In the world of The Division, a virus has wiped out most of New York City and the streets are a post-apocalyptic mix of survivors, looters, criminals, and the remnants of a failed government. The complete collapse of society and the fall of one of the world’s most iconic cities to a mysterious viral outbreak is an evocative setting for a piece of realistic fiction, and one rarely seen in the world of videogames. Now, even though there’s an introduction video that more or less sets up this scene of devastation and ticks off some or all of these bullet points, impressively, all of this can be gleaned from simply walking through the streets of the one-to-one recreation of Manhattan as depicted in The Division.
If The Division has a single character that’s even remotely memorable, then it’s the post-apocalyptic winterised Manhattan found within. Every corner, every alleyway, and every abandoned apartment building, subway station or department store, tells the story of what happened. A lot of it may be simple set dressing or environmental detail, but walking past handmade signs of despair and hope and then stumbling into a subway station filled with body bags is a visceral and gut-level one-two punch, amplified by the sheer size and impressive detail of the post-apocalyptic Manhattan to explore. And without cars, buses, or even an accompanying musical score, the sense of isolation and dread in these moments is palpable. On a visual level, and in terms of player immersion, The Division is an achievement in design and execution.
Even in a post-apocalyptic world you still gotta hashtag. #TeamJustice
But, given that The Division is also an online action-RPG set in a Tom Clancy-inspired realistic modern-day militaristic setting, you’ll quickly have to get used to the fact that soon enough you’ll be shooting at a hooded bad guy in the head and it probably won’t kill them out right. And if they happen to be highlighted purple or yellow, it’ll probably take a few bullet mags to take them out. And when they’re filled with more lead than blood, they’ll die and probably leave behind a shiny green, blue, or purple pillar of lootable-object light. For better or worse this collision of genre specific ideas and realistic visuals is more or less The Division. A mix of many things, many of which only make sense when considered as game mechanics first and foremost. But in the end the result is a surprisingly deep and rewarding RPG experience that’s a bit like this other game plus that game and a dash of that game too.
And all in a visually stunning location.
The Division is definitely a lot of things, and depending on which element you look at you could say that it sounds like a massively multiplayer online RPG. The breakdown of Manhattan into separate zones, with corresponding markers like 'Level 10-13', and numerous ‘Safe Houses’ throughout the city that are populated with other real-world players to group-up with, lend weight to this sort of description. On the other hand, an open-world map littered with missions, side quests, collectables, and events (which in The Division are called Encounters), kind of position The Division as another Ubisoft game where you’re given a large area to explore and a laundry list of things to see, do, and collect. Something along the lines of Tom Clancy meets Assassin’s Creed by the way of Far Cry.
No idea how these echoes which allow you to view events from the past work, but they're certainly cool.
None of these descriptions or comparisons are wrong by the way, and with a cover-based combat system that is reminiscent of something like Gears of War, the end result is a game that is both the sum of its numerous parts and a whole lot more. It’s worth noting that you could simply treat The Division as a single-player game, spend a few dozen hours exploring the city, completing missions, and leave it at that. With the difficulty and reward scaling alongside the number of players, its impressive that The Division can be played and enjoyed this way. But, at its core The Division is a co-operative and group-based shooter, where the substance, detail, and depth of the RPG systems really only become apparent when played alongside others.
If we’re being completely honest, even an average game can be elevated to great heights through the inclusion of co-operative play. And perhaps the fact that playing The Division solo can become boring and repetitive is a bad sign that speaks to the overall quality of the experience. But it’s also a testament to how successful it is right out of the gate as an action-RPG. The process of levelling your character and trying out all the various skills you unlock is both a great way to get used to the mechanics as well as serving as a primer for the deep customisation and variety that opens up when you hit the higher levels. Repetition is par for the course when it comes to an action-RPG of this nature, and where The Division gets it right is how it continuously rewards you with shiny new loot and equipment at regular intervals.
In The Division player stats are broken down into three categories DPS (Damage Per Second), Health, and Skill Power. It’s a simple setup and getting the general idea of the quality of a new item can be as simple as looking for a green DPS arrow to beef up your damage output. But underneath that lies an intricate modification system, and a laundry list of character attributes and RPG staples like critical chance, critical damage, damage reduction, cooldown reduction, and many other statistics that play into the experience. It’s impressive that what initially feels like a shooter with RPG-lite features is as well thought out and deep as what’s on offer.
The only real downside to it all is the blandness in the naming conventions and the limited cosmetic customisation on offer. The player creation system is laughable in that it provides a handful of generic faces to choose from and then offers up four different types of nose rings and lip rings that make little to no difference to the look of your character. Weapons for the most part go by real-world names like ‘Custom MP5-MKIV’, and until you get a few different weapon skins aren’t personal in the slightest. Coupled with the mostly drab player clothing you come across, player expression in The Division takes a distant backseat to the serious and permanently gritty realistic setting of the premise.
The story, which revolves around sleeper agents who are the last line of defence when all hope is lost and the government, blah, blah, blah, is serviceable if a little cold and distant in its execution. Enemy factions which range from gangs of looters to a flame and burning corpses obsessed group called The Cleaners are easily distinguishable from each other, but are rarely more than things to shoot at. Being a Division agent limits you to upgrading and restoring a central Base of Operations that ties directly into the skill tree system, perks, and other abilities. With the level of detail seen in the world itself it’s a shame that you aren’t able to engage directly with other factions, take sides, or even change allegiances. In terms of the RPG-ness of the story, The Division is linear to a fault.
I've heard of surprise parties but this is ridiculous
Where The Division makes a case for being something new and exciting though is in the execution of the Dark Zone, a separate section of Manhattan where you can run into other players, kill them, and steal their loot. But, there's a lot more to it than simply being a standard player-versus-player combat zone. Walking around in the Dark Zone is tense to say the least, high-level AI squads patrol the streets, and any loot you pick up is contaminated, and useless until its extracted at a designated Extraction Zone. Because, err, reasons. The Dark Zone is a place rife with danger, made even more tense when a piece of equipment you find is something you absolutely want to keep. With other players running around that can potentially turn on you at any moment, the act of running into someone as soon as you enter the Dark Zone to when you bump into a group on your way to an Extraction Point is a night and day mix of anxiety, tension, and caution. The rules and reasoning behind the Dark Zone may not be entirely logical, but the end result is a thrilling experience.
Unfortunately, at higher levels the Dark Zone becomes an almost too-friendly experience, with few Rogue Agents running around. And everyone sharing in the spoils of war. Granted, getting shot in the back and losing your precious cargo can and will happen, but with the penalty for going rogue and getting killed being extremely high, with experience, loot, and currency all lost when you fall, the overall impact of entering the Dark Zone diminishes the higher your level. At lower levels this isn’t an issue, and the Dark Zone here is a genuinely thrilling experience through and through. Falling victim to, or being part of, a group that after successfully extracting its own loot, turns on a nearby group attempting to do the same thing, is exciting and the sort of cut-throat experience that the Dark Zone can provide. And these high level issues, which are somewhat minor, can all be addressed via a simple patch or tweak (as seen with the latest update
Purple Loot Drop Action Squad reporting for duty
With any action-RPG or online game the discussion naturally steers towards endgame. That being, what’s there to do when you finish off all the story missions and reach Level 30. In the case of The Division the answer unfortunately is not all that much outside of spending time in the Dark Zone. Outside of replaying missions for daily rewards your options are limited at best, and the wonderful work put into recreating Manhattan is all but forgotten outside of pointlessly collecting every phone recording or bit of intel. The static nature of the world is at odds with this sort of RPG, and as to why events, encounters, bounties, hostage rescues, and other activities which all make an appearance throughout the experience aren’t included in the endgame is a mystery. Dark Zone aside, The Division will need a lot more to keep players interested in the months to come.
In its current state The Division works best as a finite game, an experience where its longevity will rely almost completely on post-release support and content. But, if you find yourself spending minutes going through all your latest purple items after a few successful high-level Dark Zone extractions, then you’ll probably be excited to find out what that content will be.