Divided we stand.
I was about halfway deep into my gameplay of Tom Clancy’s The Division when I picked up one of the many cell phone recordings scattered around the city. The ensuing message brought chills to my core. The voicemail left on the message spoke about his hunger and how the desperation for something to eat was picking at his very brain to do terrible things to people for a chance at survival. Sounds like a typical zombie apocalypse scenario, except it isn’t. This is set in the world of Tom Clancy, where the greatest threat to humanity is humanity itself and where danger can come from anyone, anywhere.
This is the setting that is established during the opening cut-scenes of The Division: New York City is thrown into chaos and anarchy after a bio-terrorist attack is launched, via a virus transmitted by paper currency, during Black Friday. Soon, millions of people around the world are infected with a unique and incurable strain of the smallpox virus. Multi-million dollar corporations and even our very own government are thrust into chaos during the event known as “Operation: Dark Winter”. However, as humanity faces hopelessness and annihilation, the United States government launches its secret weapon to combat the crisis in hopes of keeping the country and government functioning. Known as “Directive 51” (aka The Division), these operatives are an elite force of sleeper cell patriots living among us with normal, everyday lives who are suddenly activated to maintain government stabilization and give humanity a fighting chance. You play as one of these agents.
That’s pretty much as far as I will go into the story of The Division. The rest you will have to experience for yourself. And trust me, there’s plenty of lore to chew on, but we’ll get into that later.
Was it Worth the Wait?
After years of hype and controversies surrounding its development, the real question here is if Tom Clancy’s The Division lives up to its lofty goals and high expectations? The answer is mostly yes.
To be fair and honest, The Division has been a very, dare I say, divisive game among many in the gaming community in the past few years. While it is true that there are things that don’t exactly flesh themselves out as well as they might’ve looked on paper, there are also some great ideas that work very well when properly executed. As a whole, The Division isn’t perfect by any means but it is definitely a game that feels unique in a market saturated by other shared-world online RPGs.
What’s it Like?
During launch night, the servers expectedly crashed due to the influx of new players joining the fray all at once (thankfully this was rectified within an hour of the game’s launch). I managed to create my character in what is, hands-down, one of the most underwhelming character creators I’ve experienced in a game. There really isn’t much variety here aside from a few presets and some cosmetic dress-up you can give your character.
This aspect of the game particularly rubbed me the wrong way, as each preset character has its own hairstyle attached to it, so that if you want a dark-skinned guy with a Mohawk, well then you’re out of luck. You can’t necessarily mix and match or even fine-tune individual facial features. I found this a bit questionable, as I myself am a dark-skinned Hispanic male and it’s as if the game just assumes that all dark-skinned guys have curly braided hair (in real life my hair tends to be smooth and wavy). The “take it or leave it” character customization is definitely a big turn off for me, especially if Ubisoft Massive is planning to extend the life of this game past a year or two. I also found it strange that the character customization offers sunglasses and earrings for players to wear, but no option to remove the accessories in the future if you begin to grow weary of your agent looking like a rugged Jean Reno in Leon: The Professional.
Past that, however, the starting area in Brooklyn wastes no time taking you through its tutorial. Within minutes you’ll be knocking off goons and side-missions like a veteran. These opening gameplay moments also set the tone for what you’ll be spending most of your time doing. As a New Yorker myself, and having worked in the building on the same street of the tutorial, I was excitedly surprised by The Division’s visual presentation. Contrary to the developer’s constant pandering of its original massive map, the area of Midtown Manhattan is absolutely huge and littered with so much immaculate detail that it makes games like Grand Theft Auto V and Skyrim blush. Yes, despite the world size downgrade, what Massive Entertainment has created here in terms of scope is quite impressive and a very exciting canvas for future content coming down the line.
As you walk through the dilapidated and snowy New York streets, the city often feels like its own character, reaching out at you and constantly teasing you with its imagery and atmosphere. Dead frozen bodies litter the floor where a tragic gunfight might’ve occurred just days before. Piles of biological garbage stacked high above a parked car obstruct what were once vibrant and serene residential streets. Gunshots of an erupting skirmish just a few blocks away can be heard. Sudden snowstorms white out your agent’s point of view. I could keep going. The Division is no slouch to creating a heavy and foreboding atmosphere with its tense visuals and pounding techy-industrial inspired soundtrack. You feel like you are trying to survive in a world thrown into chaos, and that’s a pretty big accomplishment for a game that borderlines between reality and fantasy.
The map itself is broken up into different districts. Each district in the city has a secret safe house for your agent, where you can enter to buy and sell loot from vendors, or gain quick access to your side loot via your personal crate. And in one of the bigger surprises, safe houses also double as mini-social hubs for other players. Yes, you’ll constantly see other players within safe houses–players that you can interact with and party up with to tackle assignments via a matchmaking kiosk (think of it as Destiny’s Tower hub but spread out through the map). The districts also include a slew of side-missions to help the player level up in experience and acquire points to spend back in the Base of Operations.
As for combat, the enemies (which are broken up into three factions) tend to be a bit “bullet-spongey”, at least at first. I know this was a major complaint during the months prior to release, but when playing the full game, the enemy HP is not much of a huge concern, especially later in the game when you begin to acquire high-level weapons and gear. In fact, gameplay is one of The Division’s strengths. The firefights can often get intense, with the player being forced to make multiple tactical decisions all at once during battles later in the game. It is especially engaging when you add more people into the mix, as your squad members are forced to work with one another to take out enemies in some pretty heated gunfights in the streets of Midtown Manhattan. And trust me, you’ll want to squad up with a few pals, especially if you’re headed into the dreaded Dark Zone (more on that later).
You’ll definitely want to tackle side missions, as the Base of Operations will be your main hub throughout the game. You’ll slowly upgrade your base from its ramshackle beginnings to a high-tech facility with points accrued from your side mission endeavors. The Base of Operations is broken up into three wings: Medical, Tech, and Security. Incidentally, upgrading each wing over time will unlock special perks and skillsets for your agent to use out in the field.
To be specific, upgrading the Medical wing will have effects on your agent’s health progression, wherein you can increase your HP and unlock high-level filters for your character’s oxygen mask that will then allow you to enter into Contaminated Zones.
Upgrading the Security wing will allow the player to fully utilize their agents defensive skill sets and gadgets ranging from the Ballistic Shield and the portable Smart Cover which erects a temporary barrier between you and the enemy during firefights.
Lastly, upgrading the Tech wing will allow you to manage your electronics stats and upgrade your tech gadgets, which come in a variety of forms ranging from an Automated Turret to the iconic Seeker Mine. Upgrading the Tech wing will also unlock the Recalibration Station that will allow you to manage individual stats on your weapons or armor, similar to the mechanics in Diablo 3. The Recalibration Station is a bit of a mixed bag considering the fact that you’ll need to spend an exorbitant amount of credits (or Phoenix credits for High-End weapons and armor) without the guarantee of getting the stat upgrade you want. You get a choice of prioritizing certains stats. For example, if a player has a set of knee-pads that have an 8% increase to ammo capacity perk but they would like to change it into a 66% scavenging buff for a chance to find better items, the game doesn’t exactly guarantee that you will get the changed stats. It can often feel like a waste of time and resources as the Recalibration Station can often boil down to a cheap slot machine. The same can be said about the crafting system. You’ll have the chance to buy blueprints for highly sought after weapons and armor, but don’t be surprised if your first build of the weapon isn’t what you expect it to be. It is then that you’ll be forced to go back out into the game world, harvest or buy more resources from weapon drops, vendors, or specific areas in the game, and then return to the crafting station once more to pull the proverbial handle and hope for the best.
The crafting mechanic can often feel shallow after a while and a bit of a frustrating venture, but thankfully the game was kind to me in my persistence and granted me some pretty cool random builds for my agent.
With it comes the usual tropes of armor and weapon upgrading. The game is unique in the sense that it allows the player to create their own class. Unlike a traditional RPG where the player must usually choose between the role of a tank, a DPS-heavy character, or a mage, The Division allows you to create a combination of all three. This mostly works due to the customization system that allows the player to pick and choose between a number of different talents and skill sets without them being permanently set. This can be a huge help, especially during the early parts of the game when you are still trying to get a good feel for the game’s mechanics and when you can experiment with different combinations of skills and talents without the stress of having to pick one or the other and then being stuck with it, causing you to potentially have to start a new character from scratch. The option to include this is brilliant as it can also be used to a player’s advantage and help him exchange between different load-outs more appropriate for the situation at hand.
There are also a wide variety of gear sets and weapons that carry their own stats and that will contribute to different aspects of your agent. If you’re focused on making a character with high damage, naturally you’ll want to focus on gear and weapon sets that will give you a critical hit boost. Along with the gear, you’ll also have two types of mods (weapon and gear). While the weapon mods may be a bit more self-explanatory, gear mods pretty much work the same way. Some gear will have at least one open slot for a mod to be inserted. The gear mods themselves can range from health boosts, higher ammo capacity, and even scavenging, which will help you increase the scavenger percentage on your character that will then allow your character a higher chance of finding more desirable loot in the world and from the enemies you defeat.
Sweet, Sweet Loot
Which brings me now to the loot game in The Division. How good is it? Well, a game like this will ride or die on it’s loot system, and for the most part it is good. The game is very generous about its loot drop throughout the game, especially during the beginning as you begin to build up your agent. You’ll encounter a variety of loot ranging from weapons, gear, and, my personal favorite, clothing that allow you to customize your agent cosmetically in a variety of different ways.
It isn’t long before you begin to hit close to the level cap when the game begins to drop purple items that’ll begin to take your character into some deep territory, but you’ll also have to become a bit picky as not every high-quality item will benefit your character. Like Diablo III’s RNG system, The Division requires the player to carefully assess their own loadout. Some cool-looking piece of gear, like a high-armor vest, may boost up a character’s health, but will lower DPS. It’s a clever way of keeping the loot balanced and engaging as every piece of loot is different and will carry its very own perks to boot. Sometimes it pays off to downgrade a certain piece of gear in order to maintain your character’s tanky HP which can mean the difference between life and death.
However, as exciting as the loot grind can be at the beginning and even at the level cap of 30, some of the top-tier items can become quite useless and repetitive after a while, and thankfully The Division doesn’t completely waste its resources in this sense. Items that have no value to your agent can be deconstructed into resources which can then be used to craft better and more powerful items at the crafting station in your BoO. You’ll want to make a habit of buying blueprints, especially the coveted high-end blueprints, as they will allow you to create High-End weapons, gear, and mods (think Destiny’s Exotic weapons and gear sets). In reality, this is where the meat of The Division’s true game begins, and where the bulk of your true grinding experience will lie.
Well, What About the Campaign?
There really isn’t a whole lot of ground-breaking material here aside from constant repetition of the side missions that pretty much range from the same mission objectives such as Hostage Rescue, Disrupt Arms Deals, and the like. Surprisingly though, I didn’t mind the repetition as much as I thought I would since the gameplay and the prospect of farming better loot always kept me intrigued. As for the story, there really isn’t anything here that will swoon you on an emotional front, but The Division’s narrative basically uses its vehicle to guide you from set piece to set piece without it really meaning much to the player. The concepts presented here are intriguing, but somehow I felt they could’ve told a more engaging tale in all of this. Of course the game commits the ultimate cardinal sin in gaming when it is only in the last few missions where The Division finally manages to give the player stuff to look forward to in terms of variety and uniqueness in both gameplay and level design.
While The Division can often feel like a lonely affair, there is matchmaking available for each of the game’s campaign missions. I highly recommend going into matchmaking as this can heighten the fun factor of the game and produce a much more rewarding experience. I’ve had so many great moments playing with others through missions that even when the servers and some weird glitches would hit my session, I didn’t mind because of the overwhelming positive experience I had just grouping up with three other players and taking on hordes of baddies. The game makes you feel awesome and like a force to be reckoned with when in co-op, which, in my opinion, The Division offers some of the best of in this year so far.
And, yet, as awesome of many of the cool co-op moments are, this brings me to another issue I have with The Division’s strange design choice: to keep other players locked behind a PvE/PvP wall. The city of New York, as detailed and atmospheric as it is, can often be a lonely and depressing affair. It would have been cool to run into other players while out on the town and randomly party up with them to tackle some random missions. By design, I do not believe that forcing the player to feel alone as a one-man army taking on the world feels consistent with the rest of the aesthetic being presented here and in the end it does feel a bit disjointed and out of place.
However, as much content as the solo and co-op features contain, The Division holds yet another surprise that may make or break the game (and players) in the process.
The Dark Zone
The Dark Zone is where The Division will take you to when your main campaign and PvE level grind has been completed (although you can enter the DZ at your leisure at any point in your game, at your own risk, of course). Dark Zone is probably the signature feature of The Division with its unique blend of PvPvE. While in the Dark Zone (located in the middle of the open world), players will be tasked with grinding out their DZ character from scratch without losing your PvP level. In fact, the Dark Zone has its own progression system and currency unlike the PvE zone. Here you’ll face the game’s toughest enemies and challenging encounters. Loot drops on a consistent basis and you’ll even get to loot chests located all across the Dark Zone map, but opening them will require Dark Zone keys and certain level requirements. But, that’s not all. If you think you’ll be strolling out of the Dark Zone with all that nifty loot after its all said and done, you’re dead wrong, as you’re not the only predator in the area.
The Dark Zone is filled with other players, but they are not automatically marked as enemies. However, what makes the tension in the DZ all the more exasperating is the fact that a random ally who will help you take down a boss can suddenly turn on you, kill you, and take the loot you have just acquired, causing you to lose precious XP and DZ funds in the double (even triple) cross. It is an inventive and original idea, one that can add an element of fun or frustration for players. And if you do theoretically survive an ambush from another agent, you’ll then have to quickly move to one of the designated extraction areas to secure your precious loot. A flare will by fired by your agent to signal a pick up by helicopter (for you and anyone else nearby) and trigger a suspenseful countdown timer while the helicopter is en route. It is during these moments that The Division will have you at your peak stress level. Nothing is ever guaranteed in the Dark Zone and a moment of hope and promise can quickly turn to loss and tragedy. You can loot a precious High-End weapon and, at any given moment, lose it in a surprise ambush by a rogue player.
It’s easy to see why the DZ mode can scare all but the most hardcore of gamers away. The Dark Zone adds an interesting Bloodborne-esque mechanic to its multiplayer and is easily ripe for abuse (as has been demonstrated in the past few weeks). It can often thread a thin line between fun and infuriating and unfairness. That being said, as cool as the DZ can be, The Division’s end game content can wear a bit thin after a while. There really isn’t much left to the game aside from harvesting resources from encounters and then using those resources to build bigger, better stuff. In fact, as of the time of this writing, that’s all The Division offers, really.
There’s also the lure of Daily missions and Challenges that encourage the player to replay through campaign missions in order to acquire Phoenix Credits, yet another currency that can be used to buy High-End items from specific vendors in the Base of Operations and the Dark Zone. Another surprising feature is that dailies and challenges can be completed using matchmaking with randoms. These modes can also carry some pretty nifty rewards upon completion, especially the Challenging modes which are the equivalent to Destiny’s weekly Nightfall missions.
There will be the upcoming update of the game mode called Incursions that will add a raid/firefight mode and the introduction of public events in the DZ via hourly airdrops, and also all-new gear sets and weapons. The game desperately needs this as I feel that at the moment the end-game content here is beginning to stretch a bit thin, but the content being presented within the next few weeks to months seems promising and may have eager players like me coming back for more.
In the end, I had fun with Tom Clancy’s The Division. I’m close to 130 hours of gameplay and from the content soon to come via free updates and seasonal DLC, I doubt that my agent’s days are over, and may have just begun. The game has some issues, even game-breaking ones, and despite all of this I can’t help but keep myself from jumping in every night and discovering and gaining something new from the game. Much of this is thankfully due in part to the excellent response time for fixes and community feedback Ubisoft Massive has been accomplishing and it shows that the company is serious about making this game the best it can be and taking it beyond its initial vanilla stage.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is Ubisoft’s ace in the hole, and while not perfect, it has certainly created a promising template for the future to come, and shows no promise of slowing down anytime soon.
The Reformed Gamers gives Tom Clancy’s The Division a 4 out of 5.
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