There’s a huge explosion of lightning as the shock grenade goes off and stuns the horde that’s bearing down on us from the main gate of the square we’ve been tasked with defending. A turret lands right in front of them and spits out torrents of fire, igniting the whole group. I unleash a hail of bullets into the chaos as my squaddies rush up to flank the group with their SMGs and LMGs raining gunfire until it all falls silent.
I see the sniper glint a fraction too late and a hit drops me before I can blink. I desperately try to crawl away from their line of fire, bullet tracers whizzing past my character as my squaddie desperately threads between covers to get to my fallen character and revive me. We watch as the revive bar starts to fill, but hope soon turns to dread as I suddenly notice the juggernaut of a pyro charging toward us; pillars of flame spewing forth.
This is Tom Clancy’s The Division. A cinematic blend of shooter mechanics into an intricately woven narrative setting with a heavy focus on RPG and MMO-style gameplay. Despite the commercial success of The Division, there’s been a lot of push-back against the game design philosophy. People don’t understand how it can be fun to shoot at “bullet sponges”, because we all know bullets kill people in a shot or two - not entire magazines. For some inexplicable reason, this logic doesn’t seem to get applied to melee RPGs where you hack away endlessly at an enemy’s health bar. I guess in real life if you get slashed in the neck with a broadsword the size of a house it would take a few hits before you really died.
So if it’s okay for melee RPGs like Skyrim or the Witcher, then why can’t a game have guns in and still play like an RPG? Many people’s biggest critique of the game is actually the main success of The Division. Not in its playability as a shooter because, let’s face it, we’ve already had plenty of those with games like Destiny, Borderlands and the Far Cry series. You don’t have to look very far to find a game in which gunplay is realistic and has high damage models. Counter-Strike, Insurgency, Red Orchestra 2, and so the list goes on. What I believe attracts the controversy is that Ubisoft has taken the fairly atypical approach of placing the RPG systems at the forefront of gameplay.
Honestly, the best comparison for The Division isn’t necessarily Destiny, but more World of Warcraft or Guild Wars with guns. In fact, just like an MMO the game doesn’t shine nearly as bright when played solo, so make sure you get your friends involved or find players in the game to play with. The VOIP in the game is extremely easy to use and has proximity chat alongside party chat so it’s really easy to find communicative people to play with.
The boss fights are perfect examples of this MMO style of gameplay. Playing the main game missions on Hard mode changes the way you play, from a typical cover shooter with bullet sponges to a frantic defence against sieges of enemies. More times than I can count I found myself screaming incoherently and smashing my spacebar into oblivion as my squad is rushed by shotgun-toting arseholes who can obliterate you before you can blink. As you hit the higher levels and you start really feeling the damage of armoured enemies, those Division players who have just been doing nothing but getting that DPS stat can find themselves in a bit of a difficult situation as the enemy damage can drop you instantly. Even at max level with all purple gear I had to treat enemies with respect rather than the cavalier machine of death you play as in something like Call of Duty.
The main missions of The Division have far and away some of the best mission design I’ve played in an RPG. It’s completely seamless when you enter a mission for the first time. No loading screens to stare at; you simply run to the mission entrance, run on in and it just like that you’re in a firefight with the first enemy mobs of the story mission. Playing these missions on Hard feels like the only way to really play the game as it encourages skill and weapon usage to be co-ordinated amongst your team. It really pushes the The Division's mechanics into use, as opposed to just sitting behind a wall and emptying clips into enemies until they're dead.
The way the missions are laid out across the map gives you a real feeling of fighting across New York to bring it back under control. While it’s true that you’re always looking for that next gear, weapon drop or higher stat, I really encourage players of The Division to take some time to immerse yourself in the world that Ubisoft has created. It’s incredibly rich and atmospheric. Simply take the time to observe some of the things around you. I’ve seen people throwing up or taking pictures out of their windows as I patrol the whitewashed streets of NYC. I’ve seen dogs pooping. I’ve seen boards of missing persons reports. My friends and I, in the middle of speedrunning side missions to upgrade our Base of Operations, often stayed hidden in cover just to listen to the lines of dialogue you can catch between enemies. There’s an insane amount of dialogue and peripheral world-building to be found in the collectibles and unlockable cutscenes, and they also provide tremendous depth to the characters and factions you’ll encounter as you attempt to reverse a city-wide societal collapse.
There is a particularly awesome interaction at the end of the game that provided one of those moments that only gaming can provide, making you question your own role in the narrative. Without spoiling too much for those of you reading who are still forging your way forwards, let me just say that I ended up questioning a few assumptions I had made during the first hours of my run-through. In fact, it also made it clear to me that many people reviewing and discussing the game have obviously not properly engaged with the story or completed the game. There’s been talk about how you’re oppressing the working class of New York for the Big Bad Evil Government and about how brutally mowing down normal civilians and not enemy combatants is uncomfortable or even psychopathic.
First of all, it takes just one of the cutscenes or observations of these enemies to realise these aren’t just local New Yorkers trying to make a living, these are violent criminal elements who beat people to death with baseball bats over turf or who set fire to normal women and children because they want to cleanse the city. Second of all, to say the game doesn’t recognise the moral grey in which the story is set is deluded at best and wilfully ignorant at worst. It shows that people are making snap judgements based off personal views or preconceptions alongside a complete lack of willingness to engage with the subject matter the game provides, which is a shame as there is so much to engage with.
Unfortunately, the richness of the world and the excitement of the missions make the more basic and tedious parts of The Division even more unenjoyable than just a drop in pace. When you’ve been setting off explosions and slicing your way through a war zone, walking at a snail’s pace with a briefcase (and nothing but a pistol out as you get attacked by small groups of weak enemies) rips you straight out of the experience the rest of the game builds.
Most of the side missions are extremely dull and repetitive, requiring you to mindlessly follow a level layout with the reward of holding F at the end of it. There’s only so many times you can hear “SMALL ARMS FIRE” shouted before you want to jam a screwdriver in your ears. While the levels themselves were interesting in places, once you’ve done a few of these missions you get a nauseous sense of déjà vu that has you craving to see a bit more action. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem except for the fact that you absolutely have to complete a certain number of side missions as the main missions don’t provide you enough supply points. These supply points are used to upgrade the main Base of Operations which in turn unlocks passive perks, passive talents, skills and upgraded/modified versions of those skills. Without having fully unlocked each wing of the main base you’ll find yourself pretty severely handicapped for max level content.
The first E3 trailer of The Division teased us with open world PvP, which is something we’ve yet to see in a full AAA title and seems to be stranded mainly in the murky realms of Early Access games. I’d contend that maybe the Dark Zone of The Division wasn’t quite what PvP enthusiasts such as myself were hoping for as it feels not only very isolated from the main game but also is very restrictive in terms of engaging in PvP. While there are some amazingly tense moments that can end in manic bloodshed, it’s nothing close to the PvP experiences that could be found in something like DayZ. It genuinely just feels like another PvE aspect of the game but with more players to play along with and every now and then someone gets a bit brazen until the whole server comes crashing down on their head.
There’s been a lot of complaints about the structuring of the content in terms of risk vs reward and Ubisoft have actively said they plan to rework this aspect of the game. So far it seems like they’re really committed to supporting the game post launch. We’ve already got a major update on the way in the form of incursions which are sounding like Raid-style content which will flesh out the endgame of The Division. The end game thus far is limited to redoing the game’s missions on Challenging difficulty and levelling in the Dark Zone. Along with the update comes loot trading, so it’s clear that Ubi is genuinely interested in continuing to refine a game that already shows a great amount of attention to detail.
The post-disaster New York is lovingly crafted, each area having hidden stories in the littered objects and graffiti scattered around. As long as Ubi can keep providing engaging content then I foresee The Division lasting for much longer than anyone gave it credit for. It’s definitely worth buying now as the amount of content is extensive even if you only play through the missions once. It took me about 35 hours to reach level cap and that was with a mix of speeding through missions on hard and taking some time to do side missions and check the story out. I’m still itching to get back to the game and get my character geared and ready for incursions which is always a great sign of an RPG. I honestly feel as engaged as I did during with the General Knoxx era of Borderlands or Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls.
All in all, despite a few tedious moments and some strange design choices, The Division excels at delivering a paranoid, distrustful world full of ambivalence and moral dichotomy along with an extremely enjoyable RPG experience. If you’re looking for a solid shooter experience then I’d say maybe this isn’t the game for you. If you enjoyed Destiny or love MMO games but wish they were a bit more action based then The Division will provide you hours upon hours of fantastic gameplay. Just make sure you have your buddies or that you find other players to play with in order to really get the full experience.