In The Division review, we’ll take a look at the game’s strengths, weaknesses and whether it was worth all the hype.
New York City is in serious trouble after a bioterrorist attack, propagated by infected money passing hands. The disaster has caused the President to call in The Strategic Homeland Division. The catch is, you’re part of the second wave. The first mysteriously went missing/presumed dead, with their goal of stabilizing the city from chaos and getting to the bottom of the mysterious terror attack remaining unfinished.
There’s a lot of to do in The Division. As an MMORPG it takes advantage of online play as well as the traditional map full of tasks. There are the story missions, which you can complete for points to take back to headquarters and upgrade your base, providing a fun challenge. Interestingly, there is no leveling up system. Instead, each of the base upgrades unlock various skills and abilities.
There are also a constant supply of side missions and encounters. These are very repetitive and can get old after a while; not because they are bad, but because they never change. You get frustrated after bailing out JTF (Joint Task Force) agents over and over.
There is no class system, but instead you can customize your character to your play style. Your guns, their modifications, your clothing, your equipment, your backpack, and even your scarf are all customizable. There are no specific guns or abilities that are clearly more powerful than the others. Instead you can gear up directly toward how you play.
Unfortunately, this is not a game that allows for multiplayer; it practically requires it. Certain side missions can be run solo or with a friend, but the game truly shines with a full four-person squad. The missions would be all but impossible alone. The game is truly great with friends, but you have to wonder if it was a miss not to be very single player-friendly.
Missing the Best of Both Worlds
The Dark Zone is open world PvPvE magic. Here you run into other agents, but they can turn on you at any moment. Similarly, if you attack others and go Rogue, there will be a public bounty on your head. While being simultaneously suspicious of other agents, the enemies are stronger in the Dark Zone, but the loot is more rewarding as well, constantly pulling you in to try a gear extraction.
I understand why the Dark Zone is the only area for PvP, but I can’t help but feel that this area has that special something the rest of the game is missing. While in the Dark Zone you feel the hostility of the city and how badly the world has fallen apart. Any corner you turn could have an unpleasant surprise. But outside the Dark Zone, you feel completely in control. There is no question as to who is your enemy and who is not. Those you run into in the regular city are never agents outside of your team, and the characters you do find are immediately labeled as friend or foe.
This can feel odd when “Looters” and “Rioters” both seem to be combing the city for loot but only one is designated as ‘shoot on sight.’ The Civilians are designated as “Rioters” who were unable to escape the city. Occasionally you can scan one and give them supplies if they are in need of help, with an XP reward. The rest just look at you suspiciously or run away. What if these scans could either reveal a person in genuine need, or someone with darker motives? What if sometimes those you ran into pretended to need help but were luring you into ambush? The game would benefit If it was less clear whether you were safe or not, or who friend or foe could be by raising the tension.
Conversely, the Dark Zone is also missing the best part of open world gameplay: Missions. There are no missions to run in the Dark Zone, only enemies to shoot at and other agents to be wary of on a roaming basis. It seems like an area ripe for tense, interesting story missions, perhaps hooked into the investigation to learn those responsible for the terror attacks.
The story of The Division is severely disappointing. Very few things are told to you outright are things you would expect to know; such as who are the bad guys, why are they bad, and what are they up to. Instead, the game is shoot first, ask questions later. Ironically, The Division unveils some incredibly interesting secondary content that you have to find in the world, gleaned from found cell phones and computers, or reconstructed digital scenes using a cocktail of surveillance footage. You can even track down missing first wave Division Agents, eventually finding their handy orange watches and learning more about their previous lives and personalities. But none of this is handed to you. At times you feel a lot more like a government death squad than hero, something that could easily be remedied by more information in the player’s hands.
This dark setting and violent tone are awkwardly juxtaposed by the various NPCs you interact with throughout the game. Safe House JTF officers who direct you via radio on side missions and JTF support scenarios have a strange humor that often misses. I chuckled frequently at one officer who was clearly formerly involved in the mob but equally scoffed at the likes of the officer whose entire personality is focused on having severe allergies.
The leader, Faye Lau, while a very strong woman, is also is the primary driver of a ‘rah-rah let’s fight for our home’ sentiment. The serious gravity of the situation, saving one of the most important cities in the world and getting to the bottom of the outbreak before others around the world die, can be missing at otherwise key moments in cut scenes. Instead, there are mixed messages sent at the player constantly. One moment the game is trying to be laughable, the next you’re walking past mass graves dug into subway tunnels and city parks.
The beginning of the game starts with a fizzle. There are only a handful of character models to choose from at the outset. Granted, later on you can customize your clothing, and especially your equipment to the Nth degree. But the result is still that out of my group of 4 friends, 3 of us look identical. Outside of that, the game is gorgeous. The HUD is fantastic and seamlessly transitions from on-screen, in-combat information to holographic projections of New York City maps or inventory and skill management menus.
The Division really does an incredible job of showcasing the setting of New York City. The buildings are not exactly the same as real life, but the neighborhoods are recognizable. I was floored to be fighting around the location of my old New York haunts. The time of year is winter and the weather is extremely dynamic, shifting between clear crisp mornings where you can see the World Trade Center from blocks away to foggy, snowy, wind-blown nights where it’s hard to see your enemy 30 feet away. Your character responds to the changing weather, as well. The more miserable it becomes, the more you will hunch up into the wind and look miserable. It’s subtle, but an extremely polished touch.
The sound design of The Division is spot on. The combat sounds brutal and specific. Each kind of gun or explosive have their own unique sound. You can tell your distance from combat by the way the sound changes at a distance and how it shifts in open vs. close spaces. Equally, the combat feels brutal the closer in you get, as gunfire is screaming around you and explosions can get close enough to rock you and temporarily disable hearing. The effect is brutal. The danger you feel is real, and the damage you’re dealing out is satisfying.
The atmospheric soundtrack by Ola Strandh is almost too good to notice. It subtly flows with the change in mood of the game based on location, enemy type, danger, and situation. Focusing on synth and drums, the electronic soundtrack is a joy to listen to and add to the atmosphere significantly.
The entire journey, you are accompanied by an AI named ISAC via your orange Division watch. It pulls up your in combat HUD, inventory menus, and maps. It deals out vital information such as when an area is under attack, where your objective is, or if a teammate is down. Many will notice ISAC is masterfully voiced by Brandon Keener of Mass Effect Garrus fame.
The controls of the game are quite clever and intuitive. The gun play is sharp and responsive. You feel like you can aim quickly but reasonably while each gun feels unique and effective, which is furthered by the customization available to you. Using a sniper in close will not work, and firing a submachine gun from distance may land a few bullets, but will be wildly inaccurate. Each battle is bolstered by your special abilities. Want to run as team medic? Maybe explosives or gadgets? Repeatedly my team found each of our unique builds to be critical during certain moments of hard battles. Knowing your teammate can throw a medkit when you’re in low health or being able to plant an explosive to damage a group of enemies can save a losing battle.
Despite being one of the traditionally frustrating mechanics of video games for years, The Division is based solely on cover. There is no outright “stealth” mechanic and there is no crouching or going prone in open space. Instead you have to constantly get behind cover. Staying outside of cover recklessly will most definitely get you killed. Thankfully the game does cover incredibly well. By looking around the map you can select cover using the clever HUD and simply press and hold “A” to move dynamically over and around obstacles in a crouching run until you arrive at your new cover. Movement is quite necessary as higher level enemy squads will work as a squad to outflank you, highlighting the intelligent AI. The battlefield is fluid, and your movement within it is intentional and empowering. Flanking an enemy squad while your teammates distract from another direction is very satisfying.
The Division is hard to talk about because it is simultaneously a wonderful game, but also clearly not quite what it could have been. MMORPGs like The Division and Destiny are surely a bright future of gaming, but it appears their potential is only starting to be realized. The Division’s scenario or story aren’t quite fully delivered and the game is simply not playable alone. Despite its imperfections The Division supplies a strongly rewarding game that provides fun customization, a great time with friends, and one of the best renderings of New York City as a sandbox.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is available now on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One. Do you agree with our verdict? Leave your thoughts on the game below!