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.
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.
Version tested: PlayStation 4