The Division is Ubisoft’s most ambitious project to date, and it has certainly paid off for them in a big way, becoming their best-selling game and one the best selling IPs after only 1 week of sales. However, for Ubisoft Massive, the development studio based in Sweden, it is their first online-only multiplayer-driven shooter game, and the first time they have had to interact with a dedicated community as large as the Division’s, and the growing pains are obvious, as you’ll see later in the technical discussion section of the review.
For this gaming generation, the holy grail of game design is the Massively Multiplayer Online Open World Cooperative-Competitive Multiplayer Role Playing Shooter- MMOOWCCMRPS?- because consoles and PCs finally have the hardware to make such a project feasible. Whoever designs the best MMOWCCMRPS will have the next Half-Life, GTA 3, or COD 4. Basically, it’s what would happen if DESTINY didn’t suck. The concept is a literal money pile. “Let’s make a game by combining Diablo, DayZ, Borderlands, Destiny, and GTA Online, but make it set in “The Last of Us” disaster-like New York City with modern weapons.” Thus, The Division was born.
At its heart, the Division is a third-person cover based shooter. Your characters do have some degree of ability and perk selection, but the roleplaying aspect of character building is a farce, as everyone will have access to the same abilities and perks by the end game, and switching between different classes of character build just take a few clicks within the menu. Distinctions between characters is largely determined by your gear. The traits that matter are:
1. Firearms, the damage you do with weapons
2. Stamina, your health
3. Electronics, the effectiveness (e.g. duration, magnitude, and range) of active abilities
All of these traits are easily modified by changing your equipped gear, so success in the game is almost entirely based on your items’ quality. Hence, the moniker “loot-driven” is often used to describe The Division’s gameplay, likening the end-game goals to that of Diablo, Borderlands, and Destiny. Using the Tom Clancy license, much of the gear is based on real world firearms and accessories, many of which you can have shipped to your door, or just walk down the street to your gun shop and buy it over the counter to take home with you in fewer than 10 minutes, usually. Unless you actually live in New York, of course.
You play as an agent of the actual the Division of the game The Division, of which the Division of the game The Division has an a full name of the Strategic Homeland Division… OK, I’m probably losing viewers by now, but I promise you the actual game will frustrate you more than any of my incoherence. So anyway, the Strategic Homeland Division is a secret division (I promise I’m not trying to use “division” as many times as possible just to frustrate you) of the government. Their primary goal is to ensure the continuity of government and prevent societal collapse through tactical but clandestine methods, which for the game’s purposes just turns out to be shoot everything on sight. The “sleeper” agents selected for The Division come from SWAT, Special Forces, or Counter-Terrorism backgrounds, but they have day jobs and only work for The Division when activated during times of crisis. So when New York City suffers a bioterror attack and a smallpox epidemic ravages the population, it’s your time to shine. The city is put under martial law but even the soldier still loyal to the government can’t prevent the uprising of gangs not unlike those found in the Mad Max universe. The main enemies terrorizing the civilians are looters, escaped convicts, and some sanitation workers who are fiercely dedicated to their jobs. And supposedly, the game has a story where your resistance group [insert generic action movie plot point] and [insert generic TV show plot line] to fight the mercenary group that’s trying to take over the government and there’s the requisite mole/traitor in the Division, because this wouldn’t be a generic political/action story without some corruption, now, would it? And oh, your primary supervisor is a super-needy Asian woman who I’m sure would be the stereotypical high-expectations helicopter Asian parent.
From the minimal effort I gave trying to explain the plot, you should have a sense of the lack of substance in the Division’s narrative. The characters are uninteresting and follow all their expected cliches. The dialogue is cheesy and melodramatic, and your character speaks as often as Gordon Freeman. The plotline is predictable and underdeveloped. And the concept of the actual Division in the Division is mildly preposterous. Why put forth the funding for Division agents who only work in times of crises instead of putting the funding toward actual counterrorism and security assets? Yes, my tax dollars are being put to excellent use! But, for the sake of role-playing and attempt to fit your character into the Division's universe in a meaningful way, I will suspend my disbelief...
Although the narrative is weak, the game’s universe and atmosphere is anything but. The Division’s open world is hauntingly beautiful. Amidst the scenes of devastation, there is an artistic elegance to the world design.
Post-disaster New York is convincingly portrayed through the detailed environments. Corpses pile up in contaminated areas. Debris, trash, destroyed furniture pile up in the streets, as basic services end. Personal residences are barricaded but still have holiday lights hanging. Retail stores are ransacked with products strewn all over the place. Haphazardly stopped and hastily abandoned vehicles litter the streets. Memorials and missing persons boards adorn the base and safe houses.
The game’s graphical quality has set the new benchmark for open world games. Like Crysis, the game’s visuals were designed to stand the test of time and not seem aged even with later hardware generations. Despite the ambition in graphical intensity, the game is still reasonably optimized for consistent performance scaling across different tiers of hardware. On my i74930k, GTX 980 2 way SLI rig, I can get between 45-90 frames per second, averaging around 60, running all settings on maximum except for antialisiang and reflection quality on low. However, I do detect a lot of frame time variance, meaning that even though the FPS counter could be reading 70, the FPS may feel more like 45. This is a possibility with SLI configurations, which many modern games have found a workaround, but it is still relatively early after its release, so hopefully UBISOFT or Nvidia can make hardware optimizations.
Even on consoles, the game is noteworthy for graphical achievements. In our apartment, we have a PS4 in the community lounge, and someone is always playing the Division in the evenings, and when I sit in to watch, I consider it nothing short of wizardry that the Division can look THAT good on essentially hardware 5 years behind modern PCs. The biggest problem on the console version though is the frame tanking during intense firefights, often feeling like the game’s running at 15 FPS. Even so, the game remains relatively playable at lower frame rates because of the methodical nature of tactical cover shooters.
It’s inevitable that a game of The Division’s scale would use repeating visual elements and assets but the orientation and context of their utilization is diverse enough that I never get tired of just exploring, wandering around with no particular set destination. Even if I’ve passed an intersection 100 times, I can always seem to find some detail that I missed before.
Adding to the game’s realism is a dynamic weather and day night cycle, granting even more diversity to the possible scenes.
The game’s destruction is limited, but it’s still satisfying to see crisp-looking bullet holes through car windshields, and shooting out car tires is therapeautic.
One minor complaint I have is that the civilian NPCs interactions when they complain about how bad things are seem forced, as opposed to the natural-seeming lives of NPCs in the Grand Theft Auto series. In Grand Theft Auto 5, you could follow around an NPC for many in-game hours and they’d go about their business as usual. In the Division, it’s as though the NPCs are like extras in a movie.
The bottom line is that The Division’s graphics and world atmosphere are immersive enough to carry the game, and even action game fans without a vested interest in cover-based shooters should try the game just to experience the atmosphere.
Will you actually enjoy playing the game, though?
The game’s shooting and maneuvering mechanics aren’t going to come close the responsiveness of twitch FPS games like Call of Duty of Counter-Strike, but it is enjoyable enough to keep you on your toes during long grinding sessions. The cover-to-cover mechanic is mostly reliable. I do like how much recoil the automatic weapons have, and how much the recoil increases the longer you hold down fire, making trigger discipline vital in gunfights across cover.
The game dips its toes into science-fiction to give your characters some gadgetry like seeker mines or a turret. Obviously, you have to most past the immersion-breaking element that makes the gear-stats meaningful at any rate with enemies shrugging off 6 headshots with a 7.62mm bullet traveling at 2600 feet per second with 2500 ft-lbs of force. Outside of the game’s main missions, there are side missions for you that help increase your base’s operational capacity, and it’s through leveling the dedicated medical, security, and tech wings of the Division's base that your character gains access to more abilities and skills.
The actual missions themselves are rather straightforward, which are a combination of search and destroy, king of the hill, and package delivery. The maps on which the missions take place are open enough to allow diverse approaches in most situations, allowing the player to choose long or short range weapons and complementary skills. They are playable solo or with a group. The enemies you’ll face have the same class distribution amongst the different factions. You have rushers, snipers, tech specialists, and heavies. The AI has the creativity of a McDonald’s Happy Meal Tamagatchi (90’s kids will get this reference!), so fighting the same enemy classes gets repetitive quickly. On harder difficulties, there’s no additional level of complexity. There’s just a multiplier that makes enemies take even more rounds to kill and deal more damage to players. The enemies spawn in the same areas, so just pure memorization can allow you to spawn-camp them. The PVE is definitely not going to be one of the selling points of The Division, as the missions fade into the background as a chore to grind for end-game credits.
The “real” game truly begins when you beat the main story and reach level 30. The story and side missions are only the tip of the figurative iceberg, and shouldn’t take you longer than 20 hours solo, and if you play with a team, you can actually speed run through in as little as 12 hours. The draw of The Division is optimizing your character’s end-game stats for the Dark Zone, the dedicated PVP area. The Dark Zone is where the infection hit New York the hardest, and the military built a wall around it to quarantine the zone. The Zone’s interior is the most dilapidated of all the game areas, and it’s chilling to come across literally hundreds of body bags in a heavily contaminated area….because you never know what other surprises await you. The Dark Zone is a source for high-quality equipment. Your character has a Dark Zone level and credits that you can only spend in the Dark Zone. You can visit the Dark Zone in earlier levels, and it’s actually recommended to level up your character’s Dark Zone level before you reach PVE level 30, because you’ll only face other level 30 agents once you reach PVE level 30. The PVP works much like Runescape’s wilderness. You’ll be marked as rogue if you try to kill other agents, and you’ll lose more Dark Zone credits and Dark Zone experience if you die while marked as a rogue. But, if you survive the Rogue countdown timer, you’re rewarded with more experience and credits than you would get through normal leveling, and you get the keep any gear that you stole from the other agents that you killed. Whether it’s worth the risk to go rogue is up to you. There are DayZ like encounters, when you can find random agents and team up with them, or come across agents that shoot on sight.
Most of the gear you find in the Dark Zone is contaminated, meaning it’s worthless until a helicopter extracts it. Watch your back at the extraction sites...those are the most common places for last-second betrayals. The 90 seconds it takes for the helicopter to arrive once you call it are the longest 90 seconds you’ll ever spend in a video game...because you never know if an agent will go rogue to steal all your hard-earned gear.
The cooperative multiplayer is easily the best component of the Division. Even if you don’t know anyone who plays the division, you can go into Matchmaking. Matchmaking is efficient and seamless. You can matchmake for free-roam or specific missions. You have a much better chance of surviving the Dark Zone with a group.
The first free content update launched earlier this month. The Falcon Lost Incursion, which is just a horde-mode wave defense mission, doesn’t remotely resemble a what other MMORPGs would consider a raid, but in doing my research for this review, never did Ubisoft specifically say that the free content updates would be raids. The Incursion is difficult, even for those with high-end gear, and requires much strategy and teamwork to complete. If you beat the incursion, you are guaranteed one armor piece of one of 4 new armor sets, arguably amongst the most powerful available in the game.. Equipping multiple pieces of each set will give you additional bonuses, and they are a good incentive for players to engage in the hardcore end-game grind. What’s bothersome is that legendary, 1-of-a-kind items should already exist in the game at launch. What MMOs don’t already come with several sets of legendary items available at launch? In addition to the armor sets and the Falcon Lost mission, the first content update added supply drops to the Dark Zone, which are a guaranteed source of Phoenix (aka premium end-game money) Credits but also have the possibility of dropping another armor set piece. I do feel that the quality of items that aren’t the armor set pieces could be of higher quality, though, to reward the player for fighting through the mobs, mob boss, and other players that may be trying to steal the supply drop. Otherwise, I feel that the Supply Drops are a quality addition, breaking up the monotony and increasing floor movement in the Dark Zone. The total amount of content for the first free Division game update is mediocre, but you can’t complain about free.
The Division could have been the game that defined this generation. Unfortunately,
there are problems out the wazoo. As mentioned previously, skill and weapon stats are unbalanced to the extent that there is convergent character building toward a select handful of weapons and abilities, making the RPG element a farce. One of the big draws of CoD is that there are many viable class setups to fit your preferred playstyle. In the Division, not so much. Gear value offsets player skill to where even 5 points of gear score advantage can make a player virtually unkillable to those with lower gear score. Some abilities are overpowered to the extent that not having an item with them will put you at a disadvantage against other rogues, which leads to trying to craft the same item over and over until you get the exact attribute that you want with a quality level that is determined solely by the RNG, random number generator, leading to an inherently broken methodology of obtaining premium gear. If you’re a high enough level, the Dark Zone enemies drop junk relative to your level. Even the Dark Zone credits and experience earned from mobs don’t scale logically. It would make sense to give double the experience and credits for mobs that are twice as hard to kill, but you only get 2-3% more credits and experience, if that. You can farm Dark Zone enemies for hours and not find one item or earn enough Dark Zone credits to buy an item that is better than what you already have. So, what’s your next logical course of action? Make the gear yourself, trying to get the best possible score from the RNG. Unfortunately, the developers didn’t like how people would rather just deconstruct the gear they found for crafting materials to keep crafting until they got equipment with optimal random number generator stats, so they increased the required materials needed for crafting. Basically, they made grinding necessary, just for the sake of grinding.
Not to mention, there are unforgivable technical issues. The most major issue was how it was possible to exploit the Incursion so that you could farm the rewards over and over with minimal effort, allowing dishonest players to max out their gear without much effort. On PC, the hacking and cheating is rampant, and Ubisoft is not treating the issue with enough urgency.
Game balance issues are common for many large-scale multiplayer games, and players can look past those if they’re resolved in a timely manner, but there’s no reason for a game of this production value to have the number of game-breaking technical issues it does.
Really, the problems with The Division all boil down to “What is the point in grinding the end-game content?” Yes, the new armor sets are cool, but what am I going to use them for? Farming some more bullet sponge mob bosses? Get wrecked by cheaters? What if you really want to live up to the role play aspect of The Division, and not go rogue to kill other players, because going rogue is looked upon as a criminal action? Then you would only be able to fight other rogues. You could play for hours and not come across any other rogues to fight, or the only rogues you will come across are cheaters. Then, your PVP options as a player who only wants to play “Good” would be to grind just for the sake of grinding…
The developers designed themselves into a corner by using the realistic science fiction theme instead of going for imaginative science fiction. Save for the hundreds of bullets enemies can shake off, the game’s framework has to be somewhat believable in a Tom Clancy universe. This severely limits the developers’ capacity to design enemies and raids like those found in Destiny and Borderlands. Sure, using modern weapons and gear has the “second kind of cool” factor, but whether the tactical theme of the game outweighs the creative possibility of moving a few decades into the future is strongly contingent on how they can diversify the gameplay in future expansions.
The game has a solid foundation, and has potential depth for players to invest Call of Duty tier hours. But for the game in its current state, after the first free content update, is the game’s quality worth the price of entry?
I don’t foresee a major price drop for the Division until at least after the first paid expansion is available, so you can expect to pay near full-price until mid-summer.
Despite The Division’s game balance, end game content, and technical problems, the game still gets enough things right that I would recommend any action game fan consider playing it. The game’s graphical intensity is second to none in an open world game, and the atmosphere rivals the visceral morbidity of Metro, Amnesia, and Soma. There is gun and gear porn aplenty, which is exciting for me a competition shooter and firearms enthusiast. The game works well as a virtual hangout with your friends, and even grouping with randoms to run the daily missions or go Dark Zone-ing are satisfying and memorable experiences.
Like Battlefield 4 has shown, player bases can forgive early launch problems if there are enough content updates to offset the agony from dealing with the unstable launch. Just like the first content drop, more obtainable legendary items released every now and then would give players incentive to stick with the game, and players could come back to the game if they’ve been away from a while if they fall in love at first sight with a recently made available legendary gear item.
If you’re a casual gamer or weekend warrior, then the base game of The Division still has enough content to make buying the game at full price worth your time and money. Most of the complaints about content depth are from players who have poured 30 hours a week into the game since it was released and have already reached the level cap and maximum gear score. Ubisoft had underestimated some players’ dedication or how much people are willing to “no-life it” for new games, but that’s still no excuse for the limited amount of end-game challenges for high-level players. The true amount of content depth is somewhere in between the complaints from the “no-lifers” and Ubisoft’s vision for the game. If gaming is your lifeblood, and you need a game that you can pour World-of-Warcraft hours into, then The Division isn’t for you.
Still, this gaming season is not bone dry. Dark Souls 3 recently launched, and Uncharted 4, No Man’s Sky, Battleborn, Overwatch, Homefront: The Revolution, and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst are soon launching, so if any of those games feels tempting, I wouldn’t disapprove putting off playing The Division until the game’s technical problems are resolved and more free content arrives.
In summary, The Division provides a captivating setting with the most visually impressive cityscape in a multiplayer game. Obtaining new gear for your character is addicting and satisfying when you get amazing stats on your favorite gun. However, the current problems holding the game back are stat balance to allow for more diversity in character builds, technical problems related to game mechanics and player cheating, and creating ways to engage the high-level players that is more interesting than requiring more bullets to take down enemies.
Review Score: B-