The Division is an atmospheric adventure through post-pandemic New York
It’s been just over a week since the Division launched and my game client is telling me I’ve racked up nearly fourty-eight hours of play time. It’s safe to say the game has got its hooks in me, with my thoughts often wandering to the daily missions and new dark zone builds when I’m away from it. The Division is a powerful thing – an engrossing world packed with details, side missions and elusive high end gear drops.
Ubisoft Massive’s baby is finally here after three years, despite delays and doubt, delivering a more than solid experience. Set in post epidemic New York, the world of the game feels scarily realistic, in part due to the excellent rendering of the city, but also due to the believable threat.
It’s called the dollar flu – a modified strain of smallpox unleashed upon the city during the infamous black Friday. I was quite surprised to find the narrative quite compelling, with some interesting twists and turns. It’s paced very well in terms of missions and story urgency; you’ll go through the first fifteen levels of the game at a slower pace, investigating the situation as part of the second wave between side missions and forays into the dark zone.
Once the story evolves the pace quickens, creating a great sense of urgency to the final ten levels before hitting the cap. With narrative missions every two levels, it feels like there’s barely any time for side stuff, with the missions themselves being quite rewarding. The story wraps up in quite a good way, but very open. It’s clear there’s more to come in future content drops, but the closing mission that rounds of the story left me hungry for more, working to flesh out a quite intriguing antagonist.
The missions in the game are quite varied and distinctive, especially considering they all follow a pretty general formula. Across each mission you’ll be tasked with shooting a vast number of enemies – be they Cleaners, Rikers or the more imposing Last Man Battalion – in large rooms before moving to the next to do the same. Each mission has a final boss, a tankier and well-armoured foe that can be quite hard to deal with, then you grab your gear, load up and go at it again. Playing them on hard and on the daily challenging difficulty at the end game add a lot to the missions, ramping up the foes and forcing you to think about how to tackle each engagement.
These missions actually worked really well in both coop and solo play. It was far from impossible, especially with decent gear and abilities, to complete the game as a solo agent, but it’s undeniably more fun to play as a group. Matchmaking was really simple at the start of the missions, and for the most part the teams the game found for me were more than capable of toppling the story missions on hard.
Unfortunately, the side missions aren’t quite as interesting after you’ve protected a box of supplies five times over, but they’re not hard and maintain a decent variety across their implementation. Some of the best ones have you hunt down an enemy and take out his lieutenants or track down people via the augmented reality ECHOs in game, proving quite informative on the backstory of the world. The worst will task you with slowly lugging supply boxes or running through empty buildings to turn on contamination sensors.
One of the main reasons I found the story missions so replayable and varied is the world and level design, probably my favourite aspect of the Division. Each of the environments feels unique and real – it’s like imagining your workplace, school or even government was a battlefield. It helps that the game world has been crafted with such care and attention to detail, from the garbage piled on the streets to the bullet damage you’ll witness after a firefight.
Similarly, weather effects help to shape New York as a wild, untamed city. Snowstorms blow through the empty streets, covering the world with snow and obscuring your vision. The Division is easily the best looking game I’ve come across since the Witcher 3 last year.
It’s a shame that this attention to detail doesn’t extend to it’s inhabitants. While they all look the part and some NPCs have quite distinctive personalities, repetitive dialogue and a lack of variety in enemy design breaks a little of the immersion created by the sheer spectacle of post-fall New York.
The level cap of thirty took around twenty hours to hit, with the last story mission recommended for level twenty-eight. Faster players or those in groups could hit the cap in as short as fifteen hours, but most players will likely get up to thirty hours out of the solo content, with plenty of side missions, base upgrades and encounters to complete long after the core story. These encounters and base resource missions become super important when building your agent as each of the three trees will help you build a character to play the way you want.
The medical, security and tech wings unlock abilities and perks you’ll want to utilise to ensure your agent operates as you’d like. I ended up leaning towards security and medical upgrades first, allowing me to deal more damage and build up my health, offering me plenty of healing based support abilities for group play.
The customisation offered is a little limited though – once you’ve upgraded all three wings the no class system becomes a double edged sword. On one hand it’s really good, it allows you to change up your skills for different teams and missions, but it comes at the cost of denying you more traditional MMO roles – everyone ends up being fairly similar as opposed to having dedicated roles with fleshed out unlocks.
In a game like this, loot is highly important. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as unique or as good as getting new gear in Destiny or Diablo, but it’s definitely enjoyable. Part of this comes down to the fact that it’s so grounded. Be it the cosmetic clothes you equip and the stat based gear you gain, you won’t look that different at level thirty than you did at five. It’s all very realistic, practical clothes for the weather and scenario, but it’d be nice to see a bit more personality able to be imbued into our characters.
The guns are where the Division’s customisation excels. From the equippable skins to the huge variety of mods you can craft and equip, you can shape your guns to the way you want to play. I’ve settled on running a high DPS SMG and a marksman rifle for most encounters, but some wield heavy machine guns and shotguns. It’s all down to how you build and how you want to play, and the gameplay works well to accommodate this.
The most unique part of the Division, the Dark Zone, is a great experiment in loyalty and game behaviour, turning me into a pretty opportunistic rogue in a matter of hours. It’s a lawless section of New York where the virus hit hardest, filled with contamination and rampant gangs. This is a PVP section, so you can kill and be killed by fellow division agents gone rogue, and this is where the mode evolves into something special.
The tension created as you watch other players like a hawk for signs of hostility is ever presence, and loading up with a few friends makes the zone infinitely safer. It also gives you the opportunity to become a rogue group that terrorises deployed agents, stealing loot and killing on a greedy manhunt. While it’s a lot of fun to cause trouble, the losses from going rogue are high – it’s not something to take lightly. This part of the game is definitely under construction with so man positives but also some major frustrations arising from play. It’s Massive’s work in progress, with lots of player feedback circulating already, so i’m looking forward to seeing how this component develops over the game’s life.
That life could be a long one, assuming Massive learns from games like Destiny and does a good job with monthly content and DLC. Some players will drop out around end game, while others will lap it up. Fixing a few bugs and polish issues (such as guns not appearing or cover based issues) should be a first priority in the next updates, alongside the new incursion mode to keep people playing. They’ve delivered a fun and fantastic game at launch, and I hope this continues to be the case as it grows over the course of the year.
The Division is a truly enjoyable and lengthy experience, whether you play it solo or coop. With a compelling story and an engaging world, there’s a lot of atmosphere to get immersed in as you shoot foes and hunt for loot. The Dark Zone provides a very different PVP experience to most games, and even thought it can sometimes be frustrating, mostly it’s tense and clever. While the game is far from perfect, Ubisoft has plenty of content planned for the future, and I look forward to seeing how the Division grows and evolves as new content arrives.
Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed using a retail uPlay version of The Division