Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Singleplayer: Yes (online connection required)
The Division arrived with a huge amount of hype generated by Ubisoft thanks to years of footage, and has frequently been portrayed by the media as the company’s answer to Destiny. Part RPG and mostly third-person cover shooter The Division has a lot going under its hood, and despite an obvious downgrade since it was first shown to us, both in terms of graphics and some of its mechanics, it remains a technically impressive title. However, it’s also deeply flawed, a game that initially wows with its stunning recreation of New York before revealing its shallow nature.
The premise is incredibly stupid when you stop and think about it. In order to safeguard the city of New York should a serious disaster befall it an unknown amount of sleeper agents known as the Division are seeded around the Big Apple who will be activated with the intention of helping restore order. Such a disaster does occur as a mysterious enemy contaminates money with a deadly disease during Black Friday, leaving New York a desolate ruin filled with people just trying to survive. As one of the activated agents you find yourself in the middle of an effort to find a cure for the virus and figure out what’s going on.
It’s utter nonsense, yet despite itself there is a potentially interesting premise there. What little promise it has, however, is quickly destroyed by unbelievably weak writing. The problems begin with the fact that the player’s created character follows the RPG tradition of being entirely mute throughout the game, forcing the writers to constantly work around him or her. It always has and always will be a big problem for any game that wants to deliver its narrative as it means writers must be able to make everybody outside of the player character much more interesting. Exposition and dialogue sequences become trickier as any one-on-one scene will quite literally involve a character talking to the screen, thus writers will often have several characters in the room conversing, all aware of the existence of the mute idiot but politely not mentioning it. The Division’s writers, though, simply are not talented enough to work around the mute player, consistently pumping some of the flattest dialogue and dull characters since Watchdog. None of the supporting cast make an impact, each one lacking any definable character traits that makes them, them. Even having spent 30 hours in the game, I still cannot remember anyone’s name.
There’s no denying that running on a reasonable rig The Division boasts one of the most beautiful open worlds ever committed to code, the ruined city of New York filled with debris and little details that convincingly sell it as the aftermath of a devastating disease. It looks exactly how you would picture a city of its size being after such a disaster. Fog, smoke and snowstorms add to the atmosphere, too, while little things such as how your footprints are left behind and windshields realistically react to being shot make the whole thing that bit more immersive. And yet there’s also no denying that it’s a hollow world, an empty shell that serves merely to provide huge space that must be traversed back and forth as the player heads from one mission to the next. Ubisoft continues to fail to realise what makes an open world work, and thus there’s almost nothing to see or do between the main missions, side missions and encounters that are listed on the map. In games like Skyrim the world works because there is things to find and do, bringing a sense of joy to exploration that the Division lacks almost entirely.
Underpinning this open world is the now increasingly weak Ubisoft formula, by which I mean copy and paste quests are scattered everywhere, and they’re discovered by unlocking safe houses, although to be fair to the game you can stumble across them while wandering through the streets. Clearly, though, Ubisoft believe there is merit within their formula as they continue to use it and The Division has broken numerous records despite the Internet’s supposed dislike of the company and their open-world template. You can find plenty of Encounters strewn around the environment that task you to do things like protect some supplies or rescue some civilians from the clutches of evil looters. These are fun for the first few times you complete them, but by the 20th or 50th time the novelty has worn off, replaced with the sensation that your brain is slowly melting into a puddle. The slightly meatier side-quests don’t fare much better, their tiny specks of narrative failing to capture interest.
But the bigger problem across these Encounters and side-missions is the very same one that frustrates about the primary story missions, too, namely the game’s incredibly repetitive reliance on pure combat. Every missions simply involves killing loads and loads and fucking loads of the same bad guys over and over again. Of course that’s the operative procedure for most shooters, but they tend to break their action up by throwing in other mechanics and set pieces. The Division doesn’t bother with this, and thus almost every mission involves stomping into a location and the proceeding to gun down a load of enemies before going to the next room and doing the same thing, before eventually winding up in a bossfight. Everything in the game revolves around killing a seemingly endless supply of bad guys, and that grows tiresome quickly.
At least the combat that holds everything together feels good, if rather standard. This is instantly familiar third-person cover-based shooting, held back slightly by a too sticky cover system that can sometimes make it feel like the wall is hugging you and never wants to let go. Otherwise, though, everything feels great. Guns pack a reasonable amount of recoil and spread, thus encouraging careful aiming and controlled bursts rather than spray and pray. The environments tend to be relatively wide and littered with cover so there’s plenty of scope for flanking, a tactic that proves effective as The Division includes a suppression system that really comes into its own when playing with a group. The skills you can bring to the field, such as a deployable turret or an exploding drone, help keep things interesting, as does the fact that you’re free to switch between them whenever you like so you’re never locked into one role. It’s gratifying to flush enemies out of cover with a well placed grenade or use a turret to pin someone down while you flank them. The cover system includes a mechanic where you can aim at another piece of cover and hold down a button to have your character sprint toward, which helps keep the pace high. It might be standard third-person shooting, but it’s executed wonderfully.
Again we see a contrast between the game’s presentation and its RPG nature in the form of the enemies. You’ll typically find yourself up against hoodie-wearing looters and some more heavily armed foes, and yet these flesh and blood humans can take entire clips of ammunition before dying, soaking up damage like they’re made out of kevlar. More jarring are the bosses. It’s a little odd to be running around in a Tom Clancy game with a realistic world and weapons and yet find yourself facing off against a boss wearing civilian clothes but somehow requiring a small stockpile’s worth of ammunition to kill.
The combat becomes more alive and enjoyable when you take some friends along as then flanking and using special abilities becomes more important. How the game handles its online components is interesting. You won’t simply encounter other players running around the streets and have impromptu team-ups, rather you’ll only encounter other agents in safe houses or if you opt to choose the matchmaking option when entering into a mission. There’s also a matchmaking service in safe houses that lets you group up with strangers. It’s surprising that Ubisoft didn’t choose to have players able to see each other in the city and interact without having to use matchmaking.
The real multiplayer component, though, is the Dark Zone, a beautifully flawed and unbalanced piece of masterful design. The Dark Zone is an unlawful area in the middle of the map that is home to some of the best loot available, provided you can actually get it. In this area other players roam around too, shooting the roving gangs of AI in the hopes of snagging some useful gear. To get the loot, though, you have to head to an extraction site, signal a helicopter and wait for it to arrive while fending off overly enthusiastic AI. They aren’t the only problem, however, as other players can opt to go rogue and gun down their Division comrades in order to capture their hard-earned gear. Anybody who decides to stop co-operating and begin massacring other players will be marked on the map as having gone rogue, and a bounty will be placed on them. Should they manage to survive until the counter runs down they’ll be rewarded and get to keep any loot they snagged from the corpses of other players, but if they get killed them they’ll suffer a hefty penalty. From launch Ubisoft have struggled to really balance this portion of the game, and so currently going rogue is a poor prospect as the penalties are pretty hefty should you get killed, and it’s quite likely you will. Currently perfectly friendly players vastly outnumber rogue agents, quickly grouping up to take down anyone who chooses to join the dark side. It’s also far too easy to get accidentally branded as a rogue purely because somebody came sprinting round a corner and straight into your line of fire. Worse still, your entire group will also be deemed to have gone rogue if this happens.
It’s a hugely flawed system, and yet it’s a beacon of light in an otherwise drab game, the one area where interesting things can and do happen. While veteran players understand that it’s really in everyone’s best interest to cooperate – creating a weird situation where the more you play the less risky it becomes – there remains the chance that anybody could turn on you at any time. Meeting a new player is always a tense moment as you know they might be considering just gunning you down and making a go of escaping with your loot. Or you might leap into a fight with them, gunning down the AI and collecting all the shiny new stuff before teaming up and clearing out a few more areas, only ever exchanging a wave or a salute. To find companions and team up for a while is gratifying, but even that level of gratification is hugely overshadowed by the pure satisfaction earned by gunning down a rogue agent and collecting the bounty. No matter how much you might come to trust a strange you’ve been running with for a few hours, there’s always a sense of paranoia, one that only grows stronger as you call in a chopper to extract the loot. A last second betrayal could leave your supposed ally free to toss their newly acquired gear on the chopper before then heading off to wait out the rogue timer. Some tweaking is still needed to bring a stronger sense of lawlessness to the Dark Zone, then, but even in its heavily flawed state it’s a compelling place.
What you’ve probably garnered from my messy writing style is that most of the The Division revolves around hunting down new weapons, armor and other items to deck out your agent. Loot is both engaging and yet held back by the game’s realistic trappings. Finding a new, better gun is always a small thrill, but when it’s exactly the same M4 assault rifle you’ve seen dozens of times in other games and dozens of times within The Division but with better stats some of that pleasure is taken away. A lot of the time you’ll be forced to give up a gun you like simply because it can’t output enough damage to deal with enemies, only for you to find the exact same gun a few hours later that can, making you feel as though absolutely nothing has changed except.. You still shoot the same enemies with the same gun, except now there are bigger numbers involved. At least weapons can be customised with scopes, grips, magazines and silencers/muzzle breaks that alter the gun’s performance. Other forms of loot include armor, which also suffers from problems as you typically can’t see most of it due to being hidden under regular civilian clothing. Speaking of which you can pick up new threads to wear as well, but again the realistic visual design means you’re limited to things like bulky ski jackets and stuff like that. Hardly exciting, and also tends to make one player look much like another. Still, there’s no denying that there’s a powerful compulsion to finding new stuff. It’s just a shame that since the earlier trailers the game lost a feature where upon opening a chest with a weapon inside your agent would pick it up and examine it, the camera lovingly showing the gun off. Now loot is just brightly colored plumes of light. Ah well, at least there’s none of that engram bollox that Destiny has.
Gaining new abilities, meanwhile, is handled slightly oddly in The Division. You level up as expected by earning XP, but all that does is let you use more powerful weapons. To get new abilities you actually have to build up your home base, located in a giant post office, because why the hell not. There are three sections to your base that come under the headings of Security, Tech and Medical, and by completing story missions and Encounters you can earn points to spend on upgrading those sections. There are lists of upgrades with varying costs, and each one can grant new skills and perks that you’re free to swap between at any time. You can get yourself a nice turret that can lay down suppressing fire or finish off enemies, then add a modifier to it that turns it into a flamethrower before then equipping a perk that gives you a chance to have your ammo replenished when a foe is killed by an ability, for example. Or you can opt for a more supportive loadout by choosing a station that can heal and slowly restock ammo. The abilities you can equip are quite limited, though, the Tom Clancy license keeping it all in the realms of realism.
Speaking of the Tom Clancy license, that’s arguably the biggest problem with The Division. With the Tom Clancy name comes a huge set of limitations and plenty of expectations. The tactical combat we’ve come to expect is present, but the engaging story is entirely absent and what little there is makes fractional sense. The license holds back the loot and abilities from being more interesting and varied. All the game’s RPG elements feel at odds with the game’s Tom Clancy title, clashing with the normally grounded style that the name typically is associated with. You face off against seemingly normal human beings that can somehow absorb dozens of headshots, loot standard AK-47s that are magically better than the last one, all while dressing up in a bog standard ski jacket.
As for the end game it offers almost nothing of interest. Once you’ve worked your way through the small selection of “story” missions there’s not much left to do beside mop up Encounters and side-missions. It’s here that the Dark Zone should come into its own with the introduction of Phoenix Credits that can be used to buy high-level items, and tough bosses wandering the streets that can drop great gear. However, credits are a drag to acquire, their slow rate making getting anything feel like a chore, especially when you consider that there’s nothing to actually do with all your awesome gear except turn rogue and see how many people you can gun down for fun. As I write this we’re three days away from Ubisoft launching the game’s first Incursion, The Division’s version of a raid. This will finally give players something to do, but the fact that the game didn’t launch with at least a few of this is idiotic, and the update is only bringing a single Incursion. One. Just one. How the hell are players supposed to stay engaged?
In its current state The Division feels like a solid foundation for something potentially special to be built upon, but for now there’s nothing exciting going on. The story is instantly forgettable dross told with as much flair as a cheap novel you pick up in Tesco. The world is beautiful but completely devoid of things to discover. The cover-based shooting is solid but suffers from repetitive mission design that ramps up difficulty not by presenting new dangers and more intelligent foes, but by simply making existing enemy types capable of soaking up even more damage. For all of its problems I do readily admit that there is a certain addictive quality to be found, a comfort of sort that stems from the mediocrity and predictableness of it all. Plus, as drab as the loot is discovering a better weapon or piece of armor still brings a small blast of pleasure. Ultimately The Division feels like yet another triple-A misfire, a game that promised so much and delivered so little. It adheres to the Ubisoft design template with frustrating dedication, delivering the staple diet of repetitive quests with no effort put into their design and an open world that seemingly serves only to act as a selling point rather than something that improves the run of the mill shooting. Ubisoft, it seems, simply refuse to learn from their own mistakes, hyping up their titles to absurd levels and failing to deliver on most of their promises. There’s potential here. It exists. That, however, is way off in the future. Right now, right here, The Division is nothing special.