Like many Tom Clancy titles, The Division throws you into a semi-believable “what-if” scenario. An organization has infected a large batch of currency with a virus, and to ensure widespread contamination in the U.S., the bills are distributed during the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday. The virus quickly mutates to kill millions and sends New York City spiraling into chaos. Amidst the lawlessness, government-trained sleeper cells are activated. As part of the wave of sleepers tied to an agency known as The Division, it is up to you to help restore order to the city.
The story setup is excellent, and the follow-through is pretty good. This is partially because the cut scenes focus on defeating the virus instead of waxing poetic about ideals or theories. There is a good deal of solid world-building in the form of audio snippets from laptops, surveillance camera footage, phone messages, and holographic representations of specific scenes that occurred before you were activated. Like many of Ubisoft’s open-world games, this means there are tons of collectibles strewn all over the map to keep you busy.
Since the title is based on the Tom Clancy name, there’s an emphasis on realism, especially as it pertains to weapons. Even with some of the modifications you can make to your assault rifles, pistols, shotguns and the like, the weapons here either already exist or will exist in a few years. The same goes for enemies, which range from rioters with baseball bats to cleaners with hazmat suits and flamethrowers.
This is a third-person, cover-based shooter where you can sprint and clamber over items. You can move pretty smoothly from one cover spot to another. Since the title is RPG-like in nature, damage numbers appear when enemies are hit, and headshots only mean you did more damage to the enemy instead of outright killing them.
Even then, the shooting feels very solid thanks to the recoil and behavior of the guns. Enemies are bright enough to pin you down and flank you, but natural openings like low barriers and car windows provide you with ample opportunities to hit them while they’re behind cover. Enemies are also great shots, so leaving yourself exposed for even a short period of time means you’ll get hit. Blind Fire is actually useful, you can easily kill few enemies without exhausting ammo.
The Division starts with a small campaign to take control of Brooklyn before things get worse; it’s a perfect cover for what is essentially a long tutorial. You begin with a character creator to customize your face, and there are a limited number of choices for hairstyles, piercings and tattoos. From there, you make your way to a safe house to learn the controls and get some basic weaponry before you’re asked to liberate a police station. Then you’re rewarded with a cut scene that leads you to Manhattan. Once you free the base of operations, you start the game proper.
Your specialties come from the perks and tools that you choose, whether it’s a sonar that lets you detect enemy positions from a distance or a mobile shield that lets you march forward while using a handgun. To get those abilities, you have to build up the areas of the base that relate to them. To build up the areas, you must finish missions that provide points to spend in medicine, security or tech — in addition to the usual XP, equipment and loot. All of the items you get are only limited by your character level, so you’ll never get something you can’t actually use.
Some of the missions act as gatekeepers for others in order to prevent the overall narrative from becoming disjointed, but generally, the only thing stopping you from taking on a mission is the level requirement that’s listed. Even then, you’re not prevented from tackling the higher-level mission, but the enemy difficulty is likely to be overwhelming.
There’s a decent amount of spacing between the story stages, so you don’t have an opportunity to plow through them without tackling some of the side missions. There are enough side missions that you can be traveling to one side mission and accidentally stumble upon another one. Overall, you’re looking at a game that can easily provide around 30 hours of content if you complete everything (except the collectible items).
Good gunplay, abundant loot, and loads of levels form the foundation of a solid game, but there are a few things in The Division that make it feel more special. Your backpack holds a lot of loot, but unless you aren’t paying attention to it, you won’t ever get close to hitting its maximum capacity. Everything you pick up can be broken down into a base component that’s color-coded to correspond to its ranking. If you can find the blueprints, you can use the components to craft weapons and gear. The process of breaking down gear into components is easy and can be done anywhere. Since crafted items usually have bonuses attached, like a damage or stability increase, they’re better than most of the gear for sale, so you’ll rarely speak with shopkeepers.
The streamlining effect is also apparent in the multiplayer approach. In safe houses or at the start of missions, you can call for anyone to join you before you continue playing, so you can form a squad of up to four. Players, either strangers or friends, come in quickly and can leave at any time without interrupting the game’s flow or sending you scrambling through various menus. Online performance is almost flawless in this regard, as is the use of voice chat. While multiplayer is the preferred way to play, you can conquer the game solo if you wish without having to feel like you’re missing out.
The initial load time is good for an open-world title: under a minute on a mechanical drive. From there, you’ll only see load screens if you choose to fast-travel from one safe house to another, and even then, they’re only long if you’re crossing the city. Walk or run through the city, and you won’t see any hitches that would signal load. Even transitioning in and out of missions is smooth, with nothing popping up to pause the action.
Once you exhaust the game’s content, you can contend with the Dark Zone. Accessible once you reach level 7, the Dark Zone is the PvE and PvP area in the middle of the city. Your goal is to get some high-level gear and weapons and get out. To do that, you roam around the zone and fight off high-level enemy packs or take on some of the missions you’ve already beaten in the safer areas of the city. You can amass special Phoenix Coins to buy goods from the vendors in the few safe houses in the Dark Zone. This time around, you can see other players roaming around, and things get more interesting because you have to wonder whether you can trust other players. You want them to help you out, so you can make quicker work of stronger enemies. You also hope that they don’t turn on you and take the gear you harvested in this area, especially since the extraction points are the only way to escape the zone.
In these early moments with the game, the public has been quite civil during most of the encounters in the zone. Whether the people are genuinely helpful or if they’re afraid of retaliation, there were no outright encounters where death came from another human. There were those who aggravated others into hitting them, so they could fight back and get some loot the easy way, but things are quite courteous for now.
The coming months are supposed to get two free updates for all before the three expansion packs hit for those who are willing to shell out the cash.
The missions are fun, but there’s not much variety to them. For example, all of the hostage situations play out the same way, as do missions where you’re waiting for reinforcements and must protect the items marked for shipment until they arrive. The enemies also lack variety, and while you encounter different groupings in different areas, it doesn’t take much to make you feel that all encounters are similar. Also, while it is attractive that you’ll never encounter another human player you don’t invite — with the exception of safe houses and the Dark Zone — you’ll often see the same instances of NPCs performing the same actions in the same spots.
Graphically, The Division is quite impressive. As expected, the character models are done well, with loads of little details on everyone’s clothing. Environments portray New York City rather nicely, as trash build-up and abandoned cars are all over the place, but the larger buildings, both inside and out, don’t show the amount of decay expected in the aftermath of a disaster. Indeed, it’s the things like ads and Christmas decorations that give the game some much-needed color. The plethora of effects steals the spotlight, such as the lens flare when viewing the aftermath of a firebomb or seeing the snow degrade once you step on it. Fog is combined with a slightly accelerated day and night cycle, making the winter landscape even more believable.
Sound-wise, the game does as good job overall. The music isn’t there all of the time, since the game mostly relies on ambient sounds to create atmosphere, but what is here is surprising. It still goes for an action movie vibe but is more subdued in tone and volume. You could easily believe that the music doesn’t exist since it doesn’t tend to be at a high volume. The voice work is well done, with an abundance of New York accents populating Brooklyn and Manhattan, but you will be annoyed by the repetition.