Also On: Xbox One, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Massive
Ever since the comparison of The Division to Destiny flew by my radar, I'd hoped that the two wouldn't come to be in direct competition at some point, and yet here we are in the first line of a review for one which begins with the mention of another. Call it an emerging genre tax, but when uncharted territory hosts a meager handful of pioneers, it seems pointless to pretend there aren't neighboring competitors finding different ways of cultivating the same soil. And so with that, The Division and Destiny came to be a part of the MMO-blended shooter, a genre that for better or worse, takes key features of social and action-based games to create what is a hopefully compelling experience.
In a way, The Division serves as a second opinion to Destiny's slapdash design and fractured scope. Ubisoft has delivered a online-only cohesive open world, free to explore, fast travel, and quest within — an original promise of Bungie with Destiny, which wasn't necessarily delivered. Its matchmaking, loot, and economy are largely more streamlined, as well, eschewing the obnoxiously obtuse nature of Destiny's endgame and subsequent DLC.
Broadly, The Division is a far more accessible and rewarding game for those seeking a game to play with (or without) friends. It even comes included with a far more compelling multiplayer conceit; a hostile dog-eat-dog area in the middle of New York known as the Dark Zone, but we'll get back to that in a bit.
Set in mid-crisis New York, players create an avatar to assist with the secret government agency referred to as, you can imagine, The Division. From there, they'll join up with important NPCs at a home base to be assigned missions in the overworld, shooting bad guys, gaining XP, looting, rinse, and repeat.
Sounds good to you? Let's hope so, since there's no more or less to the nature of The Division. In fact, the same review you're reading could have easily been written 15 hours earlier than it took to complete the game's core content. Maybe even 20 hours. If you really love what you're doing within the first few hours of The Division, you're probably going to like doing the same stuff 20, 30, or hundreds of hours later. Unless, of course, you get sick of it after those first few hours. We'd put our money on a breaking point of about 4-5 hours to determine whether the next few dozen are worth your time.
The mechanics are serviceable, but The Division is a numbers-based game — like Destiny — but without the sophisticated Bungie gunplay to support skilled players hoping to outlast overwhelming odds. Most of your luck in The Division will come down to what level you are and how awesome your gun is, which could be really appealing to some. In my case, the disconcert between action and stats was a constant annoyance. The 1 in an enemy's level 21 shouldn't condemn my level 20 agent to an agonizing firefight, but this is a gripe with the nature of unwelcome RPG rules in a shooter.
For The Division, as anyone familiar with an online game would tell you, its killer app is having friends to play with. A large part of my enjoyment was contingent on whether I was playing with a party of folks, or running solo on an off hour of the day. Playing co-op with friends is obviously the ideal experience, but having completed the game solo, it was nice to see that scaling allowed for players to complete all missions without friendly assistance.
While it may be more involving to play socially, all story elements of The Division were lost outside of who's shooting and how you'll return fire. I couldn't tell you what happened for most of the game's story, why we rescued whoever we rescued, and whether or not the city is safer by the end of the campaign. I'm not sure how much of a bad thing this was, honestly, as the narrative I do remember, I wish I could forget.
The real draw of The Division lies in the center of the map, a large red third of the overworld, the aforementioned Dark Zone. Conveniences readily available in regular New York City, such as fast travel or personal loot are replaced with a more cut-throat test of player mettle where other players roam freely and are labeled at best as "Non-Hostile." In the Dark Zone, enemies are all unique or elite status, coming equipped with a shield and better weapons than regular enemies, and drop premium loot that must be physically extracted at certain drop points. It can be stressful compared to how the regular overworld is only populated with players in your party, of a friendly nature, where in the Dark Zone, enough friendly fire will deem "Rogue" status on the guilty party — making them an official enemy to public players and enemy AI.
The deliberate restraints in Dark Zone add a nice level of tension and survivalism to what is an otherwise regular third-person shooter that you can play with friends, but it's mostly a great first pass on the idea. Just as players are at the whim of their level against an enemy AI, Dark Zone is populated with players who may be a level or two above you, or worse– with better gear. If there were any point where The Division should have been balance on equal terms, it should be in Dark Zone, where a total advantage will cripple those in your path. It's likely that this was a controversial part of the game's design, and likely as well that Dark Zone had decisions of the closest consideration by Massive, but it falls prey to the same disconnect that lies in The Division's regular overworld — skill-based gameplay is substituted with DPS.
So, get a better gun or go do something else.
One of two things are the case for me, and it's either that the MMO shooter is a lopsided concept, or that this genre isn't for me. There's a possible middle ground, as well, but I'm not sure I can be bothered to spend more of my time in a shooter where the gameplay loop is to get a better weapon to get a better weapon. Until what?
While The Division is certainly more interesting than it would have been as a typical third-person shooter, being saddled with the compromise of genre experimentation and an online-only model invites a variety of connection-based issues of which burden players in new and frustrating ways. Most notably is that damaging enemies seems to be a server-side operation, which is likely the case in games like Destiny, and certainly Diablo 3, but neither of which lag as heavily as The Division — regularly suffering a discrepancy of real-time calculations needed to determine that the player has fired a round, and then that their target was subsequently hit. If it's as frustrating to comprehend as it is to read, then you have an idea of what terms the game operates on.
Furthermore, I've witnessed missions fail out due to a party member suffering sudden disconnect, enemies freezing up, shooting which has no affect on NPC's (and players), and a few deaths by NPC lag, as if a phantom player had their connection throttled before suddenly appearing behind you with a shotgun to stand victorious. With netcode this fragile, it's possible for the act of playing The Division to present a greater challenge than a swath of high-powered bad guys on the horizon.
At the very least, be aware that your time in The Division is as any online-only game would be: dependent on whether servers are up, down, or out to lunch. I'd probably mind less if the game didn't accommodate those who are content playing solo, suggesting that online isn't necessary in the first place, or at least had more consistent service from Ubisoft's end.
Where The Division settled a lot of design issues exhibited in Destiny, it suffers from a boring set of mechanics and poor online infrastructure for the goal of the game. Even the sound design and art direction fell flat, landing in a land between repulsive and wonderful, mostly average. This is a little extraordinary when taking into the account the world's micro detail which players have accounted for in online discussion, as my experience followed the game's questline which rushes players to the next shooting gallery. I easily blew through any nuance, and yet there's online evidence that the game is filled with attentive detail. Wherever that would be, I've no clue.
Acknowledging its major flaws and noteworthy highlights, the whole of The Division is an average shooting game with online elements, loot progression, and some bugs. if you're looking for something to do with friends, it's like Destiny but a different way of wasting time. If anything, it serves as another lens through which to examine the best and worst practices of these social shooters, leading by example those who hope to explore new prospects in the genre.