Tom Clancy’s The Divi­sion

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - Ubisoft Mas­sive Ubisoft PC, PS4 (ver­sion tested), Xbox One Out now

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.

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