With the swathe of military shooters abound across every platform of video games, it’s sometimes hard to find one to really care about anymore. In the online space, Call of Duty and Battlefield were the heaviest hitters for the last nine years or so. Now, we have a new kid on the block that isn’t just the Every Man’s shooter.
Ubisoft’s The Division is part cover-based, third-person shooter; part RPG; part espionage/military science intrigue; but all around MMO (MM-faux?) platform. And while the game does some great and fun things, its shortcomings are some that follow the same problems of other games it aims to compete with.
The premise of the game is that a potential pandemic has broken out across Manhattan island, and New York is in a state of quarantine. A medical virus has been imprinted across thousands of dollar bills, and due to a Black Friday shopping season, the virus has spread among shoppers causing a catastrophic downfall of the world’s largest city. In the wake of this political and national emergency, a sect of sleeper agents called The Division have been alerted to take up arms and converge on New York to contain the situation. However, mass deaths and bridge blockades have caused residents to riot, form gangs or flee for their lives leaving the Big Apple a veritable no-man’s land.
The online aspect calls for players, as agents of The Division, to investigate, contain, and – where necessary – neutralise any threats either on their own or as a team. Anyone who has played Destiny will find familiarity in the way the online structure of the game works, with hubs (safe houses) for players to congregate and a means to team up. However The Division’s take on PvP, level-centric areas and the overall world are a significant step up. Unlike in Destiny where players will sift through menus to travel to various planets and take on missions, The Division is set in one place – Manhattan – and players will traverse the environment in real time or via an intricate map system for fast travel. In fact, The Division rarely takes the player out of the game at all, other than to start the game.
The menu systems of the game are entirely embedded into the game in real-time, much like an AR experience might do. Think back to Dead Space’s menu/HUD systems, where information would be projected on the game’s plain rather than stopping or pulling the player out of the game itself. It makes for a much more seamless and futuristic experience that’s slick and fluid. Furthermore, the entire visual aesthetic of the game is a cleverly crafted feat, with dynamic notifications/prompts frequently appearing but feeling utterly intrusive to the detriment of the experience.
Graphically, the game looks incredible. Ubisoft has spared no expense at creating a realistic New York City, to the point of decrepit streetscapes, piles of trash strewn everywhere and rats running alongside of me causing me to think that this world looked amazing rather than disgusting. The game’s sense of scale is also a humbling aspect to traversal – both on the macro and micro level. Buildings tower enormously high overhead and running hundreds of metres to the next waypoint doesn’t take mere seconds as if it were done by some superhuman. On the other side of that, infiltrating office spaces, medical rooms and sewers are brimming with relative clutter and detail that make the areas look like they’ve actually seen life. And these smaller environments aren’t just a few; they come a dime a dozen.
But what about the gameplay? It works as well as most other cover-based shooters. You see dudes; you shoot dudes; you find more dudes. Though due to The Division being an RPG, hallmarks of roleplay-shooters are here: each successful shot displays damage numbers, enemy difficulty is based on their levels in contrast to your own, new loot is dropped after gunfights, etc. The game’s levelling system affects the types of weapons and equipment the player can access, whereas abilities are earned by unlocking various capabilities of your three facilities back at home base: the Medical Wing, the Tech Wing and the Security Wing. Each mission will award the player with points respective to either of these three facilities, which can be spent to upgrade an aspect of that facility. These upgrades will in turn provide the player with new abilities, such as an active sonar for finding enemies within range, or a roller-bomb that when activated will chase an enemy and explode. When more upgrades are attributed to a facility, other mechanics to gameplay are unlocked such as perks/special abilities and mods, which upgrade abilities further.
In terms of gunplay and loot customisation, The Division has you covered. As with Destiny, loot drops will be highlighted by a specific colour to display its rarity. Certain weapons and equipment are level locked, but all weapons and some equipment can be modified. Weapon mods can increase your weapon’s capabilities such as aim stability, visual scope and ammunition capacity. Equipment is just as crucial to player success as it will provide armour and other stat boosts – however, filter masks are particularly important as certain areas of the world will be contaminated by outbreaks. These contaminated areas are only accessible by players who have filter masks that meet the contamination level.
The Division is packed full of things to do, as well. There are a plethora of encounters constantly springing up about the map to take down for facility reward points, missions to take on with or without matchmaking for teammates (with ‘Normal’ or ‘Hard’ difficulty options) and then there’s the Dark Zone.
The Dark Zone is ground zero for the viral outbreak and is a large, cordoned segment of central Manhattan where there is absolutely no order or contact to the outside: the perfect grounds for player vs player action. In the Dark Zone, a completely different levelling system is attributed to each player, though not quite as long-achieving as the main game’s. Here, players have the choice of either hunting more exotic loot or other players, or both. If a player attacks another, they are instantly branded rogue warning other players. Rogue status is removed when a player leaves the Dark Zone.
What makes this PvP environment more engaging is the method for keeping the exotic loot you find. Because the Dark Zone is a highly contaminated area, even the weapons/equipment players find require quarantine. Due to this, when players have what they want, they must find an extraction point to call for aid. Once an extraction is requested via helicopter, a countdown timer begins and a local alert is sent out to nearby players. This means any player can move into an extraction point and also request to airlift out their own equipment too. However with the PvP aspect in play, they also have the option of taking you out and leaving you to drop your spoils, potentially missing your extraction. It’s an adrenaline-fueled experience seeing a rush of players coming from all angles to join the firefight to hold an extraction point, unknowing as whether these players are looking to help out or straight-up go rogue and kill everyone involved. DZ extractions are most certainly the game’s most heart-racing moments.
While I found myself really enjoying my roughly 40 hours with The Division, it does have its problems. In particular, it’s the online requirement to playing the game. Players can go through the campaign completely solo, without opting to matchmake for help. As a matter of fact, outside of safe houses and the Dark Zone, if a player doesn’t start matchmaking, they won’t encounter any other players out in the rest of the city. Meaning that unless specifically opted, the game can be played in singleplayer, which from that point negates a required online connection. And as with all online games, the potential for lag causes havoc particularly in firefights. Another issue with the online play is enemy difficulty scaling in relation to the players in your team. Many times that I joined up with players roughly around my skill level, the enemies would be within our difficulty level. However if a player of a significantly higher level than us joined, then the enemies would scale to match that player leaving us utterly weak to do any damage and be almost instantly killed. It’s a weird design choice that created frustration, causing me to leave the group and restart the mission with a completely different set of matchmade teammates.
Outside of this, two smaller but still annoying issues caused grief. The first was reload cancellations, which are caused when diving in a direction which reloading. In just about every firefight, at least twice I would pop out of cover to shoot an enemy only to have my gun requiring a reload, because the emergency roll I needed to make a from a live grenade caused the reload to stop. It’s a very ‘video game first world problem’ for sure, but it’s a heat-of-the-moment aspect that really does make or break hectic gunfights. The other issue is the lack of a crouch function, which is a staple mechanic for any military shooter. The only way a player can crouch is behind low cover, which means if an enemy is on higher ground behind cover and you want to cautiously make your way across the battlefield without being snapped to the game’s geometry, you’re out of luck.
With that all said, I still find an extremely enjoyable experience inside The Division. Clever, intricate game design and a wonderfully optional multiplayer experience make this game one to pay attention to if you’re into online shooters. The game is huge, brimming with detail and content, and this is just the beginning of what Ubisoft has to offer – I can’t wait to see what they’re going to deliver with DLC.