Jumping into The Division for the first time is both a fun experience and a difficult one to define. By sharing traits with some of gamings’ top franchises and genres, how you define The Division often depends on what you’re doing that day. Is it a loot-fest co-op shooter? Maybe it’s an MMO. Or perhaps it’s an open world single player experience about taking back New York City from the mayhem that’s befallen it. It turns out The Division is all of those and more. But, does it do these varied aspects justice, or fall into the trap of jack of all trades, master of none? Read on to find out.
When starting out in Tom Clancy’s The Division, the first task is to create your agent. New York has fallen into chaos after a biological outbreak on Black Friday and it’s up to a secret organization made up of every day people like you to restore order.
The character customization is certainly lacking, especially compared to other modern games that offer the feature, but it’s definitely not a turn off. You won’t be creating famous celebrities or well known fictional characters to roam New York but it’s got enough tweaks that unless you just go with the preset character model, you won’t see a dozen of the same looking players every time you log in.
Speaking of logging in, let’s get this out of the way right now. The Division is an always online game. It shares more than a little in common with MMOs. You will need an internet connection and will be subject to maintenance periods and possible queues for logging in. If this is a complete turn off, then you may stop reading now, although you shouldn’t deprive yourself of playing the game for that reason alone.
Now, after creating an agent, you are dropped into Brooklyn where the game takes you through the basics. You’ll be introduced to a variety of side missions, get the low down on safe houses and try your hand at a main mission. Outside of the player-vs-player Dark Zone, these three aspects will be what you focus on the most, and it’s here that the MMO influence comes in once you get past the tutorial area and into the main part of Manhattan.
While the whole city is open for exploration from the beginning, a glance at the map shows it has been divided into areas based on levels. Venturing to far outside your agents’ comfort zone can and will lead to a swift death. That being the case, your first step will be to establish a Base of Operations. This acts as a mega safe house, providing you the opportunity to restock on ammo, switch out weapons from your stash and purchasing new weapons. You also unlock side mission locations on your map here, along with encounters.
Those encounters feed into the 3 branches of your base, and also the character skill tree. Medic, Tech, and Security upgrades bring with them equip-able skills, talents and perks. There is a depth to these different skill trees, allowing you to specialize into the three traditional MMO roles of healer, damage and support. But unlike other games, you are not locked into the choices, with the ability to upgrade every branch and switch skills at any time. This is something that you will do often because venturing solo is a very different experience then going at the game with friends.
As a gamer who focuses almost exclusively on single player games, I can say that you are able to play through The Division as a solo agent, but you really should not. Grinding out experience through side missions, finding gear and upgrade supplies through encounters, and playing through the main missions are all mostly fine going alone, but playing in a group has just been vastly more fun. Coordinating with up to 4 friends or strangers on what role each person will serve, which group of enemies to take on and the strategy involved feels good. It’s really how the game is meant to be played. And given the enemies intelligence, it’s all but necessary at high levels.
Enemies in The Division are intelligent. Not nearly as smart as other players you’ll face off with, but they do know what they’re doing. Snipers will hang back, moving from cover to cover and landing devastating blows if you’re in the open too long. Enemies with shotguns and armor will move in, attempting to flank and blasting you away with their powerful weapons. And mid-range enemies will not only pepper your cover location with automatic fire, but toss copious amounts of grenades to flush you out. Staying in one place and holding your ground is rarely a strategy that will secure victory. Roll dodging, switching cover positions, using all of your weapons, grenades and skills are key.
And that’s another thing The Division does very well, the combat feels right. There are multiple weapon types and you can equip a primary and secondary weapon with a pistol (infinite ammo!) in reserve. The game accommodates every play style you want to try. Taking cover, popping out to fire, dodging, blind firing, tossing out a support skill like turrets, all of these work so well, making you feel like an elite agent that is capable of taking on the groups causing chaos around the city.
That isn’t to say there aren’t downsides to the combat. The skill trees are quite small. Each one offers 3 main skills and a specialty one. You can mod these with one modification each to have varied effects, but if say you want to be your groups healer, you will be using the same 2 moves over and over. This is offset however, by the fact that you can equip skills from any tree at any time, giving your character a feeling of variety that is very much appreciated. Also, while the enemies are very well done and challenging, there aren’t many of them. In the first three main missions, you will come across the majority of the enemies that will challenge you the remainder of the game. This does have the benefit of allowing you to recognize exactly what kind of enemies you’re facing at a glance and quickly adjust your strategy, but it is certainly something to be aware of.
The game itself is split into two main parts, a solo area where you can invite or join other players and take on the missions and side missions, and the open area of the Dark Zone. For the main area, your goal is to level up and take on these main mission. Each one is separated by a level or two, so you will find yourself grinding out side missions and encounters until you’re able to take on the next main mission. This is always enjoyable though because your skill progress is tied to these encounters and the supplies you get for them, and side missions offer experience and equipment that will keep you improving your stats as you improve levels. Nothing ever feels overly repetitive because you’re always gaining different things every time you complete a task. This idea of progression carries over to the main missions, where there is not some grand sweeping story to drive you from one mission to the next. The goal through most of the game is to build up yourself and your Division base in order to take back the city, and every main mission, whether it’s to rescue a VIP, gather intel on a missing agent, or destroy an enemy factions supplies, build toward that goal. Don’t go in expecting some Jason Bourne, or Metal Gear style twists and turns. This is a more grounded experience, where you are carrying out a more realistic goal.
As for the Dark Zone, that’s a different beast entirely. One of The Division’s strongest aspects is this sort of wild land cutting a big red swath straight down the middle of you map. Here, there are NPC enemy factions roaming around, same as the main game, but there are also other players. And in the Dark Zone, anything goes. You don’t gain levels in the Dark Zone. Instead you gain rank, which allows you to find and purchase the best gear in the game. But the Dark Zone is a gamble, because when you pick up loot, a very visible pack is attached to you’re character, and until you extract your gear via helicopter, it’s fair game for anyone to kill you and take those precious items from you. Of course, you can do the same to others! It’s this atmosphere of tension that makes the Dark Zone fun to play in.
So what’s to stop everyone from just murdering all the other players? Well, when someone attacks another player, they become Rogue, and that is indicated when the offending player is near you. So you have an idea who you can’t trust and who you can. Until they stab you in the back at an extraction area with a well timed grenade that is. And if you take down a Rogue, not only do you get the gear they were hoarding, but you also get bonus experience toward your rank.
I would be re-missed if I didn’t mention one of my favorite parts. While gathering items, modding weapons and gear with stat benefits and crafting new, stronger gear is a great touch, I really like appearance items. I mentioned before how there isn’t as much in terms of character customization. That’s because you can dress your agent basically any way you want. The division offers tons of options to find hats, coats, boots, parts, scarfs, etc. These don’t take up room in your inventory and they go over your gear. So, you never have to just wear something you hate because the stats are great. You can really make the character appear how you want to others. Just remember, if you give your agent glasses during the creation at the beginning, at this time, you cannot remove them. In the grand scheme, its a small touch, but a welcome one.
Now, how about some technical aspects. New York looks really good in this game. Possibly one of the best recreations of the iconic city ever. Even as New York is in this fictional state of anarchy, it looks very realistic. Weather moves in and out, causing you to wonder what’s going to be just up the next street and you can hear the sound of gun fire, as different enemy factions will fight each other and the other forces that you’re Division agent is teamed up with. The city has enough pedestrians that it feels as full as it should given the situation. You will often walk down the street and see NPC’s trying to break into cars, or stumbling along, in need of medical help. During my time playing, there was nothing about the soundtrack to stand out. Rather, the game uses realistic ambient noise to put you in the shoes of your agent, to great effect.
There has also been a lot of talk about the end game. The Division currently caps your level at 30 and your Dark Zone rank at 99 and the amount of content currently in the game tends to push you toward the Dark Zone after you’ve finished the main missions, attempting to power you up further with the best gear you can find. But Ubisoft has already announced both free and paid support well into the rest of the year, adding additional challenges and modes. What you get now, it’s easy to sink 30+ hours into the game and still have more to do.
In the end, The Division is a very fun game. The combat is excellent, the encouragement to play co-op instead to just competitive is a nice touch, and the game just offers a nice overall variety. There’s not just one aspect that’s particularly amazing. Rather, the game stands strong as a sum of all it’s parts. Every time I’ve sat down to play, whether it’s just for short time by myself, or for an hours long session with friends, it’s consistently been an enjoyable experience. While only time will tell what kind of legs the game will have, my suggestion is to find a group of friends on your respected system and play, because it is a very easy game to have a lot of fun with.
Tom Clancy’s The Division released on March 8th for the Xbox One, PS4, and PC. This review was based on the Xbox One version.