Tom Clancy's The Division Review
In this day and age, developing a game that will cater to a huge number of consumers requires a very distinct talent. It's a balancing act between offering enough accessibility for the casual gamers and enough depth and customization for the core players. It's about hooking the consumer right out of the gate with familiar mechanics and slowly bringing them deeper into an immersive, rewarding experience. At the same time, you have to acknowledge that hardcore gamers still do exist, and they do a lot of talking in online communities. Hell, they're typically the only ones talking. Tom Clancy's The Division does a stellar job of bridging the divide, of providing the market with a widely accessible yet intense, relatively in-depth, and satisfying title.
A big part of immersion involves the visual presentation, of course. Here, Ubisoft's Massive team has managed to give us a meticulously detailed and ultimately well-designed virtual world that is at once intimidating and inviting. You're always interested to see what dangers might lurk around the next corner, and you're always very invested in the actions you take. You're not merely running around that corner with the intent of shooting anything that moves. No, this large, wonderfully created atmosphere is one that encourages attention and a respect for your surroundings. You actually notice the changes in the neighborhoods, for example, and you appreciate those differences, too. The animations are top-notch as well and the special effects, while mostly standard, are another achievement.
The audio relies on an impressive set of combat effects that continually remind you of the sense of urgency with which you play the game. The soundtrack is another a highlight as well, though it never dominates the action, nor does it try to override the basic gameplay sound. The voices aren't bad (though not especially impressive) and for the most part, the audio does its job: After you're dropped into a post-pandemic Manhattan, a dangerous urban sprawl filled with dedicated humanists and merciless opportunists alike, the environment has an immediate effect. The audio hits you with an appropriate bang when you engage in your first firefight, and the score is appropriately haunting and tense when you set out to explore. In brief, it's a solid and well-presented technical production that, for the most part, fires on all cylinders.
When you hear that The Division is a multiplayer-centric tactical shooter, you know gameplay is paramount; in fact, perhaps it's even more critical than it is in other action titles. Here, the mechanics are indeed familiar and the third-person combat won't throw anyone for a loop. You're unfortunately limited in your movements (no going prone, crouching, or jumping, for instance, and I'll get to that in a minute) but this bleak, oppressive world just demands your unwavering attention. As our virtual worlds continue to grow in size and become more refined and realistic with each passing year, the believability of such worlds becomes an essential part of the experience. Is it really any wonder that a new era of virtual reality is upon us? Even without VR, something like The Division can really suck you in.
Now, let's get this out of the way first: There is a story arc. It exists and it isn't terrible at all, so I can't fault the developers for completely ignoring this element. The narrative is actually very well paced and nicely orchestrated; it doesn't hinder your immersion or overall interactive enjoyment but it also doesn't take a permanent back seat to your progression. The cut-scenes aren't long (of course, they can't be these days) but they are intriguing and some of the characters are pretty darn cool. This is one of the first times I've actually wanted to learn more about the characters in a multiplayer-oriented game...or is this the first time? And one of the reasons I wanted to learn more is because I always felt emotionally connected to the involving atmosphere. It's just so barren and heartbreaking and ominous; it's a definite eye-opener.
It should come as no surprise, though. When we're more emotionally invested in the fictional world, we're almost by default more drawn to the characters, even if those characters aren't particularly complex. Here, though, a few of the characters are complex; or at least, more complex than you might think. Anyway, all of this was a very pleasant surprise because my narrative expectations for any game that doesn't prioritize the story are always pretty low (and that's due entirely to experience). Moving on to the gameplay, I can safely say few people - if any - will complain of basic control and mechanical issues, because this is about as rock solid as it gets. Remember when third-person action was all sorts of wonky in the early days? Crappy cameras, input lag, clipping and collision issues, etc.?
Well, no more. Everything moves as it should, with the only exception being the merely average cover system. As I said above, you can't crouch, jump, or go prone, which means if you don't feel like dying every four minutes, you really need to take advantage of cover. It's just a little clumsy and clunky at times, and I really hate it when I leave cover and stand straight up like an untrained moron. The good news is that because the enemy AI is quite predictable, you almost never feel overmatched and if you do feel overmatched; it's probably your fault. Either your positioning sucks or you're not well prepared in terms of weaponry and equipment. I will always gravitate toward games that reward and punish based entirely on your actions and thought processes, as opposed to luck and/or developmental and mechanical blunders.
The AI isn't bad, by the way. It's just not startlingly progressive. The downside is that you see the same classes over and over throughout the game, so your reaction strategy to each style of combatant becomes second nature. This makes some of the game feel like a grind but really, it's not that much different than any other multiplayer-based game. Once you play for a while, you've got every class/style/job figured out. Besides, the ultra-robust upgrade system offers a wide variety of skills that lends a ton of dynamic diversity to the gameplay. You can equip some of these abilities and stat buffs on the fly, too, and experimenting with the likes of seeker mines and shields keeps everything fresh. There are a few nice touches as well, like watching some flamethrower-toting dude lose his sh** ‘cuz you shot his fuel tank.
The bottom line is that the gameplay always feels tight, challenging, and ceaselessly inviting. "Addictive" is probably a word we use far too often in this industry, and it doesn't help when gamers have been battling that very same term for decades. Then we turn around and use it in a positive sense in our reviews...odd, that. But The Division can and often is "addictive" because it's always adrenaline-packed and standing at the ready to deliver the action goods in spades. The instant you leave your HQ, you know you're in for some fun, and that fun won't be exactly like the fun you just experienced. Yes, there's always some repetition simply due to the nature of the gameplay but in truth, I hardly felt it. The widely various locations, big and involving campaign missions, and wicked awesome upgrade system just keeps one riveted from the moment they press the power button.
Typically, I'm quick to find fault with side quests because they often feel tacked-on or uninspired, and therefore detract from the overall experience. And I know the side missions in this game are a matter of contention for some but strangely, not for me. Again, there's always a slight sense of repetition due entirely to the style of gameplay, but I don't think the optional missions are that much less entertaining than the regular story missions. Sure, there's more grinding and the side missions are basically devoid of story, but the gameplay is challenging and engaging enough for me to look past these minor drawbacks. I never expect side missions to be as big or as creative as the primary quests, anyway; anybody who does anticipate this should probably better understand the definition of "side quest." In the realm of optional missions, I'd say these are actually quite good.
Maybe the reason I don't mind the side missions is because in truth, this game feels a lot like an RPG. At least, it has the traditional role-playing progression and structure: Do a really top-notch and absorbing story-based mission, then tackle several side quests in an effort to build up your character (or in the old days, your party). I know people were complaining about there "only" being 26 missions in Manhattan but frankly, I doubt I'll finish before I hit the 25- or 30-hour mark, and I've got zero issue with that. Besides, who the hell ignores all the side missions and blitzes through the story? Does anyone ever do that in games like this? I've never understood the complaints about length or number of quests or missions when the extra content is so obviously important. Yes, most players will take advantage of that extra stuff, even if it's not as immersive as the campaign-based missions.
Then there's the totally bad-ass four-player co-op, which almost single-handedly turns this experience into something well beyond the standard multiplayer shoot-fest. Playing with a few friends never gets tiresome but perhaps even better - at least from my standpoint - playing solo isn't a drag. It really isn't. There are many times when I've seen other critics say playing alone is fun in a multiplayer-centric game, but I've often disagreed. In this case, though, I'm all for playing by my lonesome because I'll still enjoy myself. And if I want to play with others, the matchmaking is great and the servers, despite a few hitches here and there, have held up pretty well. No, I haven't spent a huge amount of time in the far more dangerous, more unstructured Dark Zone but let me say this: It's a fantastic free-for-all addition that features AI and human foes and has a completely different feel.
Tom Clancy's The Division is an extremely entertaining and well-developed game, featuring surprisingly fantastic story-based missions, a rock solid technical presentation, a fantastic blend of accessibility and depth, and a sky-high fun factor. That fun factor doesn't fall as far as you think when you strike out on your own, and for all you loot-hounds - man, this kinda reminded me of my manic drive for loot in Diablo III! - who love a challenge, you gotta give it a try. Just don't spend too much time in the Dark Zone because I think it might have an adverse effect on your gaming psyche. I wish there was a bit more control freedom (at least let us crouch, damnit), the cover mechanic isn't perfect, and the AI isn't quite as advanced as one would hope. But overall, The Division is a surefire winner for a number of fundamental reasons, all of which should entice you into a purchase.
The Good: Top-notch atmosphere and superb overall design. Great effects and score. Interesting and engaging story-based missions. Side missions actually add a lot to the gameplay and don't feel like a hindrance. Addictive loot grabbing galore. Awesomely intricate upgrade/progression system.
The Bad: AI is a little too predictable throughout. No crouching, jumping, or going prone. Cover system is a little wonky, and can be frustrating.
The Ugly: "The Dark Zone is all sorts of ‘ugly' but in the best way possible."
3/21/2016 Ben Dutka