It took me a long time to write this review of Tom Clancy’s The Division, mainly because of how conflicted I am about the video game. On the one hand, the world is breathtaking, detailed and fascinating; on the other, the game is disappointingly shallow. Yet here I am 60+ hours invested into the game and I keep coming back, even when I do so with a heavy sigh. That’s what makes looking at Ubisoft‘s The Division so tough. There’s as much good baked into the game as there is bad.
The Division tells the story of a Manhattan devastated by the a virus unleashed on Black Friday, a variation of smallpox that has killed a large percentage of the city’s population and left the military and police forces decimated. Groups of prisoners, civil servants turned vigilantes, and thugs have staked out territory and control the island. You are a member of The Division, an elite group of sleeper agents called on when all else fails. That’s pretty much all you are ever told about your organization, aside from snippets of audio chatter.
That didn’t really bother me. What bothered me is how the story is dispensed from there.
Instead of true cutscenes or interactive in-engine dialogue options, you are a silent protagonist who gains additional intel on the happenings in Manhattan by finding audio and echo recordings as well as intel reports after you complete story missions. You also get briefed by your main commanders from the tech, medical and security wings.
I am all for changing how stories unfold and switching up narrative methods, but this was reminiscent of Titanfall (though with a lot more depth), where you were being talked at while you were being attacked. It is difficult to focus on a debate raging over your comm between commanders when fire-wielding thugs are swarming you. As the game never lets you pause, the narrative takes a back seat to the core action, which is at least very solid, if repetitive.
The Division has a lot of depth in terms of skills, talents, perks and weapons. But it gives little incentive (or easy mechanics) to switch up. Once you find a gun set you like (a set is a Primary and Secondary weapon plus a Sidearm) you will probably never switch them aside from upgrading as better gear arrives.
The same goes for your abilities. I took heal and turret as my key abilities and never changed them, aside from modding the skills once that feature became available.
Part of the reason you tend not to switch up your weapons or skills is the lack of ability to pause, or to make any switches quickly. If I’m in the heat of battle I can’t call up the menu screen and start fiddling; I either pre-set them or deal with what I have. It’s not that the skills or weapons are not fun, they are; it’s that you tend to get locked into one path and stay there because of some of the game mechanics.
Once you settle on your profile, the gameplay is like a more elegant version of Gears of War with tactics. You can pre-set a turret or fire off a grenade and then crouch behind cover, taking out enemies as quickly as you spot them. You may not be able to swap weapon sets quickly, but you can swap between pre-equipped weapons easily enough; if someone gets close, my terrifically powerful shotgun is pulled out and ends matters quickly. If I am being overwhelmed, a quick heal and a retreat to another cover point are executed fast and smoothly.
Well, executed smoothly when the game is running properly. At times I suffered hit lag when playing, meaning I fired at enemies and a second or two later they registered the damage, and I also registered their damage delayed. It is sporadic but truly annoying when it happens.
So the combat is satisfying enough, which is good, as aside from the story missions, of which there are 15-20, all other missions (labelled encounters or side missions) are very repetitive. The game gates Manhattan by designating a difficulty level to each borough. Once you complete enough missions and level up you are generally at a high enough level to hit another area and continue.
The issue is that there are one or two unique story missions that are multi-phased in each area, but all the side missions in each section are a subset of the same exact concept. These range from finding kidnapped people or missing medical supplies to repairing an antenna or killing a major bad guy (and his lieutenants). These are recycled section after section after section until you finish the main story.
The AI is pretty good, and there are four groups of gangs with different tactics and skills, so the firefights are generally entertaining, but you will eventually keep doing the same busywork over and over, and that is a real shame as the world could offer so much more.
Another big piece of Tom Clancy’s The Division, and the part that is supposed to add longevity to the game, is The Dark Zone, a large cross-section of Manhattan that is contaminated, abandoned and walled off. This section, which holds the best loot, is a multiplayer PVE and PVP zone where you can be killed by another player at any time.
I have not truly gotten into the Dark Zone, as Ubisoft will be fleshing that out as the game matures, but when I did venture into the area it was fun as the tension ratchets up. There are powerful roaming bands and any locked loot or dropped items need to be extracted and decontaminated, which is when the danger truly begins. If you collect some items you need to head to an extraction point and call for a pickup.
Once the timer is up you can attach your loot and claim it when you leave the Dark Zone. During this waiting period everyone is alerted that you are extracting, and if people want your loot, they can come and fight for it. A player who kills you is labelled Rogue and everyone is alerted to his location, so there is an interesting risk/reward feel to the environment.
I have not even addressed how there are still queues to log in to the game world at times; how lag can really impact progress; or how there are random crashes to the start screen. Early after launch I decided excitedly to do a Let’s Play, and much of the session is me glitching, lagging, or waiting in queues. This is the peril of an always online game, and the reality is that you are impacted by other players only in the Dark Zone or if you choose to play co-op. I would have loved an option to play offline without the Dark Zone or co-op available, but this was designed as an always online game from the start and that is the reality of it.
At this stage The Division is a game with terrific promise, held back by online issues and a repetitive set of missions that make it become old before you even complete the story. There is so much potential. Survivors could have been interacted with more, missions could be more interactive and varied, and story progression could be tighter and more focused. There is a lot to love here and it is obvious the developer(s) poured their passion into the game, even adding many Easter Eggs in the echoes to add some fun to the process. But the vision did not completely translate to the game proper.
The Division could still be a great game. Ubisoft has promised to constantly evolve the end game. But right now it is a AAA game that ends up being an average experience in a stellar shell.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is rated Mature 17+ (blood, intense violence, strong language). It’s also available for PS4 and Xbox 1.