Tom Clancy's The Division Review
Tom Clancy's The Division Review
In many respects, it’s unparalleled as a cooperative shooter/RPG hybrid, but bland side-content and the inconsistent nature of the Dark Zone dampen the fun
Posted: 04/08/16 | Category: Review | Developer: Massive Entertainment | Publisher: Ubisoft | Platform: Playstation 4, Windows, Xbox one

Genre: Action Adventure
Release date: March 8, 2016
Review Platform: Xbox One

On a Black Friday in the near future, thousands of dollars in cash change hands in stores all across Manhattan. However, the cash has been tainted with a genetically engineered strain of smallpox. Within days, emergency services are overwhelmed, riots and looting ensue throughout the panic stricken city, and the government quarantines the island as millions flee.

This frightening scenario opens Tom Clancy’s The Division, an action adventure game developed by Ubisoft Massive and released by Ubisoft for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on March 8th, 2016. In it, you play as a member of The Division, a special ops force authorized by the President to restore order. After applying a disappointingly limited amount of customization to your character and being sent out on some brief tutorial missions in Brooklyn, you ship out to Manhattan, establish a Base of Operations at the old Post Office, battle for control of the island, and track down those responsible for the Green Poison epidemic.

The Division is the very definition of an enormous game. The map contains a realistic depiction of Midtown Manhattan and is packed with activities. I’ve played the game for around 60 hours and am only just reaching the endgame activities, and so covering all the mechanics in detail, explaining every minute balance issue that Ubisoft is working to address, or relating a great majority of what I experienced would take too long. Instead, I hope to answer four basic questions that everybody who is looking to purchase The Division in the months after launch should be asking, whether they are new to this type of game or not.

1) Do I have a group of friends who already have or are planning to get this game?
2) What is the basic gameplay like; is it fun, and will it still be fun after X hours?
3) What are the world and story like, and how much do plot holes bother me?
4) What is there to do in the endgame, and will I want to continue playing?

Friends Factor
 

Although you can play by yourself, The Division requires an Internet connection to play. Just like any game with a heavy focus on online multiplayer, how much enjoyment you’re going to get out of it will ultimately come down to having a steady group of friends to play with. Anytime I tried to play solo or randomly pair up with people whom I didn’t voice chat with (which you thankfully can do on any mission, although you need to invite people to groups beyond that) was extremely frustrating after about level 10. Without friends to revive you or a team to coordinate with, enemies will be tougher to take down and, as a result,the gameplay becomes tedious (more on that later). I completed most of the campaign with a single friend (and played the occasional mission with my cousin as well), but later missions become so punishingly difficult that having a group of four is practically mandatory. So, if you prefer to play games offline, or have no friends running the platform of your choice who intend to play the game, you definitely won't want to buy The Division. If you do have such friends, however, The Division will likely have huge appeal.

Gameplay
 

The majority of your time in The Division will be spent advancing from cover to cover while shooting enemies or throwing grenades in third-person and healing yourself with medkits if you take damage. Thankfully, the shooting feels very precise and realistic and I very rarely, if ever, went to a piece of cover other than the one I'd chosen. I do think the bosses and other elite enemies often take too many bullets to kill (often resisting dozens of headshots from light machine guns while wearing hoodies or simple body armor, or sometimes charging at you with baseball bats just to force you out of cover with no concern for their safety).

Even if they're two or three levels above you they can easily rip through your health no matter how many times you hit them. However, if you’re playing missions close to your level with friends, have weapons that are suited to your level, and coordinate your abilities (which are all fun to use and range from stations that heal teammates to portable riot shields to machine gun turrets), bosses won't feel quite as frustrating to fight (most of the time, anyway; more on that later).

After each mission, you earn the usual experience points to level up your character and are also rewarded with weapons and gear that have rarities depending on their color (although a rarer item isn’t always better); a chance of granting you better armor damage; and other stats. A backpack, for example, can give you better armor and also increase your inventory space, while a pair of kneepads might increase your defense and stamina. You can also loot items from enemies, gather materials throughout the world that you can then use to craft the items you need, or buy them from stores inside the Base of Operations.

However, the Base of Operations starts out without any stores or other needed facilities in it, so you need to restore the building’s three wings (Medical, Tech, and Security) by completing story and side-missions related to each that award you Medical, Tech, or Security supplies. Each wing has ten upgrades that you can buy with these supplies, each of which then grants a new active ability as well as passive bonuses called perks and talents. Talents can be equipped in a set number of talent slots while perks are always equipped.

It’s a very cool progression system, not only because gaining that next upgrade makes you more powerful, but also because as each wing gets more upgrades, you see the visual impact of your efforts to take back Manhattan. For example, seeing smiling children playing after you unlock the Pediatrics upgrade to the Medical Wing is one of the things that makes up for the fact that you can only interact with civilians elsewhere by trading items with them (I didn’t bother with it most of the time, as this doesn’t give you much experience and sometimes, civilians trade a medkit for a scarf). It also creates a unique spin on an addictive gameplay loop of getting better weapons, gear, abilities, perks, and talents with which to kill stronger enemies which, in turn, gets you better stuff. It will be very familiar to people who have played Borderlands, Destiny, Diablo III, and the like, but if those players enjoyed it, The Division will get its hooks into them as it easily did with me.

The biggest weakness of the gameplay, in my opinion, is that you cannot gain experience if you replay story missions outside of what you earn killing enemies again, no matter what difficulty you set. Even though I feel that the variety of tactical options at your disposal and the excellent level design make up for the basic objective of “Go here, kill these enemies, fix a thing, kill more enemies, then fight the boss,” replaying them over and over again to grind out XP and loot could get boring after a while. However, being discouraged from doing so until level 30 (more on that later) and the fact that there are only 15 story missions in all means that even though you can challenge yourself to missions that take place at levels quite a bit higher than yours, or even help an extremely low level ally to level rapidly while he stands in the corner (as I did for my cousin once), you will be forced to complete side-missions more often than you'd like.

You do this by traveling to safe houses, which act as fast travel points, as well as places to refill your ammo, access items you’ve hidden in your player stash, and talk to certain characters who then assign you tasks. Sometimes they’re fun, such as when you discover one of the excellent ECHOs, which project a scene from the past in virtual reality that you can walk around in and sometimes have to investigate for clues. This varies the overall gameplay somewhat. More often they’re boring or frustrating, such as when you have to run between supply crates and protect them from being shot at for…reasons.

Speaking of running, even when you’re hunting for side-missions or collectibles you'll be spending an incredible amount of time doing nothing but walking from point A to B while encountering very few mobs or enemies. Although you can fast travel to your friends if they’re too far away from you, and PC players can use a hotkey to toggle auto running without pushing the W key endlessly, console users have left analog sticks that will be put to the test while you watch a very pretty screensaver of New York City roll by. In fact, I’ve been so bored while this is happening that I’ve listened to TV in the background using my Xbox One’s Snap picture in picture function, and had lengthy message conversations on my phone. My guess is that a lot of fluff could have been cut to provide a better moment-to-moment experience, but if you’re willing to tolerate some grinding, there are plenty of action-packed and exhilarating firefights to be had.

Story
 

Even though many people, myself included, will be able to overlook the unrealistic durability of enemies for the sake of fun, it doesn’t do the storytelling any favors that the setting is limited to being realistic with some near future gadgets, and this immediately conflicts with the gameplay. People who like grittier stories will be disappointed. The dry dialogue (outside of collectible audio diaries) that the mostly forgettable supporting characters bark at your mute protagonist tries to establish that tone, but is at odds with the villains that sometimes appear ripped out of a cheesy cartoon, with only one faction of enemies out of three having truly believable motivations. The ending is somewhat provocative, but the rest of the story is a barely plausible justification to grant you and your buddies unlimited power to summarily execute thousands of cookie cutter enemies.

This is a shame because I'm not kidding about The Division’s New York City being an amazing screensaver. I’ve taken plenty of screenshots of famous landmarks in the game that I instantly recognized from my visits to New York, and the in-game counterparts are spot on. Since it’s the dead of winter, you'll often see plenty of snow on the ground or falling, limiting visibility. Lighting both at day and night is some of the best I’ve ever seen in any form of media. The sound and music, from the report of gunfire to ambient wind, is fantastic. Every detail, from burnt-out cars to the folds of your character's jacket, has been crafted with extreme precision, no matter how much the plot (or the numerous glitches, which are more hilarious than game-breaking) destroys your immersion.

The Dark Zone
 

Fortunately, there’s another side to the game called the Dark Zone (DZ) that takes up about a third of the map. Once you enter this walled-off area through special checkpoints (that you can now fast travel to and enter without any loading screens, which is incredible) or secret entrances, you are told…nothing at all, which is a refreshing break from the sometimes overbearing structure of the main game (which I will refer to from here on out as the Light Zone or LZ, a name that my buddies and I came up with).

Within it, you’ll primarily encounter enemies that scale to your LZ level and thus get progressively harder the further north you travel. My favorite groups are ones that appear in subway tunnels, which makes for tense close-quarters engagements. However, the Dark Zone has its own separate experience system, which means that in order to explore the entire DZ, at some point you’ll be forced to go back and do activities in LZ. When you are in the Dark Zone, you can loot Dark Zone keys that allow you to open special loot chests as well as Dark Zone funds, the special currency of the area. Most of the time, though, you’ll be picking up gear and weapons from enemies that are often much better than anything you’ll find in the main game.

Most DZ chests are locked to DZ level 30; DZ funds can’t get you anything from the shops until you’re level 30 either, and there is no crafting. So I elected to pick up all my loot from enemies. The twist is that you can only carry eight pieces of DZ loot (nine with an upgrade) at a time; the reason being that this loot is contaminated, meaning that it needs to be carried out by helicopter at extraction zones scattered across the map. The other wrinkle is that enemies can appear at any time, some of whom could be other players, and kill you while you’re waiting to extract and steal loot, DZ keys, and DZ funds. This makes you lose experience and generally ruins your day. If you do manage to survive long enough to fill up your contaminated loot slots, get all your stuff out and have it sent to your stash, nothing in the rest of the game feels as rewarding!

This is where the chaotic PvP element of the game comes in. Unless you’re super experienced at the Dark Zone, don’t go in without at least one friend as you’ll be easy pickings for enemy players. It’s usually better, however, to deter groups of attackers by being in a group of four. You can also attack players at any time; however, if you do so, you and your whole group (if applicable) will be marked as Rogue Agents. Rogue Agents, depending on the number of people they kill, usually need to flee and survive for a period of time, as their location is visible to nearby players and they can be killed without penalty.

In theory, this whole system should make for incredibly tense gameplay all the time, as you nervously wait for the helicopter to arrive while keeping an eye out for the arrival of strange players, dropping a turret just in case they try anything stupid while they do suspicious jumping jacks (my favorite gesture you can perform in the game). It does work some of the time. For instance, my cousin, his friend amd I encountered four other people who allowed us to join them on their adventures as long as we took care not to accidentally or deliberately get in the way of their shots to force them to be Rogue. It felt like we were part of an unstoppable Wild West outlaw posse.

However, that leads to my problem with the DZ as a whole -- the Rogue system is horribly unbalanced, as many others have pointed out, even with recent patches. One time, my group of four killed four people in a row, then ran away and survived for several minutes until the timer ran out, only to get about 1000 DZ Funds for their troubles. Plus, the more you kill, the more XP, keys and funds you can lose, and if other players corner you, your survival timer resets if you fight back, which makes no sense to me. I understand that trolls killing random people all the time would be a bad idea, but this heavily discourages the most interesting part of the Dark Zone. This means that many times, I’ve spent hours on end in this mode without anyone attacking me once, leaving me and my friends to simply kill a handful of groups of slightly tougher enemies, extract the loot, and rinse and repeat, as in the Light Zone.

Endgame
 

Speaking of which, the level cap for overall experience is 30. Once you’ve completed all the story missions and reach level 30, the real game begins. At least, that’s what Ubisoft wants you to believe.

In reality, there are only two things you can do over and over in hopes of getting the highest end items with yet a third type of currency called Phoenix Funds. You can either replay up to three Daily Missions on Hard or Challenging Modes, or level up in the Dark Zone. Unfortunately, my main co-op partner and I tried the Challenging missions, but they have Level 32 enemies that gobble up your bullets for breakfast and annihilate you almost instantly, and no matter what point level you reach, you have to start the mission over again. It was difficult to find a satisfactory group of four to help us complete them so we both picked Hard Missions instead, which have level 30 enemies. There are very few of them, though, and they don’t award you with many Phoenix Credits compared to Challenging missions.

So off to the Dark Zone we both went. After all, the rank cap in the DZ is 99, so we were hopeful to find some good stuff along the way. However, any DZ area below the fourth zone (of six) at this point in the game has practically no loot of value, and trying to push up to gain Phoenix Credits resulted in us getting mopped up by unfair enemies over and over again. Plus, when I went to play on separate occasions with my cousin, we got demolished again and again, this time by Rogue Agents who were 20 DZ levels above us and had far superior weapons. This caused the interest level of my friends to wane, which made it even more difficult to group up; as I result, I haven’t played The Division more than a handful of times in the past two weeks after going through it almost nonstop since launch.

Conclusion
 

A great deal of time must be invested by both players and reviewers in order to understand the nuances, exhilarating highs, and infuriating lows of a game like The Division. In the meantime, Ubisoft will constantly change it in response to player feedback, which is why I've tried to take care not to explain every complaint that I had in the first month. The Division will have gained two free updates in April and May of this year followed by three paid expansions that will be part of a $40 season pass (with a possible second pass next year). I even considered delaying my review until after the April 12th free update, which is supposed to add a new four-player endgame activity called an Incursion, but any new content will most likely not change the essence of a game such as The Division or to whom it will appeal.

No matter how desperately the game wanted me to take its story seriously, for the past month I’ve enjoyed every minute of being able to sit back, curl up by my Xbox, and get lost for hours goofing off in The Division with my friends. In many respects, it’s unparalleled as a cooperative shooter/RPG hybrid. When it focuses on the intense and tricky gunfights against both enemies and players, it truly rewards your teamwork. Loot at its most enticing makes every annoying boss and all that boring walking worth it, resulting in incredible feelings of accomplishment for your group (now with triumphant stories to tell). It feels like it could be one of the greatest blockbuster games of this generation, the operative phrase being “could be,” if only its mistakes, such as Ubisoft’s insistence on padding out the experience (as they seem to do in so many of their games) with bland side-content and the inconsistent nature of the Dark Zone didn’t dampen the fun to be had at nearly every turn. As I’ve said, many of the problems will be fixed over time, but even the most dedicated groups of players may not be willing to see the potential underneath mountains of frustration, especially in the endgame.

If you, and more importantly your friends, want to give the game a try and are willing to persevere through to the end -- or at least put in an effort to do so without completing the endgame (as is my status now) -- I feel The Division is worth it, with a lot of caveats. 

 

Grade: B-
New York City is photorealistic
Satisfying shooting and looting
Excellent game to play with friends
 
 
Repetitive side-content and endgame
Unfairly difficult enemies at times
Wasted potential in the Dark Zone
 Logo
 
 
Trailer:
 
 
 
System Requirements
 
MINIMUM PC:
OS: Windows® 7, Windows 8.1, Windows 10 (64-bit versions only)
Processor: Intel Core i5-2400 | AMD FX-6100, or better
Memory: 6 GB RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 with 2 GB VRAM (current equivalent NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760) | AMD Radeon HD 7770 with 2 GB VRAM, or better - See supported List*
DirectX: Version 11
Network: Broadband Internet connection
Storage: 40 GB available space
 
 
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