The Division has made a fair few promises since its announcement in 2013. When Ubisoft and its Massive studio pulled the curtain back on The Division several E3s ago, they promised a new kind of game in the Tom Clancy universe that married extensive online multiplayer support with a unique, beautifully rendered modern-day New York City setting. But as years came and went without a release and delays piled up, doubts collected at The Division’s feet as to whether it could actually deliver on any of the hype. The good news is that in many ways, The Division executes well enough on the parts of its identity that would seem the hardest to get right in an open world. But The Division’s slavish adherence to the drip-feed mentality of massively multiplayer online role-playing games makes it feel like much less than it could be.
The Division is set weeks after a weaponized pathogen called the Green Poison ravages New York City. The titular organization is a government sleeper agency called from the denizens of the city to try to restore order and investigate the cause of the plague but, this being a video game, things go bad quickly. Left to pick up the pieces, it’s your job to restore the Joint Task Force of local law enforcement and medical services and try to bring hope back to the people of NYC. You primarily do this through shooting people. I’ll get this out of the way now. There are a few things you do in The Division that don’t involve guns — cool augmented reality tech allows for in medias res snapshots of events during the outbreak and provide little mysteries to follow, and sometimes you’ll help citizens in need on the street. But these scenarios are pretty underdeveloped, and the gross majority of The Division is spent running from one place in its open-world Manhattan where you shoot people to the next. This isn’t unusual for a video game, and I’m not going to slam Ubisoft Massive and its partners for it unnecessarily. I’m just saying, there’s not a lot of variety here in that regard.
Thankfully, there’s a lot to like in The Division‘s shooting, and when combined with some varied terrain and a lot of differences in verticality, the foundation of a good third-person shooter is present. This is more impressive for two reasons: First, The Division is an open-world game, a genre not typically known for competent shooting; second, for all intents and purposes, The Division is an RPG. When you shoot enemies in The Division, damage numbers fly off as loot drops and experience is earned. Other games have tried this model with varying success, two of the best examples being Gearbox’s Borderlands and Bungie’s Destiny. Both of these examples often struggle to make their shooting feel properly responsive, meaty and powerful. But somehow, The Division‘s gunplay more often than not feels like a shooter should. Don’t get me wrong: Contrary to some of Ubisoft’s messaging around the game, The Division is largely playable solo, and a scaling difficulty system made sure that as long as my level matched the recommendation for the encounters in question, I had a surmountable challenge in front of me. Also, despite the MMO overtures, there is a story and important characters in The Division, complete with cutscenes and some plot development that goes beyond the more passive presentation in many online RPGs.
THE DIVISION IS CONSTRAINED BY ITS MMO AMBITIONS
But you don’t need to play alone, as there are deep multiplayer hooks in The Division in almost every part of the game. Finding people to play with is remarkably easy, both with friends and strangers, thanks to some very good in-game tools. Friends are shown on the map and are joinable at any time, and there are easy matchmaking systems in place for every main story mission and at every safehouse. Like most things, The Division is more fun with friends, generally speaking. And as importantly, it allows the skill system to function as intended. There are three trees of upgrades that are unlocked by improving your base of operations — one for medics, engineers and tanks — and when each class is represented, there’s a suggestion of what The Division could be. If, that is, The Division weren’t so constrained by its MMO ambitions. Character progression feels very minimal, as skills and perks give bonuses that are often small percentage improvements to existing abilities. Others give practical benefits, like the ability to carry more medkits or grenades, or to enter more contaminated spaces, but these aren’t especially distinctive or exciting. It feels very rote, and the way The Division‘s New York plays at level 27 isn’t especially different than it was at level 5.