The time has finally come. I have had my eyes on Tom Clancy’s: The Division since its first tiny reveal at E3 many years ago. I had a lot of hope pegged on it, something I tend to do with games when the promises are thick and fast in the early stages of development. Luckily for me, it turned out into the game that I was hoping for.
Division of joy
The Division has hooks for players on multiple levels. On your most basic level, killing things and exploration is fun. Learning abilities to keep your friends alive or turn an enemy into a panicked fireball makes the game fun and the weapons are a pleasure to use. Those with good aim are rewarded with the marksman class of weapons, which increases the bonus damage to headshots even further. This weapon is also great for targeting ordnance or weakpoints on enemies, causing them to ignite or explode. This doesn’t mean that the other weapons are not going to be handy to someone with good aim. Assault rifles and even LMGs with the correct mods and stats can be used with deadly accuracy even when you hold the trigger down and unleash a whole clip of lead. Being able to supress enemies so your friends can get in a good spot or move in close with a shotgun feels good, but nothing feels as amazing as interrupting an enemies action, especially when they are using grenades. Watching a soldier drop a grenade at his feet, or on his friends, instead of you, never gets old.
[pullquote_left]On another level, the game has the typical fare of Ubisoft game collectibles. Except this time, those collectibles matter.[/pullquote_left]This basic level is enhanced by you often being rewarded with loot, normally just for doing the most basic level of exploration and killing people. It feels good and that reward is immediate. You get an item and if it happens to be better than what you are currently using, you can equip it on the spot. Being able to change your gear, skills and mods in the field also allows you to stay in the field for longer, instead of breaking the momentum and returning to base every time you find something new. Having less downtime also means that groups tend to form and stay that way for a few missions on a trot with minimal frustration. Sure they get sorted nicely by the game so you can later listen to them in order, but it feels a lot more realistic that you don’t magically find them in order.
On another level, the game has the typical fare of Ubisoft game collectibles. Except this time, those collectibles matter. You aren’t collecting 100 little whatevers for the sake of having a tick on a page of “collect 100 whatevers”. Instead you are collecting little bits of story and this is where the real story of the game lies, the story of the people who live in this city, in the days just before the bio-attack and afterwards survived. Or in some cases, how they didn’t. Recorded phone calls, where people go from complaining about lectures to detailing their fight for survival in a crazy city, litter the city. Incident reports of the JTF dealing with scared, sick people and the riots first breaking out. Pictures taken by drones of the construction of what is now the Dark Zone, or of the massing of people around medical tents in the parks and a survival guide journal can all be found while exploring the city. The most chilling, however are the ECHO beacons that you discover. These collections of surveillance data and cloud information allow your computer to load a time capsule of an area, almost like a futuristic holographic recreation of a crime scene. Once loaded you can walk through them and hear people struggling for survival, or see enough of the beginning of someone being tortured to know how it ends. ISAC picks up extra information that adds to your knowledge of the outcome. Short information files pop up about people, listing how they died or where they are currently. It is haunting and intimate, without feeling voyeuristic. Sometimes you catch the last moments of someone’s life, or learn where they might have gone to survive. It makes you feel like you are a part of the city, like you belong in this place. To my pleasure, at least, the collectibles are also location-specific and not neatly ordered as you collect them. You might hear a phone call recording of the end of someone’s struggle, only later to find another recording of them in happier days, getting coffee before work. It is messy and confusing, but it makes the world feel a lot more real than when they play out in perfect order every time.
Division of details
Sadly the attention to detail doesn’t follow through. The NPCs of the game are the biggest culprit, with very few models to spread around. When it comes to fighting the enemies I don’t really mind it: for the most part they are an anonymous threat that needs to be killed before they kill me and knowing what mob looks like what allows for easy threat assessment and identification. It also fits well with the murder-hobo motif, where I, the nameless hero, have come to rain bullets and fury on everything. Besides for the big bosses, the small enemies are pretty much faceless nobodies anyway. When it comes to friendly forces, however the facsimiles get awkward. When reaching a new safe house there is a very high chance of the exact same NPC looking at you from behind a counter as the last one, just with a new voice and personality. The guy with mafia connections looks the same as the guy who wants to help you clear your chakras, who looks just like the weapons vendor in your base of operations. The 70-year-old veteran looks the same as the no-nonsense fireman.
The low model count isn’t the only issue with the NPCs. They tend to, out in the world, spout way too much garbage way too often. Standing with a group of JTF to defend them you will hear them constantly shouting about enemies, often the wrong group of enemies, about to attack. It breaks immersion and seems like an odd thing to be wrong across the entire game. Hearing two people almost simultaneously warn about Cleaners attacking and Rikers attacking with a good chance of the enemies belonging to a completely different faction just seems off in a world that otherwise thrives on details and minimal recycling of locations.
The most annoying part in all this is that your character is a silent protagonist. Often big conversations happen over your head, without any response or emotion from the character. In fact in one scene where a character was chewing out the hero and Faye Lau, the defacto leader of the Division agents in NY, the camera blurs out your character’s face, which is in the background of a shot, to show more detail on Lau’s face. It is sad because it could have been used to take a game from a pretty solid place to a tier all above it. Your character never so much as loses a step or flinches when walking past grisly remains of JTF soldiers. Passing through a charnel house with thousands of bodies in plastic bags doesn’t even illicit a gasp. For a story that is based on the premise of you living in New York when “you” are activated (because “you”, the player, are the hero), you know nothing about the place and care nothing for the carnage around you. This is just one of the scenes that you will find while exploring the world. You can run right past it without missing a step. So much detail gets put into these environments, and all it would take is an extra line or two of dialogue every now and then to really make it engaging and engrossing.
Division of players
[pullquote_right]It reminds me of my first time doing a heroic dungeon in WoW. “How hard can it be?” Quickly followed by death and tears of shame.[/pullquote_right]At this point, I would like to point out that the game doesn’t really live up to the promise of being a single player game. Sure at early levels it is easy enough to kill everything in encounters and the like but eventually you have to join a group for a mission. Even if you don’t do those missions, eventually you will reach a point where your gear just isn’t keeping up with what you are facing and you can’t take on some encounters alone until you get some better loot. For people without a full friend list, the matchmaking system works like a charm for missions and for the majority of the time players have worked together to beat the mission before quietly leaving the group again. But, you are much better off if you can find a friend to do a few encounters with in the world. The game just works so much better with another person. The possibility of being revived when cornered by a shotgun-toting brigand is much less frustrating than respawning in a safe house 300 metres away from where you were fighting. Working together and using skills that complement each other plays a lot differently from the skill and gear selection you would use when playing solo. Instead of going for a one-size fits all strategy you can really focus on dishing out damage, while someone else draws the threat and hides behind smart cover and a third goes for healing and blinding enemies. It isn’t until you take on your first level 30 challenging mission that you realise how important your stats are when the tables turn and the enemies have crazy amounts of health and damage. It reminds me of my first time doing a heroic dungeon in WoW. “How hard can it be?” Quickly followed by death and tears of shame.
This also applies to the Dark Zone. This place is made for four man parties and any group smaller than that is going to have a hard time, unless the people in the DZ are friendly. In most cases they are, because the rewards in the long term for going rogue just aren’t worth the losses. Hopefully that will be balanced as things go on, but even without touching the PVP in this game, the PVE is more than enough content to keep you coming back for more.
‘This all sounds a lot like Destiny!’
When looking in on the game you might say that it has a lot in common with Destiny. But it scratches the real itch that I thought Destiny would: namely having good loot. Loot in The Division takes a lot of cues from Diablo. In fact if you know who the Mystic is, the lovely lady who takes your gold in exchange for rerolling a stat on your item, you will recognise her (well, her function at least) in the recalibration station. This Tech wing upgrade lets you reroll one stat, then giving you three choices of new stats, or allowing you to keep the old one. Combine that with item levels and working out how to unlock the various talents in your gear (or which ones you can do without) becomes important and suddenly you will find a use for the stash: hanging onto gear that you might want later, or with a different group in mind.
There is a lot to do in The Division, without even touching the Dark Zone hitting max level took me 28 or so hours. There is still lots to do in the city even though my base has been fully upgraded. I have played for 35 hours and I feel like there is still so much more for me to see and even though the story is done, I want more of the game. This is really like Diablo all over again. Does the game have a long tail? Will I be doing this in several months’ time? I am not sure. All I know is, while writing this I had a serious desire to go do a few daily missions and grab the remaining collectibles. For research you know. Totally just for research. I mean “Hey my memory is feeling fuzzy, what was that one place called?” See you in New York.