Is there a more appropriate on-the-nose name for Ubisoft's latest game than The Division? The latest in a long line of Tom Clancy-branded titles from Ubisoft is likely to be one of the most divisive titles the company has delivered in some time.
Before you even get into the game, there's years of hype and hopes. The Division was one of the very first "next gen" games ever shown, and it helped set the tone for what people were expecting from this generation of consoles.
And then there's its juxtaposition against Activision's Destiny, another MMO-influenced console title with lots of hype and noise surrounding it.
Does The Division stand up to the hype? Should we even factor the hype in? Let's wade in and figure out just what The Division is and whether or not it's worth checking out.
I think the first thing that I should offer before we really dive into what works and doesn't in The Division is that I've been having fun. The game has its share of odd design decisions and problems, but I know that when I sit down to play the game I experience more enjoyment than frustration.
That, to me, is the testament to whether or not a game is worthwhile. It's a super straightforward, perhaps overly simplified, way to look at a game; but, The Division is a massive and thickly layered game. My immediate personal impression, though, is that it's fun. I enjoy the gameplay cycle, the act of playing with friends works well and the basic premise of the world is one that I find interesting enough to warrant inspection.
How about you? On a macro level, is The Division fun in its current state?
I really didn't think I was going to like this game much up until a couple months ago. The multiplayer's main hook and all that weight had me convinced the game was going to be a dud.
But you know what? It's really fun. I'm finding myself thinking about it when I'm not playing it. Yeah, it has issues, but there's a fun core at the center of the game, and there's actually a lot to do right out of the box.
Okay, fun established. Let's talk about what makes it that way, though. Honestly, there are a lot of systems in place that I'm not really a fan of.
I dislike the MMO style of dealing damage that's present here. It's more like a reduction of health based on stats in a way that, say, World of Warcraft might employ. Sure, headshots lead to critical hits, but a game that's so based in realism (which it constantly breaks) should enjoy more specific damage attributes.
I also dislike the repetitive nature of quests. How many antennae did we reactivate? How many JTF officers did we defend? How about those supply crates where attackers would, seriously, shoot at the supplies rather than steal them?
What's really interesting to me here is that I have fun with and look forward to playing The Division in spite of all these things. The ambiance, the loose narrative (which is just enough to keep interest while being too tenuous for much else), the amazing soundtrack, the loot system and the multiplayer all link together to make the game fun in spite of itself.
Let's tackle those one at a time. Realism is simultaneously one of the game's biggest strengths and also one of the things most holding it back. At every turn, the game wants you to be impressed by how realistic it is while throwing things at you that shatter the illusion constantly. The combat is just one element of that.
The Division is one of the most beautiful games so far this generation. From the lighting and weather effects to the puddles, the detailed reproduction of New York City, there's so much here that creates a convincing picture. If you just walked around in the game without fighting anything, the illusion would never break.
But then you have to unload 40 sniper rounds into a guy's head because he is, apparently, very well armored. You have to run the same mission over and over in different districts. NPCs shout that one type of enemy is coming only to have another kind pop around the corner instead.
Even the story feels like a facade of reality. You get these sparse moments where you're suddenly watching a cutscene of a character saying a bunch of jargony, jokey dialogue about how serious and dire everything is, and then you'll go for hours without any sort of story beyond the radio communications and audio logs. It contributes to the "theme park" feeling I often get from games like these.
The realism is as responsible for my jaw dropping as it is for my eyes rolling.
Despite all that, I actually like the theme park. There's a reality disconnect when you shoot a guy in the head and he turns around and fires back, sure, but with these games so often set in science fiction and fantasy worlds, the realistic setting is, at the very least, a change of pace.
I agree with all of that, quite honestly. The Division's odd shot at realism moved this from a very serious game to one that I enjoyed more playing with friends while having a beer. The whole setting of a post-viral outbreak New York and the lawless land is super interesting, but the way the game handles all of that is very ho-hum at times. I didn't mind putting my brain on hold just to enjoy the loot cycle.
Which, when the system of crafting and looting works well, feels great. I know we often would go out of our way to find crates (this game's loot chests, basically) and do side missions in order for a better shot at gear. As it stands now, the game is pretty stingy with its quality loot, though you have a better shot of getting it in The Dark Zone.
Upgrading your base works well enough, too. Each wing opens unique abilities, perks and talents and all that affects your basic player class… which you can change on the fly. I appreciate that, too. Making an agent that can do all things instead of an agent that can only do one thing really well feels more natural to me as a player.
With every compliment comes a complaint, though. The game's stinginess can get annoying. Learning its UI and systems when upgrading, crafting and managing your character? Also annoying.
Take, for instance, this whole contamination thing. You find masks in the game that are actual pieces of gear. They have unique stats. You only put them on when you walk into a contaminated area, but their stats affect your character regardless of whether or not you're wearing them. These contaminated areas have level requirements. The assumption for most players is that the level of your mask dictates whether or not you can access an area without getting infected and dying.
Not so! The level requirement for these contaminated areas is actually something you unlock as a perk by upgrading the Medical wing of your base of operations. It's written at the bottom of an upgrade screen within, like, two or three menu pages in one very specific part of the game that can only be accessed at a single location in the open world.
Things like this, I found annoying.
Absolutely. This game depends heavily on what I call tribal knowledge to transmit even basic gameplay information, and that's a huge problem. If I'd somehow played through this game entirely alone, I would've missed out on learning quite a few things that I picked up from playing with not only you but with other friends and players. Huge things are just thrown into a side menu.
There's an overwhelming amount of information that you could possibly consume in The Division, and while it's all there, it's so poorly and inconsistently organized that it's almost unmanageable.
There's a rather prominent list of missions you can browse through to see if you've missed out on completing anything. If you use that as your guide to play, though, you'll end up wandering into a level 30 zone when you're level 10. Figuring out what your stats actually mean is difficult if not impossible. My backpack has a 214 point rating. What does that mean? I know 214 is better than 197, but how?
But all of that could be fixed. I'm willing to forgive some of it because the underlying systems that generate all this information work pretty well.
This game had, by and large, a smooth launch. It wasn't perfect, but the game has spent far more time up than down since it released, and it's already had a big patch to improve some issues.
Getting games together hasn't been difficult at all. Even if there are some issues with scaling that we'll get into later, actually getting into a game together has consistently been easy, and it's worked every time. Once we're in, connections are solid and it's very rare that it feels like lag or glitches are affecting the core game.
As compared with a couple years ago with games like Assassin's Creed Unity and The Crew, The Division hardly feels like a Ubisoft game in that respect.
Well, let's jump into that scaling discussion now, actually.
So, you can totally play through The Division alone. I wouldn't recommend it, but it can be done.
I wouldn't recommend it for two reasons, and they are intrinsically linked. One, the game is a lot more fun together. Two, if you play alone too much you'll increase the gap between you and your friends. That gap becomes problematic in larger groups.
Eric was constantly a few levels ahead of me. When rolling as a tandem, Eric and I were able to mostly clear missions without much of an issue. The game basically threw enemies closer to Eric's level than mine at all times, regardless of the level of the mission itself. We could be playing a mission meant for level 10 players, but it would offer level 16 enemies as Eric was a level 17. In a way, that's nice, because The Division allows players the chance to tackle things more frequently.
Scale up a bit more, and we found problems. The game gets much harder in groups of three and four, and the level gap becomes massively more unbearable. With three people, me being a few levels below them (and I mean like three or four levels, not 10), I was far and away the weakest link. Even worse, my friends went down as often as I did regardless of the fact that they were so much higher than I was. There were some enemies that one-or-two-shotted us, something that players can rarely do to NPCs.
The game works just fine when players of a very close level stick together. Spread out at all, and The Division really shows its cracks.
Yeah. I have a hard time recommending The Division as a single-player game. There's much too much that falls apart, even if it can work without friends.
The story doesn't hold up the game on its own, some of the missions feel like they're built for two or three players. The game is going to be compared against Destiny and while many of those comparisons aren't apt, this is one where it is. While The Division definitely has more to do out of the gate, it's just more fun to do together.
But as you said, doing it together requires that everyone be nearly the same level. The game should be scaling players up or down to match their allies. It's so easy to get into a game with your friends, but when the game quickly shows itself to be impossibly difficult because of a level gap, it doesn't matter how easy it is to party up. If my friend's 10 levels ahead of us and we want him to play with us, the game shouldn't immediately jump all the enemies up to his level.
This is something that can get fixed, but right now it's a very real issue with the game that's going to cause splits in friend groups. You almost have to have characters that you keep around just to play with certain people so that you can keep playing with them.
Finally, The Division features a massive space in its map dedicated to what they call the Dark Zone. Here, players will find better loot and more difficult missions, but that comes at the risk of PvP.
Loot must be transferred out of the Dark Zone by helicopter, and that means calling one in and waiting. During that waiting time, other players can turn into rogue agents by shooting you and attempting to steal your loot for their gains.
I played the Dark Zone a bit at a preview event, but not so much during review. Eric, however, played it more.
Eric, the Dark Zone, explain.
The Dark Zone is the game's biggest hook, and what has the most potential to keep players coming back. In the story, it's supposed to be where the virus hit hardest, forcing the military to abandon it. So you can pick up the best gear and fight the hardest enemies. Later into the story, the game introduces the idea that there are rogue agents, agents who have given up on the Division's intended goal, and in the Dark Zone any agent can go rogue.
So you have this neat idea: a dangerous place where any ally could be a potential enemy. At the outset, this wasn't really working, because the risk of going rogue wasn't matched by the reward. That's already, just weeks after launch, changing for the better.
Even without the PVP component, the Dark Zone is still a lot of fun. I spent a few hours in there with different friends and the enemies climb in difficulty enough that you really have to concentrate and be on your game to survive.
The PVP component is fun because it adds a layer of tension. When you see another player, you don't know what they're going to be like. They might outright attack you. They might fight alongside you and then disappear. They might, if they're super cool, try to jump into your line of fire. It means you have to be on your guard.
The game also sports proximity chat, meaning that those you're near can hear you talking if you're wearing a headset (unless you're in an Xbox Live or PSN party instead of the game's grouping mechanism). While this game is definitely not DayZ, there's definitely room for moments like the ones that game is so infamous for.
It's an interesting hook, and not only does it mostly work, Ubisoft is being aggressive about making sure it works instead of just leaving it to languish.
Ultimately, I think The Division is a good game. We've avoided comparing it too much to Destiny so far, but I think it's fair to bring Bungie's multiplayer effort into the discussion as we wrap up our thoughts here.
The Division is a lot like Destiny, for sure. But the parallel I'd like to draw between the two relates to The Division's potential future and the betterment of Destiny.
If Ubisoft treats The Division like Bungie treats Destiny, this game could wind up incredible. If they listen to fan feedback, adopt a posture of adjustment, offer great content that reworks core elements on a regular basis and stay away from negative drama, The Division could be one of the best things Ubisoft has ever made.
Think it will get there, Eric?
I want to go back to what we opened with for a moment to answer that question. The Division is in a unique position because it was shown off way too early, and it set the tone for the promises of this console generation, and it started the trend of what many gamers see as broken promises.
The game is never going to live up to the hype of those early staged demos, and anyone looking for that is going to be disappointed.
If you can shed those notions, though, what Ubisoft has given us is remarkably close to those promises, considering. This is one of the best-looking games around.
Fighting the flamethrower-toting Cleaners in blizzard conditions, blinded by the snow and fire, is an awesome experience. Wandering the streets of New York and hearing gunshots echoing off the buildings is haunting.
Teaming up with your friends or even random gamers to go through missions cooperatively or to risk your neck in the Dark Zone is fun, fast, and most importantly, it works.
There's stuff to fix here, and a few disconnects that are going to put off certain players, like the realistic guns and unrealistic damage model, but not nearly as much as I expected.
Ubisoft has built an excellent base to work off of. The Division is worth checking out right away, and its future seems bright right now, and time will tell if that's true or not. For now, though?
Disclaimer: We each received review copies of The Division at launch from Ubisoft. We played the game on the PC and PlayStation 4.