A Contagious Empire State of Mind
After getting a glimpse of Ubisoft Massive’s The Division at E3 2013, the overwhelming flow of excitement slowed to a drip as the game was delayed three times into March of 2016. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve waited longer for games I knew would never live up to expectations, but something about The Division screamed “next generation,” during a time when current consoles were already delaying games and still focusing on previous-gen ports. Thankfully, the promise of a distinct type of game set in the Tom Clancy universe that combined fluid online multiplayer support with a beautifully modern and unique representation of New York City kept the new IP sitting comfortably in my peripheral vision.
Let me begin with the story, or as what seems to be the current trend in multiplayer loot-shooters, the lack thereof. The Division are a secret sect of sleeper agents activated by the U.S. Government to assist local fire, police and emergency responders, now called the Joint Task Force, (JTF) in restoring order to the affected area. Set weeks after a weaponized virus devastates New York, you and fellow agent Faye Lau recover a sample of Green Poison. The virus is used by a controversial biologist and distributed through the public via infected currency, giving it the nickname: “The Dollar Flu.”
The first story mission has you reclaiming the James Farley Post Office as a Base of Operations, a key component to help upgrade your character. This was a system I was unaware of pre-launch, so I was genuinely surprised at how deep the rabbit hole goes while upgrading my base. There are three different wings you can choose to level, the Medical Wing, Security Wing, and Tech Wing. Leveling a wing not only advances the Base Restoration, or total overall upgrade percentage to completion of the wing, but it also unlocks new abilities, talents and perks tied to a said wings department. Unlocking the Medical Wing, for example, grants the ability to Pulse enemy targets and allows them to be marked, seen through walls and on radar. Making the new wing available also reveals a list of upgrades you can choose to work towards by compiling supplies. Collecting enough supplies offers the decision to upgrade the Medical Wing with a Quarantine Zone, allowing your agent access to modifications that can be attached to your Pulse ability. Modifications grant a boost to your core ability, you can choose to deal more damage, or resist damage from enemies affected by your Pulse while activated. This quickly lead me down a path, discovering which core abilities I wanted to unlock and what modifications I would need to gather supplies for. Like most RPGs, leveling your character grants the opportunity to bigger and better loot drops, but the Base of Operations upgrades rest entirely on you decisions. Sure deciding to not upgrade the Tech Wing will make leveling a more timely endeavor, but it was refreshing to know that I had the freedom to do so.
I assume one could not completely ignore advancing a wing throughout the entire game, because supplies are tied to side missions strewn about the map in classic Ubisoft fashion. This is one of the few downsides I have about The Division, almost inherently the side missions become repetitive. Most boil down to: find a supply drop and shoot guys; or go in the sewer, turn on the water and shoot guys. There are other side quests consisting of interesting terrain traversal and area exploration, sending you over rooftops and through barricaded apartment buildings to activate satellites and power on generators. While the activity itself became somewhat of a chore, I found that spending the time to clear out a whole borough of NYC offered enough variety and balance that it never became too mundane.
That’s mostly because The Division is a really good third person shooter. It took a while for the tension of a shootout to evaporate and even after that, I was still impressed at how the outcome of a firefight had occurred. Most combat situations were successful because I would ambush a group of thugs. Upon noticing the enemy presence, I would quickly duck into cover and activate my pulse ability, marking and displaying information of how many contacts were in the area and where they were located. From there I have decisions that I’m forced to make dependent on the obstacles set out in front of me. I could run, or wait for them to pass, but if I was close enough I would usually opt to dump a flash grenade into the crowd and steamroll stunned combatants with a shotgun. I could also choose to target explosives from afar with a sniper rifle, assault rifle, or light machine gun. Combat scenarios almost always feel new and engaging, mostly due to the layout of the environment. I can’t get over how lived in the abandoned representation of New York City feels. Secluded living spaces conjure ideas of what may have happened to its previous inhabitants, while simultaneously providing avenues to flank enemies and get the drop on them from behind. After playing a lot of The Division, these paths became more apparent, causing me to explore with different builds for my agent. I had begun the game as a sort of support-paladin, distributing medical packs which heal members of my group within a radius and collecting marksman rifles to keep enemies at a safe range. Now I’m stacking damage and critical boost abilities while flanking into the residue of spent shells and gunfire. I’ve never experienced such a stark contrast of different ways to play a game. Darting in and around cover while enemies toting flamethrowers bare down on my position induces claustrophobic terror, and sniping from a distance offers the decision to drop back and focus on precision. The environments and terrain are meticulously set up in such a way that it’s difficult to get tired of making cool shit happen.
The real cool shit happens when you pair up with friends. All story missions and side-quest can be completed with up to four players. The Division is a unique non-traditional MMO, or rather it borrows some main mechanics that exists in MMO’s. There are 15 safe houses scattered across the map, these act as social hubs, providing access to vendors, re-stock crates, side-quest and other players in the game. You can chat with anyone in your proximity, assuming they also have a mic and aren’t in a private party. Inviting or joining another players group can be reached by highlighting them, clicking in the right stick and selecting the option in a drop down menu. Hopping in and out of groups is a breeze and one of the few moments you may encounter load times.
The most exciting and innovative areas of the game has been labeled The Dark Zone. The area of New York City that was most affected by the virus, plays host to The Division’s competitive multiplayer component. Plopped smack in the middle of the city, the JTF established a quarantine zone where some of the toughest enemies reside, along with up to 24 player created agents. Contaminated Zones usually hold loot crates and a mixture of named enemies who also drop shinny gold and purple items when killed. The catch is all of that glorious digital gold you’ve been collecting is infected with the virus and needs to be extracted back to the Base of Operations for decontamination. In order to do so, you’ll have to make it to an extraction zone, shoot off a flare and wait for a helicopter to arrive, so the valuable collection can be attached to a rope and flown away for delivery. This is where your training comes into play most; not only are enemy NPCs in the area alerted to your extraction attempt, but so are the other players on your server. Some players will camp extraction zones waiting for unsuspecting agents to kill and steal their precious loot. Any agent who attacks another agent becomes rogue and has a bounty placed on their head for an allotted amount of time. You can choose to hunt these rouge agents down, collect on the bounty and reap the rewards if they haven’t had the chance to extract their stolen gear. It’s a very different and diverse PVP approach that I hope more developers will reiterate on. I do wish there were mini-missions that took place inside of The Dark Zone, and offered the ability to participate in traditional PVP modes like team death-match, or capture the flag. But overall the competition is fierce and getting out with a backpack full of some of the best loot in the game is extremely satisfying.
Overall, The Division succeeds where most always online loot-shooters do not. However, the story is lacking and serves mostly as a vessel to pull you through a rich, engaging world and as of right now, the end game content consists of farming for loot in The Dark Zone. I also have some issues with crashes, hitching and times where audio would be completely non-existent as I pack the opposition full of lead. Still, the moment to moment combat is so satisfying that I was able to let these minor gripes fall by the wayside. Ubisoft managed to craft an online tactical third person shooter that immediately sunk its hooks into me. With a season pass already available for purchase and regularly planned free content updates, I can see myself coming back to The Division throughout the year. They seem to be one of the few publishers willing to take a chance with new and innovative IPs, while borrowing and experimenting with mechanics which were established in titles that may not have been garnered as a success. I’m excited to see what Ubisoft Massive’s priorities are with The Division, and what new obstacles they’re planning to put in our way.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC ; Publisher: Ubisoft ; Developer: Massive Entertainment ; Players: 1-4 ; Released: March 8, 2016; Genre: Action ; MSRP: $59.99