Tom Clancy's The Division is Ubisoft's answer to Bungie's Destiny. It may not have been designed that way but the comparisons are palpable and obvious. Both are online mass appeal shooters built around collecting and progressing gear, and both separate PvE co-op experiences from a PvP mode of sorts.
Where Destiny takes place in futuristic alien environments and embraces a first-person perspective however, The Division lives up to its Tom Clancy branding - in aesthetic anyway - and is set strictly in modern-day New York. It's also a third-person looter shooter instead, one that follows a narrative based on dealing with the aftermath of a deadly viral outbreak in Manhattan that began on Black Friday. As a result of the incident, a secretive government-sanctioned group of agents collectively known as The Division was activated to safeguard the interests of the public.
What that translates to in-game is players taking on the role of agents - the equivalent to Destiny's Guardians - and running around the map shooting the vast majority of people still standing. That's the best way to sum it up. Somehow the viral outbreak has rendered every vehicle inoperable outside of rare helicopter sightings so players and enemies can only move on foot across the different ordered zones of the game. The oversimplification is intentional because the actual gameplay of The Division is its biggest problem.
Gameplay vs. Gameplay Mechanics
The Division takes its familiar open-world formula from the likes of Ubisoft's other key franchises Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs and overlays it with multiplayer features and an addictive looting and progression system. As players level up, new gear, weapons, mods, and cosmetic attire are acquired at a healthy rate, providing consistently improving stats and options for style of play. It's recommended players not spend in-game money on gear until max level since what they acquire before hitting level 30 will very quickly become obsolete.
There are no defined player classes in The Division. It's up to players to design their loadouts based on their gear or style of play, and when it comes to choosing and equipping special abilities, these can all be swapped and customized on the fly. Players are never locked into a play style or specific role, but more on that later.
The progression and player customization systems are notable highlights of The Division but don't make up for its problematic core gameplay. As a third-person cover shooter, The Division offers the bare minimum. It takes a cover system reminiscent of Ubisoft's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Watch Dogs, showing players routes to cover and letting them move from one cover to another with a simple button press, and includes a pair of weapon wheels to summon consumables and grenades. The wheels, like using grenades, are awkward, discouraging use of these items outside of medkits, and players cannot crouch, sneak, or go prone.
The shooting works though outside of it being impossible to shoot downward over cover or over objects that aren't the right height but it's appropriately deeply affected by the choice of weapon mods, from accuracy-buffing underbarrels and muzzles to optics which let players zoom in slightly or see down a long-range scope. Reloading and using certain abilities can be as janky as trying to navigate tight corners with the player movement controls. Since everything in The Division revolves around looking down a barrel, the gameplay mechanics are adequate but unimpressive, especially when compared to what Ubisoft has done with other shooters and most recently with Rainbow Six Siege.
It may be a Tom Clancy branded game, but The Division is an RPG first and foremost. Bullet impacts result in numbers flying out of enemies representing damage dealt, and on difficult enemies whose health numbers are high, their health bars are color-coded to denote their threat level (purple for tough guys, yellow for the super bullet sponges). The number of enemies scales based on the number of players you’re grouped with.
That's not to be mistaken with actual gameplay though. The gameplay mechanics may be fine, and quite fun when using high-end gear, but gameplay - as in what players actually do with these mechanics - is not. The game lacks notable or memorable action set pieces. Every battle involves attacking stationary infantry groups or holding off attacking infantry. These units are only slightly differentiated depending on their faction (rioters vs. prison escapees vs. flamethrower-wielding "cleaners" vs. PMC grunts) and battles generally play out the same. They're generic and quite boring, a chore just to get experience points, gear or the next unlock.
The story missions can be an exception since they're bigger in every sense of the word and unique in layout but there aren't too many of these. They always include a "boss" character which translates to a different colored health bar and the need to throw more bullets at their head, but these missions can be replayed on higher difficulties and include a matchmaker to team-up with strangers. And that's really what it comes down to. The Division is a grind and the entire game can be played solo, but the fun to be had depends on what players are looking for. Co-op can be rewarding as any co-op shooter can be, but playing through the game on your own is something you can do while distracted by TV or other forms of entertainment. It doesn't require or demand much attention or focus.
Setting vs. Story
The Division's map is entirely open in that players can travel anywhere they choose from the get-go, but they likely won't last long should they attempt to move ahead. The game world is segmented by level ranges so players are guided along a linear path from one area to the next, encouraged to complete the story missions, side missions, and encounters in each area before going to the next. Each area is structured the same, comprised of one safe house where players can restock on ammo, sell goods, and fast-travel, and a set of encounters and missions.
Visiting the safe house in each area is the first thing to do since it reveals all of the side missions and encounters on the map, the former which reward blueprints for crafting and the latter which earns the player points to upgrade their Base of Operations (and hence, unlock skills, but more on that later). Each set of these tasks in each area is nearly identical so players are forced to experience the same grouping of simple and repetitive adventures that have been beaten to death in Ubisoft's other open-world titles.
All of them are built around two core things. Follow lines to an object and press 'X' or kill everyone. Sometimes players defend an object they pressed 'X' on and kill everyone, or sometimes on the more exciting missions, players are asked to press X on multiple things and kill everyone while moving. There's even one type of mission which is just searching for things to press X on within a time limit, no killing required. Essentially, the complaints Destiny received for its uninspired mission design apply to The Division and there are no dynamic fights or set pieces, or vehicles, or anything to counteract this issue.
The story doesn't do much to move things along either since nearly all of it is told through faceless voice-overs. There's even Ubisoft's obligatory open-world collectibles which include laptops and over a hundred mobile phones which all feature unique voice overs which help hint at life before, during, and after the Black Friday viral outbreak. It's mostly forgettable and sometimes annoying to the point where you'll want to press the button prompt to skip.
And that's a shame because developer Massive put an impressive amount of work in the setting of the game. This looted, partly abandoned, and garbage-littered version of snowy New York is realized with an unprecedented amount of detail. The game doesn't always place much to focus on it, but entering a subway, examining the interior of an office, or just going down a back alley offers so much in terms of the nitty gritty that help make The Division's environments a thing to behold. This is especially important since in broad strokes, The Division's look doesn't vary much. Because The Division takes place strictly across a subset of Manhattan, it's all basically grid-based urban streets, always snow-covered and muted in its color scheme.
The hook that the brings fun to The Division's shooting, co-op play, and world is the RPG element. While leveling up, everything that drops has worth. Gear, weapons, and mods can be equipped if they're an improvement, sold for credits to buy other items, or broken down into materials for crafting. Players can hold quite a bit, even more as they level up their bags, and can stash goods as well. Just like the environments, every piece of armor to every weapon and weapon mod, and of course, to the seemingly unlimited amount of appearance attire that can be equipped are all impressively realized and display on the player in-game.
The progression system is a noteworthy one for The Division and it goes beyond picking up items. There are no frustrating restrictions or sacrifices that need to be made by leveling up and choosing skills and loadouts, and you’re never locked into a specific class. The layered and complicated-at-first-glance structure is actually very intuitive and rewarding. Separate from the player level are the abilities which are broken down into three sections: skills, talents, and perks. These are represented in-game at the Base of Operations (the main hub) and acquired by unlocking the 10 sections of each the Medical, Security and Tech wings by collecting their respective points by completing story missions and encounters.
Skills are the most important as they represent usable in-game abilities, and players assign up to two of them to each of the controller bumpers (and a third bonus one once completing a tech tree). These include things like deployable turrets and cover, to sticky bombs and first aid. The talents are a little less useful and you may find yourself not really touching this screen, but there are 24 that can be unlocked, and a maximum of four can be active at any given time, granting little specific situational bonuses like damage reduction when moving from cover to cover. And the Perks don't require any management - These are passively always-on buffs acquired through upgrading the Base of Operations and can increase player experience earned, inventory capacity, the effects of consumables, loot chances, etc..
Once players hit level 30, they'll have all of the Base of Operations upgrades unlocked and all the abilities to choose from so the end-game begins. Daily challenges are unlocked and those combined with killing named AI enemies in the Dark Zone reward players with a new form of currency (Phoenix Credits) used to purchase high-end loot and blueprints for crafting. This is the ultimate grind since players are battling the RNG (random number generator) for loot drops or grinding for Phoenix Credits to purchase better goods. If you're not dedicated to replaying the game or exploring the Dark Zone with others, there's not much to do here yet but updates promise to add Incursions in the future - The Division's take on cooperative raids. Over two weeks in at the time of this writing, and The Division is really about farming exploits until they're patched out - that's just how the economy is designed.
Ubisoft will tell you "The Division was always designed to be a seamless online experience" but it's not quite seamless, nor does it need to be always online. Grouping with other players, matchmaking, leaving groups, entering the game, etc. all are subject to lengthy and sometimes frustrating load times. And it's unnecessary since outside of the Dark Zone area there are no other players.
Players can choose to group with friends or matchmake with strangers for a cooperative experience, but even if you do there's nobody else in the game world. The Division can be played entirely solo and players will never see another player unless manually choosing to or entering a safe house. So when there's maintenance or issues with Ubisoft's servers, players can't play even if playing single-player. It's a design decision that hurts the players when it comes to the story content of The Division and the always online connection also means players are subject to noticeable lag which directly impacts gameplay. Enemy NPCs will occasionally randomly spawn right in front of you so beware of that in high-level areas, and there's oftentimes a delay in between bullet impact and damage dealt.
In the Dark Zone, the always-online connection is justified since it's a PvP area where seeing other players is part of the experience, and it's this area where the unexpected happens. The Dark Zone area which comprises the red-colored central area of the game map has its own leveling system and currency and it's where the best gear and hardest enemies can be found. Other players will commonly be seen running around as well, neutral until they shoot at another player which will mark the as Rogue and allow everyone else on the server to take them out. In order to keep gear found looted in the Dark Zone players must Extract it in specific zones by launching a flare and waiting for a helicopter. This is the uniquely interesting and intense element of The Division which the rest of the game arguably should have been built more like and as you can see in the video below, anything can happen. At a moment's notice you can be betrayed or saved by strangers so grouping with the max party size of four is recommended to find success in this area.
And no matter what level you are when entering the Dark Zone, the enemy NPCs will always be tough, scaled to your level. The Dark Zone is not a forgiving place. Whether Ubisoft can maintain lasting appeal of the Dark Zone and the rest of the game remains to be seen but right now there's at least a working foundation for co-op experiences if the developers can improve the end game loot system.
Still, despite its glaring issues, there's no debating the addictive nature of The Division's pretty looter shooter co-op experience. It's a foundation to build upon in updates, expansions, and sequels, but outside of the endless search for better things and bigger numbers in the inventory and stats screens, there's not much game to enjoy if you're one for story and quality shooters.
Tom Clancy's The Division is available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.