The Division is many things but at heart it’s a solid third person action RPG.
That’s something which developers Ubisoft seemed wary to admit in the months running up to release, bigging up the connected aspects and the competitive elements of the scary Dark Zone. But when you get right down to it, this is a game about a gal or a guy with a gun, a city to save and a whole mess of stats.
When an engineered virus strikes on Black Friday, bringing New York City close to ruin, sleeper agents of from an elite force called The Division are activated. Each player’s world will be as unique as their face, with a central base that is the beating heart of what makes the game yours.
This isn’t a shared universe – you won’t see other players tooling around and every player sees their own basecamp. It’s an interesting hook which makes the game straddle the divide between single and multiplayer, and one which could help draw in fans of both. The progression of your base is of utmost importance – giving you visual and story-based cues that you are making an impact and also unlocking significant upgrades for your character.
Speaking of the story, it’s also important to note that The Division has one. This isn’t a nebulous experience with the odd bit of text telling you were to go and shoot things next but an experience with fully voiced cut scenes and a handful of central characters who are actually halfway distinct.
The central narrative follows your quest to discover the source of the virus and save the city. The writing and performances are decent, even if the whole affair is a tad too serious, and you might even care about the outcome.
The Division has plenty more to offer plot fans, with numerous side missions that occasionally offer a surprising amount of depth. You’ll get tasks from major characters which lead to basic but engaging investigations - there are shades of a similar mechanic in Assassin’s Creed. And there’s also a lot of lore to sift through, including a huge number of phone messages and video recordings, as well as the impressively wrought ECHO recordings which rebuild surveillance data to let you relive dramatic moments from recent history in startling holographic hues.
This texture and depth is far beyond what I was expecting from the game, and amounts to significant world-building when paired with the exceptional graphics. The relatively small map is dense with despairing detail – frozen bodies in the streets, memorials to lost loved ones and the flurry of snow which heralds a full scale white out.
These elements all make The Division incredibly fun to run around, and Ubisoft’s penchant for icon-littered maps means there’s lots to do. Side missions, random encounters, material drops, assaults, hostage rescues, supply runs and more will keep you constantly on the move, with far-flung safe houses just waiting to be unlocked so you can easily fast travel.
And what do you do when you reach one of these locations? Well shoot things in the face until there are no more faces, obviously. The Division is lacking in subtlety when it comes to its gameplay but thankfully it mostly makes up for it with rock solid fundamentals.
This is a cover shooter and you’ll spend a lot of time crouched behind things hoping you don’t catch some shrapnel with your teeth. Staying in the open is a good way to get dead and the cover mechanics are consistent and feel meaty – press the A button (on Xbox One) to hide or aim anywhere in the world and press to fling your body into cover.
It works really well, and you can easily sidle around cover to get a better angle on enemies with flanking key to survival. Popping up to shoot feels great, especially with the chunky audio for each and every bullet. And there are abilities too which add to the overall experience, with two available at any one time.
My current favourite is the portable turret which you can throw out to make things complicated for enemy ankles. Later upgrades to the tech section of your base unlock the ability to spew more bullets or even flames and it’s the perfect way to distract enemies while you slip off to one side and draw a bead on their brainpan.
The enemies themselves come from three main factions and are split into very clearly defined types. After five or six hours, you’ll have seen every possible combination of these including melee-sporting runners, grenadiers, flamethrowers, tanks and the odd named boss person.
With a fairly worrying lack of intelligence, the main thing which separates out these enemies is their health bars and that’s one of the less successful elements of The Division. At the beginning of the game it’s possible to empty an entire clip into someone’s head before they go down. Now I’m not looking for realism in my video games but it starts to feel like you’re using some kind of potato gun, especially as their fire has a serious effect on your health bar.
Higher level weapons make a difference but it’s still wise to budget an automatic rifle clip for every chest you target, and that health bar just gets bigger as enemies rank up. This effect is multiplied when you team up with other real life players, making frantic firefights exercises in bullet management, training all your weapons on the same enemy and hoping they go down before their flesh to lead ratio reaches 1:1.
It’s a little disappointing in a game which gets so much else right, and helps to add to the feeling of repetition which sinks in well before the 10 hour mark. Head to a mission, fire all the bullets, find another dot on the map and rinse/repeat. It doesn’t help that tertiary challenges are endlessly recycled and can feel like a chore as you struggle to reach the level requirement for the main story.
Personally I preferred playing a lot of The Division solo as it made me feel like I was single-handedly pushing back against the vile virus. And to its credit the game works like that, adding up to a 30 hour or so story-led RPG.
That said, some things are better with friends and the challenging main missions definitely recommend you take along some allies. Flashing an enemy with four simultaneous grenades or sentries is a specific kind of joy and knowing that someone has your back for a revive, which is also possible with a handy throwable item, makes those titanic battles a little less stressful. There’s still plenty of challenge though, especially if you decide to take on a mission above your recommended level.
Matchmaking was pretty flawless and there are plenty of players online. The community seems pretty relaxed so far which is always a bonus. The other main multiplayer aspect of The Division lies in the Dark Zone and this is going to be an area which divides gamers.
Ubisoft has brought its own slant on PvP here, with an area filled with high level AI and other real-world players. The idea is to work together to nip in and find the best loot and weapons before forming up for an extraction but trying to escape draws both human and computer controlled enemies in, giving them a chance to backstab and steal your stuff.
It’s a nice idea and one which has its moments – particularly the tension as you wait for an exfiltration chopper – but it’s also only halfway fun. Players are increasingly uninterested in going rogue, mostly preferring to play it safe. There’s also limited incentive to get involved with this Zone earlier in the game because it has its own levelling and commerce systems. Maybe Ubisoft will bring in new rules or shake up how the system works to encourage rogue players but right now the Dark Zone feels far from essential.
The Division has a huge amount going on with the main gameplay areas as well as stat balancing, crafting, weapon modding and active and passive abilities unlocked via the base. And this is before the months of free and paid DLC which will add new modes, extra areas and hopefully more story content.
As a partly online title it’s still early days and yet the game is remarkably stable and, above all, fun to play. The overall structure suffers from repetition in the later stages but the moment to moment gameplay is thoroughly engaging and the combination of a map full of missions, clean mechanics and constantly evolving abilities makes for a distinctly moreish experience.
Out now on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.