Platform PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One Genre Role-Playing Game, Third Person Shooter
Developer Massive Entertainment Publisher Ubisoft
Platform Played On Xbox One
Editors note: This review of Tom Clancy’s The Division is based on the state of the game before the Incursion update on April 12. The Incursion update adds new loot to the game, as well as a new end-game activity for players, among other things.
Tom Clancy’s The Division was a polarising experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a fun role-playing game shooter that hooked me into a vicious cycle of shoot, kill, loot, complete mission, level up. On the other hand, the repetitive nature of the game made me dread logging in each time knowing that I’d be doing the exact same types of activities throughout the game’s 30 or so hour climb to the end game.
The Division starts off wonderfully. It plants you into a devastated New York and tasks you with rebuilding the city from the ground up. This involves completing main missions that reveal more of the story behind the virus outbreak and rival gangs; side missions which have the player performing tasks such as clearing out gang leaders, finding missing people, fixing antennas or recovering supplies to help out the city; and finally encounters, which are usually related to uploading data about the virus, protecting supply drops and storming strongholds for rewards to upgrade your base of operations and unlock new skills and perks.
At the start of the game, this variety was overwhelming, but great as I jumped from task to task, completing them, killing enemies and levelling up. The shooting has a lot of impact, with sound effects adding extra ‘umph’ to shots, especially critical hits. However the mechanics felt floaty when compared to other third person shooters. It works fine because enemies don’t move around a lot, often sticking to cover themselves, but I definitely noticed it during long play sessions. While I enjoyed the cover system in The Division – you can use nearly anything as cover – I often found myself entering a piece of cover I didn’t want to because I was aiming slightly off target to where I wanted to take cover. On higher difficulties this meant taking massive damage from enemies that appear to have huge aim assists on. I never quite grasped The Division’s cover mechanics properly throughout my playtime, often fumbling with the requirement to press A to move into cover, but then B to vault over cover. It just didn’t feel natural.
In pre-launch interviews, developer Massive Entertainment stressed that The Division was a role-playing game (RPG) first and shooter second, which would be fine if the RPG elements weren’t lacking in some areas. Sure, there is a levelling up system that increases your attack, health and skill power each level. Sure, there was gear to find and customise to create the perfectly specialised character for your play-style; I decided to max out my skill power so that my sticky grenade skill did massive amounts of damage to groups of enemies. And sure, there is a skill system. All common RPG elements.
However, the RPG system falls down in other areas. Firstly, it never felt rewarding to get new loot. Rather than gradually feeling more powerful by obtaining better gear as the game progressed, I always felt like I was acquiring new gear to keep up with the levelling of enemies. While the game was always providing a challenge throughout my playtime, it meant I never felt the transition from pipsqueak to powerful badass that is common in RPGs. Secondly, I found the skill system to be lacking. There are 12 skills in total in The Division, four health based skills, four attack based skills, and four defensive skills. Yet, you can only have three equipped at a time, although the third skill slot is a signature skill which you don’t unlock until the later third of the game. In fact, the rate of unlocking abilities in The Division is uneven. You unlock a lot of skills and talents (a type of modifier, for example reduced recoil when moving from cover to cover) early in the game, but are restricted to using them until a bit later.
The restriction on the number of skills you can use clearly demonstrates The Division’s emphasis on playing with a group. In a group, you can have the MMO trinity of healer, tank, damage dealer, but playing solo you have to compromise, and it makes the game a lot harder playing alone. Not impossibly hard, but I felt like I was at a disadvantage because I wasn’t playing in a group.
You’ll spend your time doing one of four activities in The Division. First are the main story missions. These missions were my favourite in The Division, offering lots of action in varied environments around the map. At first there’s an attempt at a story, but it branches out and quickly loses its focus. Essentially, it becomes do all of this stuff to clean up and reclaim New York. I would have loved to just play through story mission after story mission, but unfortunately that’s not possible in The Division because I wasn’t a high enough level. Therefore, to level up, I had to do two of the other types of activities in The Division, side quests and encounters (which are pretty much side quests with different rewords). This rinse and repeat structure was extremely addictive when I started to get on a roll, going from side activity to side activity and levelling up at a fairly consistent rate – about one level per hour.
However, that repetition begins to take its toll once you realise that you are being asked to do the same few things in each side mission. The developers haven’t even bothered to disguise the fetch quest nature of the activities. I must have fixed about 10 antenna systems, defended 10 supply drops, gathered data about the virus ample amounts of time and took out rival gang leaders multiple times throughout my playtime. The problem is that, while these missions are technically optional, you need to do them to level up because there’s really nothing else to do to earn experience at a decent rate in The Division. The encounters are also how you gain the upgrade points to unlock skills, perks and talents at your base of operations. The repetition is addictive at first, but then it lost its charm and became tedious. I began to dread logging back in. Yet, once I was in, I was temporarily hooked again.
The final task in The Division is the game’s player versus player versus environment area called The Dark Zone. In The Dark Zone, players inhabit the same space as AI controlled enemies, and friendly fire is off. It’s one of the most exciting concepts in The Division. Going alone or with a group was always a tense experience because we were never sure if the next player we met would be friendly, or decide to gun us down for the loot we’d found in The Dark Zone, which can only be used by extracting it from set points.
Despite being one of the most interesting areas in The Division, The Dark Zone not without its issues. Firstly, going alone in The Dark Zone is pretty much suicide. Disregarding the fact that players in groups are at a huge advantage compared to lone players when it comes to PvP, the enemies in The Dark Zone are also some of The Division’s toughest. They’ll almost always be the same level as you or higher, and be higher tiered enemies, which basically means they’ll take twice as long to kill as normal. Honestly, it feels unfair.
This is true outside of The Dark Zone too, when you level up enough. Rather than adding in new enemies as the player levels up, The Division just gives them more attack power and makes them absorb more bullets than usual, which is a lot already. It easily took me at least three full clips from a decent weapon, landing mostly headshots, to kill one of these higher tiered enemies.
Despite gameplay issues, I’ve got to commend The Division’s audio design and art style. The game looks and sounds great. Post-apocalyptic New York looks desolate, yet still retains its distinct skyscraper skyline. There’s wonderful attention to detail everywhere, especially when you head inside some of the buildings and apartments and see how people have left their homes. It feels like it was inhabited and left in a hurry. Further, the sound design, especially combat effects, are absorbing. The clunk of your character’s backpack when you walk, to the click of a reload and boom of an explosion, The Division sounds terrific.
In some ways, The Division lives up to the hype. The world is beautifully created and combat is addictive once you get into a cycle of shoot, kill, loot repeat. There is a lot to do in The Division, although the end-game is lacking content other than replaying the story missions on a harder difficulty and search The Dark Zone for loot. However, it’s an awfully repetitive experience that doesn’t quite succeed in being a great shooter or RPG. It’s competent at both, but doesn’t excel at either. Shooting felt floaty, although very impactful, and the cover system felt clunky. While RPG systems exist, they didn’t facilitate the feeling of turning from a novice into a well-equipped hero. Loot felt like it was only being acquired to keep pace with enemy levelling, and the skills system was limited – I could never find the right combination. Some people will love the repetitive nature of The Division, and others will grow tired; I was of the latter party. It’s an enjoyable concept for a new IP that kept me entertained for a solid amount of time, but then I grew tired and felt no need to return.
- Immersive post-apocalyptic New York
- Limited skill slots make every group member important
- Addictive gameplay…
- … that gets repetitive quickly
- Shooting mechanics felt floaty
- RPG mechanics don’t make you feel like a badass and hinder solo players
- Not much to do once you hit the level cap