Having first debuted to rapturous applause at E3 back in 2013, The Division has been in development and in turn on many people’s radar for some time. Billed initially as an always-online open world RPG from the Ubisoft Massive team but never really fully explained, the launch of The Division is welcomed for a number of reasons. Now we can get our hands on it to see exactly what Ubisoft were aiming for and we can also now confirm if all those comparisons to Destiny were warranted. There is also the small matter of the ever present ‘downgrade’ term which is thrown about with gay abandon these days, partially (in recent times) due to a Ubisoft game in Watchdogs and the huge disappointment that came along with the release of that title.
So here we are, many years have passed, the hype has built to a fever pitch since Christmas 2015 came and went...is it any good? To get it out of the way early, it’s the best open world game that Ubisoft has ever made and arguably one the best online multiplayer set-ups ever released.
You play as an Agent, starting in Brooklyn following a pandemic of epic proportions triggered by some unsavoury sorts infecting dollar bills with a virus shortly before every-one goes bat shit crazy on Black Friday. A nice piece of writing given how ridiculous Black Friday has become in the US, and to a lesser extent here in the UK. As you enter what has quickly degraded into pretty much a warzone, factions rule the streets and innocent people are caught in the middle. Following the small Brooklyn (Tutorial area) you are given a brief introduction to the base mechanics and airlifted to the core area, Manhattan. Team up with three friends or venture in solo, it’s up to you to take the city back and help the people.
Once in Manhattan the game begins to show its various offerings, mission and activity-wise as well as beginning to showcase the lovingly created environment that you will be spending quite some time in. Graphically it’s great stuff, with a mixture of improvements and a handful of minor downgrades from the E3 demo which wowed all those years ago. Incidental animations and interactions litter the streets, along with some swooping dynamic weather (mainly snow) which can sweep across a level at any time completely obscuring your vision. Movement is for the most part a steady 30fps and the animations are delightful as you pop in and out of cover moving from objective to objective. Complementing the sumptuous visuals is the rather superb sound design which runs through everything, from the tense battle shouting and explosions to the simple practice of breaking down a piece of armour; it’s all very well done and wraps around the visuals to form a striking audio graphical experience for which the team at Ubi Massive deserve a ton of credit for.
The game is broken up into a series of long(ish) core missions, side missions and a series of encounters which include such things as hostage rescue, virus data collection, fixing comms uplinks, disrupting arms deals and more. Absolutely everything can be tackled solo or with up to three friends and the functionality for achieving cooperative play is seamless on both consoles - there is even the option to matchmake the core missions or if you want to find some people to run around with, you can search for buddies in any of the multiple zones respective safehouses. On top of all of this there is the rather interesting (tense mainly) area known as The Dark Zone. Within this area roam high level bosses rather than the normal cannon fodder which drop arguably the best loot that can be acquired within the game. There is a catch though, well two technically - firstly all the items are contaminated so have to be airlifted out, and you guessed it, this takes time. Worse still The Dark Zone is the only area that allows PvP combat, thus creating some of the most tense moments the game has to offer. Will this guy who’s just wandered up shoot me and steal my stuff? Most likely he will in our experience, so watch your back here. It’s not traditional PvP, which may disappoint some, but the way in which it’s implemented, the risk and reward aspect and the inherent lack of trust in people online do indeed make for some of the most unique online multiplayer experiences out there.
The RPG mechanics inherent in the game are surprisingly deep and with a full year’s worth of content already planned you can see why this is the case, the developers intention is that you will be playing this for some time. Upgrades are provided as a result not of levelling but of base upgrades, levelling tends to influence the quality of the items looted or dropped along the way, but the core skills come from opening up the various different areas of your medical, tech and security wings within the central base. The resources to acquire such upgrades come from the various encounters which unlock at the various safe houses dotted around the map - if the concern was there won’t be much content (a la Destiny), then rest easy, there is plenty to do! Upgrade variation in itself is plentiful and if you manage to get a squad of four with complementary skills and weapon buffs then you will tear through even the toughest main mission.
On the subject of content, the ‘end game’ is something which people throw around, often forgetting that the bulk of people who purchase the game might actually want to take their time and enjoy all the game, not just the ‘end game’. At this time there is the ability to play missions again on Hard or challenging difficulty for vastly superior loot, as well as the hot area that is The Dark Zone. Ubisoft have announced three paid expansion packs along with two free packs, the first of which is due in a month or so.
It’s not all high fives and back slaps however, it’s for the most part damn good fun but at the same time held back from being outstanding by a series of minor issues. Firstly and arguably most importantly it’s a slightly different beast later on in the levelling up to level thirty when playing alone, becoming extremely tricky and providing a very grindy feeling the higher you go. Matchmaking is available for all the main missions and of course you can hook up with friends for the best experience. The game really lights up when you have a full squad of friends all with complementary skills and this is really essential for the harder challenge that the end game presents. Repetition is the bane of games of this nature and The Division is not excluded from this. Mainly due to the sheer size and scale of the map and associated activities (there is a good twenty five to thirty hours of content even before the end game and excluding the Dark Zone), fatigue can set in as you progress. There is some variety for sure but maybe not enough for some as you do your twentieth encounter in search of that next level.
As well as the above we’ve experienced minor lag and some frame rate drops on both consoles as well as a handful of rather random glitches which include getting stuck in the scenery, not being able to leave a closed elevator and falling through the floor endlessly on a certain early mission. Having said all of this though some slack should be granted for a game that is this big and is always online. Cast your minds back to a myriad of online-only games that have gone far, far worse than that of The Division and you find it in your heart to forgive these minor inconsistencies, plus, it’s bloody fun!
The Division is an accumulation of gameplay mechanics and online features that some developers have been threatening to put together for years but haven’t managed to pull off. It’s not perfect but it’s one of the best online titles ever released mixing solid cover shooting mechanics, a fantastically realised setting, lots of RPG mechanics, sweet, sweet loot and that always-online goodness for you and your mates to get lost in.