Discussion Review: Tom Clancy’s The Division

Review written by Matt Litten & Tim Mack.

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Tim: I have a love-hate relationship with The Division. I love the setting. The sheer scope of detail and nuance that has been put into the crafting of the world means that there is always something new to discover and be impressed by. Combat mostly feels good. The cover-based shooting mechanic and each type of weapon definitely feels different with a weight and heft to each style (assault, light machine gun, handgun, shotgun, etc.). Skill class distinctions provide a variety of gameplay (which can be switched out whenever the whim suits you) split into healing, tech, or defense.

Where the game loses some of its luster with me is in the execution of the story and the overall balance of the game. The premise of the title is that someone has put a deadly virus strain on money during Black Friday in New York City and because of the greed and buying habits of Americans, the city devolves into a massive exercise of panic, quarantine containment, and death. Based on a 2001 government exercise called Darkwinter which portrays a total collapse of modern society where the medical infrastructure is overburdened and support and supplies can’t be provided fast enough in such a large scale, rioting and looting take over. Attempts to contain the outbreak in the worst portions of the city split the game map into a PvE area (where the story missions are told) and the PvP area known as the Dark Zone. As a video game, the opening pumps out flashy information at such a quick speed that spells out the downfall of the city but doesn’t really give players the sense of chaos until the game loads proper.

Walking through desolate streets littered with bags of garbage and hundreds of cars abandoned on the street, seeing random survivors wandering the streets seeking out bottles of water or canned food, a heavy dread weighs upon the city. The task of fighting back gangs of Rioters, Cleaners, escaped Rikers inmates, and private military group the Last Man Battalion occurs in different sections and burrows of the city. Each new area of the city staggers the difficulty level of enemies, encounters, side missions, and story missions.  Different encounters and story missions pay out credits for use in upgrading the main base of operations (the Main Post Office) which also acts as a shelter for citizens stranded on the island.

Upgrading the various wings of the Post Office also unlocks abilities in the three primary skill trees, as well as perks and skill mods. Obviously the Medical Wing provides healing benefits during encounters, the Tech Wing offers skills for offense like seeker mines, turrets, or sticky bombs, and the Security Wing offers skills for bolstering defense and cover. As the upgrades are unlocked in each wing, different stations are activated and populated with technicians and scientists. The progression of life returning to normal within the Post Office is pretty neat, as the influx of citizens also expands and their activities turn from huddled masses to families celebrating Christmas and trying to return to a sense of normalcy amid all the chaos.

The biggest complaint that I have about The Division is the fact that most of the activities around the game can be played solo, but I found that the story missions leaned a bit too heavily on requiring at least one other person to work through the scenario. Maybe I just suck at the game, but there is nothing more frustrating than playing through a story mission, hitting a checkpoint, and then ending up dying repeatedly during a pitched encounter because the odds become so stacked against a single agent. Enemies spawn in and invariably one or two of them are quick rushing types who either have shotguns or high damage melee attacks that are hard to counter at close range. Add to that the overly precise snipers who manage to get shots in as the rushing enemies flush you out of cover as you scramble to get away. Or an enemy that apparently has an unlimited supply of grenades he can lob them at you in a pattern that makes it nearly impossible to quick roll out of the blast radius.  Every enemy in this game is a bullet sponge. Even headshots don’t take guys down in one shot (at least not without having high end mods on weapons or perks or skills to provide bonuses to damage).

The Division offers pretty seamless hop-in/hop-out co-op with friends or random players. My only problem with that is I don’t really enjoy playing games with strangers–at one point I was forced to play a story mission with others and one player continually took hits from a bong and complained incessantly about how his girlfriend had left him while belching and chugging beers. Okay, I get it, guy. Gaming is a way to escape the troubles of your daily life, but show a little restraint when playing an online game with people you don’t even know. If it wasn’t for the fact that several folks on my friends list were playing, I would likely still be a lowly level 10 agent struggling to finish the game. Unfortunately, the game does a poor job of balancing high level players with low level players and having friends who have hit the level cap of 30 join when you are only level 10 means all enemies bump up to the level of the higher player. I wish the game had a better way of balancing that disparity.

Playing The Division with others changes the dynamic of the game entirely. More enemies may spawn, but having more players who can use their special skills or have higher powered weapons means those enemies are handled in short order. If one player goes down, the ability to revive fallen squadmates without having to restart at a checkpoint provides a more engaging experience. Plus there is nothing more entertaining than seeing enemies bombarded by seeker mines from more than one person. The downside to playing with a group is that if other players have already played through a particular mission they are naturally less likely to want to pay attention to the narrative that is playing out during the mission (and likely talking over any important details). I could tell you what happened encounter-wise during the last three missions, but I couldn’t hear a damn thing that was said because the people I was teamed with were just playing the mission as a daily challenge to get the loot at the end.

I’m skeptical about how fast the city devolved into a wasteland overtaken by highly armed gangs. Whether the events of the game take place one week or three weeks from the initial events of Black Friday, the city feels too overrun with bad guys too quickly to be anything other than a video game. Enemies respawn at an alarming rate in certain locations once a firefight has broken out and stopped. Yet random gunplay encounters can be a total blast to play when a group is together.

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Matt: It’s funny that you mention struggling as a solo player, Tim, because I honestly didn’t have much trouble at all playing through the main story missions all by myself. (On the normal difficulty setting that is. Have a squad of other agents is pretty much a must if you want to tackle the daily missions on hard/challenging.) A few spots proved challenging as there are definitely set pieces that allow the enemy AI to more easily outflank and overwhelm you, but even with the tougher missions I only ever died a few times on average, and checkpoints are auto-saved at the right moments to keep the die and retry loop from becoming overbearing. I also played on PC, so perhaps the precision of mouse aiming helped, because I could take down most targets with one or two hits with a direct headshot. Starting with a marksman rifle, I was generally able to eliminate two targets before the full onslaught began. I learned quickly, through many frustrating deaths early on, to take out the shotgun guys and snipers as quickly as possible, because they literally take you down in two or three hits and have uncanny accuracy and the ability to lock in on you as soon as you peek out of cover.

Another important point is using the cover mechanics effectively; hunkering down in one cover point is a sure way to die. And if you’re able to change cover without being spotted, you can actually keep foes distracted by your last known position and attack from a new vantage point before they’re able to home in on your new location. Another great thing that I eventually figured out is the way the levels are always open, and when push comes to shove you can always retreat backwards to put distance between you and the enemy. So many games follow a rigid level design that blocks off previous areas once you pass a checkpoint or go through a door (like Uncharted) that immediately shuts behind you, but not The Division.

I like how the game maintains balance, similar to an MMORPG, with zones and quests marked by a recommended player level that scales with your progress. You can explore areas and attempt missions beyond your player level for a big exp payoff, but for solo play it’s safer to stay within your level range. I always managed to stay a level or two ahead of the recommended level for each mission by actively completing side missions, so I’m sure that helped.

Given the massive scale of the environments and the fact that you’re able to latch onto I would say 90% of the objects as an active cover point, the cover system is highly impressive. However, there are times when it does feel too sticky. Moving around corners and unsticking from cover pieces doesn’t feel as fluid and responsive as it could. The sluggish transitions definitely caused me a number of deaths, especially if I was already in the middle of a reload animation and had to wait for that to play out before being able to change cover. Rolling out of cover also causes the occasional headache, as you’ll try to roll and then transition into a sprint while your agent will have latched onto another cover point you didn’t intend to. This can make escaping from a fast-charging shotgun wielder especially tough.

The primary barrier to solo play for me wasn’t the difficulty balancing, but rather the always-online infrastructure. At least three or four times I logged on in the mood to sink in a good session only to be struck with a warning message and a countdown clock to a looming server downtime. I know The Division’s focus is on building an MMO-lite open world (and the cooperative multiplayer is definitely where the game shines), but if a game has a story mode that is playable in single player it should have an offline option. I would happily forgo being able to enter the Dark Zone or see other live agents in the safe houses for unhindered access to solo play through the story missions. That’s one area that I have grown increasingly appreciative of with the Souls games; the online integration and multiplayer interactions are awesome and make it feel like you aren’t all alone, but all that stuff can be turned off to play completely offline if you so desire.

As for the story, I would agree that in terms of offering a traditional narrative the game’s pretty weak. Having finished the game and moved on to end-game play, I’ve already forgotten about every character and story beat. Fortunately, the city itself and the events that set up the state that it’s in serve as enough of a gripping story to draw you into the game world. While I am growing increasingly tired of Ubisoft’s formulaic open world structure that is basically the same thing recycled across Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and now The Division (here the lobby-like safe houses also serve the same purpose of uncovering map objectives as capturing outposts or scaling vantage points in those other games), I have to say that this is probably the most impressive open world environment in a game to date. In addition to the elements you pointed out, Tim, the dynamic weather and time of day engine both add to the immersion while directly impacting gameplay. Sometimes the days will be crisp and clear, while during others you’ll get caught up in a blinding snowstorm that reduces visibility and aiming, making firefights even more tense. Just the sound of gunfire echoing through the desolate streets amplifies the experience.

I also enjoyed the indirect storytelling elements, like the collectible survival guide pages and the Echo scenes, which are essentially this game’s version of audio logs that play out as holographic projections of previous events overlaying the real environment. Digging into some of the lore through the evidence collectibles is a lot more interesting than any of the cutscenes or story beats from the campaign missions. Having read the companion New York Collapse survival guide has certainly increased my interest for searching for all of the collectibles, and it has been fun to see April Kelleher, the journal writer that serves as the book’s protagonist, appear in the game.

Pushing the conversation forward, I understand you’ve had some bad experiences with bugs, particularly in regards to the Echoes. Except for slow log in and quick travel loading times, I’ve been mostly impressed by the performance running on PC (and my system can only run the game at pretty low settings). What’s the tech performance like on PS4? Also, what are your thoughts on other things like the Dark Zone and end game content, character customization, and mission design? Is it just me, or are the mission objectives and enemy types recycled to the extreme? The gunplay is tight and the way the open world facilitates dynamic conditions for each shootout is amazing (you can latch onto any car, phone booth, climb on top of cars, etc.), but outside of the story missions the side missions all follow the same handful of objective templates like having to secure and defend supply caches, investigate contaminated zones, rescue hostages, and so on. These get pretty old after the umpteenth time, don’t you think?

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Tim: Once the story missions have been completed, The Division does become a grind. The progression for earning better loot is the only real reason to keep playing, but the costs associated with collecting enough materials to craft the high end items is daunting. Crafting items is an option from very early on in the game, but isn’t nearly as relevant until the end, when higher gear recipes can only be bought with credits that are issued for completing daily missions played on Hard or Challenging. Hard missions set all enemies as purple tiered (where they are basically more effective bullet sponges) and Challenging mode sets enemies as gold/yellow tiered enemies (which are even stronger versions of bullet sponges).

It is fairly easy to compare the end game of The Division to the end game of Destiny, in that the only thing left to do is replaying missions over and over again in order to earn credits to buy or craft better gear. Adventurous players may choose to spend their time in the Dark Zone, which pits players against harder enemies but also other players who may decide to go rogue and shoot you dead for any gear you may have collected. I’m not much for PvP in any game, but The Division is ripe with exploits currently, and plenty of asshats who have taken advantage of them to gear up with much better loot which tips the balance highly in their favor against noobs like myself, so frankly that is an area where I have spent very little time exploring. The concept is sound–any items that have been found need to be extracted before they can be used because they are highly contaminated–but without having a group of friends who enjoy playing that way, it is just as easily passed on.

As far as character customization, I can’t say I’m all that impressed. When I typically play third-person games, I inevitably choose to play as a woman (because frankly I don’t want to spend 40+ hours looking at a dude’s ass–childish I know, but it is what it is). Unfortunately the variety of character looks is sparse and lacking in any truly unique styles, so I opted for a pretty dope-looking grey bearded avatar and stuck with the initial National Guard cosmetic uniform through probably the first 40 hours I played. The menu structure for looking at what the cosmetic drops actually appear as on your character is so clunky and multi-stepped, that I had no inclination to constantly change the very subtle looks that were offered by the wide variety of clothing drops that I did encounter. Fortunately cosmetic items don’t fill up item slots so that’s one positive I can attribute to the other too subtle and clunky character customization feature.

For the most part I rarely ran into performance issues aside from really bad audio bugs. As you pointed out, Matt, the environmental weather effects and the day night cycle really add a wonderful dynamic to the experience (although it does bring up the question of just why haven’t more military forces managed to flood into the city for the amount of times that I’ve seen the sun rise in the game). The weird thing with the audio bugs is they seem to only happen while actively in Echoes, but they would always crash the game back to the PS4 XMB. Aside from that, I never noticed any framerate issues or any real delay in joining the game (although I would definitely agree that it feels way more like an MMO because of logging into the servers). Strangely, since the first patch, any time I go to play any video cutscene, the audio will not play. The problem with that is, the main exposition and conclusion of the story are told via those cutscenes and the subtitles don’t always appear so I really have no clue what the final game encounters sound like.

I would agree that objective recycling is a bit of a cop out as there are so many other potential ways the different gangs could have been presented within their territories of the city.  For as robust as the overall world environment is, there is definitely a strong sense of deja vu whenever new encounters appear on the map and it is a repeat of rescuing a hostage or stopping an arms shipment from occurring.  Fortunately I felt that the story mission encounters weren’t too repetitive, or at least they were in unique enough locations from previous encounters that they didn’t feel too much like earlier ops.

I know I’ve expressed a lot of criticisms, but I definitely think The Division is a strong first game in a presumably continuing new franchise (although I dearly hope Ubisoft takes a few years before releasing the next one). I’m looking forward to future updates and DLC, but I’m not holding my breath that it will actually include additional single-player focused story content. Hopefully with the next title, Ubisoft is able to take feedback from the community to shore up some deficiencies in design, as well as add even more variety to the side missions and encounters.

Tim-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Rich world design
+ Fun gameplay and skill mechanics
+ Interesting story premise
+ Fun co-op play

Cons:
– Repetitive side missions and encounters
– Exploits with PvP make the Dark Zone no fun
– Audio glitches
– Poor group balancing with dissimilar player levels

Matt: The idea of the split world between the story mode section and the central PvP/PvE Dark Zone is a great one, as well as the split of having unique agent leveling progressions for each area (you can lose gear and experience when killed in the Dark Zone, but it only impacts your Dark Zone level), but even though there are exploits, I thought the dual model was executed well. There is a greater sense of tension and spontaneity to exploring the streets of the Dark Zone that adds to the experience, because you never know when you’re going to happen upon an active firefight between other agents and roaming AI gangs or get bum rushed by rogue agents that want to steal your loot. The concept of having to take loot drops to extraction points and shoot up a signal flare to safely airlift the contaminated gear, and then hunker down, often with other random players, to defend the area for a couple of minutes is also compelling.

As much as I personally loathe the mandatory online connectivity, objectively speaking I have to say that the scale of the game world coupled with the online interactions of player-populated safe houses, quick co-op matchmaking options at mission start points, and the ease of transport between the main portion of the city and the Dark Zone–not to mention the generally stable servers and framerate–is highly impressive.

Where the game lost me was with the lacking variety of mission objectives and end game content. While I mostly enjoyed my 20-25 hours progressing through the campaign portion of the city before venturing into the Dark Zone (the core gunplay and world design really are fantastic), large chunks of the game felt like a tedious grind through samey mission objectives and samey shootouts against samey enemy types, with little to no narrative payoff waiting at the end. I have a tendency to become addicted to games with RPG mechanics, and the progression of leveling up, tailoring a unique skill set to my play style, customizing my agent’s look, and obtaining better and better gear really became my only motivation for seeing the campaign through to the end. I loved the depth of customization with being able to switch out different hats, coats, pants, scarves, and shoes (the clothing change interface is indeed clunky though), choose skills and perks, craft and modify firearms with all manner of scopes, clips, barrels, and grips, and experiment with weapon loadouts to find a combination that worked best for me, but eventually having little more to look forward to than daily challenge replays of the story missions and the allure of obtaining higher tiered gear became rather dull. It’s nice to see that Ubisoft is dedicated to building upon the game with updates and DLC still to come, but the game didn’t grab me enough to make me want to follow along for the entire journey moving forward.

While I found the game to be adequately balanced for a single player, the story isn’t strong enough to fully recommend the game for solo play compared to a more narrative driven third-person shooter like Uncharted 4. Naturally, The Division operates best in cooperative squad play, and if you have a group of friends to regularly play with the game may be worth your while.

Matt-TryIt

Pros:
+ Shooting and cover mechanics are fun and satisfying
+ Robust agent progression and customization
+ Immersive open world New York, particularly the dynamic weather and time cycle
+ Solid online performance and compelling Dark Zone concept

Cons:
– Bland enemy and mission variety
– Boring end game content
– Forgettable storyline wastes the potential of the plot setup
– Online connectivity required

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC and PS4, also on Xbox One
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Release Date: 3/8/2016
Genre: Third-person shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-24

Source: PS4 review code provided by publisher. PC code obtained via Logitech keyboard bundle offer.

Buy From: Amazon, Steam

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.