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Review: ‘The Division’

AWN game expert Spencer Fawcett tries to take back Manhattan in Ubisoft’s brand new third-person shooter game.

Developer: Ubisoft Massive

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: March 8th, 2016

NOTE: The Division was played on the PlayStation 4 platform.

The Division, originally slated for a 2014 release, has finally seen the light of day and joins the cavalcade of exemplary Tom Clancy titles among the Splinter Cells and Ghost Recons game franchise of the past. The Division is a third-person shooter that integrates role-playing game mechanics such as loot and damage per second (DPS) into its gameplay. The game is set in The Big Apple with nary a soul to be seen, but plenty of rioters and looters you can engage alone or with friends.

The burning questions are: Does it work? And is it more than the sum of its parts?

The answers are: Well, yes, and no. 

The Division takes place in the near future during a Black Friday as scores of shoppers eagerly buy televisions, toasters and microwaves for a fraction of their cost. Without warning, everyone starts to get sick and die off, causing panic throughout the country. Typical of Tom Clancy fare, the U.S. government is powerless to stop the spread of the contagion, so they call upon The Division, a group of sleeper agents that are activated when the last lines of defense fall. They’re your co-workers, your relatives and even your friends – they’ll leave you hanging with the tab if the intro is any indication of their manners. The central story primarily focuses on Agents retaking Manhattan from looters, the sole motivation for shooting first and never asking questions as your avatar is dead quiet and relegated to errand boy/girl.  

After a lackluster character customization, The Division unceremoniously drops you into the heart of Brooklyn to train, get your bearings and discover your brave new world filled with so few people. The Division is covered with a light layer of snow atop abandoned cars, overflowing trash and stray dogs desperate to survive. Vagrants also litter the world and converse with one another about their former lives and the struggle to make it to the next day. There’s never any way to help them outside of providing the occasional canned food, medkit or some cosmetic superfluous clothing. Many, including the ones in your safe zone, will repeat ad nauseam the same lines of dialogue.  While the citizens are little more than props, the city more than makes up for that lack of interaction. 

The Division’s section of Manhattan - with Chelsea, Times Square and Flatiron - is an absolute pleasure to roam around within and explore. With only a fast travel option available, you’ll be constantly walking/running through the city -- but it’s all worth seeing. There are many areas of striking scenery, like rows of caskets for veterans in a sewer, bodies upon bodies lit ablaze, and the snowy stoops of an empty street. Even the rooms and buildings you can enter give you snapshots of what a mass evacuation of a city of 1.6 million must have been like.

Manhattan itself becomes a central character of The Division as it constantly changes and illustrates an aura of hopelessness, as no matter how many people the player rescues or saves, there is no saving New York. All they can do is rebuild from their base of operations. And given how impossible visibility can get when one of The Division’s many blizzards cascades into the city, it seems as though Mother Nature has and always will reclaim the Concrete Jungle.

But The Division is a role-playing action shooter game in the same vein as Borderlands and Destiny and there will be loot for you to collect. The standard fare of weapons is available -- pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, snipers, light machine guns, all of which can be modified like Ubisoft’s previous Ghost Recon: Future Soldier’s gunsmith -- for the player to lay waste to the different kinds of looters and rioters. There is a disappointingly short supply of enemy variety in The Division, but this may stem from the game’s setting of being more grounded in reality than the fantastical worlds of other role-playing games. There are the standard looters and rioters, the Cleaners and the Rikers. Each one is only as varied as the weapons they carry, with the Cleaners and their flamethrowers being the only source of enemy differentiation.

There are other tools of destruction in the shape of skill trees governed by the rate at which you upgrade your base of operations when you reach Manhattan. Medical, Tech and Security are the three wings and the game never locks you into one skill tree. If you want to have a pulse that locates enemies, a turret to keep enemies suppressed, or maybe you want to strengthen your cover, The Division makes those options available to you. These differing abilities and the combinations you and your party of friends take with you keep the combat moving along at a steady pace. The skills are upgradeable, so the aforementioned pulse that can tag enemies can give your entire party a damage boost that makes certain encounters much easier.

Then there are the more passive perks and talents that provide marginal bonuses to gameplay, like combat bonuses and inventory slots. But God help you if any of the enemies get closer than a few feet in front of you. What follows is a mad dash away or mashing the right thumbstick to end the attacker. However, there is a slight delay between when an enemy attacks and when you actually take damage. It’s incredibly infuriating and makes you wish that all third-person shooters – The Last of Us notwithstanding – would work better, especially in 2016. The Division’s melee and close combat is a frantic, spastic and unenjoyable experience.

Speaking of unenjoyable experiences, grenade selection and usage in combat certainly falls into this category. There are the standard, incendiary, flashbang, etc., but what is unintuitive is the usage of the D-Pad to select a more appropriate grenade during combat. You’ll more than likely relegate grenade choice to the auto-select which chooses the one most available. And with an A.I. that is sometimes brilliant – flanking your position and putting pressure on the weaker sides – and at other times leaves you wondering how the developers get dressed in the morning, The Division makes for an above average gameplay experience.

One of the more enjoyable features of The Division is its online and cooperative mechanics. At any point in the game, you can recruit other players to join and aid you or vice versa. Loot is split and is individual to the player, meaning that whatever loot you find is yours because the other players can’t even see it. Be forewarned, however, if an agent’s level far exceeds your own, the game will level the enemies to the highest player. This means that if you’re playing a mission with a harder difficulty and your companion is out of your league, then you’re in for a world of hurt. But joining and playing with other players presents no noticeable lag or delay in actions, although you may get kicked out of The Division’s servers depending on how the gear is feeling at that current moment.

The Division takes an interesting approach to Player vs. Player (PVP) multiplayer in that it is contextualized into what are called Dark Zones, which take up a portion of the world map. Dark Zones are more dangerous than the game’s normal areas and have been quarantined. But, they also contain better loot than the other areas. Other players also occupy the Dark Zone and players can shoot and attack others and go rogue, which means you are highlighted as an enemy to all other players. This can be a nightmare for teams because if one of your members goes rogue, you all go rogue. Unfair, yes, but there can be tense moments between parties of players who no longer know whom is trustworthy. The only way to leave with the loot is to extract it, which requires the cooperation of other players, as the loot is taken to a location that starts a timer. It can be aggravating to lose it all because you were shot in the back but it’s that much more sweet when you leave with the best loot the game has to offer.

There are a few niggling technical difficulties that plague The Division but none of them are as apparent as they were in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, though that may come back to haunt me. There were several audio bugs where the game audio would cut out or mix improperly. Other times, when the menu was pulled up, the gun and avatar would be pitch black. None of the glitches were game-breaking or affected the performance but they are worth mentioning.

As one of the first new intellectual properties of the eighth generation, The Division lays a very solid foundation on which to build. While the gameplay is not as robust or visceral as other third-person shooters, the world of Manhattan is incredible and worth the price of admission. And with more content scheduled for release in the coming months, The Division should continue to grow and expand its platform as one of the most detail-oriented open worlds in video games.