Tom Clancy’s The Division is a game that wears the ‘tactical shooter’ badge with pride, but it’s hardly the kingpin of the third-person massive multiplayer online title.
In a time when the MMO genre is admittedly oversaturated, The Division makes a bold appearance after heavy marketing by Ubisoft for the longest of times. Several delays have largely increased the expectations from fans, but these constant rainchecks have also seen online multiplayer become a clustered genre with very few differentiating elements.
Immediately off the bat, The Division appears to be a third-person wannabe of Destiny with a more believable setting and heavier emphasis on tactics. The truth however, is far from this common misconception.
The Division edges past conventions because of its seamless amalgam of singleplayer, shooter, co-op, and multiplayer experience. It’s a game that, beyond its supposed tactical emphasis, is defined in reality by its presentation, setup, and rich gameplay.
It’s immediately noticeable as you create your character, following a typical ‘we’re here to rescue you,’ cutscene. The character creation isn’t that great when compared to the likes of Fallout 4, Bloodborne, or Dragon Age: Inquisition, but it’s harsh to compare the fidelity of systems deeply embedded in more conventional RPGs to a game that will have you shooting more than talking to NPCs.
Regardless, it’s not the features The Division wants to impress you with, but the presentation, as you scroll through the small number of options available to you while your character looks into his/her reflection on the window of an abandoned police car in New York.
You start the game in Brooklyn as a rookie Division member who has answered the call of duty to re-stabilize a tattered, war-torn New York. The first few missions are warm-up exercises; there are very little tactics involved, and plenty of shooting and going around.
It’s in these semi-tutorial missions that you’re introduced to the core gameplay of The Division. Guns feel powerful, their sounds echoing off the walls of towering structures that make up the rich, well-detailed urban environment of the game.
Rioters roam the streets with bats and handguns, offering very little resistance to your well-trained movement, cover and automatic submachine gun.
The Division feels and behaves very much like a shooter, and attempts to add a tactical aspect with mechanics like cover and radio pulse to tag enemies in a specific radius with you as origin.
Yet the game begins to hint at its gaping flaw towards the latter parts of the final tutorial mission before your (admittedly dramatic) transfer to Manhattan: the primary method of the game to test your skills is boosting enemy resilience.
In simple terms, The Division’s understanding of difficulty isn’t based on periodically inflating AI intelligence, but on larger enemy health pools and the notoriously frowned upon ‘bullet sponge’ mechanic that plagues so many other shooters.
For a game that always presented itself as a tactical shooter, this is a noticeable disappointment, and it tends to become more apparent as the game progresses and you face more ruthless factions.
Ubisoft will obviously argue that a game that replicates plausible occurrences so well has no choice but to feature such a system to up the difficulty level, but that’s a poor excuse to justify the lack of effort put into a proper AI system that would force players to come up with new tactics as well as gear up with better equipment.
Actually, the very reason this bullet sponging is the core of the difficulty governor of the game is because The Division wants you to grind for better gear. This is where the shooter loses its charm, and after a dozen levels, the hunt for better equipment gains priority over the exploration of a near one-to-one scale of a beautifully designed Manhattan.
Regardless, the first few hours of the game where it introduces you to its deep gameplay mechanics are nothing short of spectacular.
You’ll come across plenty of customization options that range from simple cosmetics to equipment that matters, such as weapon mods, armor, and ammunition. You also have the option to craft gear, and aiding random NPCs lurking on the streets of New York may occasionally reward you with attire and gadgets that you wouldn’t otherwise find.
The depth of gear and its important is on such a high level that it can be easily substituted for tactics as the primary core of the gameplay. Sooner rather than later, you’ll end up treating enemies as mobs to farm equipment from, ignoring mundane common items and hunting for purples and yellows.
It all sounds too familiar, and it inevitably becomes too familiar; The Division ultimately ends up playing less like an open-world tactical shooter and more like an elegant looking Diablo III.
The emphasis eventually becomes the need to grind for better equipment in order to explore new areas and make yourself an all-powerful Division agent.
As a singleplayer, the system works well for the largest part, but The Division constantly nudges you towards team-based multiplayer with its increasing difficulty (more spongey bullet sponges) and numbers.
This is after all a primarily multiplayer-focused game, so it does make sense if it’s encouraging gamers to play collectively. The Division nevertheless is still a better challenge (and a source of frustration) when played solo, except when you’re venturing into the Dark Zone.
The Dark Zone is truly the game’s best and most unique feature. Normally, you have multiplayer titles categorizing player versus enemy (PvE) and player versus player (PvP) separately.
The Division on the other hand mixes this into one, and presents it in wonderfully intimidating area called the Dark Zone.
A separate, secluded region of New York, the Dark Zone is still primarily PvE, but it features possible PvP content. You come across gangs and common enemies, but you’ll also run into random real-world players.
The encounters with real-world players are by far the most exciting aspect of the game, as an atmosphere of incredible uncertainty and intimidation immediately creeps in the moment you get close to one.
Is he/she hostile or friendly? Will this new player attempt to kill you and take all the loot you’ve been collecting in the Dark Zone, or aid you in your mutual quests to earn more valuable equipment?
Will they lure you into an alley where fellow compatriots will gun you down, or will you form a formidable and trustworthy bond?
The uncertainty lives throughout the encounter, and it’s where The Division feels truly unique. The Dark Zone is a fantastic idea that has been implemented masterfully. It represents danger, deception, kindness, and trust all in one package, and the experience it brings is one of the best ever in a multiplayer game.
With only emotes to express your hostility or the lack of and a voice-chat system that works within limited range, the Dark Zone can turn potentially dangerous acquaintances into friendly ones, and then back again to dangerous ones.
In one instance while exploring the Dark Zone, I found myself teamed up with a great ally, collecting loot and transporting it, gunning down any opposing part that would dare to threaten us. As we did our final sweep before agreeing to part ways, I accidentally shot his avatar in the back.
Despite my claims of innocence, neither were left any choice but to distrust one another as we aimed our M4s and readied for battle.
What ensued was a painful, reluctant firefight against someone I had spent forty-five minutes in such a hostile environment. I won, but without any sense of triumph, and only a deep feeling of regret.
It was nevertheless a wonderful experience, and a great step away from the repetitive grinding for countless hours within the game. The Dark Zone not only offered better loot, it simply offered a better concept that has been executed with perfection.
Unfortunately, the main game itself does not share the Dark Zone’s unique personality, and suffers from the well-abused repetitive loot-system found in just about every MMO.
Granted that the mechanics are well-polished (safe for the occasional bugs) and the customization has depth, but those seem to mainly act as reasons for the grinding system to exist instead of it being the other way around – a common flaw that hinders the wow factor by a few ticks.
Is The Division a great experience? The answer is a big yes, but just like a hammer, it’s only powerful from one end, and that is the Dark Zone. The rest is merely the handle: useful to get a grip on the game’s mechanics, but not very exciting in delivering the blow.