Before we get started, it should be stated that I don’t think of the Division as a bad game, per se. I’ll go so far as to say I actually quite like The Division, having sought it out before the review even came my way, and I’ll probably be playing for some time to come. All that being said, at least right now, The Division is weirdly both a terrible game and a reasonably good game. It certainly demonstrates many qualities befitting a terrible game, but most these issues are fixable, by and large, and aren’t an indictment of the core design. It’s like the team took a five-minute break and when they came back, Ubisoft turned the rest of the content into a season pass, then cut their remaining dev time in half. Improvements are being made, however, and there’re some free content updates planned among the paid-for stuff, so it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s just not fantastic, either, if only for right now.
“Aayyyy lmao” – The Division launch.
New York City became ground zero for the worst biological attack in human history when a manufactured virus was spread via paper currency on Black Friday, America’s biggest shopping day of the year. Dubbed “The Green Flu,” the virus spread quickly and infected millions, forcing an eventual shutdown and isolation of the city. Emergency services were quickly overwhelmed, and that’s when the Division, a collective of sleeper agents embedded among the US population, were activated to reign the situation in. Only, you’re part of the “Second Wave,” sent in to find out what happened to the First Wave, with whom contact has long been lost, and clean up the mess they left behind.
Now, I may have made that sound really cool, but that’s because almost anything can be made to sound rad when summarised in a brief synopsis. In reality, The Division is filled with many cliches, plot holes and a dash of ludonarrative dissonance. If he’d been buried in a conductive coffin, Tom Clancy could ironically power all of New York. Characters will reel off dialogue that completely contradicts the events that are unfolding in front of you, and even when it makes sense you’ll kind of wish it didn’t. A prime example of this is upon landing on Manhattan Island; you’re told that the entire island has had its power knocked out. It’s assumed then that everything electronic you can see is running off of batteries or emergency power. So, of course, all the Christmas lights and decorations are still on.
“You know, we might only have enough juice to keep one third of the shelter warm, but damned if it ain’t pretty ’round here.”
The story is delivered in dribs and drabs, with videos and audio logs unlocking after each major mission, or as live transmissions to the player during gameplay. There are some brief cinematics, but aside from one right near the beginning of the game, they don’t do much for main story progression. The main story also feels as if it covers too much too quickly, with antagonists disappearing just as quickly as they arrive. You’re never able to establish any meaningful connection with these characters unless you’ve been collecting all the auxiliary notes/recordings/echos/etc. Killing them isn’t something you feel driven to do because of how they affect the city, you’re doing it because the game is telling you to and you gotta get dat XP.
As far as gameplay and design are concerned, there are flaws – lots and lots of flaws – but I enjoyed the core design, and flaws can be worked out over time. The Division is designed as a cover-based, over-the-shoulder shoot’n’loot with RPG-lite elements, which is just dandy for me but isn’t anything new. Its major draw is that, much like destiny (I mean, A LOT like Destiny), it offers the promise of longevity through extra campaign content and ongoing support. There’s a major update planned for the next three months, with the third being a significant expansion of the game, and two more expansions scheduled for the following Winter and Summer. If some QoL improvements come with the extra content, you can colour me impressed for the ongoing support being provided by Massive.
Assuming, of course, they do actually fix things.
Each suburb (or… District? Borough? I don’t know, America, your city planning is weird), has a level bracket and is controlled by one of four different factions. There’re three side missions and a handful of encounters per area, with some main story related side quests and main missions scattered across the city. In the middle of the city is a walled off section called the Dark Zone, containing the most violent offenders, some of the worst areas for lingering infection, and some bitchin’ loot. The Dark Zone is widely considered end-game content, along with “Daily Missions,” which are hard-mode replays of the Story Missions, and Challenge missions – even harder versions of the same.
As with all your standard shoot’n’loots, you’ll be spending a lot of time swapping out and upgrading gear, and I have to say that there’s a fairly robust and detailed system at work here. The constant hunt for loot is usually a grand and noble goal, and in this context it provides players with the drive that the narrative does not. For a game of its size, however, The Division is frustratingly repetitive, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’ll be doing many of the exact same things over and over. There’re only about four or five variations of the encounter types to cover the few dozen encounters that are scattered across the city, and the same can be said of the side missions.
All my hours in Borderlands have trained me for moments like this.
The Dark Zone is arguably where the most fun is to be had in The Division, with PVP and PVE happening right alongside one another in some of the hardest combat in the game. Anything you loot is also contaminated and has to be air-lifted out of the DZ via extraction points that have to be defended while awaiting a chopper to arrive to collect your gear. PVP is also an interesting beast, since it’s always an available option but not always a required one. Attacking other players without provocation will cause you to go Rogue, which makes you a literal flashing target on the map of anyone in the area. A timer will begin counting down until your Rogue status disappears, and killing or attacking more players will increase the amount of time that you’re Rogue. Killing other players will allow you to steal their items, and successfully surviving the countdown will give you an XP and cash reward, as will killing Rogue players.
I have mostly enjoyed my time with the DZ, but I have a lot of problems with PVP balance. Aside from your max level of 30, you have a DZ rank which increases only in the DZ and can go all the way up to 50. This separate level system allows you access to much more powerful gear, thus enabling you to progress further into the DZ. As I understand it, the different sectors of the DZ are supposed to separate not just different leveled enemies, but different DZ ranked players. That’s how it’s meant to work, at least, which is why I’m so confused about being regularly rolled by players a couple of dozen ranks above me in the lower ranked areas. It makes progression painfully slow, and the end game content a lot less fun than it should be.
They sure do love hanging corpses upside down in NYC, apparently.
One aspect of the design that I like a lot, however, is that character class is informed by your choice of gear and active abilities, instead of being built up over time as you level. Leveling increases your base stats and unlocks slots for abilities, but the stats attached to your equipped gear and the nature of your abilities will determine if you’re combat or support. Again, this is a great idea that fell short of its full potential. When giving the option of so freely switching between abilities, why not allow players to register gear sets that support those ability changes? Because right now, if I want to switch between an arms-heavy character and a med-support character, I have to dick around in the inventory screen for ages.
The biggest drawback is that, right now, the game is fraught with bugs and glitches. In classic Ubisoft style, I have fallen through the world three times and gotten stuck in the environment no less than ten (I stopped counting somewhere after that.) Enemies will often stand still while you shoot them in the face. Other players’ weapons will sometimes float a few feet in from of them and do wild somersaults through the air while players run. Controls are often unresponsive, leading to mashing the action keys while your character stands there like a dumbstruck bullet sponge. Occasionally, audio will cut out almost entirely except for the soundtrack and the only way to bring it back is to restart the game entirely. Also, this apparently unacknowledged, game-breaking issue. These are just a handful of problems, I’ve not mentioned all of them, and this is after quite a lot of patching to fix some prior existing problems. It’s safe to say the launch has been far from smooth.
“Hey there, chief – mind floating that gun at someone else?”
The Division has some close attention to small detail in its world but is then bizarrely lacking in more noticeable areas that one might consider to be more important. Massive have said that while the city itself is a to-scale replica, there are no real-life entities that populate the world. What this means is that all the movie posters you see, companies, public utilities, shops, brands, all of it has been created to make the world seem much more alive without copying the real world. I really appreciated this level of detail as I was running around the Division’s realisation of New York, making it more appealing than just a blank city-scape.
So why is it that so many of the strongholds you assault have the same floor layout, or that different breeds of dogs are explicitly mentioned but only one breed is ever seen? Probably the same reason all the JTF officers manning the safe-house posts, the ones the devs took the time to name and give distinct personalities, are all largely clones of one another. There are lots of examples in the game of larger details that were left out when they really shouldn’t have been. It’s bizarre when you consider the previously mentioned attention to smaller detail, and this is no more noticeable than the fact that the city always looks like total crap. As you progress, NPC’s remark upon the fact that the city is improving and looking better all the time but the only place that really reflects this is your base of operations. The rest of the city might as well still be in the throes of a viral apocalypse for all the visual difference you make.
You’re looking pretty healthy for a corpse, mate.
This also extends to the voice acting, which is well performed despite the largely terrible dialogue. What’s most noticeable is that the same voice actors have been used in multiple roles, when they don’t really have the range to do so. It felt like I was hearing the same five or six people over and over, which becomes frustrating by the end of the game when those five or six are meant to represent dozens. Nothing breaks immersion faster than being shot at by a gang-banger that sounds just like the guy handing out quests. Seriously, Massive, you couldn’t have shelled out for some new voice-acting hopefuls to come into the studio and reel off some extra lines of dialogue?
Speaking of dialogue, what happened to the rest of it? Along with the repetitive activities is the repetitive dialogue, which really nails home the “rinse and repeat” vibe of The Division. For instance, out of the thousands of criminals, mercenaries and ne’er-do-wells still running around New York City, why are so many of them named “Alex?” “THEY GOT ALEX!” is a line you’ll hear yelled out by enemies constantly, and never any other name*. How difficult could it have been to record a few extra exclamations that had some names in there? Having no names in the dialogue would have been better than hearing about Alex’s tragic death every few seconds. Don’t even get me started on the JTF soldiers and how terrified they are of “SMALL! ARMS! FIRE!” or how frequently they come under it.
Though, as a side note, I love “Uncle” Ricky as the crackpot proven right and his Pirate Radio Podcast. More of that please, Massive.
At the end of the day, The Division is a solid game, and it’s such a huge game, too. There’s a lot more that I would have liked to talk about, both good and bad, but I feel I’ve talked about the most important stuff. It has a solid design with some poor execution, a slew of technical issues, and some gameplay elements that are mostly fun but can quickly get stale without much variety. Ubisoft Massive are planning on providing ongoing support and future content, however, with some of that content even being free for all players. So long as they smooth out the technical issues and provide some much-needed updates to the world and mechanics, I can see The Division being a far better game in the months to come than it is right now.
Author’s Note: At the time of writing this was true, however, just before publishing I could have sworn I heard some of them yell “They got Mike!” and “They got Ellis!” Massive have been working on improvements for the game based on feedback, so it’s entirely possible this has now changed. Also: Sorry, Nick, but not sorry. Special thanks to Paul, Caitlin and Ballsack for kicking around NYC with me while I played this for review. Especially Ballsack, for helping us out in some hairy situations.