Death can’t stop capitalism. Though airport-bookstore-novellist par excellence Tom Clancy may have recently shuffled off this mortal coil and up to the Big Tension-Filled Whitehouse Briefing Room In The Sky, the late author was never shy about renting his name out to things he didn’t have much to do with creating. So while Tom Clancy’s The Division – Ubisoft’s major bid for a slice of the modern MMO market – might logically seem like it should be the last major new media franchise to have the words “Tom Clancy’s” tacked to the front of it, we can probably expect that particular apostrophe to continue to be deployed in future, as now more than ever, the name is a brand rather than a bloke.
Thus, anyone who’s been keeping up with previous Clancy games (or books, or their film adaptations) will have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Tom Clancy’s The Division. Tapping into some of ol’ Tom’s favourite themes (think: world crises, technical fetishism, and a deep fascination with /carnal passion for the American military industrial complex), the game tells an “It could happen tomorrow!” story of a New York City devastated by the outbreak of a variation on the smallpox virus. With countless thousands dead and existing societal structures overwhelmed and collapsing into chaos in the city, the player steps into the snow-filled streets as an agent of the titular Division – a secret, plain clothes government force that’s been hiding amongst the more ordinary citizenry (for reasons), preparing to ensure the continuity of government in just such an apocalyptic emergency. Striding into New York in sensible jacket and shoes, you must restore order – and ensure death doesn’t stop capitalism.
The long-awaited and much hyped title has come out of the gate incredibly strongly sales-wise, and initial server teething issues (and laptop queuing problems) seem to have been ironed out pretty quickly. So how’s it all playing?
At its most basic gameplay level, The Division (sorry Tom, gotta save some space here) operates as an efficient third-person cover shooter in a mostly-modern technology setting. Armed with a couple of guns and a sidearm back-up, you explore and fight your way around a huge sandbox map of New York streets, interiors and rooftops. There are mobs to exterminate at street level, but the real meat of the game lies in the story missions or “dungeons”, which take you into iconic real-world locations in the Big Apple to eliminate troublemakers, restore essential services, and investigate the causes of the outbreak.
Ubisoft’s hugely detailed recreation of New York is perhaps the game’s key asset, a stunning achievement of virtual cartography. Locked in the midst of a harsh winter, the city feels truly huge in scope. Strewn with rubbish, abandoned vehicles, and the leftovers of the overwhelmed government response to the outbreak, the streets are dirty and desperate. However, with streetlights shining through a snowy mist, or festive lights glowing in a public park, it can also be eerily beautiful, and the day/night and snow cycles regularly brings fresh perspectives to the landscape. Every street and major interior has been painstakingly created, and little visual stories are everywhere, so if you want to read the extensive PR guff on the informational notice board at a construction site, you can. Even in an era of studios trying to top each other with their dedication to doing the geographical hard yards, it’s an impressive feat, and one that very much grounds the game in something very much like our own reality.
This is where the game runs into a couple of unusually discomforting issues, though. The first stems from the MMO mechanics. You will often run into enemies of a higher level than you, and there’s really no other way for the game to deal with this situation other than to make said enemies basically impervious to gunfire. In a game like Destiny that deals with fictional aliens and space wizards, this reminder of the game’s mechanical need to cater to players at different stages can easily be mentally waved aside. But in The Division, it can result in an ostensibly ordinary human beings that are somehow capable of brushing off two full clips of bullets to the head. This makes irate guys wielding baseball bats a legitimate threat to a highly trained paramilitary agent armed with an MP5. It’s just a bit weird, and there’s basically nothing to do but play until you (mostly) get used to it.
The second issue is the game’s political implications, which can’t help but become a factor in a game essentially set in our own reality. Necessarily forced to come up with people for players to shoot, the creative team has settled on a mix of the familiar, the outlandish, and the often uncomfortable, as Division agents operate as judge, jury and executioner over looters and “rioters”. One of the first missions in the tutorial area of the game tasks you with stopping people who have stolen food (food!). You can instinctively look for the “talk to them” button all you like, but there’s no way to complete your mission except to shoot them all dead. It’s true that heavily armed enemy civilians don’t hesitate to shoot first, unless the player – who to all external appearances is another heavily armed civilian – opts to get in before them, but this hostility can feel like part of the game’s many sticky-outy attempts to provide moral justification for the player’s rampage.
Clearly aware of their scenario’s potential iffy-ness, the game’s writers are often at pains to assure you of The Division’s ultimate righteousness, because you can see the writing straining at the seams to try and convince you that you’re the goodie. Enemy dialogue barks specifically clarify that they’ll be using their stolen shipment of precious morphine solely to get irresponsibly high, and a radio DJ talking about escaped prisoner faction the Rikers explains that hey sure, not all people in prison are terrible monsters, but all the not-terrible ones will have responsibly gone home (so feel free to fire away, right?).
Elsewhere, the city’s sanitation workers go full Batman-villain as a collective and decide they’re going to burn sick people alive en masse, while half-hearted comments about how a lack of oversight is bad show that discussions on it all clearly took place over a mind-map covered whiteboard at Ubisoft at some point. Even so, there’s no getting around the fact that the game often comes down to the player lethally enforcing property rights. An example of sort of the uniquely video game-esque disconnects The Division routinely throws up: a typical side mission might involve gunning down a bunch of looters outside an electronics store and then heading inside, opening a box, and then hitting the square button when prompted to “Loot All”.
Of course, just how much the basic set-up bothers you, how much the in-game attempts to justify it work, or the extent to which you go “Never mind, it’s just fiction / a game” will all be down to individual reaction, but in so clearly courting plausibility in many of its aspects, the game seems likely to provoke such reflections. Fortunately for any players that may be having minor moral quandaries about whether a game spent resisting the Division might somehow seem like a better idea, games are very good (perhaps uniquely good) at making us forget about the context of what we’re doing due to the amount of fun we’re having doing it, and here The Division is on much more solid ground.
Finding good cover is key to the gunplay, and fortunately a post-crisis New York provides; you’ll spend a lot of time in The Division hunkered down behind car bonnets, office desks, and concrete barriers. The game makes getting into cover easy the majority of the time, and also offers a “cover to cover” move that allows you to roadie-run or otherwise traverse to a new position while keeping your head down at the touch of a button. Combat falls into the familiar cover-shooter rhythm of staying down until it’s time to snap off a few shots, before moving around enough to ensure you don’t get rushed or flanked, while damage numbers keep you visually appraised of enemy health levels, incoming grenade damage zones (dive roll is your friend), and so on. Enemy AI is fairly basic, but knows enough to rapidly turn you into mincemeat if you stay out in the open too long, so the run-and-gun approach seldom pays dividends.
There are a few complaints; lobbing a grenade has somehow bizarrely ended up almost an exercise in inventory management rather than an instinctual tactical combat option, and you’ll likely find yourself biffing them out like Forrest Gump boxes of chocolates, never sure of what you’re gonna get. Melee combat is hopeless, with your character’s meek and clumsy gun-butt flail offering about as much stopping power as slapping someone in the face with an unfolded A4 sheet of lined refill, and occasionally your Division agent gets a bit confused about what they can and can’t take cover behind (almost never a cover option, somewhat counterintuitively: trees). A lack of mission variation gameplay wise (if not in surroundings or story) is also evident and reinforced by the samey nature of enemy types – something that’s starting to look like a bit of a trap to avoid if possible for MMO shooters coming out of the gate. Minor bugs are also fairly commonplace, and although most are of the amusing / harmless variety, you may find your Division agent embedded in a bookshelf, suddenly unable to open loot chests, or even locked out of progressing through story missions.
None of these annoyances overwhelm the basic satisfaction of most combat encounters, though – at least the ones with enemies around your level, anyway. It’s when playing with (up to three) friends that the action really takes off, with things becoming even more tactical and unlocked player skills such as health dispensing stations, revives and the ability to reinforce and place cover all coming into play. Moving up from cover to cover as your mate keeps the head of a distant sniper down with suppressing fire feels genuinely badarse, and there’s satisfaction and bragging rights to be earned with a last second rescue of a buddy from the deprivations of one of those bullet-sponges toting sports equipment. Hooking up with friends online for missions or to casually patrol the streets looking for trouble has been made commendably easy, and even if you’re a Nigel No-Mates, what seem like efficient matchmaking services are always fairly handy.
Back at base, your character progression is tied into a couple of things. Firstly there’s the traditional level-gain-through-experience aspect, which offers access to more very samey real-world guns and body armour with increasingly large numbers displayed over them. You can also try crafting high-number guns for yourself, if you can be bothered fiddling through the various menus and options needed to achieve optimal stats. Secondly, you’ll also be remodelling The Division’s HQ, which is divided into three wings (Medical, Tech and Security) that can be upgraded by collecting their wing-specific resources from story missions and street “encounters”, with each upgrade in turn leading to a wider range of available combat skills and passive perks. Nicely, these can be flipped around essentially in the fly, which means you can give everything a go and don’t have to be worried about getting locked into a skill tree you later decide is not for you. But there’s a third area of progression as well; your Dark Zone ranking, a separate measure tied into your experiences in the game’s PvP area, where probably its most interesting ideas are to be found lurking.
Speaking story-wise, the Dark Zone is an isolated area of Manhattan heavily infected by the contagion and utterly abandoned by all authorities. It’s home to most of the game’s toughest enemies and sweetest loot, but there’s a catch; having secured some good gear in tough combat against the AI enemies in the Dark Zone, players can’t simply walk out with it, but have to call in a helicopter to take it away for decontamination. This not only brings more AI enemies in like a moth to a flame, but also lights up on the map of every player in the zone – and with PvP fully possible anywhere in the zone, any of them might well decide to gank you, take your hard-earned gear and slap it on the end of that rope to claim for themselves.
Or they might not! Inter-player hostility is not a given in the Dark Zone, for firing unprovoked on your fellow Division agents marks you as a rogue agent. This lights you up on everyone’s map and puts a bounty on your head for a time limit commensurate with the horror-level of your crimes. Throw another ingenious addition into this volatile mix; get close enough to another player group in the game world and you’ll actually tap into their comms, allowing you to promise them of your peaceful intentions or overhear them plotting your imminent murder.
It’s a combination of systems that offers some amazing highs and lows – humanity on display. Strangers band wordlessly together to fight off aggressors and try to ensure everyone’s gear gets to the chopper, war bands of high-level trolls sweep through to decimate lower level players for the sheer schadenfreude of it, spontaneous posses form to exact revenge on the annoying group that’s stolen gear one too many times, and bloody massacres can break out over someone accidentally pressing the button that raises their character’s gun. You never quite know what you’re going to get – experiences can range from the miserably frustrating to the triumphantly exhilarating, but are rarely uninteresting.
That’s just as well, as the Dark Zone seems designed to be a big part of The Division’s end game experience, which otherwise so far is mostly daily challenge missions that you can grind for better gear. The “challenge” here is really only provided by the sheer number of tough enemies the mission will throw at you, and again it quickly all starts feeling a bit familiar – the same maths with larger numbers. Again hampered by its concessions to realism, the game is also forced to put its faith in the fact that players will get pretty excited about finally getting a slightly better pair of kneepads, or a personality-free shotgun that does more damage than their old personality-free shotgun. The grind / loot loop thus seems a bit stale perhaps even earlier than you might expect ( Destiny Year One, anyone?), and it will be absolutely essential that the April release of the game’s first raid provides both a bit of variety to the game’s patterns of gunplay and some genuinely distinct and cool clobber to (literally) shoot for.
The Division seems like a relatively solid title in the early going, but has quite a few question marks hanging over its long term appeal. Basic gameplay is decent, most things work as they’re supposed to, the Dark Zone is a great idea, and playing with friends is fun. But already those snowy New York streets are starting to seem a bit overly familiar, and the game’s pseudo realistic setting works against it in a number of ways. As such, we are going to wait until this month’s raid content drops before we settle on a score for this review. In the meantime, if you’ve been playing The Division so far, let us know how you’re finding it in the comments.
◆ Note: Score TBC following a playthrough of this month's raid content