It’s time for The Division Review. In this third-person cover shooter, there’s a heavy emphasis on loot in a possible near-future New York as players around the world look for a reason to leave Destiny behind. There are parallels to be made, sure, but The Division stands on its own two feet and is more akin to Diablo than it is to anything else. Shall we go for a deeper dive? Of course we should, because there’s a lot to say about this game.

Look and Feel

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The Base of Operations. Here you’ll upgrade your three main wings for access to special abilities, talents and perks.

The graphical fidelity of The Division is great. The barren streets of New York are populated with abandoned vehicles (with full, car-door closure mechanics engaged) and the ground is covered in litter and snow. We’re infiltrating near-future New York during the Christmas period and it’s well reflected in the visuals. The faces of the characters are fairly realistic, lending to the realism the game aims for so often, and the game stays consistent in performance throughout.

The problem with The Division’s look is subjective, and for me, it’s hampered by its real-world setting. Though I appreciate and acknowledge how well they’ve replicated New York (according to many natives on Twitter), the weaponry is the biggest issue for me in terms of visuals. I never felt like I’d gotten something special, mainly because they all look like real weapons no matter how much you modify them. You don’t get the Icebreaker, you get Sniper Rifle 24. You don’t get Munchkin’s Leg-guards, you get knee-pads. As effective as the loot treadmill is, visually, these pieces do nothing to engage me with the game, but it does make sense, given their setting. It’s a personal gripe. There’s more variety in the cosmetic items you can find, I imagine so that people didn’t feel chained to certain equipment, but I prefer my loot to be fantastical. To look at it in awe, and you just don’t get that here.

As for the feel, it feels MOSTLY good to play. Shooting and taking cover is fluid, ability usage is simple and movement is smooth enough. It does have issues with button mapping on a standard control pad. For instance, grenades are a pain in the backside to use, forcing you to scroll through several options on the D-Pad reliant mini-menu and release before applying. The amount of times I had to re-do this process was annoying, especially given that grenades and special ammunition are so useful.

A lot of complaints are flying around about the U.I, but I like it. It’s quick enough to navigate and didn’t take me long to acclimate myself to. I also greatly appreciate the way-point marker. When you bring up the map (which is also a cool, holographic projection) you can place a way-point any where, and that manifests itself outside of the map in the form of an orange line that points directly to the area you’ve chosen. If it’s below you, the orange line will show you the path to get underneath where you are and the same for above. It’s a great guidance system.

Where the complaints are valid, however, may be in the character creator. For a game that has so much detail in it, it’s shocking how little customisation there is to be found. Surprisingly, it’s quite easy to make a version of me that chose the gym over the fried chicken, but outside of that, you’re making generic white, black and Asian guys and girls. This disappointed me, particularly because I’d chosen this game as a platform to launch my new carry-on character, but I guess I’ll be waiting for WWE 2k-Hopefully-it’s-good-this-time before Neil deGrasse Tyson enters the fray.

Overall, the look and feel of The Division is good, border-line great, but that character creation deserved more love and the button-mapping needs a revision. Perhaps we’re too limited now and options such as Xbox’s Elite Controller will become the norm henceforth.

Gameplay

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A brief summary of the gameplay in The Division is simple to provide: it’s a third-person cover-based shooting game (think Gears of War but without access to melee attacks), and features light RPG mechanics in the form of leveling, special abilities and various equipment (we refer to as loot) to gather in order to take on the more difficult sections of the game.

The general gameplay is satisfying enough. Those obsessed with realism might be bothered by it taking 20 headshots to take out an elite-class enemy only wearing a hoodie, but if you’re familiar with loot-based RPGs, you’ll soon get past that. The game mostly has you engaging with various groups of enemies in cover-to-cover exchanges. The A.I is impressive, especially at higher difficulties, as it notices when you’ve been in one place for too long and proceeds to flank you accordingly. There’s nothing I appreciate more than being too focused on one guy with a sniper only to be turned in to crispy bacon by a flame-thrower at my side. No sarcasm. I really did appreciate the intelligence there. It kept me on my toes and, thankfully, the transitions from one bit of cover to the next is as simple as looking at where you want to move to and holding X (in the case of Playstation 4).

The crux of the gameplay is the loot treadmill. By defeating enemies and completing objectives, you’ll earn loot. This can be guns, general equipment or vanity clothing. All but the vanity clothing matters, and it contributes to your three main stats: Firearms, Stamina and Electronics. These main stats govern your damage per second, health and skill power respectively. The higher they are, the better the related statistics become. Standard RPG fare. It does this system fairly well, with each bit of “armour” providing one or more of those stat boost, all of which can be re-rolled for a fee at an unlockable station later in the game. The issue with the loot has already been discussed in the Look and Feel section but, that aside, the loot is well-distributed and up until the end game, you often feel like you’re getting more than what you had before for the most part. Partly due to the way the game scales enemy levels to your current player level.

You’ll spend the majority of your time undertaking the various main missions, side missions and encounters. Main missions progress the story, grant you the most experience and offer various difficulty levels to challenge yourself with an obtain better loot. Side missions grant high experience and blue-prints on occasion for crafting special equipment. Encounters grant resources used to upgrade your Base of Operations as well as a small amount of experience. The main missions are the best example of The Division at its finest, featuring varied encounters in unique environments, though the “boss battles” could have had a little more variety to them. The only battle that took me by surprise was the end, so more of that would have been welcome.

The side missions often have an interesting narrative attached, but they get a bit repetitive after a while and become a chore. The encounters SWIFTLY became tired. Though some of them had good ideas to begin with, like the Vaccine missions that had you activating machines within a time limit, having them repeated over and over around the map (and you HAVE to do most of them if you want to upgrade your base) with little-to-no variety in their execution really bugged me. The worst offender? The supply case missions. “Hey buddy! There a case on the floor full of supplies! Go grab it!” Erm, ok? I’ll just lift this and…. OH! All of a sudden I weight 100 stone apparently and all I can do is walk.

Forgive the outburst of sarcasm, but my WORD were those missions annoying. They weren’t difficult, just annoying. You can drop the case at any time and dispose of your pursuers but, ultimately, you’re carrying that God damn case back to its God damn box because the JTF can’t be arsed to apparently. When these encounters are the bulk of your game, it can be tiresome no matter how much you might give a pass to the repetition. If it’s not fun, don’t make me do it.

With that said, The Division is best played with friends. A team of four can roam the streets of New York, cleaning up the map and earning loot along the way. Of course, you’ll want to be the same level, because the game scales to be appropriate for the highest level member of your team. It’s a nightmare in Co-op when you want to jump in to help your Level 5 buddy at Level 30 and you’re faced with Level 25 enemies that they can’t shoot. It’s just a frustrating experience for the lower level people looking for companionship. I feel for you friends. Stay strong. If you ARE all level appropriate, you’ll have a good time at the end-game with Daily Challenges: harder versions of the main story quests with better rewards and guaranteed Phoenix Credits, the end-game currency for high level items. Joining co-op games is a breeze too. It’s just a shame about how it chooses to scale. Ideally, the game would scale to whomever is the host, seeing as the world isn’t shared like it is in Destiny. The only time you bump in to other people in the wild is at a Safehouse (fast travel stations that allow you to acquire your side missions and encounters of that area) or in the Dark Zone.

Sniping fools in the Dark Zone. The cross-hairs make head shots easy.
Sniping fools in the Dark Zone. The cross-hairs make head shots easy.

Speaking of, if you’ve reached the end of the decent amount of content The Division currently offers, you’ll most likely spend the majority of your time in the only PvP-enabled section of the game: The Dark Zone. You can enter from a much earlier point, but seeing as the loot you’ll get will become meaningless as you level up and the Dark Zone Level is separate from your character level, it’s best to wait until you’re 30 (the current cap). In the Dark Zone, the aim is to collect loot in a limited space bag from defeating high level enemies. The loot you collect is contaminated, so you must extract it at a helipad for it to make it back to your stash and become usable. Calling in a helicopter fires off a flare that alerts everybody around you about your loot extraction, and that’s where the real fun begins. Along with the standard A.I enemies, players can turn on each other in the Dark Zone without warning. If you have a yellow bag hanging from your back, it’s like a target for other players to ransack your loot. To attack another player is known as going “Rogue”, but at this moment in time there’s not much benefit to it other than to have a laugh. Co-operation is far more fruitful (bar a few hilarious clips floating about on YouTube right now) and I hope they add more incentive to go rogue. Also, another issue with the Dark Zone is that it becomes a serious grind towards the high end. I’m level 21 in there now and it takes far too long to achieve the next rank, which goes all the way up to level 50. I can’t even imagine reaching that nightmare of a rank. You also lose experience and funds when you die, meaning at rank 50 you can lose literally hours of progress because somebody decided to take you out. There are plenty of end-game issues right now, but the game’s fresh so I’m hoping Ubisoft can address it. Right now, they’re clearly focused on the grind helping its longevity, but it got pretty old pretty fast.

You have abilities you can use to heal or drop a turret to keep the enemy at bay. There are more, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re all mostly inconsequential. If you’re healing and shooting, those abilities barely even matter, even at the high levels of difficulty. Still, the options to unlock skills and modify their abilities in a limited fashion do exist if you wish to mess with it. A quick shout-out to the Support Station ability and the Ultimate ability of the Stamina tree – those are definitely the most useful for a solo player along with the turret, but a few well-placed headshots with a Marksman Rifle and a medkit work just as well.

My biggest issue with The Division though? Walking. Oh dear. 70% of this game is WALKING. Slowly. Even when sprinting. Your world is interesting, I agree, but it’s not interesting enough for me to want to walk by all of the time, and the character movement outside of battle feels a little heavy to me. Even the vaulting over obstacles is more sluggish than I assumed it’d be. It’s like lazy parkour. It’s as if somebody dropped stones in your knee-pads before you equipped them. It’s like– well, you get it. It’s kind of slow. You could do with a moped in this game.

Arguably, the best aspect of the game is the loot. Though there’s nothing special within the loot pool in my opinion, there’s a lot of it, and switching between the various weapon types finding what works for me and maximising my preferred stats (depending on what the talents on the weapons require). It’s a proper loot game akin to Diablo. In fact, it’s the Diablo of shooters, it just needs some improved RPG mechanics to really give it a boost.

Inventory management can be a pain. You have a limited amount of space and can break down items for materials. The problem is that you can only do it one at a time, or you can mark a bunch of junk, but you have to mark it all separately in their individuals tabs and then hold in the left thumb stick when you’re doing. The same issue applies to creating crafting elements. I’ve stood at my crafting stations turning 100 green items in to 10 blue items (roughly), and there’s no way to bulk upgrade. It’s a nuisance of a flaw that discourages engaging with it.

One thing I commend The Division on greatly is the inclusion of narrative-based missions in the game side-activities. There’s no “head to our website” section here in order to read the story: you find out what happened to New York by exploring New York (Manhattan, to be precise). You’ll search for discarded mobile phones featuring emotional voice messages and reconstruct scenes via the ECHO system, that shows you how events unfolded using Shade technology to rewrite it all in orange in-front of you. Like augmented reality. It’s pretty cool and delivers its narrative in a way that’s easy to consume and perfect for this world.

As you can see, I could go on forever about the pros and cons of The Division’s various gameplay aspects, and I’d like to, but it doesn’t matter. What you really need to know in the TL;DR fashion: the moment-to-moment gameplay is great, but it gets repetitive pretty fast and the end-game is a monstrous slog that doesn’t take long to ware off, but there’s enough content before that to justify the purchase in my opinion.

Story

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Fast Travel is available at Safehouses and any Main Mission entry point you’ve completed.

The plot of The Division is pretty good. You’re a sleeper agent, activated and called upon because of a virus outbreak on Black Friday in New York. The outbreak is the Dollar Flu, labelled as such because it was spread on the money changing hands so often on the biggest shopping day of the year. As a result of the virus, various groups have over-run the abandoned New York and are doing whatever terrible things they want. The Rikers, escaped convicts from Rikers Island, go around killing indiscriminately, obsessed with their freedom and led by a terrifying character that falls flat in its conclusion. The Cleaners are a collection of public service workers that have decided to burn the city down to be rid of the virus, with no mercy for the survivors stranded within. To speak of any more might breach the spoiler treaty, but suffice to say, you’re there to reign in the unruly groups and try to locate the origin point of this virus. What’s worth noting is that your wave of The Division is the second wave. The first disappeared in the middle of the carnage.

There’s an authenticity to The Division’s story that pulls in the people that may not enjoy the more fantastical elements of games like Diablo or Destiny. The real-world setting benefits them greatly from a narrative perspective and you can tell the teams at Ubisoft care a great deal about New York from the way it’s delivered to you.

That said, the side characters all fall flat. Faye Lau seemed so interesting to me, along with a few others, and though they all provide a level of intrigue at one point or another, they’re ultimately inconsequential, or perhaps it’s that we don’t seem them doing enough. We could have used more time with them as characters rather than radio personalities because there are relationships to be crafted and they can’t be done over the radio the way they do it. We simply don’t SEE them enough. I’m also a little sour about how the game ends, somewhat dangling its big, floppy season pass in your face. The games introduces two new threats mid-way through, one of which is genuinely engaging, the other is like “what? Why are you even here?”. It also resolves in very much the same way.

I enjoyed the overall narrative, and I think the cliff-hanger it delivers is both a stroke of genius and a slap in the face, but you’ve gotta get more money somehow, right? We’re looking at a franchise here, so it’s not much of a surprise. All in all, even in main missions alone, there’s enough for me that I don’t feel the need to go back but I’m also satisfied with what I’ve done, and it should be noted that free updates are on the way.

Overall

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The Division has some fundamental problems in its pace and lack of personality in its RPG elements, especially that talent tree, but it does loot-and-shoot gameplay incredibly well. The basic loop is enough to keep you engaged for the most part and the campaign has more than enough meat. Those encounters need to be looked in to and faster transportation around the city would be welcome, but I’ll certainly be checking out the free future content, I just hope it’s more “final mission” in execution than it is more of the same.

I wouldn’t recommend buying the Season Pass, but I never will, so I guess it’s not relevant. Wait until you know what it is and if it’s any good before dropping more money on a gamble like vague details of their plans. I have, without a doubt, missed out some things you may like or dislike, which is a testament to how much there is in this game to discuss, but rest-assured, there will be more Division, both in game and in opinion.

Corrections: Courtesy of Mark Farrington via Facebook, there IS a melee attack, although it’s more like a playful exchange between fraternity buddies. The level cap in the Dark Zone is also presumed to be 99? That’s a nightmare. Best of luck, agents!

Game: The Division
Review Format: Playstation 4

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