Release Date: March 8, 2016Platform: XBO (reviewed), PS4, PCDeveloper: Ubisoft MassivePublisher: UbisoftGenre: Online Shooter RPG
The Division is my favorite Ubisoft game since Assassin’s Creed II and the original Ghost Recon. It’s an experience that rewards both casual and hardcore players with countless hours of shooting, explosions, and grinding. No, you won’t find much in the way of real depth in The Division, as story is pushed aside, much like in its counterpart, Destiny, for an emphasis on gameplay and role-playing. If you’re a player who doesn’t need too much story, and instead want lots of gritty action out of your shooters, then you can’t go wrong with The Division. On the other hand, if you’re a person who expected the next great epic, a tale about bringing justice to a lawless and dying city, you will be disappointed by the lack of any real narrative stakes.
What The Division winds down to is a game about (indiscriminately) shooting bad guys, whether they be thugs or flamethrower-wielding fascists, in order to gain better upgrades and loot in order to more effectively shoot dudes without prejudice. Come to think of it, there is something inherently wrong about The Division‘s politics, as you make your way from street to dilapidated street with machine guns and grenades, ready to blow up pretty much anyone wearing a hoodie. It doesn’t make much sense, and it’s a bit scary to think that someone made a game about a secret government task force disguised as civilians that is activated in only the most desperate times to murder everything. You’ll need to turn off the smart part of your brain before you can enjoy this game.
But once that’s done, once you’ve accepted that all of your enemies are bullet sponges and that you’ll never do much else but shoot at things and collect loot, you’ll pretty much get lost in the world of The Division, its systems, and its infinite amount of objectives. You never run out of things to do in this game, despite complaints about thin endgame, as objectives constantly pop up all around you, whether it be a rescue mission or something to do with rebuilding the city’s infrastructure. You might actually call The Division a bit busy, especially when teaming up with other players in free roam matchmaking. The number of blips on your radar can quickly overwhelm you. The downside to this is that the side missions do get a bit repetitive after a while. And the objectives don’t really get much more challenging as you enter more dangerous areas, only the enemies do. Again, just so we’re crystal, you’ll never be asked to do anything harder than shoot bigger and tougher bad guys. This is The Division‘s major flaw.
The game’s lack of story doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of narrative beauty in the quarantined New York City. On the contrary, the light story allows for smaller, more genuine details to grab your attention, instead of the usual bombastic stuff you see in today’s shooters. As I said in my first impressions, finding things like recordings or voicemails offer little stories about the people who didn’t survive the initial chaos of the virus outbreak that took down most of the city’s population. You’ll find calls to distant loved ones, whispered truths from people who want to atone before they die, and hectic snippets of life before death. The Division can be quietly melancholy in its best moments.
The same can be said about the abandoned New York City, which is rendered beautifully, as the city dies quietly in the harsh snow of winter. Missions in familiar landmarks such as Madison Square Garden offer easy immersion points. Thought was put into these scenarios: MSG has become a clinic for the sick and the New York Post Office Building is now a base of operations for the remaining military forces. And then there is the New York Subway, which provided one of my favorite moments early on in the game. In this nightmarish possible future, the subway has been turned into a cemetery for the infected. It’s deeply affecting, as you walk past rows of tarp-covered coffins. If anything, The Division has a missed opportunity on its hands, taking place in the aftermath of the disaster, when the city is already a ground zero, instead of fully embracing the chaos, like the opening section of The Last of Us did.
Once you’ve explored what the story missions have to offer, you’ll spend most of your time in the Dark Zone, the game’s main objective-based PvP area. Here is where the real game begins, where you’ll only go alone if you want a quick death. Like most of The Division experience, entering the chaos of the Dark Zone is pretty seamless, as you walk through a decontamination room and a lobby before exiting on the other side. The Dark Zone is where you’ll find the rarest loot and also encounter the toughest enemies, including rogue agents—aka other players who have decided to start shooting at you. You could technically make your way through the Dark Zone without actually getting locked into PvP, which just depends on whether you encounter bloodthirsty players. The rewards for engaging other players include taking an enemy player’s loot and raising your DZ ranking, which is unique to this area.
The Division stages some pretty action-packed moments in the DZ, thanks to one design choice that both makes sense within the story and forces you to set up a defensive position or attack other players. In order to get any loot out of the DZ, you must call in an extraction from one of the landing pads littered around the map. You have to wait for a helicopter to arrive, haul up your loot, and decontaminate your items before you can take them back to the more friendly areas of New York City. This is like walking headfirst into a hornet’s nest, of course, as greedy jerks begin to attack you to get a quick reward after you’ve done all the work. These battles to protect your loot will get the blood pumping.
To speak quickly of the more technical aspects of the game, matchmaking is a thing of beauty, nowhere near as stubborn or glitchy as Destiny‘s. You can easily invite/join other players without having to go back to any lobbies, although you do have the option to recruit players at designated safe houses around the city. Otherwise, when approaching main missions, a menu pops up on your hud that allows you to quickly invite other players to join you. The Division puts less of an emphasis on “building community” with random strangers and more focus on just getting you the number of partners you need to tackle difficult missions. (I know I’m hating on Destiny, but it’s only because I still don’t understand why there isn’t matchmaking in the raids.) How great is the matchmaking in this game? Admittedly, I’ve been disconnected from the server a couple of times while making my way through a main mission…BUT when I loaded the game back up in frustration, it returned me to where I was, with the people I was playing with before I got thrown out. I haven’t lost a lick of progress yet.
Leveling and customization are big parts of the experience, and honestly the reason to play in the first place. You’ll quickly get sucked in by not only your character’s stats but his look. While the initial character creator is somewhat limited, The Division quickly opens up with way too many options. Things like what kind of holster you equip or what backpack your using to haul your goodies around matter. Changing one little detail can drastically change the amount of health you have on the field and the damage you inflict on your enemies. You’ll want to pay very close attention to how you combine certain items and how you mod your weapons.
The Division is a numbers game, all about shooting enough bad guys in order to gain experience in order to level in order to kill stronger bad guys and again and again…an endless loop that only ends once you’re able to snap out of the trance. For me, it took a while. I was having fun. I still am. This is the kind of game I can get lost in, check back with reality for a little while, and then do it all over again.
Day 1 – First Impressions
The Division is exactly what I wanted it to be: a fun online shooter RPG (MMOFPS?) that I could get lost in. I didn’t really have any expectations beyond what I’d seen in a few gameplay videos. I purposely tried to avoid as much information about the game until it officially launched, and what I’m discovering is a pleasant surprise. I’ve made no secret of my feelings towards Ubisoft’s yearly installments (hopefully a thing of the past) and how they’ve ruined series that I absolutely loved, namely Assassin’s Creed, but my faith is almost completely restored in the company after spending a day in the quarantined streets of The Division‘s New York City. In fact, this new IP from Ubisoft Massive is the best game the publisher has put out in years.
I should probably point out that I have a major soft spot for Bungie’s Destiny, the game The Division will undoubtedly be compared to the most in the next few weeks. While I was disappointed at first (part of the reason why I didn’t want to get too hyped for The Division!), Destiny has turned into that special game that I can pick up at any point in time and get lost in for weeks, upgrading my characters and tackling increasingly difficult challenges. Oh, and there’s also that delicious PvP mode. Hell, it’s my favorite game of the current generation so far. Naturally, The Division is a perfect fit for me. But while familiarity is key to The Division experience, especially for players who just want more shooting, leveling, upgrading, customizing, and grinding, the game has plenty of its own style.
Stepping into the world of The Division is surreal, as you “wake up” in the ground zero of New York City and traverse the littered streets, shellshocked civilizians staggering past you in a hurry, trying to get away from whatever is coming. But the time to escape the smallpox pandemic that’s hit the city is long past, and every corner is littered with corpses, burning buildings, and abandoned cars. It uncomfortably reminds you of past disasters in the city before thrusting you into the action. You never quite get used to walking through a postapocalyptic New York, one that’s been recreated with all of its major landmarks, now weathering away in abandonment.
In true Tom Clancy fashion, you play as a member of a top secret government task force,The Division, the last line of defense against the fall of society. By the time the game starts, most members of this task force have already been eliminated, either claimed by the outbreak or killed by enemy factions. You, along with some competent NPCs and whoever you feel like matchmaking with, must find a cure for the virus and stop criminals who are trying to take over the city. That’s pretty much every Tom Clancy staple checked off in one paragraph.
So far, the story is pretty light actually, although there is a sense of purpose to each mission, whether you’re recovering contaminated samples from enemy territory or rebuilding the city’s infrastructure. There’s always a sense that what you’re doing is important, even if it’s something as simple as investigating traces of a missing person. In fact, while The Division keeps things pretty epic most of the time, with long, tense firefights and plenty of explosions, Ubisoft often times focuses in to tell very personal stories about the people who were lost to the virus. Finding cellphones or computers on the streets unlock footage or recordings of a person’s last moments or of the initial panic and attempts to get out of the city. Some footage is very graphic, while other stories you encounter are heartbeaking, like a daughter’s last call to her mom. Ubisoft adjusts the scope of the stories masterfully, keeping the rhythm of the storytelling fun and giving actual importance to collectables, of which there are plenty.
As I said, a lot of the early gameplay is about rebuilding New York City’s infrastructure, and more importantly, regaining the upperhand against all of the enemy factions. Your base of operations, located in the heart of the city, is where you’ll spend a lot of time putting resources you find on the field to good use. A mix of security, medical, and tech missions allow you to gain valuable supplies needed to upgrade the city’s remaining forces. Each type of mission provides its own unique challenges and rewards. But don’t get too carried away—you’ll still be shooting a lot of bullet sponges.
Even if things do boil down to killing as many bad guys as possible (and causing more property damage than the pandemic ever did), the enemies you encounter are always interesting. I’ve only faced off against two factions so far, the Rioters and the Cleaners. Rioters are your classic thugs, bandits trying to take advantage of the situation, while Cleaners are something much cooler: former New York sanitation workers who have vowed to wipe the city clean of the virus with flamethrowers and napalms. Their mission is to burn away the contamination, people and all. These gasmask-wearing baddies are formidable and are a ton of fun to fight.
I’ve used the word “fun” a lot in this write-up, and that’s what The Division really comes down to so far. It’s non-stop action, with plenty of missions, side quests, collectables, and little stories to keep you busy through the night. I’ll get more in-depth about upgrading your weapons and gear, customization (I love finding new clothes in this game for some reason), and the leveling system. But really, the main thing is that you should find out for yourself because The Division is really good.