I’ll admit when i’m wrong. Always, because i’m that kind of a guy. This is one of those occasions. I was wrong. Tom Clancy’s: The Division is good. It’s very good even. Not sublime or genre-defining or even amazing, it’s just good. I held off purchasing the game because, based on the closed/open betas, it felt repetitive and got stale very quickly. Of course, the minuscule play area and limited content really couldn’t give you an informed impression of the full product.
Fast forward to now and a freebie game key (cheers Tony!), I’ve sank well over 50 hours into the post-pandemic New York. I’ve maxed out my level 30 Agent, fully upgraded my base of operations and am well on my way to level 35 in the Dark Zone, which we’ll talk about later. As it stands, i’m thirsty for more, which is a good thing.
First off, let’s talk about the main driving force behind the game; the visuals. These are some truly current generation graphics. Superb detail is lavished upon New York, even at long distances. With the game running on ultra (save for the crippling high end Anti-aliasing and the hog that is HFTS, Nvidia’s new shadow solution). There’s very little pop-in on textures and objects and considering the scale and detail, this is impressive, even more so considering the minimal amount of loading required; only a handful of loading screens are presented between fast traveling and the run up to the story driven, in engine cut scenes. Very solid tech.
Lighting for the most part is sublime, the best I’ve seen in a while. Firefights with the Cleaners (flamethrower guys) at night really looks spectacular as each light source illuminates the area. A true fire show. Volumetric fog is here and looking superb as are the weather and particle systems. The much touted dynamic material system makes the world feel alive; snow melts with fire, explosives, sun, metals degrade, giving the place a foreboding and gritty feel. Combat during heavy snowstorms, along with a thick layer of fog really is a sight to behold and forces you to be more mindful and tactical when picking your fights.
The Snowdrop Engine’s Procedural Destruction feature is evident, although not as detailed and amazing looking as the initial reveal, the amount of breakables for an open world game of this magnitude is impressive. You can shoot individual pieces of wood off a park bench, thin materials such as roadsigns and sheet metal will exhibit dents on the reverse side, various lights can be destroyed and most tyres can be shot, giving you a nice satisfying pop with the gush of expelled air and suitable animation. I found myself just wandering around, shooting random objects to see what kind of damage I could deal. It’s impressive. Shoot a flag and be amazed how the holes appear, you can see right through.
Shoot a tiled surface and watch as individual tiles crack and fall with impressive realism. Emptying entire clips into a concrete barrier shows the chunks of debris convincingly fall off and crumble to the floor, revealing the inner steel mesh. Deeply satisfying and technically brilliant. Car windows, doors, bonnets, rear bumpers, lights can all be damaged and destroyed. It’s also satisfying taking cover behind a vehicle only to see it being shot to hell by the enemy. The glass shattering effect is notably impressive.
Dynamic Global Illumination makes its way into the game, although not as pretty as the initial E3 2013 reveal footage, is very evident and adds lots of ambiance. Light sources reflect their surroundings in a natural way, active vehicle lights/beacons reflect beautifully on surfaces as well as your game character and NPCs. The world itself is almost seamless, there are very few loading screens, yet when you’re presented with one, it’s very brief and doesn’t take away the immersion. The sheer amount of seamless transitions from indoor to outdoor, subways to surface and even the gritty, grot-infested sewers are rendered with pixel perfect visual clarity. Streets are littered with abandoned, decaying vehicles, hundreds of bin bags as well as evidence of mayhem and post rioting carnage. It’s a visual treat.
The game’s audio is magnificent. From the heavy use of the synthesized soundtrack and combat music (Deus Ex and Bladerunner anyone?) to the many different, beefy weapon sounds, the world feels alive with ambient noises from wind to people chattering in the street to dogs barking to enemies chatting about random events. The collectible phone recordings have some very humourous conversations, it makes me want to find them all.
Player and AI animations are smooth and fluid. From the player’s jogging to full on sprinting/dive rolling animations are really nice, it all clicks into place very well with very little hitching. The random homeless NPCs you meet aren’t animated as well but it’s far from terrible. Dogs animate pretty convincingly too and you can shoot them if you’re a dog hater or just an unpleasant person.
The PC version, reviewed, is a very solid port. With multi GPU, multi-screen support, a plethora of options to tweak as well as rock solid performance, it ran almost maxed out on my humble gaming rig. However, the always online requirement of Ubisoft’s U-play client resulted in some abrupt disconnects as well as some server downtime. It would be nice to have an offline mode, in case the servers do go pop. Another reason I didn’t purchase day one, Ubisoft’s servers did crap themselves for a good few hours on launch day. It’s no fun being unable to access the core game when the back end is iffy. Diablo 3 and other games of this nature have the same issue. Thankfully my 50+ hours have largely been trouble-free. I understand why it’s needed, just would be nice to have a solution in place that allows offline play.
For the uninitiated, The Division is essentially a loot shooter. Upgrade your Headquarters, upgrade your skills, collect clothing and trick out your instruments of death. The game has an easy to follow and intuitive itemisation system and is very easy to tell what is an upgrade (and what is trash). The system that Ubisoft Massive has implemented is very reminiscent of Diablo 3. Each item has various stats you can tweak/re-roll certain aspects if you’re looking for that perfect combination, it’s a simple concept yet requires experimentation to yield that killer build. You can also craft items by salvaging the low grade gear or by collecting resources in the world. Again, this system is really well implemented and it very easy to follow.
The weapons, of which are plentiful, play an integral role, as stated above, they can be upgraded. Choose your stock, scope, barrel, skin and clip/magazine. All this modding has an effect on the damage that you deal. Like Diablo 3, raw damage (DPS) isn’t the be-all end-all of your build. Certain gear has additional properties, which can be replaced or re-rolled as well as certain items having “sockets” that item mods can be inserted into to give an added boost to your loadout. Add the combination of skills and skill mods, you’ll become an Elite Agent, ready to take on the thugs that inhabit New York.
Weapon and item modding system is intuitive and simple to use. Almost every weapon has a visual representation of the equipped mod. The combat feels empowering and thankfully, the controls complement the gun-play rather well, with snappy and satisfying feedback both on a keyboard/mouse and controller configuration. There’s no noticeable input lag when playing with a mouse so aiming is a breeze.
The Division’s cover system feels like it was lifted right out of Splinter Cell Conviction then tweaked. It works really well, for the most part. There are some issues where some scenery that looks like it can be used for cover, can’t. It can be frustrating when you’re in a heavy firefight. Thankfully these annoyances are very few and far between so it’s not game breaking.
So, after the main story missions are complete, along with any side missions and random encounters, what’s left to do? Well, you can be the completionist and unlock the many safe-houses scattered around New York, which can be used to fast travel or you could collect the many, many other collectibles such as phone recordings, crashed drone black boxes, incident reports, missing agent locations and the sometimes disturbing, ECHO holographs, which play out reconstructions of past events, some of these are used in side missions, it’s a really cool way to flesh out the story and give more information to the incidents following up to and during the outbreak. Of course, you can do this alone or with 3 other players, this applies to the Dark Zone….. yes, the Dark Zone….
Speaking of stories…. the game’s main story isn’t anything to write home about. Some nut job infects dollar bills with the Smallpox virus, unleashes it on Black Friday and all Hell breaks loose. Society crumbles, Governments fall and things generally go to shit on the streets. The first wave of Division Agents are deployed but things go awry. You are a member of the second Wave. You have to pick up the pieces, re-establish contact and attempt to re-build. It’s all very run-of-the-mill and the characters aren’t all that interesting. My most stand out and memorable character is Joe Ferro, the head of the Cleaners. He’s as (unintentionally?) funny as he is batshit crazy. There are some other funny and memorable parts but it’s largely forgettable.
So level 30 has come and gone, you’ve got as good loot as you’re going to in the main free roam/campaign mode. It’s now time to find bigger, better, more awesome loot in the Dark Zone. For many, this is the beginning of the “real” game, the grind. This mode is predominantly a PvE (Player vs Enemy) zone where you can take on the higher level AI with named bosses that yield high loot, Dark Zone and Phoenix Credits and sometimes Dark Zone keys, which give you access to special loot chests scattered around the world. The credits can be spent at the traders for blueprints or weapons.
After many frustrating betrayals by other, random players, we’ve found the best way to play this mode is with trusted people or your real life friends. Buddy up and voice chat, that’s the best way to co-ordinate and be tactical. The developers have made an interesting game mode here as it gives the opportunity for people to troll but it’s OK as it is actually integral to the game and adds a layer of uncertainty to your or even your trusted allie’s true intentions. Do you help them extract their ill gotten gains or do you stab them in the back during the extraction phase and steal all their loot? It’s a moral dilemma for some, for others it’s a way to play the game. Some people like to help, others like to help themselves by betraying or just outright killing. That’s the beauty of it.
The Rogue System is interesting and fairly unique. Kill another player, you’re marked as rogue on your top right shoulder and on the map, signified by a red skull. Keep up the killing and after level 5 Rogue, you’ll earn the Manhunt status. Every player is alerted to your atrocities and will be awarded fat stacks for bringing you down. The cost of dying in the Dark Zone is loss of XP, credits, keys and your hard earned loot. If you’re savvy enough, you may just be able to pick it up where you died. Be quick though as it’s ripe for the picking by other agents.
If you’re not a Dark Zone person then you can always re-play the main story missions with daily challenges. Playing on the ridiculously “Challenging” mode will test your metal and your build. The enemies become bigger bullet sponges and can take you down with a few shots. The reward, while not mind-blowing, will earn you a high level item and some Phoenix Credits. Again, it’s all about the grind.
So, in conclusion. Does the game deliver? Yes and no. I was partially right to hold off on the day one purchase but I have enjoyed my time with The Division. Especially with friends. We’re still plugging away, trying to find all the best gear. However, as with most RPG’s, repetition sets in. How many daily challenges do you complete before you become bored of the same old missions? The main issue so far is content and variety. The enemies are mainly guys in hoodies or guys in military outfits. That’s the problem with using a name like Tom Clancy on your product. Realism.
In a fantasy/sci-fi universe, anything goes. The only limit is your imagination. Go nuts. Not so with The Division. The whole game has been very grounded with the realistic setting, weapons, gear and enemies. To add something out of the norm would stand out like a sore thumb. This is more noticeable in the clothing that you can collect and equip. It’s all so bland. There’s no magical power armour or helmets of awesomeness to show off to your buddies (there are cool looking military outfits, that costs real cash, which look quite cool). I hope more interesting outfits are added to the game. At the moment it’s you and a hundred other players who look almost much the same.
Ubisoft has already set out their “Year One” plan for this game and it looks impressive. I’m hoping all goes well, people lap it up and they continue to support the game. The first update is free and is due in April, dubbed “Incursions” which is geared towards end game PvE squad play and where epic loot awaits. If they can keep the content and interest flowing, I think this could be a game that will keep people coming back for more.
We shall see.