We know exactly why youâ€™re here, so letâ€™s skip the chase and give our verdict on Ubisoftâ€™s ambitious open-world shooter within this opening paragraph. It certainly doesnâ€™t reinvent the third-person shooting genre, with lots of well-worn tropes on display. It isnâ€™t merely Watch_Dogs in a Tom Clancy skin however, for which we should be thankful. What it lacks in some areas – such as the notable visual downgrade – it makes up for in numerous, if occasionally fleeting, moments of ingenious. Itâ€™s also clearly designed for the long haul like Destiny before it – a game it brazenly pilfers a few ideas from. With a friend or two (or three) in tow, The Division provides a curiously fun and compelling co-op experience. Given time, it may even evolve into something bigger and better still. It all depends on Ubisoftâ€™s level of commitment.
Like many recent games, The Division is light on story but has a captivating premise. A highly contagious manmade virus, shrewdly spread via bank notes, is unleashed upon Manhattan on Black Friday. It takes mere days for the city to resemble a war zone, with all efforts by the police and other emergency response teams to keep the population safe proving futile. Now under quarantine, a group of sleeper agents have been â€˜awakenedâ€™ to assist the JTF (Joint Task Force) in helping the remaining citizens, striking back at looters and rioters and – above all – discover the origins of the virus. Thereâ€™s a small matter of a rogue agent too, who is rather fond of keeping the JTF on their toes. In the most malicious of manners, of course.
Manhattan is incredibly well-realised. Rubbish is strewn across the desolate streets while the back alleys are full of uncollected garbage bags. Shop windows with Black Friday sale displays are smashed and ruined after being targeted by looters; supermarket shelves have been stripped bare. Step out of the streets and into apartment blocks and the full extent of the virus becomes apparent; people leaving their whole lives behind. Then there are the ones who werenâ€™t able to make it out in time, lying dead in corridors or within their homes. Body bags litter one base of operations, and those who have chosen to remain in the city arenâ€™t exactly fighting fit either. Share consumable items with them (water, energy bars, etc) and theyâ€™ll often reward with a piece of clothing in return.
Although it can be hard to tell one street apart from the next, thereâ€™s no denying that an incredible amount of effort has gone into attention to detail – even the chalk boards inside the numerous coffee shops are entirely legible. The settings for the main missions offer further spectacle, with one early mission set inside a shopping mall with a gigantic, and tastefully decorated, Christmas tree.
The opening mission is set in Brooklyn, teaching the basics while giving time to acquaint with the control system; a system which isnâ€™t quite as intuitive as it could have been. After a while though everything â€˜clicksâ€™ and it emerges to be actually very well thought out, complete with two â€˜weapon wheelâ€™ menus – one for various grenades and other for aforementioned stat boosting consumables. Incendiary rounds in particular prove useful when fighting against higher level enemies, giving less battle-hardened players a fighting chance. Going at it alone really isnâ€™t advised – this is intended to be played alongside others.
Thankfully matchmaking works almost flawlessly, allowing other agents to join your team on the fly – you’ll find no dull lobbies here. As you’d expect, only the group leader can select difficulty levels and pick missions, providing waypoints for other players in the process. Itâ€™s possible to fast-travel to locations and fellow agents too, although there is a brief loading screen to endure.
Being open-world, a large amount of side-missions and simple distractions feature, most of which take mere minutes to complete. The main missions are of course far more substantial. Several are usually available at once, thus giving the story a non-linear structure. Each takes around 20-30 mins, entailing powering up and protecting generators, searching for items of importance and taking down a boss or two. All main missions include a no-respawn zone during their finale, and itâ€™s here that matchmaking isnâ€™t allowed. If a player leaves then the enemy difficulty drops accordingly, yet you may struggle still.
The AI rarely goes down without a good fight – they push forward if they have the advantage, flank or throw grenades if you remain in cover for too long, and waste no time in destroying all deployable turrets or health boxes in their line of sight. Itâ€™s not at all uncommon to fall back into previously explored buildings in attempt to defeat the enemy from a safe distance.
Enemy engineers also have the ability to set up turrets, while high level marksmen (read: snipers) can incapacitate with just one hit. The opposite is rarely true, with many enemies able to absorb bullets without even flinching. Weâ€™re talking several headshots to finally finish off larger enemy types. Realism, at least when it comes to shootouts, really isnâ€™t The Divisionâ€™s strong point.
We were also hoping for a slightly more mature take on storytelling and narrative, but rarely does it deliver here with all the typical bad guy chatter and predictable quips from NPCs present. One faux-phone call between two teenage girls (â€œtotally fleek!â€) was enough to make us wince. The idea of piecing together what happened when the outbreak started is a decent one though, prompting you to look out for discarded mobile phones and crashed drones – two of the many collectables. Holographic â€˜Echosâ€™ flesh out the back-story further.
As well as looters thereâ€™s also a group of escaped prisoners known as ‘The Rikers’ to contend with, while a gang of pyromaniacs who call themselves ‘The Cleaners’ feature heavily early on. Destroying the napalm factory reduces their numbers significantly, although it does pose a moral quandary – how will the virus be eradicated and kept under control without flamethrowers? There are no moral choices here though – as an agent, itâ€™s your job to simply follow orders.
Mission objectives and such come from those in command of the JTF, located within an old post office thatâ€™s now being used as a central HQ. One key mission entails a guided tour around the base. It remains a focal point throughout; somewhere to head back to after missions in order to sell unwanted loot, craft new items and browse the stores. Now hereâ€™s one of the ingenious ideas – the agentâ€™s upgrades are linked to improvements made on the base. The medical, tech and security wings are in dire need of resources, gained by completing certain missions. Add such faculties as counselling and a pharmacy to the medical wing and new and more efficient ways to heal both yourself and your party are unlocked. Tech upgrades give access to turrets, seeker mines and sticky bombs while improvements to the security wing bestow shields and mobile cover. Itâ€™s a classless class system, basically, which you can tailor as you see fit by mixing and matching skills, talents and perks.
Due to the customisable nature, the base of operations is unique to each player – those in your party are unable to set foot inside another playerâ€™s base, and vice versa. We very much doubt this is down to technical reasons as safe houses are full of other players milling about. It’s also here that new side-missions are gained, bulking out your agents’ elongated ‘to do’ list.
Customisation options extend to the attire of the agent. Again, attention to detail is impressive. Clothing bestows no perks and is merely cosmetic – a large assortment of warm winter jackets, woolly hats, clunky boots, scarves of all colours and trousers of all kinds, even chinos. Armour on the other hand does indeed boost stats and itâ€™s essential to constantly improve your agentâ€™s gear. Inventory management can be surprisingly time-consuming, in fact. Rising up the ranks gives access to better equipment – simple rucksacks are eventually replaced with ceramic plated backpacks, while rickety wooden marksmen rifles and AK-47s pave the way for high-end military gear. Weapons can be modified with laser pointers, larger magazines and such while improved armour can increase health, DPS and tech stats, as well as allow for longer turret durations and similar perks.
All six of the weapon types are frequently found, with only the shotgun being something of an acquired taste. The back-up pistol can however be swapped out for a nifty sawn-off shotgun much later on, which weâ€™re rather fond of keeping handy for close encounters. Much like Destiny, loot drops are colour-coded to indicate quality. Drops comes thick and fast, but to gain the best gear youâ€™ll have to take a trip to the Dark Zone – one of The Divisionâ€™s standout ideas.
Stepping into the Dark Zone for the first time is genuinely thrilling. This is the part of the city that was hit the hardest, leading it to become a no-manâ€™s land. All items found here are contaminated – and as such must be whisked away and decontaminated before use – while enemies are much tougher. Itâ€™s possible to take down one or two on your lonesome, but approaching gangs of 4-6 enemies is pretty much suicide. As such, the help of other agents is required. Thereâ€™s no matchmaking here – other agents are randomly found while exploring the desolate streets.
Hereâ€™s the big old twist: other players can kill one another in the Dark Zone. So, you can work as a team to ensure survival, picking up a reasonable amount of loot along the way, or backstab one another and make off with other playerâ€™s gear. Agents that open fire on others become rogue, and all others in the vicinity are instantly alerted. A manhunt often ensues, complete with wildly unpredictable consequences.
Waiting for the evac chopper can be incredibly tense as those who you fought alongside with could potentially turn in a heartbeat. Find a skilled and trustworthy team and itâ€™s not uncommon to spend hours in the Dark Zone, even if you originally planned to visit briefly. Unsurprisingly then, The Dark Zone plays crucial role in The Divisionâ€™s end game, along with the challenge mode and hard missions. The level 30 cap can be achieved after around 30 hours of play, but rest assured that Ubisoft has at least begun to prepare for the gameâ€™s future. Note use of the word â€˜begunâ€™ there – it could be a while until the next significant update, and even then those unwilling to purchase the season pass could be left by the wayside.
In a way, it’s understandable – Ubisoft has sunk a lot of time and money into The Division. When exploring Manhattan’s city streets though, itâ€™s often apparent that its four year development period (work began in summer 2012) hasnâ€™t been smooth as there are telling signs of chops and changes. This gives the game a few rough edges which really shouldnâ€™t be present, resulting in a package that isnâ€™t entirely seamless. The amount of dropped ideas must be untold. Nevertheless, this is a robust if occasionally workmanlike shooter that has both heart and soul. And thatâ€™s good enough for us.