Loot, shoot, repeat; that’s the mantra of Ubisoft’s newest open-world game The Division. Set amidst the broken remains of Manhattan after a viral outbreak, embedded special agents have been sent in to re-establish order and possibly find a cure to the mysterious disease known only as Green Poison.
As the game focuses heavily on the multiplayer and online aspects, we thought it best to assemble our group of reviewers and have them all contribute their opinions and experiences from their time in the ruins of New York.
The Division is an interesting case. I can’t think of the last time I have went back and forth on a game as often as I have while diving deep into Ubisoft’s latest third-person adventure. The Division is far from hesitant to quickly diving you deep into some of the game’s incredibly complex UI system. The menus are colorful, translucent, and filled with all sorts of options. It took a good ten or so minutes of staring at the screen before I could decipher what the hell I was supposed to look at. That continues with the map, where I felt like I was missing possible mission markers left and right because of the see-through nature of the interface. After a good while, it’s an issue that works itself out with some eye training, but having a steep learning curve to guiding your eyes across a menu system is rarely an enjoyable experience.
Another issue that you run into early on is the incredibly long load times on the PS4 version. Load times are basically non-existent while running across the city, but starting the game and post-death loads are tiringly long. Some are longer than others, but the prevalence of them is annoying and slogs down the action upon death.
This becomes even more frustrating due to the actual action being the best part about The Division. The sound design is immaculate, guns pop accordingly and there is an incredibly satisfying feeling from landing that perfect shot Not only that but the echoing of surrounding bullets being fired adds to the atmosphere and strengthens everything on-screen. These weapons being fired are accumulated in very RPG ways, through killing elite enemies or purchasing them at a vendor. The variety of weapons is fairly diverse, which is a key element of keeping something like The Division a fresh experience. Few things are more satisfying than finding a new assault rifle that does more damage than the one you have equipped.
But the realization that there simply isn’t a lot to do with that rifle is a bummer. The Division’s map is littered with side missions and objectives, but they end up repeating one another quickly. The story missions are by far the most enjoyable aspects of the game, due to them providing occasional changes in scenery. But running through just the story missions is next to impossible unless you want to gather up into a group of online players, which is a totally serviceable way to enjoy The Division. If you want to roll solo, however, you have to plunge through these repetitive side-missions on a frequent basis. None of them are poorly designed, and I actually had quite a bit of fun with them early on, but when the monotony begins to set in, things turn stale.
I can’t think of a game that I have complained about so much but still want to keep playing. The Division has a lot of issues (some of which I didn’t even touch on like the slow XP system, poor tutorials, etc.), but the heart of the game is so fun that it drives you forward. The allure of watching a leveling bar go up is something that has enthralled players for years, and The Division feeds off of that constantly. The RPG mechanics are surprisingly deep and help keep the combat fresh, even though the objectives do not achieve the same. If only The Division was as good as the fan base knows it could be. — Jay Malone
The Division stands out to me as a game that I want to enjoy in spite of its own shortcomings. I’ve ran countless missions, encounters, and side ventures into dark alleys looking for supplies. Toppling boss after boss, shuffling through loot and equipment, I’ve found time that I was happy I spent in The Division, but the list of asides I have to tie to that recommendation seems to steadily increase the more I play.
The core elements of looting and shooting are effective, and build up a solid foundation. Guns have a physical feel to them, and the weapon types that are present run the gamut well enough for you to have some diversity in your armory. Assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns — there’s a fair spread of weapons, though within each class I was hard pressed to see a difference beyond numbers. Getting new loot is exciting though, as there’s plenty of statistics and attributes to gleefully watch tick up as you complete missions and grow as an agent of the Division.
Missions play out as facets of different wings, as you try to reclaim some semblance of control and order over Manhattan. The objectives within these segments, though, often boil down to “kill enemy, move to new area, repeat.” Bosses serve as the climax of every of mission, and are one of the more disappointing notes of the whole experience. Most boss enemies are upgraded versions of normal enemies, with more health and damage, and maybe a special move that’s been gratuitously lifted from another common mob. By my fourth mission fighting the Cleaners, a faction of flamethrower-wielding cleansers, I had literally fought the same boss four times over, only changing in name.
That repetition is easily my biggest sticking point with The Division. The game opens on a high note, and initially the content is solid and engaging, until it begins to sink in that the content you see in the first few levels is all you’ll get for the next twenty. Enemy types, weapons, equipment — all that changes is the numbers steadily tick up. Seeing any sort of change in variety would have been nice, as what we’re left with is the same content repeated ad nauseum.
Playing with friends can at least hold back the weariness, as the social aspects of the game are handled well and mixing different weapon sets and abilities together can make you feel like a cohesive unit. Abilities on their own are a little disappointing, and are generally oriented towards team play, with a focus on team buffs over any solo enhancements. Lone wolfing The Division is a chore, but for the time being, matchmaking can usually drop you in and out of missions with players close to your level.
Bugs also rear their heads now and then, whether it’s simply a clipping issue, enemies getting stuck in invisible spawn walls, or a massive, progress-destroying bug that forced our group to re-do an entire mission. There’s also a few odd technical choices, like only allowing one person at a time to interact with certain objects, leading to players often forming queues in bases and at restock boxes.
When The Division fires on all cylinders, it’s really something; a solid loot-shooter, with engaging mechanics and the perfect set-up for co-op online. This game could easily be much more, but what bogs it down between a lack of variety and a mix of technical hitches keep it from reaching those heights. For now, it’s a serviceable squad-based shooter effective at eating up a couple hours a night with friends. Hopefully, post-launch content and some quality-of-life patches will keep that disc from leaving the rotation after the taste goes stale. — Eric Van Allen
I’ve had a bit of a hard time with MMOFPS titles in the past. Something about them doesn’t compel me to play them for long. PlanetSide and its sequel, WildStar, Defiance, Warframe, Mechwarrior Online, and even Hawken just didn’t hold my interest beyond its initial high. So it came as a bit of a surprise just how much I’m enjoying The Division — as soon as I stopped thinking about it like a shooter.
In The Division, enemies past level 5 begin to feel like bullet sponges. You’ll unload clip after clip into the skulls of your foes, watching their health bar chip away with each round. In shooters with a fantasy setting (Diablo, Destiny, etc.) we don’t bat an eye at this style of gameplay. In realistic games like what we’ve come to expect from the Tom Clancy association, it is a bit of a change, but in any massively multiplayer game, it is expected.
In that same vein, equipment in The Division falls squarely into the MMO realm. Grey, green, blue, and gold mark out the progression from vendor trash to legendary guns and armors — modding allowing further improvements to what you’ve already found. The flexibility to carry a mixture of weapons enables The Division to be a classes MMOFPS — something fairly unique in the genre. You can engage the enemy at range with a sniper rifle, move a little closer and unload with an SMG, and then get up close and personal with your favorite shotgun, all in the same battle.
Beyond weapons, there are special skills that every member of The Division can pick, though you can only carry two at a time. These can give you a little remote turret to help take out your enemies, a large ballistic shield to give you an armored edge, or a stick bomb that can be remotely detonated at will. In all, there are a dozen skills that you can unlock as you level up, with up to five mods that can be added to each.
Completing side missions will provide you points that you can spend back at your base. This base is instanced to you, giving you a place that you can upgrade through your individual progress. The Medical Wing unlocks perks and bonuses around healing and reviving downed players. Similarly, the Technology Wing grants mods and perks for drones, and the Security Wing will provide similar improvements around your tactics. There are ten upgrades in each tech tree, and often the bonuses make a large difference in the field.
There are roughly a dozen main missions, and a vast number of side missions and encounters, as well as collectables in The Division. The side missions and Echos (virtual recreations of something that happened here in the past) provide a bit of backstory to flesh out the main missions. While the side missions can be tackled solo fairly easily, most of the main missions (and especially the ones with bosses) will likely require friends. For added challenge, you can tackle the main missions on Hard for additional loot and XP, and once you hit level 30, you unlock Challenging mode for even greater rewards. It doesn’t fix the repetition problem, but it does scratch the loot itch.
Unfortunately, a few bugs have shipped with The Division. On more than one occasion I didn’t trigger a checkpoint properly and walked into an empty room with no discernable exit. The guiding line had also disappeared, leaving me little to go on. Backtracking, I stepped in just the right spot and suddenly that empty room had hostiles for me to beat down. I aggressively pressed into the room and took out the first wave only to have a bat-wielding psychopath spawn right next to me upon announcement of the second wave of foes. There’s also more than a few animation and physics bugs that occasionally trigger an unintended laugh or two. It tatters the veil of immersion a bit.
I have to give the audio teams at Ubisoft a tip of the hat — The Division’s music and audio is top notch. Ola Strandh does a great job composing a rousing and emotional soundtrack, and bullets have appropriate oomph when they impact. That said, I just feel sorry for Alex. For those who haven’t played the game yet, it seems like every other firefight ends with “Oh shit! They got Alex!” and sometimes that phrase is shouted more than once. Clearly Alex, whoever he is, is having a bad day. I hope it’s a bug, but open world games are often riddled with voice repetition so this could just be par for the course.
On PC, The Division feels like the developers spent a great deal of time ensuring it was not just a port of the console version. Playing with a mouse and keyboard feels very different than playing with a controller. By default (and can be turned off in menus) your avatar will automatically mantle over object while running. Better yet, the game supports multi-select, drag-and-drop, and scrolling of items — all of which would be cumbersome with a controller.
The design of user interface gets many iterations over the development lifecycle, receiving countless hours of testing and adjustments. On the PC version of The Division, you can throw all that testing away and adjust almost every piece of the HUD to your heart’s desire. With multi-monitor support, you can even move them between displays, using one for HUD and navigation and keeping the other entirely clean. You can also adjust the opacity, scale, and nearly anything else until it is fully optimized for your style of play.
There are more than a few bells and whistles under the hood to tweak on PC, but two in specific will push the presentation on PC to the next level — at least on NVidia-based cards. Specifically, HBAO+ (Horizon-Based Ambient Occlusion) support grants more realistic lighting, and Percentage Closer Softer Shadows (PCSS) is available to smooth rough edges of shadows. Both of these come at a massive cost to FPS, so balancing these features against framerate is very system-specific. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then video is worth even more — you can see the effect of both of these technologies below. While the PS4 version of The Division suffers from long initial and fast travel load times, the PC version can load from the start menu to gameplay inside as little as twelve seconds, handling fast travel in less than five.
Beyond all of the extensive graphical and UI tinkering at your fingertips, there is a basket of support for some third-party goodies as well. If you are using a keyboard with LED support (like most of the boards from Steelseries) you can enable in-game support. This lights up the common-use keys (WASD, E, Q, etc.), color coding them based on their intended use. I was able to use my laptop keyboard to test this, but I found that I never really looked at my hands enough to use it — your mileage may vary. The game also natively supports Tobii headsets, enabling eye tracking. I don’t have that headset to test, but in theory you’d be able to partake of the augmented reality bits, including eye-selecting menu items, aiming grenades and more.
The final piece is a fantastic handshake that likely will go unnoticed — Steam friends integration. If you purchase The Division on UPlay, the game will poll your Steam and UPlay friend lists for potential friends to help you save New York. It should help bridge the disparate store gap that other titles have faced in the past.
My time with The Division has been an absolute blast. I’ve already adventured with many of our readers, and every time I’ve enjoyed tackling the baddies of New York with competent soldiers. The VOIP support worked perfectly, and I never suffered lag issues or odd desync problems like I have in other MMOs. I can’t say that The Division delivered on every promise from that 2013 reveal stage at E3, but I’m enjoying what is here. I’m looking forward to seeing where the world of The Division goes next.