When we entered the Subway Morgue in Ubisoft’s new third-person shooter, Tom Clancy’s The Division, we didn’t know what to expect. We ran through the deserted streets of New York City watching the remaining citizens fighting over food and scavenging for any supplies they can. The city was obviously in bad shape, and when we entered the Subway Morgue it dawned on us just how harrowing things had become. In this moment, and many others to come, The Division had succeeded in creating an experience that was not only terrifying to think about in the real world, but also addictive and fun to play in the virtual one.
Story and Character Creator
Unlike other catastrophes simulated in video games, The Division focuses on a much too real bioterrorism attack. A weaponized version of Smallpox is imprinted on Blacknotes and released on Manhattan during Black Friday. The disease, referred to as Green Poison, spreads fast and wide throughout New York City, forcing the government to place the area under quarantine. The government activates sleeper agents within New York dubbed ‘The Division,’ an organization established during Operation Dark Winter and a simulation of a potential bioterrorism attack.
As a member of The Division along with the JTF (Joint Task Force) you are tasked with stabilizing New York from the various factions plaguing the city, along with finding out who created the Green Poison and bringing them to justice. Unfortunately the game’s story doesn’t really go anywhere from here. While The Division’s narrative starts out strongly when the commander of The Division agents is killed in a strategic strike – wounding you along with fellow agent, Faye Lau, who takes control of the Division – it soon trails off.
After this initial sequence, The Division’s narrative comes to a standstill as players are tasked with rebuilding a base of operations and recruiting help to take back the city. The story picks up pace during the latter half of the campaign with some twists and turns, but unfortunately it all comes a little too quickly and its presentation just feels lazy. Most of the story sequences are presented through radio transmissions and collectables found throughout the the city, but the presentation and execution leaves a lot to be desired, especially considering that Tom Clancy’s name is attached to it.
Although the narrative leaves much to be desired, the rest of The Division fires on almost all cylinders.
Combat and Exploration
The Division plays like a third-person/cover-based shooter, with role playing elements. The first thing you’ll notice is the importance of moving from cover to cover. During shootouts enemies move about the combat zone trying to flank you and draw you out of cover forcing you to move away. While in cover you are able to aim the reticle to any other flat surface and move to that position by simply holding down the cover button, which works extremely well.
While in combat enemies adapt depending on their level and type. The higher the level the harder they are to kill. Unlike other shooters, simply shooting and watching them fall isn’t enough because combat mechanics are much more like an RPG. As such, an element of strategy is needed in combat rather than a simple run- and-gun approach. Getting headshots is a must, netting you powerful critical hits as opposed to just firing at any body part.
As you progress you start to encounter enemies using body armor, which makes strategic actions more important. Veteran enemies appear with different colored health bars to distinguish themselves and some begin to use skills like gun turrets to keep you suppressed as they try to flank you, forcing you to play smarter and utilize your own characters skills and abilities.
Overall, the system is sound but not entirely perfect. Some encounters just feel cheap for no real reason. We ran into plenty of issues where enemies felt indestructible, as some would just run right at you absorbing an insane amount of damage with hardly any health loss. Other times we ran into enemies that would run straight at you without a care in the world and take us down with three or four shots from their handgun. Suffice to say, no matter what we did, some enemies just didn’t react as they should, while others were just too powerful for the low level area we were in.
Outside of some cheap deaths, we found the third-person shooting to blend in very well with the RPG mechanics, allowing us to focus on certain skills to make sure every shot we took count. Planning with friends ahead of time on our course of action and determining which enemies were the more serious threat is part of the thrill. There’s something incredibly satisfying about planning in advance and watching your ideas come to fruition, perhaps throwing down a suppression turret while you sneak behind the enemy and set them ablaze with incendiary grenades.
Exploration becomes a key point during your stay in New York. The entire Manhattan area is open for exploration, and searching for loot to upgrade your character and components to craft new items becomes really addictive. Exploring alleyways and climbing rooftops felt like a chore at first but we quickly discovered how rewarding it was. Hidden collectibles add to the story, while chests full of powerful gear and special encounters with gangs and their miniboss leaders was worth the time it took to explore.
Exploration led us to rebuild stories of what we thought happened at a certain location. At one point we ran into a group of dead JTF soldiers who had been executed by a firing squad. Upon further exploration we found more dead soldiers, some of them hanging from light posts. It was a horrifying site but it wasn’t until we found out what had happened at this location and who committed these crimes through collectables and side quests that it made it even more satisfying taking down the culprit.
You may not be able to enter every building in The Division for obvious technical reasons but the ones you can enter are incredibly detailed, as is the entire world. Exploring these open locations is the best way to find appealing items that allow you to customize what your character looks like, as well as discovering more collectables and hidden loot.
Graphics and Sound
Having never visited New York City, we can’t talk about the accuracy of its recreation in The Division, but what we can talk about is how impressively the developer has created what a city might look like following a bioterror attack. The Division looks fantastic. Garbage is strewn about the city, barricades and abandoned cars litter the streets, the bodies of the dead are left to rot and failed quarantine zones remain abandoned with no clean up or help to come. Everything is masterfully crafted, making it one of the most believable worlds in recent memory. We’re suckers for small details and The Division is littered with them; bullet holes shatter glass depending on impact, explosions char the ground from impact, hell even the snow blows off car roofs when it’s windy.
This level of detail even applies to the enemies as well. The Cleaners, for example, carry a gas tank on their back which can be shot by igniting it. But it works for other characters as well. You see that grenade on a Rioters belt? Shoot it to blow him up. You can even shoot the grenade while it’s in his hand ready to throw.
The music in the game complements the incredible visuals very well too, with a Deus Ex techno/electronic vibe to it which fits the game perfectly. The sound design is also very impressive. Shots echo in underground tunnels and car alarms go off from the loud gun fire in the streets. The voice work is acceptable too, and we say this because you mostly only hear three or four of the main characters talk. The most impressive example is the individual who talks on the radio, which you hear throughout the game, speaking about conspiracy theories and informing everyone of what’s going on in the city with the different factions.
Skills and Crafting
As we mentioned earlier The Division has a lot of RPG elements. This is most evident in its skills and talent menu. As you progress through the campaign you earn resources for the three different skill trees.
In your base of operations you gain access to three wings: Medical, Security, and Tech. These also represent your skills, traits, and perks. As you gain resources you’ll be able to expand each of the three wings. Expanding these wings will unlock new skills, traits, and perks for that respective class. Skills are the most important of the three and allow you to use special abilities. Traits give passive abilities such as healing other players with your own medkits, while perks all constantly remain active and add small bits to help you in the long run such as revealing all collectables on the map.
Each of the three wings act like classes in an MMO. Medical skills give you different types of healing abilities and turns you into a healing class. Tech makes you the DPS/Control character giving you skills like placing down a deployable Sentry Gun for support fire. Finally, security is your Tank class and allows you to create mobile cover like a riot shield or create cover that gives you special attributes.
Equipment plays a key role in your effectiveness in combat. Each piece of equipment ups one of three attributes. DPS: Damage per second, Health: How much health you have, and Skill: How effective your skills are. Each piece of equipment comes with its own stats and bonuses as well. Depending on the rarity of your equipment you gain bonuses like increasing the damage of your Sentry Gun or gaining five percent exp bonus for headshots.
The skill system works wonderfully well because it allows you to play to your own style. Although you can only equip two skills at a time each one serves their own purpose. Unlike other games you never feel like you need to have a healing skill equipped just to survive the next encounter, for instance. The Division gives you plenty of ways to keep yourself alive with medkits and regenerating health, while those who do enjoy going in guns blazing have the option of going with the Security setup of a ballistic shield to protect their teammates by throwing out mobile cover when they feel stranded. With so many options at your fingertips, the ways in which you can play The Division are limitless.
The Dark Zone is the part of Manhattan that was hit hardest by the outbreak and has since been abandoned by the JTG due to the strong presence of the factions running the Dark Zone. This area is where competitive players will be most happy, operating in a player vs. player vs. environment. This means that outside of just taking on the factions you have to worry about other Division agents.
The Dark Zone holds the most valuable loot and equipment too, and it’s where most players will spend their time after they have completed the main story campaign. The Dark Zone is not a place for a lone player and is best explored with a team of friends. Unlike the campaign area, picking up loot does not allow you to equip it as it’s contaminated and must first be decontaminated before players are able to equip it. Furthermore, acquiring loot takes up space in your dark zone inventory, which is a measly six slots (though it can be increased with perks), and in order to acquire these items you have to extract them from the multiple extraction points in the Dark Zone.
What makes the Dark Zone such an exciting area to spend your time is the constant tension you feel. If at any point you are killed in the Dark Zone you lose all of the loot you acquired that you haven’t extracted yet. You can of course go and retrieve your belongings—that is unless someone else got to it first.
Other players are just as – if not more – dangerous than the computer-controlled enemies you encounter. At any point another player can turn his back on fellow players to kill them and take their loot. As soon as they open fire on other players they will be turned into a Rogue Agent. This allows other players to see them on their mini-map and hunt them down if they so choose to, or avoid them to protect their own goods.
Despite all the fun we had with The Division it was hard not to notice some of its problems. The first comes in the form of the always-online requirement. The reason this was a problem is because outside of the Dark Zone location, safe houses, or joining a co-op game you will never see another player running around in the world. You can play the entire campaign solo if you choose.
We can see, however, why the decision was made for a required Internet connection as the entire game is streamlined with no load screens outside of the initial one booting up the game. Heading into an online game would have taken players out of the experience.
As great as the world looks it does have some issues with some textures not loading properly too, and some taking to long to load. I did also run into an issue with NPC characters standing in the doorway during rescue missions and assault missions.
Nevertheless, it says a lot about The Division as an overall package that none of the issues take away from the fact that this one of the finest shooters of the past few years, and with a Season Pass coming that opens up three substantial new locations, its future’s looking bright. When it comes to new IPs, it’s always a hit or miss and generally a big risk for developers and publishers. The Division, however, took me from being a skeptic to a believer, and is easily the most fun I’ve had playing with my friends in a long time. Post pandemic New York City is a terrifying vision, but it’s not one that you’ll likely want to leave for some time.