ECHOs are one of the game’s collectibles… and just a bit voyeuristic.
With more ways than ever for players to document and share their experiences, ridiculous bugs and absurd oversights are no longer the stuff of playground rumor. You have one chance to make a good impression, or else faceless assassins and loot caves can become the defining features of your game in the public consciousness well before early problems can be patched.
In the case of The Division, we’ll always remember the queues: a dozen or so players, stacked in orderly horizontal piles, separated only by their own collision detection as they reach for the single laptop that will unlock the rest of the game. It’s among the first of the few times The Division naturally populates its world with large groups of other players, and it’s comedy gold. From that moment forward, however, The Division reveals itself to be curiously desolate for a game that requires a constant (and, so far, rather shaky) server connection.
You’ve been activated
That desolation makes some sense. Someone, somewhere has dosed cash in New York City (or at least the director’s cut version of Manhattan that we get) with a cocktail of smallpox, bird flu, and every other Fox News disease-of-the-year. This “dollar flu,” or “green poison,” has left the borough’s streets either evacuated or full of corpses. Those who remain were either too slow or unwilling to escape quarantine.
This is where your protagonist comes in. As part of a secret and heavily-armed police force, aka The Division, you’ve stayed behind to, ostensibly, collect data on the virus and keep the peace (which you do by murdering tons of people, of course).
The Dark Zone strikes an imposing silhouette.
The Dark Zone strikes an imposing silhouette.
No rogue agents here!
I saw this message far more often than I would have liked.
I take back everything bad I said about the game’s writing.
Fighting at range seems very effective.
In case you weren’t convinced this is an MMO…
Though the streets are normally empty, you can matchmake to find a teammate at anytime.
Let’s just shoot these guys, I guess?
“I look forward to defending you from waves of enemies for the next three minutes.”
Elite enemies can definitely pose a challenge.
Besides the Dark Zone, you’ll only naturally run into players in safe houses. Or not, as the case may be.
But really, as in any loot-driven game, you’re there for the numbers. And The Division does not skimp on the numbers. This cover-based shooter is rotten with currencies, skill trees, and plenty of buffable stats for your character, guns, and armor. And don’t get me started on all the collectibles and consumables to earn, lose, or otherwise adjust. It’s all in a quintessential Ubisoft design style, at this point, now with a touch of the last five years of MMO design thrown in to become even more quintessentially Ubisoft than ever before.
Even though The Division only populates the world with other players in special cases, the game still feels very much like a modern MMO. There’s the obvious loot angle—guns, gear, and attachments that either drop from enemies or are crafted with semi-random stats. There are also crafting material nodes, story missions that play out like MMO dungeons, and a home base with all of the expected MMO amenities: vendors, stations to upgrades, and more conveniently placed nodes on a 12-hour refresh.
Structurally, it all feels like it could have been ripped from Guild Wars 2 or a latter-day World of Warcraft. In the first few days after launch, at least, the game has also captured that old MMO staple of being stuck in a server queue before diving into a game.
Familiar, yet different…
Describing The Division, much like playing it, feels a lot like compiling and checking off a series of lists. There’s a lot of stuff on those lists, for sure, but very little to actually do. What you do, overwhelmingly, is shoot things. Sometimes you’re shooting at napalm canisters, sometimes at rioters armed with baseball bats and hoodies. Sometimes you find them, and sometimes they come to you while defending whatever it was you activated by holding the X button. As a reward, your numbers — armor, DPS, ability power, etc. — go up in order to help you shoot things even better next time.
It’s an old formula, and often a good one, but one that still feels strange in the context of a shooter (even in this post-Destiny world). In Diablo, or the aforementioned World of Warcraft, better gear and levels are how you find new places to explore and new raids to puzzle out. But the new gear usually doesn’t fundamentally alter the moment-to-moment action of clicking on things until they die.
[embedded content]With gun in hand, the progression gets trickier. New and better shotguns, SMGs, assault rifles, and the like come with more accuracy and punch. Meaning The Division actually becomes a more satisfying shooter as it goes, and holds back at the start for the sake of that later progression. That isn’t to say the opening salvo of bullet sharing is bad, per se. Only that it’s a strange sort of gameplay pattern to build a game around, just as it was when Borderlands premiered in 2009, and as it continues to be in the early hours of Destiny.
The Division does little to break from or advance what is fast becoming the general form of the “loot shooter” genre. In fact, it takes very few risks at all, particularly with its enemies and encounter design. The vast majority of foes can be broken down into those with guns, those without, and those whose guns fire at long-range, with very little internal variation within those groups. The modern (or perhaps near-future) setting presumably makes it difficult for The Division to realistically add much variety.
But other times the game is so unconcerned with reality that it borders on the surreal. Calmly chewing a granola bar will douse flames should you ever find yourself on fire. Meanwhile, a sip of unlabeled Dasani magically makes your bullets more effective—but only against enemies with visible names and armor. And the rare NPC you stumble across on the sparsely populated Manhattan streets will occasionally drop a hat or new pair of pants if you offer them a can of food or soda.
For lack of a better phrase, The Division is non-self-conscious in its sheer “video game-y” ridiculousness. Even as other corners of the medium seem increasingly self-aware, The Division is almost defiantly deaf to its own subject matter.
As a Division agent, you’re the best of the best, or so you’re told, and you’re fueled by top-level military training, killer robots, automatic weapons, and energy bars. Your opponents are vaguely affiliated “looters” who, in Ubisoft’s eyes, seem to have just been waiting for the fall of society as an excuse to slaughter and take. The game encourages you to see these desperate citizens less as fellow humans and more as targets. The accepted course of action is always to mow them down indiscriminately, often before they’ve moved against you or even drawn their weapons. That setup is repugnant if you give it more than a moment’s thought.
In addition to poor people, enemies include escaped convicts (also not great), germophobic vigilantes (who are actually more thought-out than the rest), and vaguely conservative mercenaries betrayed by their Wall Street employers. But don’t worry. Ubisoft also hews to the tried, true, and cowardly route so familiar to games that want to feed on societal anxiety but remain primarily about violence. That is to say, everyone is evil. Even you, in theory.
Hello Dark Zone, my old friend
That moral relativism comes into play in the game’s signature Dark Zone. This is where players will eventually spend most of their time, assuming The Division maintains a healthy post-launch life. It’s much like the rest of Manhattan, only with less to do and see. The trade-off is that here you’ll finally encounter other players in the wild—and shoot them, if that’s your thing.
The Dark Zone is the only place to find the best loot and blueprints, not unlike a more open and uniform version of Destiny’s raids. Enemies are heartier and typically come in packs not easy to tackle solo. Here, The Division‘s shooting, cover system, and skills all come into their own. Enemy AI isn’t “smart,” exactly, but in the Dark Zone, at least enemies do a better job of driving you out of cover. So having a teammate or three flank or lay down suppressing fire while you deploy a turret can be a satisfying challenge.
The catch is that when you do clean up the streets, the loot left behind has to be extracted via helicopter for decontamination. At this point, any player can “go rogue” by murdering you and taking your hard-won spoils.
This is a great moral quandary, in theory. In practice, I find that most players realize the benefit of sticking together and simply roll over NPCs en masse until everyone has drunk their fill from the fountain of loot left in their wake. Since the penalties for dying while rogue encompass and exceed the penalties of being killed by a human player, cooperation is the smarter play from a purely mechanical perspective. The end result is (usually) a huddle of players firing suspicious glances at one another, but not much else. Your experience may vary.
The larger problem with the Dark Zone, however, is one similar to The Division‘s most direct competitor: Destiny. As far as late-game content goes, the means is the end. The Dark Zone is the primary way to acquire the best spoils and also the only reason to use them, much like Destiny‘s leap-frogging raids.
The difference with Destiny is that raids at least offer gameplay not found elsewhere in the product. The Dark Zone, by contrast, serves up the same, serviceable cover-to-cover shooting found in every other square foot of The Division. The rest of the endgame is comprised of daily story missions, which unlock at level 30. But these, too, only feel like more fuel to propel you deeper into the Dark Zone loop.
It’s not a boring loop, exactly. But like the plot and setting, it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny once you start to think about what you’re doing and why. The shooting is fine, and the Dark Zone (when it’s as dangerous as intended) borders on thrilling. How long that loop can continue to be satisfying will depend on how determined Ubisoft is to keep The Division a going concern.
- Solid cover-based shooting.
- Tons of customizable loot.
- The Dark Zone can be harrowing at times.
- Threadbare and often repugnant story.
- Very little variety.
- Shaky servers and the other odd bug or oversight.
- It’s awful to lose progress when you’re playing solo and the servers drop you like a designer scarf.
Verdict: The Division takes a stab at the Destiny formula with new strengths and weaknesses, as well as some familiar ones. Try it.
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