In all my years as a fairly avid and committed gamer, I can’t ever really remember experiencing fear at starting a game before. And, no, I’m not talking about being afraid of all of the other players waiting in The Dark Zone to slaughter me and steal my loot. For Tom Clancy’s The Division, the fear stemmed from one question: what if this game, that has looked so good for so long and that I’ve been itching to play since E3 2013, ends up being bad?
Well, in hindsight, that fear turned out to be wonderfully misplaced. With all of the preamble, teasers, trailers, live-action features, previews and promos, you should all know what The Division is about by now. So, rather than waste any more valuable time or – more importantly – your attention, let’s get right down to the verdict.
The Division is a mightily ambitious game; by pulling strands from a range of genres within gaming and other narrative fields to craft itself into one, complex web there was always the distinct possibility that the sum of its parts wouldn’t add up to a cohesive, enjoyable experience. It’s a pleasure, then, to gleefully note that The Division hits the right notes on all fronts.
First up, let’s talk premise. The Division sets its narrative into the landscape of a New York that’s been devastated in the aftermath of a deadly pandemic. That puts you, as a Division agent, right in the middle of trying to restore order over the chaos, which almost seems like a shame; one of the greatest things about The Division is the way in which it presents the bleak, catastrophic setting in which you’ll find yourself. Its recreation of New York is satisfyingly faithful, but the skin of snow, debris and decay that the game layers on top of it is simply stunning. Every time I turned a corner or scanned a street in this New York I was constantly in awe of how real the devastation looks and feels.
Reality was something that was always on my mind while playing The Division, too, and the realism in the game is also impressive. While the visual of the playground is stunning in itself, it would be worthless if it didn’t feel real. Well, thanks to excellent population, some terrific voice acting and a remarkable level of detail, The Division manages to achieve that as well.
The New York streets genuinely feel perilous and unpredictable; you’re just as likely to pass the smoking wreck of a cop car to find a wandering stray dog as you are a group of far less friendly folk. Each turn of a corner could throw you into a desperate fight for survival, but the city is also full of nooks and crannies holding secrets and loot that are worth risking your safety for. The voice acting scores the game and pierces the silence perfectly; everyone from a cursing rioter to a radio-bound mission giver is brought to life with great dialogue and delivery, and there are some truly entertaining characters in the desperate times.
As far as detail goes, The Division provides a level of complex authenticity that most games can scarcely dream of. Games like Fallout 4 manage to create decent immersive worlds, but Ubisoft’s new title just blows that out of the water. I could fill page after page of this review by waxing lyrical about the numerous details and moments I witnessed during my time in New York; from the way a car’s cracked windshield splinters even further as it’s hit by a stray bullet to the way quarrelling civilians will react to your presence as you approach, I was regularly in awe of the level of detail Ubisoft had gone to while creating their virtual playground.
In terms of gameplay, The Division sets itself into three distinct areas and it makes sense to assess the success of these separately. As an action-orientated shooter narrative, The Division is probably at its weakest. Weakness is a relative term here, of course, so don’t let yourself think it’s a major problem.
The game’s story is simple, and in truth you’ll actually find yourself playing through it and advancing without really realizing it. Since the basic goals are survival and a return to civilized order, the story really moulds itself around your agent. If you consider that this is merely the story of one Division agent dealing with the problems of one city, you’ll feel a lot better about the fact that you aren’t being slapped in the face by another generic hero story. It could be more engaging and the development of its major antagonist is admittedly a little shallow but the organic approach to narrative is admirable, though it may not appeal to everyone.
As a shooter, The Division does feel a little bit ‘by numbers,’ but far less so than the likes of any modern Call of Duty or Battlefield game. It’s a cover shooter, so you know what you’re going to get from its action and it does play a lot like Grand Theft Auto V in that regard.
Where it sets itself apart, however, is in how gruelling its challenge can be. You’ll most often find yourself immensely outnumbered in missions and encounters, meaning that the use of cover has to be much more tactically fluid than in similar titles. Enemies will rush and flank you when you’re pinned down, and you’ll often find yourself having to make daring escapes if you hope to survive. It’s hardly reinventing the wheel, but there’s enough of a challenge in this shooter to keep it interesting.
The RPG elements of The Division, however, are perhaps its biggest triumphs. Early on I was a little disappointed with how few customization options were available in the character creation, but this was a short-lived notion once I got my hands on the full gear and skills setups.
Firstly, I was thrilled to see how The Division overcomes the age-old RPG dilemma of choosing gear that looks cool over stuff that actually boosts your character by separating the clothes and armour options. As a result, you can craft your look separately to you gear loadout, and if that’s good news to you then you clearly haven’t played many RPGs in your time.
Even if that first RPG success is a little superfluous, then the rest of them certainly aren’t. There are a ton of ways to upgrade your character’s effectiveness in The Division, from simply gaining experience and levelling up to gathering new perks and talents through enhancing the Base of Operations that you unlock early on. Your agent can be so well adapted to suit your play style that there’s practically a skillset for any player.
Weapons and armour can also be upgraded by adding mods or crafting better versions with the various materials scattered throughout the game. Loot plays a huge part of The Division, and every single action or encounter has a chance to grant you a useful new item or even just something to sell to a vendor while you’re saving for something better.
What impressed me most about The Division as an RPG, however, was the way it managed to distract me no matter what I was in the middle of. The likes of Skyrim and Fallout 3 have a well-known, innate ability to take you from one side of their maps to the other without you even realizing why it’s happening. The Division can do that too.
Its New York map is impressively big when you realize just how many buildings and subway areas are available for exploration, and I found myself streets away from my originally intended goals so often that it’s a wonder I ever got through the main missions. From the distant sound of an explosion to the beeps and prompts from ISAC, there’s always something to throw you off track no matter where you are.