Oh, the perils of Black Friday. If the riotous crowds, ungodly lines, and occasional fistfights aren’t bad enough, now there’s this whole smallpox thing to worry about. Tom Clancy’s The Division introduces a world torn by such a virus, introduced before Christmas and decimating the population of Manhattan. Bodies, garbage, and abandoned cars litter the streets, while violent gangs have risen to prominence. Thrust into the quarantine zone, it is your job to bring order to the dystopian environment and help figure out how the pandemic got started.
As a new IP from developer Ubisoft, The Division is one part cover-shooter, one part MMO, allowing players to freely explore a lawless version of Manhattan. Players gain levels, allocate skills, and collect loot, all of which may be done solo or with the help of others. While players may explore the entire world almost from the start, many regions are advanced in difficulty, necessitating the player to level-up by performing story missions, side-quests, and encounters.
The gameplay itself is well-crafted, with top end combat and level design. Objects are scattered across every environment, providing the cover that is necessary for survival. Players must tactically move between cover while avoiding grenades, gunshots, and melee fighters. Doing so is usually intuitive, but occasionally clumsy. The A button is multipurpose, used for getting in cover, getting out of cover, running to new cover, and for rolling. With so many functions, it is very easy to unintentionally perform the wrong action. Worse, the button is sometimes unresponsive when you’re shimmying around objects.
In a straight fight, the AI is mostly solid and more than eager to kill you. They attempt to overwhelm players through suppressing fire, clever flanking, and timely skill usage. Open arenas force players to remain vigilant about guarding their flanks, providing true satisfaction when you overcome the seemingly impossible odds.
However, if you play The Division for any length of time, the holes in the AI start to show and become exploitable. It isn’t too difficult to lure enemies one at a time to choke points, and certain heavy enemies will reload their guns out in the open, allowing you to line up multiple head shots. And like many other games, the friendly AI is idiotic, sliding you around cover and freely running in front of you as you shoot. Fortunately, few missions involve direct help from friendly AI, so their presence is hardly a deal breaker.
If there is a deal breaker in The Division, it might be found amid the game’s dozens and dozens of bugs. A game of this scope with this level of scripting is bound to have some issues around launch, but to the degree that they exist in The Division is simply inexcusable. I fell through the map and into oblivion, got stuck in the geometry, found enemies stuck in spawn points, had enemies stop moving entirely, got locked out of the controls, had enemies shoot me through cover, was unable to go through doorways, spawned in the middle of enemy fire, had skills fail to work properly, and the list goes on. Many of these bugs forced me to restart, and in the end I lost hours of progress. Surely, Ubisoft will fix many of these issues in the coming weeks, but as of this writing, the game feels barely finished.
Even when The Division works as intended, it can often feel like a limited experience. Though the combat is top notch, it is ultimately very one-note. Mission types are technically varied in what you are asked to accomplish, but all you ever do is fight waves of enemies. Want to rescue civilians? Fight this wave of enemies. Want to fix a satellite feed? Fight this wave of enemies. Want to help a struggling military unit? Fight this wave of enemies. Bigger missions just mean more waves of enemies and in larger environments.
Fortunately, those environments go a long way in helping The Division remain fresh. Malls, offices, and research facilities are spectacularly rendered, providing satisfying battle arenas of great variety. Many of these arenas may be approached in different ways, containing multiple exits and pathways, as well as diverse forms of cover, often spread among multiple floors. Even though the fundamentals of gameplay remain static from start to finish, the environments add diversity to the experience. In short, The Division is a fine technical example of top-end level design.
Of course, the visuals are tied into the environments, and they are also top-end. While any screenshot will grant you a picture of the graphics’ technical proficiency, only by playing it will you discover the finer details. From the vast battle arenas mentioned above to the tiny apartment buildings that you needn’t even explore, The Division is visually impressive. After finishing the game, I spent time simply admiring the surroundings, taking in the details of the shelters, and the streets, and the fake advertisements on the walls. The visuals tell a story, painting a picture of the dystopian world that adds immersion to the experience.
But while the visuals tell a fine story, the game’s words and dialogue do not. The concept is fine and even compelling, but the writing itself leaves much to be desired. Characters are cliches and caricatures, spouting cheesy one-liners while trying desperately to appear “cool.” Forget about genuine depth and characterization, and instead prepare for contrived badassery, with an occasional delving into unfunny humor.
The writing wouldn’t have bothered me if there was less of it, but the frequent intercom chatter becomes tiresome. It all leads to an ending that’s so anticlimactic, you might question whether it was actually the ending. Fortunately as an MMO, there is a definite degree of replayability, and new options open up as you hit max level, in some ways signifying a new beginning.
You can play much of The Division with multiple people, including teaming up to take on any of the game’s major missions. Enemies become tougher and more plentiful with more people, so much so that I found the single player route to be far easier. But the highlight of The Division’s multiplayer experience comes by way of an area called the Dark Zone. Here, players may explore and pick up high-level loot, which they must then extract via helicopter. Doing so is risky, because it alerts other players to your presence, who may attack you and steal your stuff.
The Dark Zone is a place built for certain types of players, while likely deterring others. It is a grindy area with fierce AI that can spawn directly behind you when you’re already fighting someone else. There is also constant tension surrounding the intentions of other players. While you may choose to cooperate with others, there is also the risk of being attacked for your loot, particularly when you summon a helicopter. Going rogue is risky too, as it marks you as such, puts a big target on your back, and punishes you severely when you’re killed. I recommend tackling the Dark Zone with a group, where you can either defend one another or form a gang of bandits. Going solo is just a recipe for heartbreak.
While some players will undoubtedly become lost for months in the Dark Zone and The Division as a whole, the game is ultimately very average. The Division takes virtually no risks, relying on a calculated gameplay formula. Everything about The Division has been done before, even if not in the same package all at once. It’s Borderlands and Destiny and Rainbow Six, with the industry’s best compensated artists and designers at the helm. But despite all that manpower, and despite its technical strengths, The Division will not have a legacy. It’s too artistically generic, too repetitive, and too familiar. At it’s core, it is the work of a boardroom, developed to maximize profits and appeal to a specific demographic.
Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Original Release Date: March 8, 2016
Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PS4, PC
ESRB Rating: M – Mature
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