Tom Clancy’s The Division
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The Division is two things. It’s a thirdperson, open-world action game that tasks you with ridding a city of foes, district by district. It’s also an online RPG with heavy cooperative leanings, this initial release representing the vanguard of a promised run of updates and expansions. The setting is New York in the aftermath of a man-made viral outbreak. Your character, who you create, is a sleeper operative for The Division – a secret government agency whose members are seeded among the civilian population to be ‘activated’ in the event of a catastrophe. (It doesn’t make much sense, but don’t dwell on it.) After being taught the basics of shooting and looting in Brooklyn – ironically, you’re mostly shooting looters – you’re delivered to midtown Manhattan.
You have a base, which you upgrade with resources earned from completing missions, side-missions and ‘encounters’ in the open world. These earn you new skills, which normally take the form of Clancyappropriate future-military tech: extending shields, drone turrets, etc. You’ll also gain talents, gear, crafting materials, and more. Your actual business in the city is rather by-the-numbers, however. In each district there’s a safehouse, discovery of which will populate your minimap with new things to do: reconnect a broken antenna, assassinate an enemy leader, and so forth. These objectives repeat, area to area, until you reach the level cap. Ubisoft clearly believes there’s something optimal about this basic structure, but its weakness is that, if you’ve grown bored of it in other contexts – and it has appeared in plenty of them – then you’re likely to get bored of it even more quickly here.
An enormous investment has been made in the city, UI, and narrative. The Division’s New York is extraordinary. It’s astonishingly detailed, from its streets of uncollected trash and abandoned cars to the sometimes-spectacular places you visit in the course of key missions. Massive has managed to build a varied and evocative gameworld out of a single location, and its efforts do an enormous amount to mask the familiarity of The Division’s basic structure.
The UI is gorgeous, rendered in-world as if you’re wearing Tom Clancy’s Google Glass. Among its more traditional functions is the ability to summon ‘echoes’ – still moments from the city’s collapse, ostensibly pieced together using satellite and Internet data. These accompany a main narrative thread that’s delivered through cutscenes as well as unlocked video and audio clips. The tone and plot is standard Clancy fare, but suffers for the silence of your mute main character.
The Division doesn’t stray far from the cover shooter formula, but combat with a group of friends is one of the game’s strengths. Encounters often take place in open areas with flanking routes, and flushing an enemy out of cover with a coordinated action is gratifying. Unfortunately, challenge doesn’t increase based on the intelligence of your enemies but by the raw amount of damage they can take before going down. A boss enemy – who may well just be a man in a hoodie with a rifle – might require several clips of ammunition from several players to drop. This is an understandable way to design an RPG, but a bizarre way to design this RPG, with its Tom Clancy licence and ‘it could really happen’ posture. The Division’s standout multiplayer conceit is the Dark Zone, a walled-off area in the centre of the map patrolled by the game’s toughest enemies. This is the only place where multiplayer isn’t optional, where you can fight alongside or against other players without any matchmaking. It’s also the best place to earn loot, at least until you reach the end of the game, but doing so carries risk: every item you find is contaminated and must be extracted by helicopter; friendly fire is on; and other players can kill you and take your winnings before you can return to collect them. There’s a genuine thrill to the danger you face, to the uncertainty of meeting another player and not knowing their intentions.
Taking down a ‘rogue agent’ – a player who’s killed another player – earns you rewards you’ll feel you’ve earned, while discovering that the strangers you’ve met are trustworthy is gratifying in its own way. This is as close as The Division gets to ‘ DayZ for the mainstream’, which was clearly one of the guiding principles of its design. It’s not perfect, however: the Dark Zone is heavily weighted towards cooperation, with the punishment for going rogue outweighing the potential benefits. Experienced players understand that quiet cooperation serves everybody best, meaning the promised drama manifests less the more you play.
There’s also the question of whether The Division needs to be an RPG at all – whether it needs loot and stats and levels to furnish this particular experience. It works in other games, but frequently the system feels artificial here. You might stop using your favourite rifle, for example, because it stops being effective as enemies gain more health. Then, a few levels later, you’ll find another one – the same – but with a more appropriate attack value. You’re still shooting the same enemies with the same gun, but the numbers involved are larger.
That’s the essential nature, and essential problem, of The Division’s underlying structure. It’s asking you to hunt gear with no tangible reward in terms of what you can do, how you do it, or what you look like doing it. It’s a shame, because it’s a capable tactical action game that gets better when it’s played with a group, and in the Dark Zone it showcases some entirely new – albeit imperfect – approaches to mainstream multiplayer. Its interface and setting are both extraordinary, enough to ensure that Ubisoft’s first MMOG becomes a phenomenon, if only temporarily.