It seems like an eternity since Tom Clancy's The Division was announced but it's finally here and we've put it through its paces. Was it worth the wait? Was the scripted co-op dialogue in early gameplay demos close to reality? Let's take a peek and find out.
It's Black Friday in New York City and despite the fact that fewer people carry cash these days, a real piece of work named Amherst decides to smear a custom-made version of the Smallpox virus all over paper currency, which is hilariously dubbed (at first, anyway) the Dollar Flu. This spreads rapidly and has an enormously high mortality rate, which causes widespread panic, the institution of martial law, and eventually, the activation of a group of super agents known as The Division.
As a Division agent, it's your job to clean up the streets of NYC by hunting down Amherst and all of the goons who seized opportunity during the chaos. Four "factions" have taken to the streets for various reasons, but all of them end up with you shooting them in the face. Early on, you'll face rioters - hoodie-clad youngsters who are out to get what's "theirs." (Bullets in the head.) There's an interesting faction called the Cleaners, who regularly cosplay as the Pyro from Team Fortress 2 and whose end goal is to burn everyone they think could possibly be infected. You shoot them in their fuel tanks for fun and profit.
Later on, you come across the Rikers, who are escaped convicts from the Rikers Island prison, favoring heavier weapons and shotguns. You'll probably end up shooting them too, but their tendency to roam in packs made explosions my favorite way to take them out. Finally, you'll face the Last Man Battalion, because it wouldn't be a Clancy game without some kind of rogue PMC showing up to start trouble. Guess what you do to them! (Spoilers: lethal doses of hot lead)
New York City's midtown areas are extremely well rendered in The Division, and I've tapped our good friend Nick to add his thoughts on this later on in the review.
At its core, The Division is an extremely competent cover shooter with a couple nice additions. Aiming your reticle at any other piece of cover and holding the 'snap to cover' button will cause your agent to sprint towards it and then take cover there. The system governing this is smart enough to have you vault over the top of cover or run around obstacles to reach it. Additionally, in a lesson certainly cribbed from Assassin's Creed, you can hold the 'traversal' button to automatically hop over things, hood slide, or even jump onto a ladder from a full sprint.
There's a little bit of suspension of disbelief necessary when you get around to the actual shooting, since enemies tend to be of the bullet sponge variety. When you're presented with visuals and weaponry that closely resemble reality, the fact that you might unload an entire magazine into someone's snapback or hoodie and NOT kill them seems a bit silly. It feels very similar to the Borderlands games in practice.
Player abilities are earned by upgrading your Base of Operations. As you purchase upgrades, each of your wings will provide skills, perks, and talents. The Medical wing grants you abilities centered around healing or support, Tech is focused on explosives and applying debuffs to enemies, and Security provides options for the defensive-minded player. Skills are active abilities that you can bring into battle - pick two of your favorites and one 'signature' ability. Talents are passive abilities that help round out your playstyle - you can eventually pick four to have active at any time. Perks range from expanding your inventory to adding extra vendors to your Base of Operations.
Tech is probably the most entertaining of the three wings, since it gives you access to all sorts of fun gadgets. My two favorites are the Sticky Mine (modified to spew shrapnel and apply a bleeding debuff to enemies) and the Turret (which can be made to electrocute enemies or even be a remote flame thrower!)
Games like this live and die by the quality of loot they provide, and I'd hate to say it, but this is the part of the game that bums me out. Since everything is (more or less) based on reality, you're not going to get anything that looks particularly cool. The AK-47 you get at level 5 will look exactly like the ones you can find at level 30, except the numbers will be bigger.
That's slightly unfair of me, since higher qualities of weapons and armor also have different perks available, but I haven't really found anything that feels game-changing yet. There's actually more variety in the cosmetic items you can equip - the game throws a ton of jackets, boots, hats (it's a video game in 2016, of COURSE there will be hats), and even scarves.
The game's built from the ground up to be a co-op experience and it's a much more engaging experience when played with others. It'd be nice if you could see other players while you're freely roaming the world, similar to how Destiny or Journey will phase nearby players into your game, but since you can trigger matchmaking at any safehouse or at the start of all of the story missions, you shouldn't have too much trouble finding company.
Co-op is definitely the way to play. In practice, it allows you to be more aggressive, since there are some (very) basic threat mechanics in play. Basically, the louder your gun is, the more attention you can get enemies to pay to you, which lets your partners exploit openings to better position themselves to take headshots, or get in close for a shotgun blast. This also lets you be a little more flexible with the abilities you equip, since you don't have to be as much of a generalist or worry as much about taking self-healing skills.
As more players join your squad, the game will scale things in several ways, one of which is decidedly annoying. Enemies will appear in greater numbers, and often will be wearing extra armor, which changes how you'll fight them. It becomes less of a 'stop and pop' game, and you'll have to avoid getting flanked a lot more often.
Frustratingly, the level of enemies is also scaled up based on the level of the highest player in the group, whether they are the host session or not. The game first checks the level of the zone/mission, and if any player is five or more levels higher than the content, every enemy will be (at weakest) five levels below that player. So if I have a friend who grabs the game later on and wants to play some co-op with me, my level 30 will cause nearly every enemy in the game to be level 25, and that will persist even if I log out.
Aside from the campaign missions, when exploring the city you'll chance across 'encounters' and 'side missions'. Each zone in the city will have its own set of them, and with a couple exceptions, you'll do each type of side mission (uplink repair, supply defense, etc.) once per zone, and at least one of each category of encounter (hostage rescue, checkpoint defense, etc.) as well. Completing side missions will earn you a good bunch of experience and blueprints for crafting. Encounters reward experience and resources for one of the Base of Operations wings. Once you tire of this stuff, I suggest taking some trips to the Dark Zone.
The Dark Zone is one of The Division's most interesting aspects. Unlike the rest of Midtown, if you enter the Dark Zone, you'll be placed into an instance with a couple dozen other players whose level range is close to your own. I would very much recommend heading in with at least one friend.
Enemies are much stronger in the Dark Zone, and will usually drop higher quality gear than you can get outside. They'll also drop Dark Zone Credits, a separate currency used to buy items from vendors at the zone's entrance. In here, loot is "contaminated" and you can't just waltz out of there holding onto it. Once you've decided you've had enough hunting and want to check out your spoils, you'll need to head to an extraction zone and summon a helicopter to haul your loot away and give it a good scrubbing.
Here's where the game becomes a bit of a social experiment: in the Dark Zone, you can choose to work together with other players, or you can shoot them in the back when they're not looking and snag all of the Dark Zone loot and a portion of the DZ Credits they're holding. When someone calls for extraction, all other players in your instance are alerted. In my experience, about half the time you're trying to extract, someone's going to try and show up to ruin your party. Extraction takes 90 seconds, after which, the helicopter will wait for about 30 seconds for any players to attach their gear for cleansing.
The Division is a living game, and through a combination of paid and free add-ons, should grow to have more to do. For the moment, it's good for about thirty or so hours before you've got nothing left to do but grind the daily challenges for Phoenix Credits and prowl the Dark Zone. Soon, an endgame activity known as Incursions will be added, and it seems like this'll be The Division's version of a raid.
As a solo experience, The Division is a fairly repetitive grind with a handful of interesting set pieces throughout the campaign. As soon as you add extra players, or crank up the difficulty, the I find it to become vastly more enjoyable.
There are a fair number of comparisons that can be made between The Division and Destiny. Both have a lackluster story, both have character classes (to a degree), and both require new content doled out at regular intervals to sustain them. There are a fair number of differences as well, e.g., The Division uses cover-based shooting mechanics, Destiny's landscapes are beautiful in a fantastical way while The Division paints a grim reality, and The Division utilizes cover-based shooter mechanics and strategies. None of that matters. When comparing The Division and Destiny, the question isn't one of "will I like one if I like the other;" if you like loot shooters then the answer is yes. No, the real question is "will The Division push Destiny to be better, and vice versa."
As The Division stands now, there is room for improvement. The same was said of Destiny at its launch and it took that team one year to turn things around. There is some hope that The Division will be able to make the same shift faster, as they would have a kind of "lessons learned" via observation of what happened with Destiny. What's more, Ubisoft and the rest of the dev team have a real opportunity in these next few months to really impress its player base and attract new players to the game while Destiny is figuring out its new content cycle. If they can, then perhaps Bungie will have to respond in kind. What we should all be hoping for are two games that provide two experiences that are rewarding and just different enough that both can be played and enjoyed by the same group.
- JasonThe Division vs. New York City
Ubisoft and Massive should be commended for the authenticity of NYC represented in The Division. They took one of the most iconic cities in the world and managed to create a beautiful and believable post-outbreak urban environment. While we're currently limited to a compressed subsection of midtown Manhattan, the areas that are on display are surprisingly accurate to their real life counterparts. As someone who travels into the city numerous times a year I not only saw the obvious larger landmarks (Times Square, Madison Square Garden, Bryant Park, etc) - but smaller areas were accurately recreated. I frequently take the ferries into the city from Weehawken, NJ and several buildings near the waterway were accurately on display. When my wife ran the NYC Marathon last year, my daughter and I sat on a bench in a small park outside some apartments near 34th and 2nd Ave, and in the Division I was taking down Rikers in that very park. It was sort of surreal.