The Division is a good game but one that falls short of greatness.
Set against the backdrop of New York City post-pandemic, The Division is a Shoot & Loot RPG comparable to Destiny and Borderlands. In the game, you are an agent of “The Division”; a last line of defense sleeper cell organization and five-time winner of the Worst Named Organization in Video Games award. Seriously, they couldn’t have been the Special Operations Division and just referred to as “The Division” in conversation? You really wanted that cool name didn’t you?
The Division is an elite military unit that is seeking to salvage pandemic-devastated New York. As the player character your job is to run errands and shoot people. To shoot these people, you have access to an RPG inspired gear and weapons system which determines your stats. Guns have DPS numbers, gear has armor rating and the rarity color scheme (white<green<blue<purple<orange) will be familiar to any MMO player.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Division is a somewhat lackluster character creation screen; once you’ve selected one of the five racially diverse presets, you’re limited to hair, eye color, piercings and tattoos. It feels incongruous for an (MMO)RPG to have customization options this sparse. Destiny can get away with this since players are wearing absurd, loud clothing with helmets covering their faces, but in The Division every player is just wearing similar muted color jackets and pants and this harms the sense of individuality RPGs are ostensibly about.
They are pretty jackets mind! What The Division lacks in customization at the outset it delivers in the visuals of post-pandemic New York City. The best way I could describe the environment is dense; there’s stuff everywhere and it really helps the world building. Things like broken down cars and abandoned quarantine structures you’d expect but the massive piles of trash, realistic shanty-towns and a solid amount of explorable buildings do a great job making New York feel less “video-gamey” and more virotic.
What really impressed me was the day to night transitions and the weather effects. Set in the middle of winter The Division has a lot to play with as you shift from brilliant blue skies to blinding snowstorms and dimly lit midnight. It does an excellent job of immersing you in the setting; reinforcing the sense that you’re alone out here in this once bustling city.
The environment is restricted to midtown Manhattan post-tutorial and it’s initially a bit annoying to see the rest of New York on the map as “Out of Bounds”. In truth, the map feels just the right size. Without cars or superpowers to traverse it, you’ll be glad that The Division doesn’t have a GTA V sized overworld.
Presentation is also quite slick. The HUD projects from your character’s watch, so ammo and abilities appear in a small floating box next to you. It cleans up the more aggressive bordered HUDs in other shooters and gives The Division its own flair. Menus also pop up in world, giving the whole setup a more tangible feel. Add this to the fact that the pause doesn’t pause the game and the presentation really helps the immersion.
Unfortunately, the menus are also where you start to see the technical cracks in The Division show. About a third of the time the menus will glitch, showing a monotone backdrop rather than the environment. During one co-op mission, my squadmates and I fell through the level geometry about four times each. In addition, the queue, fast travel and load times varied wildly in my initial week of gameplay. I’m willing to forgive most of these issues as the launch growing pains of an MMO shooter but with the polish in presentation the rest of the game has, these wrinkles really stand out.
In gameplay, the comparisons to Destiny and Borderlands fall away somewhat. The Division approaches combat from a more methodical place, with emphasis placed on positioning, flanking and patience over mobility and twitch reflexes. It’s a satisfying, responsive system that has you feeling tense during large scale fights while delivering a solid sense of accomplishment once you clear a tough area.
Weapons follow typical shooter conventions with grenades, pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault and marksman rifles and LMG; if there is anything more exotic, I haven’t found it yet. This is where realism hurts more than it helps, the guns aren’t nearly varied enough for it to matter, so you’ll probably just find the one with the highest numbers rather than make some meaningful personal choices.
Each player also gets two tech abilities which are varied, but not groundbreaking. Turrets, mines, explosives, ballistic shields and deployable cover are among the options. Late in the game you’re given access to a team-buff ability as well, boosting defence, damage or healing. When they’re used well you’ll have one teammate toss out turrets and bombs while the others deploy support devices and a wave of baddies will quickly fall over in satisfying fashion. These abilities are a fun and effective way to mix up combat but I would have liked to see more creative uses of the game’s near future setting.
The combat’s difficulty comes with the RPG nature of The Division’s systems. Your guns are doing DPS damage instead of bullet damage, so a headshot isn’t really a headshot, it’s just a more damaging strike with your weapon. This is what really hurts the immersion for The Division; when your perfectly lined up headshot on a hoodie wearing assailant barely staggers him. In a game like Destiny I don’t like the bullet-sponges but I can buy that aliens have shields or armor, but in this far more down-to-earth setting, it’s tougher to accept. The bullet-sponge nature of enemies is ratcheted way too high on Hard mode, it became so tedious that I dropped back down to Normal.
The combat really shines in the PvE co-op sections. You can group up with other players for story missions or to free roam through the PvP legal ‘Dark Zone’. When you’re able to use flanking techniques and synergize your abilities, The Division jumps from a decent game to a great one. The systems are built extremely well for cooperative play and that sense of accomplishment is magnified when you win via clever tactics rather than effective blind-fire and grenade spam.
The RPG tools are rounded out by a simple but effective crafting system. Every item in the game can be broken down into components and crafted into new and better items as you level up. Weapons and armor can also be modded to give bonuses like increased weapon stability or more damage from abilities. It’s a good companion to the loot system that sees you discarding weapons every other mission, but it becomes automatic the more you do it, just looking for the highest numbers and hitting the button.
In these early stages of the game, the Dark Zone has not been the anarchic wasteland I assumed it would be when I played a preview build last year. The Dark Zone is a free-roam area where you can pick up some of the best gear and fight much harder enemies; but you’re also vulnerable to attacks from other players as well. Your gear is lost on death and can’t be used until you extract it, so the stakes are high. In my experience, these high stakes have kept most people on their best behavior; I haven’t been attacked once. Everyone seems so paranoid over losing their stuff they’re doing something truly strange; cooperating.
I worry this will lead to players overlevelling dramatically to take on the Dark Zone, removing the challenge and incentive for cooperation. Hopefully the level cap and some satisfying end-game content will allow Dark Zone content to flourish.
All in all, it’s a repetitive gameplay loop, there’s no doubt about it. Cover based shoot, clear the baddies, loot the shiny lights on the ground and hope there are more purples than greens in the pile. If you like the Shoot & Loot genre, there’s a lot to like about The Division‘s gameplay; the more methodical cover based approach is enjoyable and it’s still addictive to collect shiny new gear throughout the game. If the min/maxing DPS comparisons of these sorts of games turns you off, The Division doesn’t change enough to compel you.
You might notice I left story for last, and that’s because The Division does too. You begin the game in Brooklyn and once you handle a few tasks, you and your superior; Faye Lau move into Manhattan. Your VTOL (official aircraft of alternate history!) explodes and you’re banged up, but you make it to Manhattan to set up a base of operations. From there, you carry out missions based on combating the virus, securing the city and re-establishing power/infrastructure.
Not a terrible way to frame a story but there’s very little substance there. The Division knows you’re there for the Shoot & Loot, chasing after the purple and orange items rather that focusing on the exposition. Every character has exactly one trait. The Doctor is exasperated, The Captain’s pessimistic, Tech Guy: cynical. In each region you get a dispatcher who will fill you in on side missions and they’re the same way. One’s a grandmother, one was an actor, one is a big fan of YOU, another is a nihilist; and they insert that ONE part of their personality into every conversation. Once you see the seams, it’s groan worthy.
Faye is probably the only one who gets any real attention (you’re a silent protagonist), but even she’s somewhat of a cliche; a tough as nails soldier with a softer side shown when it comes to her family. The Division knows what you’re here for, to chase rare items and shoot bad guys, so the story doesn’t take you much past that point. The motivations of the characters are relatively weak and the story mostly takes place in exposition dumps that focuses more on giving you a reason to keep shooting rather than telling a compelling story. The best I can say about it is that’s better than Destiny’s “you hate the aliens because Dinklage said so” and Borderlands’ memefest but it’s not Chaucer.
The Division is the kind of game that can swallow some people whole for two weeks while not even blipping on other player’s radars. If you like the grind of a long open world shoot & loot game then you probably already bought The Division on launch, if that’s not your thing, then this title won’t change your mind. The Division is a mechanically solid third person shooter with some slick presentation and a heavy emphasis on loot but with a sparse story and the gameplay loop repetition that is endemic to the genre. This leaves The Division in an unenviable spot, while it doesn’t transcend its genre in any fashion, it’ll provide fans a great time looting through smallpox riddled Manhattan.
The Division was reviewed on PlayStation 4 with a code provided by the publisher. It is also avialable on Xbox One and PC via UPlay.
The Division is an addictive entry in the shoot & loot genre with some quality visuals, but an afterthought story and lack of innovation hold it back from greatness.