The Division Review: Full Thoughts

This review has been a work in progress since the game itself launched, and it’s taken me quite a while to form my thoughts and opinions on my experience so far.  Given the ever evolving nature of the game, and the fact that there’s such a large variety of things to do, this review will become dated at some point.  What I’ll provide here are my thoughts on the game in it’s current state, and how my experience has been so far.

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Restoring Order in Chaos

Tom Clancy’s The Division places you in the shoes of a Strategic Homeland Division Agent, activated following the collapse of New York City.  A particularly nasty strain of smallpox was distributed by an unknown agency during Black Friday and transmitted using paper currency.  With most citizens dead or dying, you’re tasked with finding the person or persons responsible, restoring order to the city and combating the criminal element, and saving what remains for posterity.

Your journey begins in Brooklyn, and not too long after that you’re sent to Manhattan proper to begin your mission.  One of the central themes of the game is establishing and upgrading your Base of Operations.  Split into three wings (Medical, Tech, and Security), each is focused on a different element of the crisis at hand.  The Medical Wing exists to treat the injured and sick, study the virus and hopefully find a vaccine.  The Tech Wing exists to reestablish lines of connection throughout the city, restore basic services like power and water, and keep your Agent on the up-and-up out in the field.  Finally, the Security Wing is focused on patrolling the streets, defending the displaced citizenry, and keeping you armed to the teeth.  Upgrades are accomplished by acquiring and spending supplies, which grant access to different abilities, talents and perks.

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Being that this feature is central to the game, it’s no surprise that so much thought and effort went into developing it.  You have a practically limitless choice of how you choose to engage in the fight for the city, and how you upgrade your base will further reinforce that preference.  While all of the skills have their place in your arsenal, having the option to acquire what you want at your discretion is simply great.  Additionally, each upgrade purchased per wing is reflected visually in the base itself, and you get to witness the base evolve directly as a result of your efforts.  I don’t think I’ve felt this invested in the progress of a game in a very long time, or felt this rewarded for accomplishing things honestly.  What the developers at Massive have accomplished with this singular feature is more than most developers can claim to have accomplished in some entire games, giving you a place to call home and something to really strive for.

Mission: Possible

The story in the game is moved along via various primary and side mission, as well as Encounters, with a healthy distribution of each across the many neighborhoods in Manhattan.  Within each area is a Safe House that serves as a place to restock on ammunition and purchase new gear, as well as a Joint Task Force officer that provides information about Side Missions.  Visiting each Safe House gives you an idea of what you should be focusing on for that area, and scales the larger conflict down to very local and personal encounters.  Given the scope of the game it’s often easy to forget about the localized impact that such an event would have, and engaging in the side missions really helps you to appreciate your efforts in that area.  Whether you’re performing Virus Research, helping JTF patrols, or securing weapons caches from lawless thugs, everything you do has weight and impacts your journey to retaking the city.  Each Encounter will award you various amounts of money, supplies for a specific wing, and a nice amount of experience.  The Story Missions aid you in a similar way, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

I really think that it’s worth mentioning that every activity is both engaging and rewarding.  As a veteran RPG player, I know that often times clearing out a map can be a tedious affair, but this game nailed it.  Since practically everything you do helps you in some way (small or large), you’re never hesitant to undertake the next mission or encounter.  Add the fact that loot is very important in this game, and you have plenty of reason to travel around the map and do what you can to help restore order.

New York, New York

Obviously traveling through the city is a very large part of this game, and fortunately the environments don’t really leave anything to be desired.  You’re able to explore a variety of environments, ranging from abandoned apartment buildings to labyrinthine subway tunnels and everything in between.  What gave me the most pause was the level of detail in almost everything you see.  If you’re exploring an apartment building, for example, you’re able to enter many of the apartments and have a look around.  They feel lived in and occupied, and feature items left at a moments notice.  This really helped immerse me in the story, and lent even more credit to the crisis at hand.  City streets also looked appropriate given the situation at hand, with wild dogs roaming the streets, displaced civilians looking for aid, and bodies laid bare on the street en masse.

Wherever you happen to find yourself in the city, you never forget the gravity of the situation at hand: this is a city in crisis and you’re there to put an end to the madness.  Enemy factions roam the streets and will often engage one another on sight; it’s a blast to watch them fight each other and then sweep in to finish the job.  Having the enemy factions clash in such a way added character and depth to the environments in a way that many other games don’t really attempt.  The streets feel lawless and chaotic, and is totally plausible in my mind.  Given that the JTF has lost control over most of the city, the enemy factions are struggling to gain ground and turf as the result of the power vacuum.

Massive and it’s various artists deserve heavy praise for the level of and attention to detail featured in this title, and it’s evident to me that they really did their homework.  Very few games feature this level of obsessive focus on their environments.

Fighting Back

One of the other core systems at place in this game is the robust character and weapon specialization system.  Admittedly the options for customizing your Agent’s physical appearance (face, hair, etc) are somewhat more limited than I would prefer, but I feel this is compensated for heavily by the ability to customize your character’s apparel without sacrificing performance.

By equipping a variety of cosmetic items from the Appearance tab of your character page, you’re able to equip jackets, pants, shirts, hats, shoes and a scarf.  While some of your gear is visible in a layer over this (most notably your backpack and pads), you have a very large amount of control over how your Agent looks without affecting your performance against enemy combatants.  Appearance customization is something that’s very important to me, and I know many others who share this opinion.  Immersion is absolutely vital in a game like this, or any RPG really, and this is another strong suit of the game.

In addition to customizing your Agent’s cosmetic appearance, you’re able to customize every piece of armor and weapon you have at your disposal.  Armor features three primary stats: Firearms (weapon damage), Stamina (health and resilience), and Electronics (skill and ability power).  In addition to these stats, armor pieces also feature a variety of Major and Minor stats that are too numerous to list here.  They range from stats that help you find more and better loot, to taking less damage from or dealing more damage to enemies, and so much more.  Once you unlock Recalibration in the Tech Wing you’re able to reroll stats on pieces of armor so that you have even more customization over how your Agent performs in the field.

Weapons are equally customizable via the use of attachments.  While each weapon is different, you can equip things like optics, magazines and grips to change how the weapon performs and handles.  The weapon system in The Division is absolutely huge and is another strong suit for this title.  Given how much time you spend shooting at things, I’m not surprised at the level of attention given to it.

Lethal Force Authorized

Combat in The Division consists of a cover-to-cover mechanic, as well as a more traditional shooting system.  Basically any object or wall in the environment can be used as cover (with a few exceptions), and you’re often rewarded for thinking tactically and engaging enemies while making use of the cover system.  One of the best feelings in the game is out-thinking your enemy (human or AI), forcing them from a protected position and taking them out.  The shooting mechanics feel very tight and well tuned, as do the abilities and items you have at your disposal.  This is a thinking person’s shooter, and you’re rewarded for doing so.

Enemy factions also behave very different depending on who they are.  Many of the earliest enemies in the game are simply thugs or looters, and as such don’t have much in the way of training.  They’ll use cover, but many will run at you openly and are easily dispatched.  Later enemies, such as the Last Man Battalion and the Rikers, have seen combat in some form or another and it shows.  LMB Soldiers move tactically and use the cover to their advantage in much the same way as you, and prove to be a very formidable enemy, while the Rikers are ruthless escaped convicts and will often rush you head on.

The variety of enemies is reinforced not only visually but also by how they fight, and this once again adds to the character and immersion of the game.  Some enemies will also feature weak points that you can exploit for bonus damage; the Cleaners, for example, use flamethrowers and have fuel tanks strapped to their backs.  Shoot it enough times and it will fail catastrophically, resulting in a very satisfying explosion.  Others feature grenade or ammo pouches that will explode when shot, sometimes damaging nearby enemies.

A City of Stories

For me, the story of The Division was and still is the best part of the game.  Achieving a balance between great gameplay and an engaging narrative is no small task, but somehow they pulled it off with this title.  While the main story is very well fleshed out during the main missions, there is so much more beneath the surface.  Additional insight into the story is gained in a variety of ways, which I’ll list here:

  • ECHO: Using surveillance data, cell phone images and other data, reconstructions are created and projected as a hologram via your Shade Tech.  This results in frozen images with audio playback that tell a story for a particular area.  Boxes will appear in many of the scenes identifying the people in them, items and information about what happened.  The ECHO system is one of the best features of this game, and really adds a lot to the story.
  • Cellphones: Scattered throughout the city your Agent can find cellphones, and you’ll gain a short call to listen to from each.  These vary from citizens discussing the events of pre-collapse New York like food shortages or co-workers staying home sick, to future members of the enemy factions planning to take advantage of the chaos.  Some even give you insight into some of the bigger characters in the game
  • Situation Reports: Laptops are also found around the city that give you intelligence about enemy activities and situations following the collapse of the city.

In addition to these, you are able to find things that give you simpler glimpses into the story of the city.  Crashed Drones will give you the last image they took before crashing, for instance, as well as pages from a Survival Manual.  What’s interesting about the latter is that the pages come directly from the companion book “New York Collapse”, written from the perspective of an unknown government higher-up with hand written notes by a civilian in the middle of it all.

These little touches add a lot to the story and progression of your journey through the game, and each one is worth collecting to piece it all together.

WARNING: ENTERING DARK ZONE

Aside from the standard story missions and PvE elements in the game, the middle of New York City is scarred by an area called the Dark Zone.  This is where the virus hit the hardest and was abandoned after a failed attempt by various government organizations to restore control.  Walling it off and leaving those inside to fend for themselves, it’s become the worst that the city has to offer, but also features some of the best rewards that you can find in the game.

Entering the Dark Zone is accomplished by visiting one of the many exterior checkpoints located throughout the city, but the Dark Zone itself is self-contained and walled off from the rest of the city.  As such, it feels like an entirely different area of the game and almost like an entirely different world.  The enemies inside are unforgiving, in addition to the fact that the Dark Zone is an open Player Versus Player (PvP) environment.  This means that other Agents can shoot you on sight, should they choose to do so.

One of the biggest motivations for being hostile is the loot system within the Dark Zone.  Since this is where the viral contagion hit the hardest, any loot gained from the DZ is considered contaminated and must be extracted before you can make use of it.  When you collect a contaminated piece of loot, it’s placed into a bag with a limited inventory size (9 slots at maximum).  Throughout the DZ are Extraction Zones where you can summon a helicopter to remove, decontaminate and extract your hard earned loot.  Once you’ve called in a helicopter, a timer begins and you must wait for the chopper to arrive.  Anyone in the zone can see that you’ve begun an extraction, and this often draws the attention of nearby enemies, as well as other Agents.

When you’re killed in the Dark Zone, a few things happen: you drop all of the loot you were carrying (some remains private, but most will go up for grabs so that anyone else can pick it up), you lose some Dark Zone currency, as well as losing Dark Zone experience.  In the DZ, you have a rank that’s separate from your character’s standard or PvE rank, and it can go down if you die too often.  Ranking down becomes easier as you reach higher ranks, so dying becomes more and more punishing as you go on.  DZ Rank is required to purchase the best gear from special vendors located in the Dark Zone, so ranking up is something that everyone is going to want to do.

Going Rogue

As mentioned previously, you’re able to engage other Agents (human players) in the Dark Zone at will, and doing so marks you as Rogue.  You disavow The Division, and are given a Rogue Rank and timer.  Killing one player will place you at Rank 1 with a relatively short timer of about 90 seconds.  Killing additional players will increase this rank by increments of one all the way up to Rank 5.  At Rogue Rank 5, a manhunt will be issued for your termination, and all nearby players gain a waypoint to your location.  Dying as a Rogue is seriously punishing for the Rogue, and seriously rewarding for the player killing them.  Survive the timer, however, and you gain the bounty for yourself as a reward.

The PvP element of the Dark Zone is something that will constantly evolve and is the subject of intense scrutiny at the moment, as the developers attempt to strike a balance between risk and reward.  So far the Dark Zone is a fun experience that adds another way to play for those so inclined.

Closing Thoughts

Tom Clancy’s The Division is not only worth your time and money, it’s simply one of the most enjoyable and rewarding games that I’ve experienced in recent memory.  I, along with many of my friends, have been anticipating this game for years and now I see why it took them so long to release it.  This is one of the most ambitious titles to be released to date, and features a wide variety of activities for almost any player that chooses to pick the game up.

With robust and beautiful environments, an in-depth and rewarding combat system, and a deep RPG system of customization, The Division nails almost everything perfectly.  This is a game that almost anyone can pick up and enjoy, and offers incredibly lofty goals for the more hardcore among you.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be thrown in the middle of a crisis and struggle to save what remains, this is the game for you.