Tom Clancy’s The Division has been a game that has been talked about for years. It was first unveiled at the 2013 E3 convention in Los Angeles during the same time that both the Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles were shown off. Since we got our first glimpse of gameplay footage, the game has struggled to find a release date as it was constantly delayed throughout its development process.

Now, the game is finally out, and the question everyone is asking is whether or not The Division is as good as it seems.

Setting

The United States government has declared a state of emergency for the island of Manhattan (New York City) after a complex viral strain was set loose sometime around Black Friday that aggressively swept through the city, leaving most of those who came into contact with it dead. The Division takes you, a Division agent, to Manhattan a short while after the government made its first attempts to quarantine the virus and keep order among the survivors. Your orders are simple: rebuild the relief efforts so the United States government can restore order and find a cure for the virus.

Ubisoft's vision of a broken New York City is a grim one. Once you've set foot on the island, you're forced to navigate a nearly abandoned Manhattan, where those that still live there are in constant survival mode as food and water are hard to come by. The lack of those needs might be tough, but the more frightening reality is that citizens that remain in the city have broken out into anarchy. Body bags, corpses, ravaged buildings and more are a common sight as you walk from street to street. It's as if no good had ever existed in this part of the world.

As you progress through The Division's story, you'll piece together a lot of the past. But your efforts alone are not enough, so enlisting help from law enforcement officials and specialists will be a big part of your journey. A typical problem with games of this scale is that the story gets lost. Look at Destiny, World of Warcraft and other games as evidence - keeping players engaged in what's going on while exploring a vast world and constantly being engaged in it can be very distracting. Fortunately, The Division does a superb job of keeping your attention through various means of storytelling. I can recap a lot of what happened shortly after the outbreak began up to where things stand upon the completion of what story content we have so far. I have to applaud Ubisoft and the folks over at Massive for this not-so-easy feat.

The thick fog & snow seen here can easily hinder would-be snipers

Gameplay

This is a Tom Clancy game. That means it's a 3rd person shooter that discourages run-and-gun tactics and focuses on cover-to-cover movements and a lot of team play, when applicable. The Division will find a lot of natural ties to Bungie’s Destiny, but that’s only because they’re both shared-world shooters that exist exclusively online. In Destiny, your "Guardian" is seen as the single hope of the universe. In The Division, you’re a small part of something bigger. Yes, you're a highly-trained operative that can piss a lot of bad guys off by thwarting their plans, but one misstep or one bad plan of action will likely lead to your demise. Basically, this game is not easy.

Like any typical RPG, your agent amasses experience, which leads to the strengthening of your character. Tackle level-appropriate missions and you should be just fine without too much preparation or excessive strategies. As you progress to higher-level content, that balance slowly shifts in the favor of your enemies. Things become more complicated, bad guys get more varied and you have to start being more mindful of what kind of skills, weapons and armor you're wearing, or life gets very difficult. As I progressed through the levels, I only took more joy in completing missions because they required more skill. It seemed as though Ubisoft wanted to ease us all in to their game but didn't want to hold our hands - this is an RPG masquerading as a shooter after all.

Like an RPG, you will have deep customization with your character. Instead of making things less varied and streamlined like other obvious competitors, The Division wants to push you toward deciding what kind of agent you'll be. Do you want to be a bullet sponge and take all the attention off of your allies? Would you rather be a high damage dealer, lethal at any range? Or perhaps you want to be the master of the tech at your disposal, capable of healing your squad or throwing the enemy off balance with greater ease? You can do all of this by tailoring your stats.

The great thing about The Division is that, while there's plenty of depth for players to jump into, you're never forced to be a stat geek to get the job done. If you're geared up well-enough and you have enough skill, you should be able to tackle the hardest encounters the game throws at you. I personally went for more of a tank role, with a secondary emphasis on damage - it's good for solo play during later missions since you'll need to be able to take a shot or two. How you want to play is entirely up to you, and that's how it should be.

Fictional brands can be seen everywhere

Visuals

The Division is beautiful, thanks to the game's Snowdrop engine that brings this digital rendition of Manhattan to life. The game runs at 1080p on consoles, but only at a set 30 frames per second to keep things running smoothly. When I first saw The Division back in 2013, I nearly had to pick my jaw up from the floor - it was so beautiful and so crisp. Sadly, Ubisoft had to dial back some of its settings and features in the name of consistency, but the results are still very good.

More than the cool weather systems that blow through the city and the numerous buildings and abandoned cars is the nuances of the city. Ubisoft was so adamant about creating a living, breathing city that the company hired external marketing groups to help create fictional brands, movie posters, graffiti and more to make me feel like I was roaming the streets of New York City. The Division greatly impressed me in this way - I had to stop and admire some of the artwork, or giggle at the immature or forceful messages left on the sides of building and street signs.

Playing through a fictional New York City wouldn't be as fun if it were completely remodeled, so Ubisoft also did a lot to try and create a near photo-realistic rendition of the city. Walking through Times Square, I couldn't help but smile and remember some of my own experiences in that same place. As far as I could tell, they nailed the layout.

Welcome to the new Times Square

Social Integration

This game is playable by yourself, but The Division is a game built to be played with others. Never before have I played a game on a console that encouraged cooperative play so well. As anyone that has played on an online console network like Xbox Live or Playstation Network, it's easy to run into trolls, whiny kids or people that leave their mics on with a lot going on in background - making me mute everyone or choose to not use a microphone. In The Division, I leave my mic active and willingly engage other players that I come across, because there are plenty of times where I need them and they need me.

This is even more-so when entering the Dark Zone within Manhattan - a walled-off section of the city where the viral outbreak seemed to be the strongest. Now, it's a wild west where anything goes. Entering this area will lead to more random encounters, lots of mini-boss fights and plenty of other players.

Unlike your typical Call of Duty or Destiny match, roaming the Dark Zone is a free-for-all, meaning you can kill or be killed by anyone who is not partied up with you. This means finding trustworthy players is crucial for survival, not to mention finding some of the best rewards the game has to offer right now. You can chat with players in your vicinity and determine whether they want to run around with you, but always be at least a little cautious when playing with a stranger in the Dark Zone as they can quickly betray you and steal your hard-earned loot.

For those wanting a more cooperative experience, every main story mission has a matchmaking process that can be activated when approaching the mission or by viewing the mission on your map. Parties max out at four players for the time being and there's no official word on whether larger player groups will be available down the line.

It's 4:20 somewhere, right?

Summary

Tom Clancy's The Division is a work in progress. Like Destiny, there's a lot of content that is planned for the game that isn't out yet. The Division is set to receive several updates and expansions within its first year, the first update coming roughly one month after launch. That update is said to bring a "raid encounter" that will put players up against tougher enemies and battles, but these updates will also add new features to the game (loot trading is said to be one of those features). Maybe it's just me, but it seems like Ubisoft watched and listened to the player base of Destiny a lot and have figured out what to avoid or make available with The Division. That's a good thing.

For me, roughly forty hours of playtime left me with a very good feeling about this game. The Division is complex enough to encourage many more invested hours after completing the main story missions, but it's not so complex that someone less-informed to RPG games can't figure things out. The same can be made for RPG gamers not as accustomed to shooter games. I figured out nearly everything I needed to know just by reading directions and looking at tool tips when unlocking things like new skills and vendors. More importantly, I enjoyed nearly everything I did in my first week.

This "cleaner" is running from his currently-exploding comrade

The story of The Division is an interesting one. I'm actually hard-pressed to remember a shooter game that varied its locations, enemies and encounters the way that this game does. There are enemies that are careful sharp-shooters, shotgun rushers, flame throwers, ballistic shield wielders and chopper gunners. You'll comb abandoned subway tunnels, sweep the streets of New York and climb to the rooftops of apartment buildings. These varied encounters and enemies all make for a wonderful dynamic in gameplay.

There are some opportunities for improvement. Server maintenance is a big area of need since they were troublesome on launch day and have been brought down once or twice for unscheduled maintenance. There is also the occasional bug that forces you to re-launch the game or offer a hilarious screenshot opportunity. These bugs can be mood-killers, but only for a moment. Ubisoft is well aware of many of these issues and is hard at work patching them as soon as possible, so many bugs may be fixed the next time server maintenance is conducted.

Lastly, The Division might have a great amount of content on launch day, but depending on the available launch content to hold gamers over for a long period of time would be foolish. Invested gamers such as myself reached the max level and completed all story missions and side missions within a few days, meaning casual gamers that picked up the game already will likely reach the end before the end of week two.

This isn't a problem on its own since there are things to do after you've hit the level cap, but not having enough endgame content is a problem for these kinds of games, and The Division doesn't quite have enough endgame content to survive as-is for very long. That makes Ubisoft's transparent update plans very convenient - year one will never see players going more than two or three months without added content. If you ask me, Bungie could learn a thing or two from Ubisoft's clear DLC roadmap.

 

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