It’s the end of the world. Again. Or, at least, the end of bits of New York. Which might as well be the same thing. There is something about a veneer of desolation applied to a familiar place – a place normally so bustling with life, alive in its modernity. New York is a city that’s as recognisable to most as their own home town – if not from personal experience then certainly from popular media. The hotel off Times Square where you stayed four years ago on a romantic break. The steps of Grand Central Terminal recognisable from innumerable cop shows. It’s all there. Real, solid places amongst the chaos and destruction.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is remarkable in its reconstruction of a chunk of Midtown Manhattan – a portrayal of a city overrun by pandemic, it’s an environment that feels more real than any other urban environment in games. This swathe of New York feels hand crafted; each store front, skyscraper and neighborhood lovingly built to show the majesty of the greatest city on Earth brought low by the most insidious of organisms. Despite only carving out a chunk of NYC this is an environment epic in scale; huge sweeping statements of decay tempered by poignant personal stories of tragedy, played out through mobile phone messages and snippets of radio broadcast.
The Division is an online, loot-driven RPG wrapped up in the mechanics of a third-person cover-shooter. Whilst borrowing elements from both genres, and treading at least some of the path blazed by Destiny, this is a game that manages to be all its own. The satisfying – if occasionally a little static – gunplay mixed with rewarding loot drops, solid story beats and the Dark Zone, an unusual twist on PvP that we shall come to later, is topped off with reliable online play. Could The Division be an early contender for Game Of The Year?
The story – wonderfully introduced in the live action trailer series that debuted a few weeks before the game itself – is pure pulp, but sets the scene for an engaging in-game experience. Whilst it does little that’s new, our desensitization fuelled by myriad apocalypse experiences gone before, it offers up engaging NPCs, interesting sub plots and just the right level of light relief. Stand out moments, though, belong to the tiny stories told through mobile phone recordings, discovered documents and Echoes – reconstructions of events rendered through a patchwork of CCTV, mobile phone and drone camera footage, radio transmissions and other covert surveillance that took place before and during the fall of society.
It’s these very human stories – one villainous character who clearly believes his actions are justified, asking for understanding from his niece of nine or ten – that help immerse you in a world that appears beyond saving, and asks you to invest yourself in that seemingly impossible task. You are no lone hero, just one of many sleeper Agents activated when all other attempts to stem the tide of a genetically engineered smallpox virus failed. It is a bleak vision, a dirty, grimy task but the world in which you are inhabiting – in which you are surviving – keeps you focused on the task in hand through constant reminders of your duty, and encourages you to stick with it.
Your task is to save New York – ‘when society falls, we rise’ is the call to arms – and you accomplish this through missions that, although largely well designed and interesting to play through are, in reality, fairly standard fare. Go here, kill this guy, go there, press that button. What lifts these rote experiences above the crowd, though, is the way in which they fit into the larger world. Side missions are doled out by a range of characterful NPCs whose encouraging radio banter keeps you informed, whilst encounters often see you teaming up with beleaguered Joint Task Force (JTF) allies to take down enemies and rescue civilians. Of greater import are the main story missions – driving forward the narrative, offering up big chunks of XP, and opening up more customisation options for your Agent through new perks and talents.
In any RPG customisation is key to the experience and – aside from a disappointingly limited character creation process – The Division gets this just right. There’s no class system here – instead you can mould your Agent into any one of the usual tropes – healer, tank, gadget-user – by progressing up one of the talent trees. The nature of this progression – where customisation is opened up in one of the three areas (here known as Medical, Security and Tech) by completing missions and upgrading areas of your home base – means that it’s easy to switch specialisms at any time, even in the middle of a firefight. Kitted out as a medic but isolated behind cover and in need of an auto-turret to save your bacon? No problem. A quick trip into the menus and you are sorted. It’s a welcome approach that allows you to experiment with different playstyles and perks without the need to create separate characters and replay the same story points.
As you rise to the (current) level cap of 30 your skills improve, as does the effectiveness of your weaponry and armour. This is just as well – The Division is a game that offers an MMO-style sandbox experience but needs you to progress logically through a story. Here, this is accomplished by level-gating; every mission has a recommended level and attempting to take on enemies much more than a couple of levels above your own is a tough, tough ask. You’ll have more fun if you let Ubisoft gently guide you through the story. Fun, that is, if you are comfortable with a bit of grinding (another MMO staple). Here it’s neither as intrusive nor dragged out as in Destiny, for example (a comparison we are making because of that game’s similar mashup design) but does mean you’ll be carrying out similar and occasionally repetitive side missions to level up in between the epic story quests. In reality, this deliberate game structure gives The Division a uniquely relaxed pacing, and affords the opportunity to enjoy shorter gaming sessions from time to time; complete a main mission and then follow that up with a handful of side quests. With each side mission or encounter taking only a few minutes you can easily knock two or three out in half an hour, and make progress towards that next level and that next story mission.
Story missions themselves are wonderful gameplay experiences. Lengthy and challenging, they encompass a wide range of elements and are fought across a significant swathe of the map. The two story missions available in the popular open beta raised questions about the complexity the full game would offer, but any concerns were unfounded. Each progresses the narrative arc of the story and offers tense stand offs, pitched battles of a significant scale, and epic boss fights. Once completed, missions are replayable on a harder difficulty setting, offering a stronger challenge and, importantly, better loot.
Whether in story missions, side missions, encounters or just taking down random street thugs, gunplay is solid. The cover mechanic works well, traversing from cover to cover is smooth and, when mastered, goes some way to encouraging a more dynamic, movement-based combat than might be expected. Cover based shooters are by design much more static than their FPS cousins – strategy, timing and awareness all playing their part and reducing reliance on hair-trigger reflexes. Movement both in and out of combat is a little restrictive, though. Whilst there’s plenty of mantling and plenty of objects over which to mantle, jumping, crouching (outside of the cover mechanic) and going prone are all impossible. There are other issues, too – moving from cover to cover is dynamic and beautifully scripted but pulling away from low cover will see your agent stand straight up – an unnatural movement in the middle of a firefight and, on occasion, a lethal one. Keep your head down, Agent!
These minor niggles aside, combat is fun – and is even better in a fire team (in The Division terminology, a group) of up to four. As always, being in a party who communicates improves things immensely but even playing alongside randoms works well; the game’s proximity chat – letting you communicate with other players when your characters are near to each other – is a help. At least you know your yells of frustration will be heard, if not exactly heeded. That frustration will come from the occasional accidental dive from cover into crossfire during combat that, against enemies at your level or higher, is always both fun and challenging. There are some neat touches – the panic that surges over an enemy when you ignite the fuel tank they have somewhat idiotically strapped to their back is palpable, and the ensuing fiery ball of death is never less than satisfying. Sniping enemies in cover from distance or through a car windshield or shop display cabinet is also a satisfying experience. Close up combat is catered for, too – any number or real-world assault rifles, machine guns, handguns and shotguns are in the mix. All are upgradeable, with scopes, silencers and other attachments offering tangible boosts to weapon characteristics.
The Division makes it easy to work alone or team up with friends. Anyone on your friends list playing at the same time as you will appear on your mini map, although they are likely to be in another instance of the game, on another server. It takes just a couple of button presses though, to join them, and leaving a group is seamless, too. So far, other than some early teething issues on day one online play has been superbly stable and matchmaking pleasantly swift. After many days and continuing issues with matchmaking in R6 Siege, it’s a huge surprise and welcome relief that The Division’s netcode seems considerably stronger and smarter in every way. Gold star, Ubisoft.
That the enemy AI is predictable doesn’t impact on the enjoyment of combat in any real way. Again, the rich seam of video game tropes is mined for content, with enemies falling into typical classes; melee, sniper, grenadier, heavy weapons guy. Bad guys will rush, flank and withdraw according to the situation, and a one-kill headshot on a sprinting rioter will bring a smile to your face. Not that one shot kill is the norm here – more powerful enemies will require multiple hits, on occasion straying into bullet-sponge territory. It is here that the gritty realism of the environments and characterisation drifts away and, if you are to truly enjoy The Division, you must let it go. The Tom Clancy brand – synonymous with realism in other games – may have actually done The Division a disservice. It might be entirely unrealistic to need five perfectly-timed headshots to drop a sprinting enemy before he clobbers you with a baseball bat, but it is incredibly satisfying when you do so. In truth, there’s no real alternative to this mechanic in an MMO style game and whilst you can get away with this in fantasy or sci-fi settings, it’s always a little jarring to experience in a game otherwise solidly grounded in reality. Ignore it, though, and you will enjoy the game all the more.
No game – and particular no MMO-like wannabe – would be complete without a Player versus Player (PvP) offering, and again The Division takes this tried and tested mechanic and twists it into something new and unique. The game’s Dark Zone – an even more lawless swathe of Manhattan – is the setting for PvP action but, unlike that included in other games, is incorporated very nearly seamlessly into the same narrative structure as the campaign. Rather than offer a range of playlists and game types, the Dark Zone offers a sandbox PvP experience instead. Entering alone or with a group, you will come across other agents – their intentions unknown. Here, anyone could be friend and saviour. Anyone could be foe.
The draw of the Dark Zone is its promise of the best loot in the game, generally lifted from fallen high-level NPCs who inhabit this area of NYC. Once looted, the only way to get your new equipment and weapons out of the Dark Zone is to call for a helicopter to lift the contaminated gear out. It’s here, as you wait in the designated zone for the chopper to arrive, that The Division takes on a whole new level of delicious tension. Calling in the chopper will signal to everyone in the vicinity that you are likely hunkered down in one spot, your backpack full of valuable loot just ripe for the taking. It’s a great big “come and get me,” writ large in the sky.
As you are approached by other Agents, not knowing their intentions, not knowing how things will play out, breaths are held and fingers involuntarily tighten around triggers – on more than one occasion an errant shot caused by no more than the tension in our sinews spelled disaster. Death in the Dark Zone – at the hands on an NPC or a fellow Agent – will result in the dropping of any kit you have looted and not yet extracted. You’ll also lose Dark Zone dollars (the separate currency used to purchase gear from vendors within the zone) and Dark Zone XP. Your Dark Zone level – distinct from that earned outside the zone – can go up or down, depending on your success. If you can make your way back to where you fell you can get back the gear and the money – assuming it hasn’t been looted by another Agent. Finding your gear untouched upon respawn is a rare occurrence, though.
Agents who attack other agents go Rogue – icons above their heads turning red, signifying their status for all to see. In a wise design choice the odd incident of blue-on-blue friendly fire is ignored, though sustained fire will mark you – and everyone in your group – as a Rogue agent. You then have two choices – run and hide until the counter reaches zero and Rogue status is removed, or go with it, keep attacking other Agents for the loot and the rapid growth of your Dark Zone level. Going Rogue means making a cost/benefit analysis. Rogue agents are targets for all – killing them is good for your Dark Zone level, and good for the soul. Dying as a Rogue Agent will have a greater impact on your Dark Zone dollar count and your Dark Zone level. However, the fastsest way to level up in the Dark Zone is to go – and stay – Rogue, earning you the best loot in the game much more quickly. It’s an interesting choice to make.
On paper, the Dark Zone feels like an interesting experiment in incorporating PvP into a game and having it feel part of the cohesive whole. In practice, it offers up some of the most interesting and compelling experiences in all of The Division.
The Division is a package that offers a great deal – a campaign of around 30 hours bolstered by innumerable collectibles that flesh out the story, a new and unique PvP mechanic, and the kind of number-crunching statistics that RPG nerds (like us) can get lost in. RPG obsessives can wallow in the comparison of this bit of gear and that one; major and minor attributes mean that gear isn’t just about how much damage it deals or how much protection it offers. Gear also buffs one or more of your three skill categories (Medical, Security and Tech) and so many happy chunks of time were spent perusing our inventories, ooh-ing and aah-ing over one perk or another. Items deemed worthless, or that we had grown out of, were sold for cash or junked for scrap, each providing resources to be used at the crafting table to forge newer and better gear. Occasionally logging on for a quick couple of missions resulted in little more than tweaking our kit and our skills, or upgrading elements of the base itself.
This attention to detail extends to your HUD and your Agent’s on-screen representation. There’s a clever health bar system that’s segmented into three parts, making firefights as much about cover, recovery and heath management as sharp shooting. You can tell which special gear an Agent has equipped just by looking at the kit hanging from their backpack. The user interface manages to be clear and unobtrusive, as is group management where it’s incredibly easy to jump into a friend’s game to help them out.
We had a huge amount of fun playing The Division – the story grabbed us and dragged us in, and the immersive experience was only briefly broken by the niggles with restrictive movement and repetitive side missions. Either alone or with friends, this swathe of New York City felt like a living world, one that needed our help. It’s a relentless game, with a firefight around every corner and secrets spread all over the map, but one we still haven’t tired of. The minor issues haven’t dissuaded us from our efforts to take back the City. If you choose to join the fight, we’re confident you’ll feel the same.
Check out our gameplay video – taken from the Open Beta – of the Subway Morgue story mission.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is available from the Xbox Store priced £54.99 for the standard version, or £87.99 including the season pass.
This review was based on over 100 combined hours playing The Division by our review team.
A fantastic and compelling open world shooter RPG.
An open world RPG shooter, Tom Clancy’s The Division features a solid story with some truly stand out moments. Best experienced with friends, The Division offers a tight and compelling loop of action and reward that keeps you coming back for more. The true star, though, is New York itself, a familiar city made new and exciting, filled with things to do and see, and people to kill.
The more restrictive and repetitive elements of the game disappoint – as do the meagre customisation options – but the never-ending search for loot is as strong here as in any MMO. The biggest game of the year so far certainly has the muscle to take Destiny’s flawed and fading crown, and Ubisoft are already promising more regular and consistent content drops than Bungie’s MMO.