As you may know by this point, I’m a Tom Clancy fan. I love the books, and especially the games. So when The Division was first revealed, and the trailers first released, showing the world and gameplay, I was immediately on board. The idea of drop-in/drop-out multiplayer with a dynamic PvP environment was exciting, and the attention to detail for graphics were bound to be impressive. That was three years ago.
The game finally released after some delays in 2016, and had several Alpha and Beta phases before releases, giving players a small taste of the game. Not only has The Division been Ubisoft’s highest-selling new IP ever, it has even surpassed Destiny in week-one sales. Which is very impressive, considering just how many parallels there are between the two.
The Division takes place in a dystopian-set New York City after a reinstated form of the Smallpox virus was let loose during Black Friday, known as the “Dollar Flu.” This virus killed millions, and this activates a group of sleeper agents specially trained for this circumstance, known as the Strategic Homeland Division (SHD), or more commonly called the Division. You are a part of the second wave, and your partner named Faye Lau joins you as you help secure Brooklyn before transferring over to Manhattan along with the rest of your team of agents. However, as you’re about to be transported by helicopter, it is destroyed by an unknown force, killing everyone but you and Lau. Now you two are the only remaining agents in the second wave, with the mantle of securing Manhattan from the many rioting factions throughout New York.
The Division is a third-person cover-based shooter with a heavy influence by loot-based RPGs like Diablo. As you defeat enemies and complete missions, or discover new areas and collectables, you gain experience points, which allows you to equip better gear as you rise in level. The gear you find is very frequently dropped by enemies or locked away in chests, but you can buy gear from vendors if you have the money on hand, but more on this later.
Movement is relatively simple; you can move around, combat roll, take cover and transfer between cover spots. Your main mode of combat is aiming down sights and shooting, but you can throw grenades and use skills as well, using unorthodox controls that can be pretty easy to learn but are still strange. For example, grenades are used by pressing left on the D-pad, but holding it brings up the radial menu and allows you to switch grenade types. Same goes for D-pad right; pressing uses a medkit to instantly heal yourself, and holding it lets you use consumable items for different benefits.
That said, shooting a weapon feels odd at first, and there is no rhyme or reason as to how each weapon will handle until you try it out. There also isn’t a very easy way to tell how a weapon will operate without field-testing it; some weapons may be full-auto, others are burst-fire or single-shot, and you can’t tell simply through checking out the weapon stats. Even then, the stats are not very informative. For instance, reading the main DPS of a weapon will tell you the total damage that weapon can deal if the entire magazine hits; but reading the full stats will tell you the amount of damage each bullet can deal in a breakdown. It would simply be more helpful to know the damage per round instead of the total damage potential.
That said, you can upgrade your weapons by attaching different mods like underbarrel grips to improve stability, or extended magazines to increase your max ammo per magazine. You can build your weapon as you see fit to perfect how a weapon will operate, but you’ll still be fighting against recoil more often than usual, since weapons are very unwieldy to use. Recoil is hard to control with any weapon, even more than other games where you can learn firing patterns, The Division makes recoil and spread seemingly random. This applies to every weapon and subtype, and simply put, it can get confusing quite often.
This also applies to hitting enemies, since they simply don’t react at all to being shot, except when their armor points (indicated by white ticks above the health bar) completely deplete. The term “bullet sponge” is thrown around very often with enemies like this, but it’s so severe to the player that using a single strategy ad nauseum is the only way to go in most firefights. That’s not to say that you can’t apply different strategies at different times, but you’ll usually go for a comfortable tactic in most situations without even thinking.
The only thing separating all of these firefights are because of the incredible versatility of set-pieces. Each mission and area has an incredibly unique style of design that differs from place-to-place; this is due to New York being such a fantastic setting for variety. Alleyways and backlots are different from your parks and art installations. Business offices are more fancy and ornately designed than your busy and cluttered police offices. However, these too can occasionally be copy-paste, as I’ve had deja vu with police stations having the exact same office spaces, or the thought that “this underground garage looks really familiar.”
The map itself is small in terms of scale, but jam-packed with minute details and hidden “intel” sprinkled throughout the world. Due to the pace at which you move, the map also feels a bit larger; that said, the map is no larger in size than Fallout 4’s. The bulk of missions and side-missions take up about half of the map’s landmarks, and the “Encounters” cover most of the rest.
Side-missions and Encounters, to me, aren’t much different from one another. They follow the same arbitrary task: Save this person, defend these supplies, stop this arms deal, kill this specific dude. Also, because they’re everywhere, you’ll trigger them unintentionally along the way towards your more immediate task. These usually don’t take longer than 3 or 4 minutes, paling heavily in comparison to the 10-15 minute long missions. The main reward you get from these are Blueprints, but more on those later.
Missions are the meat of the game; each spot is tied to one of the four factions, and the three “wings” of your Base of Operations. Once you hit the ground running in Manhattan and get your BoO running, you’ll be set off to go establish these wings with a Medical, Tech, and Security leader. The first missions of each will get you setup with your first upgrade of ten, and completing Encounters and designated missions will get you “points” for your wings.
The main difference is the story that these missions tell. Based on where you are, you’ll deal with several odd groups; you have your basic rioters, people that band together only to help themselves. Then there are the Cleaners, a group of pyromaniacs that think the only way to eradicate the virus is to incinerate anyone who may be contaminated. The aptly-named Rikers are a band of escaped convicts from Riker’s Island Prison, and the Last Man Battalion is a private army hired by corporates and left to take back the city for their own order.
If these factions sound interesting and fleshed-out, well you’d be half-right. These factions all have their own unique leader and reasoning, but these aren’t told very well in-game. You learn a lot about their motives and ethics through the Intel collection you’ll gather, and they’re really pushed aside during gameplay. In fact, during gameplay, you might not even notice when you kill these leaders eventually, simply because they act and are affected by bullets the same way every other mook acts. That said, they are terrifyingly realistic in execution, and the various things you’ll uncover about them are grim realizations that humanity won’t be all smiles and sunshine when everything goes to hell.
Also, let’s be honest. The story sucks. It’s very esoteric and open-ended. Even though it’s claimed that things will change, it simply doesn’t feel like the JTF (the group you are co-operating with in the defense of protecting New York) has any tighter of a grasp of New York City as you or the other factions do. And you don’t get any closer to a conclusion than “we may have won the battle, but not the war.” If anything, it plays out like a 10PM TNT action-drama that’s grasping for a Season 2, and that feels awkward to a player who wants an honest conclusion.
Back to the matter at hand, though, player expansion feels wonderful. Growing up to that Level 30 cap and getting better gear along the way is generally a good feeling. Enemies can drop a myriad of weapons, ranging from revolvers to light machine guns. Each one does have their own feel, as mentioned above, and you’ll be specifically attaching different mods in order to optimize the weapon’s full potential. There are also mods for your gear, like gloves and backpacks. These can improve your three base stats, which are tied to different skills.
These base stats, Firearms, Stamina, and Electronics, all affect passive weapon skills and overall performance. Firearms affects your total damage output with your firearms, Stamina is for your total health, and Electronics is for your skill power. You can build these up by equipping gear that has points applied to these stats. This allows you to build however you like, as a tank or healer, for example. Since, remember, that this game treats itself like an MMO RPG with loot-based progression.
Building for a specific role is really helpful in particular to multiplayer. You can matchmake in-game for a group of four players and go through missions or the Dark Zone together. This is important towards the end-game where you’re going to want to build very specifically to support each other however you think will help. There isn’t much to say about multiplayer, besides the fact that your strategies will expand greatly. You can pull aggression while your teammates can flank and take out the enemy group. Overall, the gameplay greatly improves when in a group.
In the Dark Zone, your multiplayer experience changes drastically. You can bring a group in with you, sure, but this is officially a PvP environment. NPC enemies are much more dangerous, but they can drop some of the best loot in the game (though you can get by without it). This loot, however, is contaminated and needs to be extracted in order to be used. When you want to extract your loot, pop a flare into the air and wait a couple of minutes for the helicopter to arrive. However, this alerts everyone, player and NPC alike, to your location. And some players are more trigger-happy than usual.
Attacking a non-hostile agent tags you as Rogue, and makes what was once a PvE environment into a potential deathmatch arena. Non-hostile agents are alerted to your position as a Rogue, and your task is to wait out a Manhunt timer to get a reward of experience and DZ Funds. If you are killed as a Rogue by other agents, they’ll get the reward. That said, the Dark Zone is incredibly tense, even if there isn’t as much deathmatch going on between players as you might be led to believe. But the rewards are fairly worth it, even though the tensity might be a bit much.
Once you have all of the gear extracted and grabbed, it’s time to check what’s better than what you have on, and get ready to trash the unneeded gear. You could sell it at the market and buy some stronger gear, or you could dismantle it all for materials and craft new, randomized gear. Using the Crafting Station (a Base of Operations upgrade), you can use Blueprints that you’ve obtained from the missions you’ve completed and craft gear that can potentially be better than what you’ve had; anything from armor to weapons are available for crafting. Upgrading your BoO wings can also unlock different vendors, which you can spend Credits, DZ Funds, or Phoenix Credits on.
Upgrading your wings will also unlock new skills, perks, talents, or even skill mods. Skills are special abilities that can be triggered actively; Pulse, for example, scans the entire area around you and marks enemies or loot containers with various skill mods. Smart Cover makes every cover spot in a specific radius give a special benefit, like increased damage. The strength of these skills is applied by your Electronics, and completing a BoO wing grants a Master skill mod, which blends multiple skill mods together.
So after hitting the cap and finishing every main story mission, you’ll unlock daily missions that are much more difficult than their standard counterparts, and grant the best gear in the game along with Phoenix Credits. Doing these missions require nearly perfect teamwork and execution, and the combat feels even more blatantly full of bullet-sponge than it should. Aiming at the same arbitrary spot and seeing that health bar go down at an agonizingly slow rate as you reload for the umpteenth time is really, truly boring.
At least the game looks really good. The PC version had just about every special graphic setting that was claimed by the original 2013 Snowdrop Engine showcase trailer. Global lighting, dynamic destruction, dynamic reflections, and so on. The PS4 version lacks dynamic reflections and has very apparent texture loading. The real-time destruction is still there, and it’s a surprising amount of fun to see just how much can be torn up in a single area.
The sound effects are very realistic, and there are plenty of distinct differences in sounds that can be used to your advantage. The sounds of IED traps and enemy Seeker Mines, for example, beep with a noticeable distinction. The music is a mix of atmospheric drama and licensed music (if you’re in a safe house). It’s pretty decent, but nothing I’d write home about. It just doesn’t leave as much impact externally as it would in-game.
In terms of performance, the loading times are abysmal; anywhere between 35 seconds to 90 seconds at most, depending on various conditions. Even then, the loading times give you the bare essentials of textures; extremely low-resolution, and sometimes doesn’t even load everything. At times, I’ve loaded into non-existent areas. Sometimes, your map won’t even load fully, locking you out of some of the map to navigate until you log out and load back into the game entirely. The game also has several glitches that affect the overall experience, and hurts the game. Sound decay glitches, model and animation glitches, server errors and game crashes plague this game at launch.
That said, does The Division live up to the hype it led up to? Well, kind of. It lacks the drop-in/drop-out and tablet features that the game originally planned to have, and it has its issues, but the game is immense fun to play with in co-op. Sure, the issues are still apparent, but if you have a couple of friends on the fence about buying it, then playing it together should be the deciding factor.
The Division has just about every issue that Destiny had when it first came out. It falters in the solo experience, but makes up for it in the multiplayer side of things. Plenty of player expansion and versatility leads to a good time, and you can take enemies out quickly enough to bypass the amount of shots they take. But as a solo experience, it’s rather bland and the only reward is being able to use the gear you have with and against other players.