The Division is not just a third-person shooter, and it's not just an RPG. Numbers fly out of enemies when they’re hit. There are perk trees, loot drops, and cooldowns. But you’re also a nameless soldier, silent and efficient, with little impact in the story outside being the one who shot all the dudes. Some diabolical individual has spliced together a deadly mix of smallpox, ebola, and other nasties and dotted some dollar bills with it - come Black Friday, and the rapid frequency at which money was changing hands, this weaponised flu has been spread wide. New York has fallen to looters and gangs, and it’s up to secret government agency, the Division, to fix everything - by shooting everyone in the head.
I think a lot of people were and still will be surprised by how much The Division is an RPG after the previews. The game starts in a basic character creation suite that unfortunately only lets you pick from a dozen unchangeable faces, but is still a change from the standard American white guy protagonist. While you don’t have much say in your looks, having your own unique appearance in the game is still achievable through acquired clothing items that won’t affect your stats - jackets, trousers, wooly pom pom hats. Your actual gear still affects your appearance, but is limited to less visible pieces like knee guards, gloves, and bulletproof vests. For any JRPG fans, I’ll let you know now that there is no “fashion equipment” option - in other words, you can’t wear the pieces that visually appeal without affecting your stats.
To my surprise, The Division is a very lonely experience despite being an online-only game. I am not the kind of person to play cooperatively with strangers but the option is there if you are. Matchmaking builds a team for you when you aren’t playing with friends, but I had expected other players to have a stronger presence in the world - the game will address you as the sole Agent capable of claiming back the city from the looters and the rioters, but encourages parties to group together and tackle missions. If you prefer to go at it as a lone wolf, you will encounter other players infrequently, limited to when you return to your main base of operations or enter a region’s safe house. Stepping out and walking the streets though, all the other players disappear. You are alone - uninterrupted, but isolated.
As I stated in our impressions video, I did wonder if the different regions in The Division’s New York would grow repetitive. On reaching the new areas, I continuously felt like I had seen these streets before - a shame, as similar games mark your progress with new views and new surroundings. Instead, as someone who doesn't know New York, it meant nothing to me to see yet another street of abandoned cars and garbage bags, leaving me with a feeling that I wasn’t being rewarded for the time I invested. In a game like Destiny - the closest comparison to The Division from recent years - wherever you are, you can recognise natural landmarks and immediately place yourself. Here, I didn’t have a clue where I was without opening up my map.
The main missions take you to the most exciting areas, as you might expect, but that only makes the rest of the map feel dull in comparison. Pockets of interesting level design are separated by half miles of dented metal and discarded suitcases. These missions are colour coded between the three departments of your base, rewarding large amounts of XP towards upgrading them which in turn improves your own abilities - the infamous Ubisoft loop, where everything you achieve feeds into another element of the game.
Unfortunately, the lack of an engaging story beyond the opening hour affects the appeal of completing these missions in any rush. The side missions though - the Encounters and Events - are quick and simple, and don't mess around. They give small reward for little time, and sweeping a map clean of little markers has always been cathartic for me. If you need even more things to do, there are plenty of collectibles to find: lost phones, first response reports, ECHOs (the in-game Division can piece together images of past events, Sherlock-style). Collecting these expands the world and, more importantly, gives you a little nugget of XP.
The Dark Zone, a cordoned off area slap bang in the middle of the map, is the PvP area of the game, but it’s not necessarily a competitive mode. Agents can enter the Dark Zone through a number of checkpoints around the perimeter. Once inside, you’re no longer on your own - you will come across other scavenging players in these streets. You earn XP and currency specifically for the Dark Zone too, with higher levels required to open the locked crates scattered across the area.
At any moment, another Agent could take a disliking to you and pop a cap in your melon. This will turn them Rogue, making them an open target. Attacking a Rogue doesn’t make you one yourself, so you have free rein to gun down any traitors you spot. When you are killed either by or as a Rogue Agent, you lose items and cash. Knowing that at any moment you could lose everything because of someone else makes exploring the Dark Zone a wonderfully tense experience.
Everything in the Dark Zone is contaminated with the Green Virus, the altered smallpox strain, and as such any loot you pick up has to be decontaminated. You can only carry a very limited number of Dark Zone items at any one time, and to be able to equip them, you have to first extract them in one of the Division’s helicopters. Enemy NPCs are much higher level too, encouraging strangers to band together when clearing a building of hidden treasures or guarding the evac zone from an onslaught.
Other than Agents and criminals, there are more people trapped in New York. A small cast of characters are introduced in the early hours of The Division in an effort to push you to build your base and save the city: a doctor, a New York cop, and a beardy tech type. Ultimately, I found the lot of them to be largely forgettable with the exception of Lau, the makeshift leader of the Division. I never felt like I was completing a mission for the person who set it, instead I would do it to simply remove the marker from the map - a commonly occurring issue in Ubisoft titles.
The shooting feels pretty good though - imagine if they got that wrong? The different weapon types have their own purpose here much more than in any other shooter I have played in recent memory. Usually you would just choose the one weapon - the one dealing the highest damage - to tackle all situations. I found myself switching out on a far more regular basis due to tactical necessity. In the beginning, three of the weapon classes clearly excel at certain ranges - an assault rifle is almost useless at long distance with its wide spray, whereas marksman rifles deal heavy, heavy damage in exchange for slow fire rates, and a shotgun will take most enemies down in one hit within a few metres. Especially when remembering that this is not a realistic shooter, it’s important to use the right tool at the right time, as even mere hoodie-clad hooligans will take a half dozen handgun rounds to fall.
On occasion, the combat encounters can make The Division feel like Watch Dogs’ distant cousin, minus the hacking element. The Division uses a cover-based combat system and modern military weaponry - just like Watch Dogs, and being another Ubisoft property, it was hard for me to disconnect the two. Quite a lot about The Division screams “You’ve done this before!”.
The Division is set in the very near future - with some very fancy tech not so grounded in reality. Homing roller-drones, deployable robo-turrets, and health replenishing rucksacks - these are skills that can be unlocked and equipped. New skills are made available by upgrading the wings of your base, and use of them is limited only by cooldowns.
There are four skills for each of the three areas - medic, tech, and security - and each one is different enough to make choosing just two to equip a proper decision. As a lone wolf, it made sense for me to take a healing skill that affects just me, recovering more health - the other option I had at the time would heal the party but less, and at a slower rate - and from the tech tree, an explosive projectile that can damage multiple enemies in a small radius, perfect for tackling groups.
A level of depth appears when you unlock the mods for them, changing the skill to one of three variants, and then once again when you start working with other people. You start to designate certain roles for each other - does it make sense for everyone to take a healing skill when one could just take the group heal? It does make playing together more interesting, but this isn’t anything new with The Division, it’s an RPG staple.
As I draw to a close, I want to say that The Division is a very pretty game. Sunrises and blizzards are standout moments of beauty, and there are very few dull looking areas - and when every area looks the same, it kind of ends up working for it’s benefit, I guess. Character models and other world assets have a great level of detail and while it maybe doesn’t look quite as good as it did when they showed it off at E3 in 2013, it’s definitely not far off. And yes, I can confirm that your Agent will shut car doors when you take cover near them…
The Division for me has that same “30 seconds of fun” thing that Destiny won so many over with, but may lack the dangling carrot to have players returning week on week for months down the line. Without a seriously dedicated PvP crowd, I can see The Division disappearing after all the content of the season pass has been and gone. That’s not to take away from the many dozens of hours you’ll lose in completing all the key missions and reaching the highest levels. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be compelled to complete everything you can - and there’s always an appeal to that. I think it’s best not to approach The Division as anything more than the latest release of the Ubisoft conveyor belt, but it definitely makes a change from being another Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry.
Tom Clancy’s The Division (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
The Division doesn't have enough of a story to carry it as a shooter, let alone an RPG, but what is here is good. Each firefight is different due to the importance of weapon classes, and mix-and-matching skills when in a group adds a small depth. The Dark Zone is the freshest idea in The Division, but I don't see it carrying the game for months to come. A standard Ubisoft AAA game that may not live as long as intended.