Fewer titles have been met with more anticipation than The Division, despite delays that pushed the game back to March of 2016 even though it was originally scheduled for some time in 2014. A lot of that anticipation was due to the excellent product presentations and demos we had seen during various gameshows, as well as the materials that were released by Ubisoft in between those events. Action on a grand scale within a living and breathing city, fueled by next gen graphics. It was very promising, but it did remind us a little of Watch_Dogs – which came out but underwhelmed gamers because its graphics had been downgraded since being shown in demo form. Even if you don’t read the rest of our review – rest assured, because The Division doesn’t disappoint.
The Division is a complex and multi-facetted game, and thus hard to describe, but let’s start with the setup. Prior to the events of the game, a deadly virus has caused havoc and anarchy in New York City. Many people died, but crime is also rampant and then there are the ‘clean-up units’ who burn people to a crisp in order to help stop the spread of the virus. Neither criminal nor ‘cleaner’ is all too interested in getting the city back on its feet and restoring basic amenities while searching for a cure, and that’s where you come in. As part of “The Division”, your job is to stand in the way of the downward spiral that is all this lawlessness.
This is where the complexity of the game comes into play. A setup like that could have been dealt with by throwing a story driven action campaign at it – sort of a post-apocalyptic version of Uncharted, if you will. Instead, The Division is a hybrid of shooter, third person action, role playing and base building. We’ll start with the latter, since it’s an integral part of the entire game. After establishing a base of operations, you’ll need to expand it – and you can do so in three different ways, generally speaking. There’s security, medical and tech – roughly translating to defense, healing and offense/progress. Where you choose to apply your focus changes the course of the storyline, how your character develops and the types of missions (and objectives) you’ll be going after – although balancing the three is entirely possible as well, and it’s what we did on our first playthrough.
Aside from the way in which you tackle the large scale challenges that the city faces, you also have to micro-manage your own character in your base of operations. You can develop new skills that include the ability to heal others around you, you can unlock special skills that come into play under certain conditions (a boost when your health is low, for instance) and you can improve traits that your character has. How you approach this correlates to the missions you choose to play, and aside from the main story branches there are also plenty of side missions available to you. The security, medical and tech trees each have different story missions, but each tree also has a set of three side mission types. If you mainly push toward one of the three story branches, then you’ll be limited in the types of side missions – leading to more ‘rinse and repeat’. This quickly pushed us towards developing a more balanced character, because side mission diversity is much greater this way.
Many would label The Division as an online multiplayer game, but while that’s true in the strict sense of the word the game can be played as a single player adventure without any problems. You’ll still have the option to join forces with other players during missions, but you can also fly solo if that’s more your thing. What the game does really well is adjust its mission parameters based on your choice in this matter. Go in with a squad of agents, and the opposition will be much tougher – go in solo and the difficulty level will be adjusted accordingly. Which bring us to what The Division does extremely well across the board: balance. You have a ton of choices to make, ranging from single player or cooperative play, from the three distinct story branches right down to how you developer your character. Every choice has a major impact on how the story develops, but there are no rights and wrongs here.
The game world in The Division is an open world, but it’s divided up into zones (neighborhoods) with various difficulty levels to match your current level of skill and experience. There’s also an area that’s especially challenging and allows for player vs player action called the Dark Zone. It’s interesting because it features high risk and reward, in the shape of tough (AI and human) opponents and some high quality gear. The catch is that whatever you pick up will first have to be extracted by helicopter, and of course your helicopter will alert enemy forces to the fact that you have some good stuff to defend. It’s fun and will no doubt play an important role in the long term evolution of The Division, but not directly story-related so not a gameplay mode we spent too much time with – that time was needed for the story campaign.
The gameplay in The Division is, as you’ve probably gathered by now, rock solid – it’s balanced, it features a multitude of gameplay styles that mesh well together and there’s a ton of content to play and unlock. What we haven’t touched on too much is the audiovisual component of the game. New York City looks great, despite life as we know it going down the toilet fast. Despite the bleak outlook (there’s a post-apocalyptic feel to the city), there is a futuristic element of style to the design – accentuating that your unit is very much oriented on the future and restoring the city. The environment around you is rich in detail, both in the audiovisual sense and in the way the game lays out the background story for you through little bits of information and fragments of what happened in the recent past.
It’s also a smooth experience – your character moves fluently from hiding spot to hiding spot, the framerate is solid at 30fps and for the most part it’s an extremely immersive experience. The only exceptions to this are the (rare) instances where the camera gets in the way of good view of the action, resulting in your agent getting out of position and a short burst of frustration. Luckily, this is quickly forgotten as The Division’s pacing is spot on and makes sure you’re never bored. To this end, the game also points you in the direction of your next mission using HUD indicators – fitting with the futuristic design of the unit you’re a part of.
Our one worry is “where do we go from here?” – as an online game (even in single player), it struck us that after completing the campaign (which took about 12 hours) and picking up on most of the backstory elements, it felt as if we were running out of things to do. The best option, from that perspective, was to start over and experience the game again with different choices. This’ll add a bit of replayability, but it’s not indefinite. It’s a great game with wonderful momentum, and we’re hoping Ubisoft can keep it going well past its ‘regular’ length. For now though – it’s a highly recommended experience that’s easy to get into and enjoy – no matter how you play it.