Tom Clancy’s The Division
Developed by: Ubisoft Massive
Published by: Ubisoft
Available for: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Hunkered down behind cover, fending off a ceaseless assault from elite soldiers, my squad is tasked with hacking the enemy’s turrets to have them turn on their masters while we make our way into their base. While my teammates draw fire, I make my way around the back of the combat zone avoiding the swarming bodies and gunfire. I reach the turret control console and accomplish my task. The turrets have been hacked, the enemies are now distracted, and we can make our way into the building for the next stage of our assault.
This is just one of the many combat scenarios I encountered in my time with Tom Clancy’s The Division. Nearly three years from its initial reveal, Ubisoft Massive’s open-world RPG has finally arrived. Offering a wealth of skills and abilities that suit any playstyle, seemingly endless amount of loot, a gorgeously rendered New York City in decay, satisfying combat, and progression, Tom Clancy’s The Division (The Division for the remainder of this review) nails so many aspects in its design that it is easily at the front of the pack for my Game of the Year.
The story in The Division is simple but engaging. After New York City has fallen from the “Dollar Flu” pandemic–a manufactured strain of smallpox that was distributed on bank notes used on Black Friday–NYC is put under quarantine and sleeper agents all over the city known as “The Division” are activated to help take back New York from the opportunistic and violent people that have taken over. The first order of business is to set up a base of operations at the James A. Farley Post Office Building. To strengthen the base, agents are tasked with finding and rescuing key people to help rebuild the medical, tech, and security wings. As the agents progress through the city completing missions, they uncover the truth behind the virus and what happened to the first wave of Division agents.
Told mostly through “echoes,” (inexplicable images that show what happened in a specific area), cell phone recordings, other variations on audio logs, and a few cut scenes, the story is actually quite engaging and I appreciated the more subtle approach over being bogged down with lengthy cut scenes. I especially liked the cell phone recordings as they revealed stories of the citizens affected by the pandemic and often have threads that carry through multiple recordings. Some are funny, others are tragic, and others are just sweet. The writing and voice acting here are stellar and a true highlight.
Mechanically, doing story missions adds to both the overall narrative and the gameplay by feeding you upgrades. The more upgrades you unlock, the more skills, skill upgrades, “talents,” and perks become available. All of these together greatly open up variables in how you approach each combat scenario. For example, my two favorites became the sticky bomb with expanded range and damage and healing which upped my damage output and defense as well anyone in the area of effect. This way I could do a ton of damage and heal myself and teammates.
Combat is the largest aspect of gameplay in the Division, and as you progress through the campaign, it escalates exponentially. If you’re leveling up with the story, you will always be challenged but never overwhelmed. It’s a very well thought out and executed system provided you use it.
Often times in cover-based combat, the arenas telegraph combat through inorganically placed cover. With The Division being an open world game, Ubsioft Massive have used the environment naturally in ways that make sense to not only the overall story but also the respective environments. Bus stops, abandoned cars, mailboxes, et al provide cover that not only works but is actually immersive. And cover is paramount because the enemy AI is exceptional. Early encounters are fairly easy as the early enemy groups are somewhat dim-witted and lacking in tactics. “Rikers,” escaped convicts, tend to rush out in the open, turn their guns sideways and try to take you out through brute force. “Cleaners,” former sanitation workers gone insane, carry flame throwers and tend to rush as well, which makes sense because they would generally lack the tactical combat training of soldiers. However, the later enemies do have military training and use cover and tactics to engage and flush you out of cover so they can take you down. They also have some of the same abilities as you do: Some heal while others use seeker grenades and weapons you don’t have, like grenade launchers. It makes the later combat sections intense and hectic but never unmanageable if you can keep your wits and situational awareness about you.
It can’t be understated that The Division is an RPG with RPG mechanics, such as hitpoints, areas of effect, status effects, etc. It should be advised that despite its realistic setting, aesthetic, weapons and so on, this is not a shooter with RPG elements; it is an RPG with shooter mechanics. If you are expecting to drop enemies with one headshot from the outset, you’re going to be disappointed. That comes with leveling up and amassing better weapons and gear.
Beyond the XP rewards for combat, the biggest and most addictive draw is loot. Tons and tons of loot. While the guns are somewhat limited in each respective subset (marksman rifles, assault rifles, submachine guns, and light machine guns), the stats they have vary greatly based on their tiers: standard, uncommon, rare, superior, and high end. This extends to the gear as well, which consists of body armor, gloves, holsters, knee pads, and gas masks. All guns have mod slots that you can fill with various slot specific items to up your damage output and overall effectiveness. Some late game gear has slots that can also be modded, but I found those to be very rare despite finding a ton of gear mods.
The above mentioned tiers are color coded: grey for standard, green for uncommon, blue for rare, purple for superior, and yellow for high-end. The tougher the enemies and the higher your level, the more likely you are to get better loot drops. Each player only sees loot on their screen, so you won’t have to fight with your teammates over who gets the superior drop. On top of this are cosmetic drops, identifiable by their light blue hue. These allow you to further customize your agents with hats, scarves, shirts, jackets, pants, and shoes. My character looks like a hipster douche from Brooklyn with not a single thing that matches and shoes with overly large tongues. Good times.
Exploring the ravaged and sickened New York City is surprisingly worthwhile, despite the lack of a “living city” as seen in other open world games. Be it through random combat encounters, giving certain civilians your supplies in exchange for loot–most often cosmetic–finding collectibles, side missions, encounters and so on.
Beyond the moment-to-moment exploration, The Division’s New York City is a thing of decadent beauty. Gorgeously detailed and rendered, it truly feels like a place that was once thriving and has now gone into rampant decay and disarray. Even though the map “only” covers midtown Manhattan (and a small portion of Brooklyn in the beginning section of the game), it’s still huge with tons of short cuts and verticality. There’s so much to see that I would often wander around slowly with my camera turned upwards, taking in the design work.
Adding to the immersion is the weather and the visual affect it has. Being that it’s winter, precipitation manifests in snow falling, either lightly or heavy storms that cover the ground, cars, and even your agent in snow. Heavy snowfall makes firefights even more intense because you often can’t see the enemies flanking you or changing position to get a better vantage point. Coupled with the great lighting effects, the game really is gorgeous.
The sound design is also impressive, but does suffer the most technical issues. Voice acting is great across the board, with each character having their own cadence and accent, and since your mostly hearing them over wireless communication, it’s a detail that I truly admired and appreciated. Guns sound realistic, explosions sound satisfying, even the sound the heal ability makes is unique. Unfortunately for some reason, the audio will at times drop out for significant lengths of time. It’s a jarring negative on an otherwise stellar presentation.
The technical issues don’t end with the sound. While I didn’t experience it myself, my friend fell through the map several times during one mission, often dying and having to run all the way back from the safe house. There is also some texture pop-in which, while I expected it based on the scope, is still noticeable and unfortunate.
After a certain point, players are given access to The Dark Zone, The Division’s PvP area. Sectioned off by a huge wall, the Dark Zone was abandoned by the government as the contamination was too high to control. As such, it’s pretty much the Wild West. It’s the only area where you will encounter other players with any sort of consequence, and it’s where to get the best loot in the game.
Like the PvE area, the streets and some buildings are littered with enemies, and the higher level Elite enemies drop the best loot based on their level. Because the items found there are contaminated, they have to be extracted out by a chopper. Doing this alerts other players in the area where they can either ignore you, join you and try to extract, watch your back, or turn on you by going rogue, kill you and steal your hard-earned loot. You can also team up with other squads and roll together through the Dark Zone without being on the same team. Proximity chat works really well in this regard, and you’ll still be able to communicate.
Going Rogue carries a huge risk because if you die as a rogue you can lose a lot of experience, Dark Zone credits (your currency in the Dark Zone), and any keys you have that open level specific chests throughout. If you manage to survive, you will get some extra XP and credits. I’m generally not a fan of griefing, which is what going Rogue really is, so it’s not something I’ve done much on purpose. Unfortunately, you can go Rogue accidentally if you’re chasing down a team of Rogues and a non-party Agent gets hit with your grenade. That said, not everyone shares my aversion to going Rogue which makes every encounter with another player incredibly tense and successfully extracting your gear all the more rewarding. It’s exhilarating stuff.
The Division is full of neat little design decisions that make the entire experience that much better. Joining friends is as easy as finding your friend on the map and selecting “join group” and then being whisked into their instanced world. Or you can invite them into your game just as easily, and if they accept your request, they’ll simply appear in your game. You can also fast travel to team mates if you get separated for whatever reason. In the Safe houses and Dark Zone, you can highlight other players and have them join your team. You can also match make at the safe houses or right before you start a story mission. Finally, can also change the difficulty which raises the challenge and gives greater rewards.
Crafting is something I have come to loathe in most games because it requires taking time to hunt down ingredients and components. In The Division, this has been streamlined to an enjoyable degree. By compiling the simple “fabric”, “weapon parts”, and “electronics” and having the proper blueprint, you can visit the crafting station in the Base of Operations and select the item you want to craft and it will be made. The stats are random, but you can keep crafting as long as you have the components. You can then either deconstruct the items you don’t want for crafting parts or you can sell them at any vendor. It’s refreshingly simple, and I hope more games adopt it.
Lastly I would like to address whether or not the game can be played solo and still be rewarding. 100% yes. I played a great deal of the game alone and was able to get a full loadout of Superior gear and High End gear was available to craft or purchase. So it is entirely possible to play through the entire game alone, provided you are up for the challenge that comes with it.
After three years of anticipation, Tom Clancy’s The Division is everything I wanted it to be and then some. With the promise of free updates like next month’s Incursion, daily challenges, and the prospect of greater loot, The Division is a game I can see myself spending a long time in. Ubisoft Massive has a monster success on their hands, and the future is bright, despite the dystopian tone of the game and setting. Easily my front runner for Game of the Year.
(A review copy was not provided for this review)