The first thing you should know about The Division is that though it bears the Tom Clancy moniker and looks like a tactical shooter, it is in fact a loot-heavy action RPG. It is a game about acquiring the highest level gear to take on the most challenging content. It still has a significant tactical element in its cover-based firefights, but it’s largely the quality of gear that decides your level of success.
Like Diablo or Destiny, you can play solo, matchmake with random people, or play with a dedicated group of friends. The focus is on multiplayer, but it isn’t an MMO. After spending more than a week playing the game, I can honestly say it’s one of the best new IPs in recent years. It feels fresh and exciting and the action-packed gameplay coupled with the steady drip-feed of loot has me hooked.
The Division takes place in a quarantined section of New York after a viral epidemic has wiped out most of the city’s population. As you’d expect, it’s a hostile place full of looters and gangs vying for control. You play as a member of The Division, a group of sleeper agents who are activated after the city falls. Your task, along with what remains of the city’s emergency services, is to maintain some semblance of order until the situation is under control, while also trying to uncover the source of the virus.
The story raises some interesting ethical and political questions but fails to capitalise on it and your character is pretty much a blank slate. Don’t expect dialogue trees, choices, or drawn out cutscenes here. This isn’t that kind of RPG. The story is largely told via radio transmissions during missions, phone recordings, journals and the occasional brief cutscene.
While the story is serviceable at best, the environment is the real star of the show. The rundown city looks utterly convincing and brimming with atmosphere. Almost every area has tiny details that you may not even notice if you don’t slow down. Screenshots don’t do justice to the visuals; this is a game that needs to be seen in motion.
The Snowdrop Engine that powers the game is capable of producing some of the most realistic lighting and weather I’ve seen in a game. Snowstorms literally blind you while the orange glow of the morning sun feels strangely soothing despite the grim surroundings. Even after dozens of hours, I kept noticing things that made me stop and take notice.
The map isn’t as large as other open-world titles, but it’s packed with detail and there are plenty of buildings and underground tunnels to explore. Most of the main story missions take place in closed off areas (not unlike dungeons in RPGs) that are really well designed and feel different from each other. There’s quite a lot to do in the game – there’s main story missions, upgrading your base of operations, side missions specific to each district, and a huge number of encounters that are like tiny side missions.
Most of the content gets repetitive rather quickly since there’s only a handful of mission types (rescue civilians here, kill a boss there, defend some supplies, etc). However, running through the city doing these missions is still a lot of fun and the moment-to-moment gameplay remains exciting, especially if you play with a group of friends.
The Division plays like your standard third-person cover shooter and it’s definitely a competent one at that. Guns sound great and are very satisfying to use. Moving around and shooting feels weighty and has the right amount of punch to it. Your agent can be equipped with several unlockable active and passive skills, which give every player a role on the field. It’s possible to spec your agent as a designated healer or a support engineer who deploys turrets and homing mines. But you can also be a straight DPS machine or a jack of all trades.
The game doesn’t explicitly lock you into a specific class and you are free to switch up your build at any time, which is great as it helps you quickly adapt to the situation as well as synergise with your team on the fly. There were many times my team was successful only after switching to an effective combination of skills and gear to respond to the situation.
Playing solo is a decent enough experience and the PvE missions can be completed solo if you wish. The game offers matchmaking for almost everything so you can always hop into a public group if things prove too challenging. However, it is a lot more fun if you play it with a group of friends. Communication is key on harder modes, which is what you’ll end up playing after hitting the level 30 cap.
It is worth mentioning that the game scales the difficulty of the content to the player, with the highest level making the experience pretty much unplayable for someone at a lower level. If you really need to make the most out of the co-op experience, you need to ensure that your group levels up together or be lucky enough to be grouped with players of similar levels in matchmaking.
One of the most talked about aspects of The Division is its unique take on PvP. In theory, it is one of the best new multiplayer ideas since the Souls games. The map has a large walled-off section dubbed the Dark Zone – a contaminated area populated by high-level enemies and other players looking for equipment. The idea is to farm loot and safely extract it via helicopter while others do the same.
The Dark Zone is the only place which allows PvP so other players are free to shoot you and grab your loot. But you can also choose to work together and have everyone safely extract. Yes, it can be unfair at times as fights can happen between anyone regardless of level or gear, but that’s what makes it interesting. Shooting other players marks you as a rogue agent. Others can then freely hunt you down and collect the bounty on your head. More often than not, this happens accidentally as another player simply wanders into your line of fire.
While the Dark Zone sounds like a fertile ground for griefers, my own experience with it has been largely positive. It really does feel like a dangerous place compared to the PvE zones, especially if you choose to venture there alone. Going with a group completely changes the dynamic as you have others to watch your back if things go awry.
The AI enemies in the Dark Zone are relentless and difficult to fight, but the loot isn’t necessarily that much better than the PvE side of things, and that is generally a good thing. The game does not push players to play in the Dark Zone if they don’t want to. It’s definitely not the only endgame activity as some may think.
High-end gear can be acquired from daily missions that are unlocked after hitting the level 30 cap. However, I must mention that as of this writing, the DZ reward system is skewed as going rogue offers almost no significant rewards but carries a massive penalty at higher levels. This will surely prevent most players from engaging in PvP until it’s addressed, making PvP in the Dark Zone a rather dull affair instead of the tense experience it’s supposed to be.
The Division certainly needs some fixing overall. There are bugs with the UI, mission objectives can sometimes get bugged (requiring a restart), and the Dark Zone needs rebalancing. This is no doubt the game that will continue to evolve over time as fixes roll in and new content drops, but even now it is a fairly compelling title that is unlike most games of its kind.
The setting itself is fairly unique for a loot-based game, though it’s grounded approach does limit what can be done with the gear and enemies. I still wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys third-person shooters and loot games. It does a lot of things right and ticks all the boxes, looks gorgeous and is super addictive. It might be too early to tell if the game has legs to stay relevant in the long run, but it certainly has a solid framework to build upon.