a lot of the late game missions involve being jumped by groups of elite enemies rather than coming up with anything fresher.
True, this was kind of fun in some of the more desolate, open areas where the only way to survive was to use cover effectively and keep moving to avoid the hail of bullets while hoovering up more from corpses to keep you going. When I was fighting the same battles in more claustrophobic environments, I found myself snagging on the architecture and getting frustrated.
The dearth of content ideas in the late-game is rammed home when it informs you that the exact sort of escalatory battle you’ve been craving is just around the corner — and then the game fucking ends on you.
I know, I know, it’s an MMO at heart. That’s what they do. It’s not really over, just the base game. Indeed, after the credits rolled I was treated to message telling me to hold on because more story and endgame stuff was on the way. The thing is, I played most of this game by myself, in defiance what Ubisoft clearly wanted me to do, and had a pretty amusing time doing it. That made the main game’s “ending” feel like a bit of cheat to me.
With so many games in this vein now out there in the world, it’s important not to get bogged down in chasing ever-high damage numbers that keep you from ever feeling like your enemies present a satisfying challenge. The Division takes a lot of different threads and weaves them together to build a socially-minded tactical shooter that actually works more often than it doesn’t and that’s to be commended. This excellent shooter design still feels at odds with rest of the game’s MMO mindset, however, and as much as I’d like to see them move past that, it remains to be seen what Ubisoft Massive plans to do post-release. I like what I’m seeing here, though, and I hope it continues to evolve in a positive direction.
Review Score: 8.0 out of 10
Highlights: Excellent shooter mechanics; New York is a great map and gorgeously rendered
Lowlights: MMO treadmill is a bummer; Feels like it needs more variety in the missions
Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Released: March 8, 2016
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Reviewed on PlayStation 4