In the midst of a plagued and eerily silent Brooklyn, a lone figure peeks into nearby car. A reluctant sun beams down on frozen footpaths, but they stay frozen. The distant echo of a yelping dog brings faint signs of life to the streets, but it’s still quiet. Very quiet. With a disease running rampant and a cure to be made, with nefarious characters running amok and civilians to be saved, it’s time to take this city back.
The Division, the latest effort from a group of Ubisoft developers, pits humanity against a widespread infection in the form of an online, role-playing shooter. Despite a swift relocation from Brooklyn to Manhattan, limited character customisation and an awkwardly mute playable character, The Division has a surprisingly stimulating narrative accompanied by equally stimulating campaign missions. Players always feel connected to The Division’s plight through scripted cutscenes and frequent radio chatter between your superiors. Ultimately, this did wonders for hooking me into whatever Ubisoft had in store, as I knew exactly what I’d be doing to benefit the relief effort in New York. Careful plot development like this helps you feel invested in the cause while not over-glorifying actions with a slew of shiny service badges.
There’s a healthy source of curiosity about what others have lost and left behind in this sprawling, decaying city. Rummaging through people’s residences while looking for your own supplies shows how they managed to survive during the outbreak – there are many boarded-up windows and piles of clothes and pill bottles during your investigations. Stores and apartment complexes may have a lack interactivity, but The Division’s map has a chilling atmosphere reminiscent of I Am Legend – mixed with the detail of a typical Grand Theft Auto title. However, the double-edged sword in question is the lack of activity on street level reflective of the city’s current state. Aside from a useful fast-travel option, you’ll be roaming Manhattan on foot – sometimes for several blocks – before anything noteworthy actually happens. I was looking forward to seeing gameplay that allowed me to temporarily use one of the many parked bikes as a quicker mode of transport, or the ability to salvage vehicle parts to refurbish a motorcycle or something – but it was not to be. Despite the allure of immersion and exploration, the journey from Point A to Point B quickly became arduous and uneventful. There’s a lot to see, but The Division doesn’t succeed at keeping the player occupied in-between objectives.
Dispatching groups of unsavoury opportunists in the exact same spots is another downside to the game’s design, as randomised spawn points would’ve kept these encounters fresh. Furthermore, The Division fails to properly introduce the various enemy factions in the game, resulting in numerous occasions where I was flip-flopping between enemy groups wondering who they were and what their background was; it became quite confusing.
In this fictitious Manhattan, the abandoned presence of the military has left behind a lot of impressively crafted locations where nothing feels out of place in heated exchanges. Using its tactical shooter make-up, your battlegrounds are in congested intersections jam-packed with bollards, abandoned cars, stacked supply crates and bus stops for sneaky flanking routes; unlike Gears of War, your options for respite aren’t overly obvious.
It’s great that enemy AI, for the most part, scales with your level, because they can get painstakingly predictable. Whilst several classes prefer attacking from a distance, it’s the guys who rush into ‘no man’s land’ – with makeshift shields, baseball bats and axes – that make some fights downright laughable. However, it’s when the game throws some heavily armoured guys and frequent grenade pitchers into the mix that a squad can focus-fire and pick apart their tactics. The difficulty increases quite a bit after levelling up and seemingly straightforward encounters become more challenging.
A game such as The Division hinges on strategy, whether going solo or with friends. While the HUD and core shooting mechanics are fine, it’s quite disappointing to see that the only way manoeuvre the streets stealthily is to move from cover to cover; there’s no dedicated crouch mechanic. My character’s gunfire often clipped doorways and other objects when I popped from cover, too. In some instances, I’d be firing into my own cover instead of at nearby goons. Not only that, but my character casually stood up after breaking from cover. It proved a lethal oversight and a separate crouch mechanic would’ve done tactical wonders for combat scenarios.
But while some imperfections gnaw away at you, others make the aforementioned problems seem non-existent. The gameplay limitations revolve around the Base of Operations – the command centre – which contains stacks of extras including upgrades, skill and inventory management, vendors and interactive collectibles. The latter was a nice surprise, as I began to take an interest in sifting through archival footage from security cameras, and first-person videos, from survivors.
At first, the Base of Operations is a run-down multi-storey complex devoid of activity. Missions rewards will be divided up between the Medical, Security and Tech wings of the base, creating a hive of activity with each new upgrade. After spending Supply Points towards each new wing, the base is modernised and creates more passive rewards, called Perks, for your character. It’s pleasing to note the noticeable change inside the Base of Operations – with cleaner floors and an up-beat atmosphere – also translates to the streets, with more military checkpoints and patrols for civilian protection.
Another positive to come out of the Base of Operations is the crafting table. Here, I was able to create specific items made from tiered materials and blueprints given through mission rewards and general exploration. It’s mostly a lucky dip but, in some instances, I manufactured armour pieces and backpacks far above the item’s initial parameters, which proved to be a better alternative than buying from vendors. Equipped gear can also come with modification slots, as well as major and minor attributes to maximize the effectiveness of your chosen abilities, as well as influencing three core attributes: Damage per second [DPS], Health and Skill Power.
Here, The Division becomes a numbers game, mixing and matching particular items – altering your stats in the process – to reach a desired output. Certain weapons have special abilities only available when a threshold of Firearm power (DPS), Stamina (Health), or Electronics (Skill power) is reached. There’s nothing complicated about switching gear modifications and re-assigning skills through the straightforward menu screens – making The Division entirely accessible.
I never replaced the Pulse ability, opting for critical hit damage and health buffs to me and my teammates, all the while experimenting with the Sticky Bomb, Seeker Mine and Smart Cover skills – the latter of which adds health or damage buff for the cover that you hide behind. The Division has very open-ended skill trees where you can change your abilities on the fly without having to re-spec ability points – adding another layer of enjoyable experimentation.
Whether going solo or in a group, the difference with each new addition to your arsenal is immediate. Even though The Division’s side content is relatively lacklustre – simple rinse and repeat missions in different locations, it’s the main missions which hold the game together. Enemies are dotted across the maps on a larger scale, and multiple angles open up flanking routes, sniper’s nests and the use of various grenades. A useful ‘suppressed’ icon that briefly hovers above enemy AI means they’re temporarily on the defensive, granting players a small break and a chance to fall back or advance. There’s a huge difference in these situations when playing with squadmates, too, because the number of hostiles increases. and ammunition dries up more quickly; it’s tough and hectic and fun. These mass confrontations encourage a more communicative, tactical approach to cover numerous lines of sight. and for the entire group to diversify in their abilities.
This becomes particularly important when entering the game’s most dangerous area, The Dark Zone. This area contains other players, lots of aggressive AI; it’s an excellent multiplayer mode. The ultimate goal here is to acquire better loot and successfully extract the items to a helicopter to clear the quarantine. Each of the five Dark Zone districts has a base level cap with separate Dark Zone ranks and credits to be used at special Dark Zone vendors. It was surprising how the hunger for better gear ate away at me during my time with the game: short, 15-minute ventures turned into hour-long sessions filled with raids on huge retail stores and spontaneous skirmishes. The level cap for each area isn’t to be taken lightly. I wandered into Dark Zone Area 1 at level 10 and stood no chance against AI two levels higher.
Pillaging the Dark Zone becomes addictive and this unique mode could have been a standalone game in the presence of some noticeable issues. While there’s always the nagging issue of bullet-spongey enemies, it all washes away because the Dark Zone is such a tense environment that any additional challenges, especially with teammates, is always welcomed. I hadn’t received decent Dark Zone loot drops until Level 18, which is a slight problem, but how Ubisoft has chosen to deal with your fellow Rogue Agents is a bigger one.
Players who kill other players will be rewarded with a selection of their victims’ loot. However, they run the risk of going ‘rogue’, revealing their position to all ‘non-hostile’ agents in the area. The biggest frustration here is that, after that red counter expires, they’re free to go rogue again and repeat the process over and over. PvP kills are a pretty significant part of the Dark Zone, so keeping your rogue status until you exit the area completely would make more sense.
Overall, The Division offers a wonderfully crafted world with both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it’s a great co-operative and tactical third-person shooter but, on the other, the world is just too empty outside of the main missions. The shooting mechanics are satisfactory and the freedom to change your skills at will is a welcome one, but the absence of some stealth elements, is an oversight. Side missions are more or less recycled versions of each other but, unlike Destiny, plot development and visual improvements in the city are given for your efforts.
After a string of delays, Ubisoft has delivered a solid co-operative shooter that doesn’t change the genre’s landscape but definitely hits that sweet spot of squad-based fun and shoot-and-loot goodness.
Hayden poured almost 35 hours into The Division for the purposes of this review. Amongst all the shooting and yelling through in-game chat, he took many, many screenshots.
Worth the Wait
The Division has proven to be a commendable shooter with an entertaining campaign and a gratifying multiplayer component.