The Division is an open-world, hybrid MMO set in New York during an outbreak caused by a terrorist attack on Black Friday. You play a member of the Strategic Homeland Division, a secretive unit of special operatives that live normal lives as civilians until activated. As the military and joint task force (JTF) falls back against mounting attacks by gangs you are activated to deploy on the island of Manhattan to investigate the outbreak and do what you can to turn the tide in the fight against, not only the disease, but the various factions that have risen up to claim power in the chaos. It has elements of both a single-player RPG, multiplayer co-op, and a PVP zone mostly separate from the main story of the game.
The game was hyped quite a bit before release, and managed success on the market, being Ubisoft’s best-selling game according to the company. The $330 million global figure sits as the largest first-week launch for any new game franchise. It hasn’t been without criticism, for everything from balance issues to being too repetitive. Uncharacteristically Ubisoft has taken a bold step recently to delay the Survival and Last Stand DLC in order to focus on addressing some of those issues.
The Division has seen two updates, Incursions and Conflict as well as one DLC with Underground. I do not have Underground so this look at the The Division includes just the base game and the free updates.
Bringing Manhattan to Life
The Division is, without a doubt, one of the best-looking games I've ever played. Probably the prettiest game in my library. The developers left no stone unturned when it comes to making Manhattan look as real as possible. Trash blowing in the wind, abandoned suitcases left lying in the street, and piles of garbage bags stacked in the alleys are just a tiny percentage of the details they put into this game. I spent a lot of time just marveling at the little things I found. The city looks lived-in, so to speak, but as if those who lived in it left in a hurry; most of them anyway.
As you explore the city you'll come across wrecked shops, abandoned apartments, and burned-out gas stations. Many of these places have been turned into outposts and strongholds for the various factions that control the city, and they are modified to reflect that. Makeshift defenses; commandeered military and police gear, are cleverly used to make it look like members of those factions have carved little pieces of the city out for themselves.
It's not just the scenery and backdrop that's done exceptionally well here. Details of the character and his gear are fantastic. Right down to the buckles on your pack and laces on your boots, everything looks like an individual piece of the whole rather than a flat texture painted over the character model. Even the animations and motion capture are excellent as characters react, reload, jump, vault, and run very realistically. They went as far as to have the dogs defecate in the street, which might seem unnecessary, but it shows how much attention the developers put into the little details of the game.
When creating an immersive experience sound is just as important as graphics. To me it can make or break a game by either creating deep player experience that draws you into the world or something that seems so much like a game that you never forget you’re sitting in your chair tapping on keys. The Division is no disappointment on that front either. The sound of the hiss and crack of bullets flying by, or gunfire echoing between buildings a block away lets you know how close you are to danger. Dogs barking, and the flutter of birds startled at your approach mingle with the cries of survivors and cheers of your allies. The first time I let off a burst of a light machinegun I was blown away by the sound of the muzzle report bouncing off the buildings and the clink of hot brass hitting the pavement.
The game is a feast for the eyes and ears, giving you stunning views of the sun rising between buildings or sweeping looks over a city on the brink of collapse. The roar of flame throwers, and ricochet of bullets keeps you constantly looking over your shoulder. Unfortunately what this game has in visuals and sound don’t completely make up for the failings elsewhere, or the mediocrity of the story.
We Built This City
The Division was originally slated to be a console exclusive, but after feedback from the PC community, and a Ubisoft promoted petition, development was opened up to include the PC platform as well. It’s possible this attributed to the delay in the release date, but it’s encouraging to see a developer taking the community into consideration more than once on this production.
Built on the company’s new engine known as Snowdrop, the game mechanics range between fun and annoying, though that can be said for a lot of games of this scale. Like most RPGs you have a character who you level up as you progress through the game, increasing their skills and upgrading their equipment. Unlike most RPGs there is nothing to give you any investment in the character, no backstory or personal connections. It's more like an FPS in this fashion, and this will show as a detriment when we talk about story later. You progress through the game by completing quests of sorts, missions that follow the main story line, as well as side missions and searching for intel around the city. There is a crafting system, as well as a sort of base management. The game is also split between solo/MP co-op story mode and a PVP element which remain separate from each other. Your character levels up by gaining experience, but the low cap makes it all but meaningless and gear level quickly becomes the focus of progression in the game.
The general gameplay is better than I expected. I typically do not like third-person FPS games because the camera and perspective are usually making things more difficult than they need to be. With The Division I never ran into an issue where the camera got stuck somewhere that completely blocked by view, or screwed up line of sight. The third-person view quickly became something I got used to despite my initial concerns. The aim-down-sight mechanic was strange at first, and not at all what you’d be used to if you play a lot of FPS games. It wasn’t terrible, since the game relies less on precise shots and more on getting rounds on target as fast as possible. That is one of the balance issues though, and one that Ubisoft has been, and is still addressing. Some enemies are called "bullet sponges" for a reason, and I ran into a few during my play through. A few firefights simply lasted too long as I poured hundreds of rounds into a boss, or sometimes a sub-boss.
I also liked the cover and movement mechanic, though there were a few times where it was harder to leave cover than it should have been. That’s probably my biggest criticism for the basic movement and combat mechanic of the game. Several times I’d get stuck up against a car or wall and the only way to get out of cover was to do a combat roll or jump over. Those aren’t always the best option when you need to tactically retreat from a firefight. It was only a minor hang-up overall though. Another part of the basic combat mechanic I didn’t care for was the grenade switching and special bullet management. Maybe it’s just that I’m used to firefights in FPS games being so chaotic and fast-paced that trying to manage a radial dial to select the right grenade icon, or bullet, feels too cumbersome. I tended to just throw whatever grenade happened to be equipped at the time, and I never once used any of the special bullets. I found it much more useful to keep my eyes on the fight than to try and navigate the selection menus. Like other MMOs, it probably would have been much less annoying if there had been quick slots to assign grenades to rather than the ctrl and alt hotkeys. Something like skill slots you see in Guild Wars or WoW.
My biggest issue with the game, and what has caused me to say it is fun in small portions, is the side missions and intel collecting. They’re repetitive, some might describe as “grindy”, and after you’ve done the first few you’ve basically seen them all. Outside of the main missions the side missions are basically five or six of the same little events that just happen in different locations. Unfortunately to progress through the game you have to do them in order to get enough points to unlock sections of your HQ, a task required to get more skills and perks. To add to that, the intel, which is interesting and fun to find at first, just turns out to be a chore before long. There’s literally hundreds of cell phones, reports, echos (magical recordings of events that happened in the city), and drones to find. They add to the story, something the side missions don’t do all that much, but I think they could have been just as effective in a much smaller quantity. I liked hearing the old voice mails or read incident reports about the fall of Manhattan, but after the first few dozen I just started skipping the audio, and eventually stopped looking for them all together. Especially when I began to realize I could reach the level cap without them.
The larger missions, the actual parts of the story, were much more fun. They required more thought, and some of them were quite challenging if you weren’t a few levels above the threshold. I’ll talk about the story itself further on, but the missions themselves made the game worth the time. This is where the matchmaking came in handy, which is something I was actually impressed with. I’d previously been playing Rainbow Six Siege, in which the matchmaking had been terrible, so I was worried about how this would work. It’s seamless, to an extent, and can make or break a mission unless you’re much higher level than the base requirement. It is not entirely seamless though, and that’s the only drawback I could find. If other people join you during matchmaking you won’t notice any change, except people showing up that you can now talk to. If you choose to join another group you’ll reload the mission from the closest checkpoint they’ve passed. This can actually set you back further than you were before you joined, something that happened to me when I was near the end of one mission. I do like that you can set the matchmaking, start the mission, and not have to wait in a lobby or any sort of standby while it creates a team to do the mission.
I use the term base management very loosely to describe this feature. There’s no resource collection, or job assignments. There’s nothing you have to monitor, or constantly check on to keep your HQ up and running. As you do side missions, and the main quests, you gather points from one of the three departments; security, medical, and technical. You use these points to unlock sections of the HQ, a firing range, or decontamination chamber for example, and doing so opens up new abilities and resources you can use. As a side effect these sections you unlock also get cleaned up and repaired, where before they are demolished and unusable parts of the building your team has set up in. It’s actually kind of cool to look around after you unlock sections, seeing the changes and how they get used after they’re tidied up.
Crafting is part of the game, but I found it to be relatively pointless. Early on if I crafted anything I quickly found loot drops with better equipment out in the city. Later on I did manage to craft a couple of items that were better than the loot I could find but overall it seemed more of a waste of time than a useful feature. The devs either need to boost the gear you can craft, or find some way to make crafted items more unique or useful when compared to items found in the real world.
The final, major feature of the game worth noting is the split PVE/PVP modes. The game is sort of multiplayer in PVE (player vs. environment) in that you choose whether you want to team up with other players using the matchmaking. If you do you’ll be able to keep the team together, or disband it at any point, and there is a passable in-game VOIP for communication. Unfortunately I found fewer people that use it than not. For PVP (player vs. player) the multiplayer is mandatory, but the PVP isn’t necessarily so. When you enter the Dark Zone, the central part of the map that was abandoned to the gangs in the story, you enter into an area where you don’t need matchmaking to see other players. You can team up if you like, form squads and use the communication, or you can roam alone. Going alone is not something I’d advise. The Dark Zone has special gear, and its own level system which determines what bracket of other characters you’ll see. You don’t have to fight those other players, but taking the peaceful route isn’t always your choice. At least if someone does attack you they get flagged on the map as a rogue, and other players then see where they are.
I am sort of on the fence about the Dark Zone content. I like that it’s optional. If I don’t feel like fighting other players I don’t have to, but it is where all the best loot can be found. There just seemed to be very little incentive for cooperation outside of simply feeling like being a nice guy. At the onset the penalty for dying as a rogue was fairly steep but after some complaints the developers cut them some slack and now almost everyone I’ve run into is a rogue. It got to the point that every entry point was being camped so you couldn’t even go in for a quick loot run and extraction without running into someone who’d rather steal your loot than find their own.
Overall the gameplay itself is fun, in small portions. I feel like if you're someone who binges on a game, like I tend to do, it would get boring quickly. I stopped playing it myself for awhile, then when I went back to it I played it only when I streamed it, for a couple hours a week, and an hour or so to do the side missions because I didn't want to bore viewers with. The firefights were fun, and exploring the city was interesting. The repetitive missions got old, but spreading them out over time helped stave off the burnout.
After Action Report
The premise of the game is well-known. A plague is released on Black Friday as infected bills are dumped into the market for people to come into contact with on a day where more money is exchanged in America than any other. It's a great seed for what would make a fantastic blockbuster movie, or game. Sadly, without giving too much away, the delivery didn't give that seed a chance to flourish.
Early on the game starts out like any other. A short tutorial stage where you learn how everything works, and get an introduction to the world of The Division. Then you're entered into the main story as a helicopter comes to pick you up and take you into the area of operation, gets shot down, and eventually you and a wounded Faye Lau are taken over to Manhattan in a JTF helicopter. For a while that's all the story you get, but first there's a huge issue that has to be addressed.
In most RPGs your character has a backstory, a reason for being there, and a connection to someone else in the story. There's a reason for the player to care; some element to create empathy so the player can imagine themselves in the role of the main character and put themselves in those pixelated boots. That doesn't happen with The Division. Your character doesn't even have a name, just your Steam ID, like any other FPS. The thing is, it's not an FPS, because it has an RPG-like. It winds up being a story I just didn't care about because we have no connection to it through the main character.
The second big issue with the story is it just took too long to get going. You start the game with the little introduction tutorial, then you get to the island and you get another sort of tutorial while you earn points to upgrade your HQ. After hours of gameplay and almost half your main missions done, you finally get a hook. The plot finally reveals itself after I had long given up on there even being one.
In the end the story turns out to be rather predictable, and dare I say, cliche. Betrayal by an inside man, a power-hungry military officer taking advantage of a crisis, and one man to stop it all. I might have been able to overlook the routine story line if I'd been given a reason to care about my character even being there. All we really have to go on is that it's their job, and probably some sense of duty to do it well. He's not invested because of family, or something that happened in his past, no loved ones to save, or righteous drive to bring a fallen friend to justice. He's just there because he has a glowing watch and was summoned to duty by it.
Needless to say a good story isn't a reason to play this game. It's not completely terrible. Some of the missions on their own are interesting. A couple of the bad guys are decently characterized, and the NPCs are actually done well. The four main characters on your side are well-rounded, and when you have to report back to HQ to talk to the doctor, or security chief, they are interesting conversations. The voice acting is pretty good, and even some of the intel and minor NPCs are decently done. As a package though it's just sort of bland. Not totally uninteresting, but not really all that memorable. Oddly enough I think they have some good material to work with, and I hoped for a book, and am skeptically hopefully about the upcoming movie. I just don't think they used the material they did have in the best way, focusing more on making a pretty game, with decent gameplay, and letting the story sort of fall in as an after-thought.