Ubisoft’s answer to Destiny is already the fastest-selling game of 2016, but has it lived up to expectations?
Describing a video game as addictive used to be the greatest compliment you could bestow on it. So much so that ‘just one more go’ became a maxim for the whole of gaming. Nowadays though the word addiction has taken on more sinister connotations. Microtransaction-filled mobile games and online titles such as Destiny seem to have been designed as much by psychologists as game makers, with The Division another natural evolution of game design as a business science.
We do not name drop Destiny by accident, as it and The Division share a great detail in common; even though the core gameplay in both is fairly different. You likely know the basics of The Division by now: New York City (or at least midtown Manhattan, where most of the game is set) has been ravaged by a man-made plague that has caused a breakdown in society and the activation of a sleeper cell of government agents to restore law and order.
It’s a silly concept, but the game never acknowledges the fact and instead remains hell-bent on outdoing Destiny in terms of dour humourlessness. Despite your supposed role as peacekeeper there’s no sense of righteousness or humanity in The Division, as you’re immediately encouraged to shoot first and ask no questions later.
The third person gunplay and cover system is fine, but it’s never as satisfying as genre leaders such as Gears Of War. This is in part because The Division wears its role-playing credentials on its sleeve, with enemies going down in a spray of numbers, the damage they take calculated according to not only your aim but the stats of your character and their weapon. Destiny does this as well, but there’s an easier suspension of disbelief when shooting alien monsters than wondering how a lowly rioter can soak up a hail of bullets as if you’d just showered him with pencil shavings.
Enemy artificial intelligence seems impressive at first, but you soon begin to learn its tricks. Especially as despite there being four enemy factions they all have essentially the same classes of combatant. Even so, the game does well to ensure they’re never a pushover, and the difficultly level is set surprisingly high from the start. Although it’s frustrating that there’s no jump or crouch button, as you’re instead forced to rely solely on the slightly finicky cover system.
But while The Division is only a competent third person shooter it is a very good action role-player. While the pseudo-realistic setting means the abilities and weapons can never get too crazy (read: interesting) the game works very well within those limitations, enabling you to switch abilities and skills on the fly – almost instantly changing the focus of your character from tank to healer and everything in between.
The graphics are also very good, and for anyone familiar with the real thing this is arguably the best recreation of a real-life city ever seen in a video game. Although the illusion is often ruined by the paucity of destructible objects and the civilians wandering around constantly spewing the same few lines of dialogue. The seemingly random level of interactivity is especially frustrating as it allows for fun details such as shooting through car windshields (and, yes, closing car doors), and yet you can pass a giant pile of rubbish bags in the street and it’s clear they’re all just glued to the floor.
Thankfully, the story missions are well designed enough to distract you from such inconsistencies, and again defy the limitations of the setting with some well-crafted maps in appreciably different-looking locations. Unlike Destiny, The Division has proper hand-crafted set pieces that are both memorable and imaginative, from gloomy tube tunnels to encounters at prime tourist spots such as Grand Central Station.
The side missions are far less impressive though, and not only are they repetitive in terms of their construction (there’s really only half a dozen basic types) but the game will keep throwing up literally the same encounters again and again; as you end up shooting bad guys in what for them must be a hellish loop of infinite deaths.
The biggest problem is you can’t really ignore the side missions, as you need them to level grind enough to be able to access the next story mission. As such it’s not long before you start to imagine what The Division would be like if it was a normal, linear – or at least open world – video game.
What stops the repetition of the side missions from becoming intolerable is the four-player co-op options. Unlike Destiny there’s matchmaking for everything, including the raids that have been hinted at for after launch. It can sometimes take a while to find a complete set of three allies but there’s been thankfully few online problems from day one – although the game itself does have a fair few graphical bugs.
You’ll never fight alone in The Division, and you’ll never wait for more than a minute or so for the pleasure. That alone is likely to ensure the game’s launch success is sustained over the long term, although its other secret weapon is the Dark Zone. This is the PvP (player vs. player) area that you gain access to once you’ve levelled up enough; it’s filled with both computer-controlled enemies and fellow players who will happily kill you for whatever loot they imagine you might be carrying.
If they do so they become labelled as a ‘rogue’, with a bounty placed upon their head and everyone able to see them on the map. There’s something of the atmosphere of DayZ when touring the Dark Zone, as you expect betrayal at every moment but still feel compelled to seek safety in numbers. You can ignore the Dark Zone entirely if you want, but it contains the best loot – which has to be airlifted out by chopper, a process that is also clearly visible to anyone who might want to claim it for themselves.
The Division does some things better than Destiny and some not so well, but both games have realised that ensuring the gameplay and concept is as non-threating and repetitive as possible is the secret to success; not a flaw to be ironed out in the future. Rather than trying to beat a high score the addiction comes through the slim but measureable hope that just a few more hours will give you a slightly better weapon, that will allow you to repeat those hours all over again for another marginal upgrade.
That sounds appalling when spelled out like that, but playing the game we were caught up in the tight loop of effort and reward as much as any other player. Viewed purely as an open world shooter The Division is solid but unremarkable, but as a mixture between high tech fruit machine and social platform to interact with friends it’s guaranteed to keep many people’s undivided attention for months to come.
Tom Clancy’s The Division
In Short: Repetitive by design, and at heart a fairly pedestrian third person shooter, but the online co-op and promise of never-ending rewards is hard to resist.
Pros: Well-designed upgrade system and story missions, and some of the best co-op action of the current gen. The Dark Zone works extremely well. Good graphics and plenty of content.
Cons: Far too repetitive in terms of basic gameplay and side missions. Dull story and setting, which limits the variety of enemies and equipment.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Developer: Ubisoft Massive, Reflections, Annecy, and Red Storm Entertainment
Release Date: 8th March 2016
Age Rating: 18
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