Tom Clancy’s The Division Review

Taking back Manhattan.

Activated as part of the second wave of Division agents, there’s a seemingly impossible task ahead of you, as you touch down on Manhattan Island after a particularly rough helicopter flight. There’s a big slice of New York to take back from the gangs and factions, helping the US government’s JTF to restore a semblance of order in the wake of the Green Poison virus that struck on a particularly wintery Black Friday.

It’s a setting that ticks an awful lot of boxes for gamers, with an end of the world scenario, a location filled with memorable and recognisable landmarks, and some truly gorgeous graphics. Put the original 2013 reveal to one side, and this is a truly impressive accomplishment, from the way that gunfire can damage the environments to the lighting and weather effects, and even the minutiae of how defined the individual little twigs and branches of the bare trees look. Many of the main story missions have an excellent thematic design that helps them feel distinctive and unique, as well.

It’s a decayed beauty that acts as a backdrop to waging urban warfare. The Division is a slickly designed cover shooter that lets you easily set up a firing position, shift round corners to avoid incoming fire and enemies, or simply look at where you want to set up next and hold a button to sprint from cover to cover. However, as you fight through the city and fix up the three departments of your Base of Operations, you also get an awful lot of gadgets at your disposal to back up your raw firepower, from area of effect health boosts for you and your team, to throwable mini-turrets and homing mines that can track targets and create screen-shaking explosions and widespread fire.

The cover shooting really starts to feel good once you get your hands on better guns, compared to the early weapons that spray bullets everywhere, but that never really overcomes the lack of intelligence to the enemy AI. There are different types of enemies, with each of the different factions having slightly different attitudes, but when you have militarily trained shotgun soldiers racing at one particular player in the same way that rioters with baseball bats do, it’s clear that they’re leaning quite heavily on the length of their health bar in order to do so.

It can feel a little incongruous with the setting for a man to take dozens of sniper bullets to the head, simply because he has a purple or yellow health bar and is a level or two higher that you, but it stems from the action RPG number crunching that ticks in the background behind the cover shooting. Worse is when the boss battles that cap off each main mission feel like you’ve seen them before. The situations and environments in which you meet them are interesting and varied, but The Division falls into the trap of not extending that variety to the fights themselves, with only a few notable exceptions.

Of course, a similar criticism could be levelled at the game as a whole, when compared to other open world Ubisoft games. Reaching a safe house, talking to the JTF officer and checking the bulletin board fills that area with side missions and encounters to take on in the open world. Even without that, it’s so easy to move towards your destination and find yourself sidetracked by one of the hundreds of collectables, by another encounter or patrol, and that’s only amplified when playing cooperatively in a group. Now there’s four people potentially being drawn in four different directions.

That experience is what makes it different to Ubisoft’s other games. The Division is a decent enough game when played solo, but it feels noticeably different and more enjoyable when played with others, from how you explore the world to how you tackle combat. Just being able to have one person pin down an enemy while another flanks is great, and that’s before there’s four of you and there’s a variety of different abilities being used. Even without friends, you can always matchmake with others, which can be important for tackling missions with higher difficulty levels.

One disappointing note is that The Division handles the difficulty poorly, when trying to accommodate players with very different character levels. Instead of capping damage to an appropriate degree, to avoid ruining the balance, it raises the enemy level to some kind of average for the group. A level 15 player joining a level 5 player would see them facing off against level 10 enemies, who are just vastly overpowered for the level 5 player, and means you can’t simply hop in and help a newcomer to the game. You also need to be within the same level bracket in order to play alongside friends in the Dark Zone.

You’ll definitely want friends alongside you when you decide to head into the Dark Zone, as it’s here that the gloves come off, in a mixed PvE and PvP environment. Pockets of high difficulty enemy AI hold onto various landmark areas or patrol the streets, with your goal being to dive in, take them out, grab the loot that they drop and then get it to an extraction zone for pick up by helicopter.

The difficulty of the AI is exacting enough, especially as you head further and further north, but there’s also the looming fear of rogue agents. The Dark Zone is the only place in the game where you’ll see other players outside of your own party, and by and large they will be friendly and work alongside you, but there’s always the niggling suspicion and possibility that they will try and screw you over, fire on fellow agents and try to steal any loot that you’ve picked up. Once someone has gone rogue, they’re fair game and their position is marked on the map until a little countdown timer above their head expires.

It’s brilliantly tense, as you wait for your helicopter and worry about the group of agents jogging up the street towards you, but that’s tempered by the ease with which truly accidental friendly fire can result in you going rogue, as someone runs through your line of fire and takes a few bullets. Suddenly you’ve got a bounty on your head and face losing a big chunk of experience, money and loot if other agents see fit to try and take you down. Thankfully, these minor transgressions are often forgiven.

And therein lies the problem, from my time with the retail game. Where the beta’s Dark Zone was akin to the Wild West, with rogue agents everywhere, players are more likely to cooperate and simply extract loot in the final game. Without a dedicated deathmatch mode, the Dark Zone is the only possible outlet for squad vs. squad combat, but there’s no guarantee of ever being able to find that.

The real thing that keeps The Division moving forward and appealing is the compulsive nature of its looting system. Your character is outfitted with six separate pieces of armour and can carry two main weapons and a pistol, and all of these have wildly variable stats and can have several modification slots. On the weapons, these are fairly obvious, with suppressors, sights, magazines and barrel attachments, but as you progress, even armour can then have modification slots that allow you to add certain little buffs and perks. All of this gear falls into five colour coded categories, with the ultimate goal of the game being to have everything in the yellow ‘High-End’ bracket and with particularly high stats.

During much of the story and your march to level 30, it’s quite easy to look at the big numbers associated with each item, namely the armour and damage per second stats. There’s a sense of elation whenever you pick up a piece of armour that’s over 100 points better off than your existing piece, whether you find it in a loot box, dropped by the boss of a mission or decide to splash some of your plentiful cash at a safe house vendor.

Reach level 30 – the game’s current maximum level – and the tone changes to finding the High-End gear and weapons that compliment one another. Just having higher armour and DPS will continue to be important, but you’ll want to find a balance in the particular buffs that will suit your style of play. First and foremost, you want to balance your Firearms, Stamina and Electronics values in order to activate special talents on your weapons, but it could also be gloves that give you 10% increased damage with a light machine gun, a magazine that increases the clip size by 72%, and so on. You can re-roll these stats at a workbench within the Base of Operations, to find that ideal set up.

It will remain to be seen how long that rush to find the best gear can last before Ubisoft raise the level cap and introduce new items in the expansions, but for now it’s this that will keep you playing. You’ll be earning rewards as you delve into the northern reaches of the Dark Zone and try yourself against the four missions which have the Challenge difficulty level, before April’s raid-like Incursion is released. However, that promise of new content and new challenges is in and of itself appealing.

What’s Good:

  • An outstanding and beautiful rendition of Manhattan.
  • Compelling looting and character upgrades.
  • The tension and difficulty of the Dark Zone.
  • Co-op play and combining complimentary abilities.
  • More challenges and content to come.

What’s Bad:

  • Fairly simplistic, bullet sponge enemy AI.
  • Poor difficulty scaling for mixed level groups.
  • Repetitive incidental dialogue and dumb NPC reactions.
  • Minor graphical glitches and bugs at launch.

By and large, The Division lives up to the years of hype and high expectations. At its core, it marries solid cover-based shooting with a loot heavy RPG and an enticingly beautiful setting, but it really comes together when you can team up with friends and take on enemies, whether rebellious AI factions or other agents in the fraught and tense Dark Zone. There are a few foibles, but it’s a game that can easily draw you in and have you playing for hours on end.

Score: 8/10

Version tested: PlayStation 4

16 Comments

  1. I’ve read the review but one important question keeps on coming up more and more (esp. in the last decade or so). Is this game more about the “end game” and is there still a game to enjoy on the way to it? I’m not worried about the end game nonsense that I’m seeing all too often. Loot isn’t my thing. It’s nice but it’s just something for me to collect whilst actually enjoying the game.

    Sadly, somewhere along the line, devs feel like they’re diverting attention away from the game itself and more into the loot. Diablo 3 felt like the most shameless example of this I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience.

    So, will the Division be something I’d like? Hannypoppie’s interested too and you know my gaming style very well. Over to you, my co-op mistress. :D

    • Whilst I agree there can be an issue about endgame with loot based games the fact is the drive to endgame is what keeps generating income in the form of DLC.

      I’ve played Diablo 3 nearly every day from launch August 2014 and am part of clans that play they very top end of the end game and it is deeply rewarding and satisfying.

      And that is the beauty of it…casuals can play the game, enjoy it and move on whilst hardcore fans can aim for end game.

      I disagree with your premise that D3 is aimed for end game…they put a few things in to keep endgamers interested but plenty play at the level nowhere near end game.

      The Division looks even less designed for endgame so far…

      • To each their own but I asked two friends who hammered Diablo 3 and they warned us. Neither my girlfriend nor I gave a single fu** about the story. Keep in mind that there were clearly talented people working on the game. The skill trees were wonderfully done. Truly.

        However, there was so much loot. So much stuff that we swapped with such frequency that we didn’t grow attached or care about a wonderful item that might stay with us a few levels.

        Couple this with the easiest game I’ve ever, ever played and that was it. It destroyed any fondness we had when we started playing. Quite soon in we bumped up the difficulty to Hard. Keep in mind that I’m a “Normal” difficulty chap 99% of the time. We realised that was far too easy as well but we couldn’t push the difficulty up again unless we restarted the game. Deal-breaker.

        The game smacked of loot, if you’ll excuse my poor choice of words, and was worse for it. Obviously, just for me. Anyone else might’ve loved it! :D

      • Normal? Hard? Oh jeepers no wonder you found it easy…they should be removed from the game…it has Normal, Hard, Expert, Master , Torment 1, Torment 2…Torment 10 and even then that is not the end of the matter with Greater Rifts easily doubling the difficulty again…once you get at this stage you become VERY attached to your gear and character…the “loads of loot” is what makes it diverse and there is a hue form of RNG in it for sure…without it though I would have given up a long time ago..that game cost me £44 and to have played it for 18 months solid and still not finished it is just what loot based games are all about.

        The answer to your original question, one that I do not really know, deserves an answer.

    • I enjoyed the journey to end game, but the end game is definitely where the majority of the game will be played.

    • I think that although the “end game” is going to be the major part of this game, Im only in it for the journey myself and after around 12 hours into it, I am enjoying the journey a lot. Im usually put off the amount of side missions and collectables that infest Ubisofts games, but in this case, they actually serve a purpose, so fit better into the game.

      I have no doubt, that once the story is complete, and/or I hit the level cap, I’ll lose interest in it, but Im fine with that, I will have put a few tens of hours, which is worth the money, imo..

      Do bear in mind tho, that the story itself sucks and all the characters in it are hateful New-York-hero-types.. Despite all the trauma these people seem to have been through, they are still full of defiance and “the right stuff” and it all seems a bit unrealistic.

      Still a lot of fun tho.

  2. I just find the game too repetitive. Even Destiny had a bit of variety to it.

    Fun with friends, but I couldn’t play on my own or with randoms, it’s the company that makes this fun.

    • “Even Destiny had a bit of variety to it.”

      Did it, at launch? Every mission was shoot your way here, wait for ghost to open a door while you kill more enemies!!

  3. Good review tef, I pretty much agree with the score.
    I’ve written down a load of things that I think are missing from the game or not properly incorporated, I was going to form them into a little write up and send it across to you if you’re interested?

  4. What does ‘end game’ mean?

    • To me, it’s the developers desire to keep you in the game even though you’ve “finished” it from a classic video game perspective. You go through 30 levels of any given game, improving your character, gathering goodies to use, etc., but now there’s end game content. It doesn’t usually resemble the content you’ve played through during your time with the game or it’d be DLC. However, there might be “modes” or ways to play through the game again and again for those committed to enjoying more of the what the game has to offer.

      My reply is probably WAY off but it’s been very lacklustre so far when I’ve read about “end game” content and what people get up to. However, I’m happy to be won over if a game can do such a thing. I’d also like other people’s definitions as I might be way off! :D

      My lovely lady (Hannypoppie) blurted out “it’s max-level content!” which is also correct in many games. Still… I’m now interested in what it means to everyone else.

    • Its where you reach the end of a game via its single player story mode but you continue on for a huge grind to get the very best gear and tackle the highest difficulty doing the hardest levels.

    • Gotcha! Thanks for clarifying!

    • For me, end game in an rpg is the content you play where the character and gear choices you make actually matter.

      Having played the Division up to level 11 so far, I really don’t feel like I’m anywhere near that point. I’ve just been slapping on any old gear I find, and am able to complete missions fairly easily.

      In rpg games, I like to play healer/support characters. So when I get to a level that I wont be replacing all my gear every 5 minutes, I’ll be looking out for items that boost skill effectiveness over ones that add weapon damage. Might add in a few health buff items as well, for added survivability.

      The skill system in the Division seems to be dependent on gear. So you don’t have to pick “healer” or “damage dealer” and level each class from 1-30. You can tailor your character for what the group needs at the time on the fly. The downside of this, is that if you haven’t found gear that lets you perform the roll you want to play at the level of the content you are facing, you could be stuck doing something you really don’t enjoy just to make progress.

      tl;dr – Endgame is where you can specialise for a desired roll

      • oh and to add: specialisation means you can’t do everything. A great damage dealer will have little health, so needs a tank class to take the damage. But the tank needs a healer to keep him alive (this is “the holy trinity” of rpg’s)

        “Good” endgame for me needs to have a fine balance, where no single roll is absolutely required to complete content. But at the same time a group of generalist (or all of one type, such as damage dealer) characters can’t steam roll everything either.

        It’ll be interesting to see what content the division adds to provide this challenge.

      • Nicely put, fella. :D I can’t stand it when an RPG has been built and allows for any old combination to simply brute-force their way through. :-\

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