Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC

This review was written using a pre-release review copy provided by Ubisoft

I’ve written so much pre-release coverage for Ubisoft’s new online shooter The Division in the past few months that it’s still kind of surreal knowing that I’ve now gotten to play the game’s final version for myself. Another surreal element about the game is how oddly familiar it feels to play, likely due in part to my fondness for both shooter games and MMO’s, two genres from which The Division borrows very heavily with varying amounts of success. Fans and critics have lauded this new online experience as the game which will dethrone (or at least disrupt) Bungie’s own console shooter Destiny, and it’s pretty much impossible not to make direct comparisons between the two. However, where The Division really separates itself from the pack isn’t in what it does differently, but in how it reshapes and repurposes what has already been done.   

A Grim and Beautiful Playground

Fans who were devoted enough to buy a copy of The Division on launch day are likely already familiar with the game’s story setup, but for the sake of covering all my bases, here’s a recap. The Division is set during the Christmas season of a not-too-distant future (it could be 2016 for all we know).

During the annual Black Friday shopping rush, a mysterious virus begins to spread, soon leading to a country-wide pandemic and the collapse of the US government. When it’s discovered that the pandemic was caused by a man-made virus (and thus becomes an issue of terrorism), a secret government organization called the Strategic Homeland Division (or “The Division” for short) is activated, calling thousands of hidden Division agents into action.

In The Division, players take on the role of these agents, working to reestablish order in the quarantined New York City while also helping to create a vaccine for the virus and figure out who exactly unleashed it in the first place. This is mainly done by completing missions which are peppered throughout the city, but players are also encouraged to explore The Division’s large digital recreation of New York City on their own time.

I personally recommend this as well, since many of the game’s most poignant moments are found not in its story cinematics or mission set pieces, but in the haunting beauty The Division’s version of New York City contains. When you’re wandering down a deserted road with stray dogs and haggard civilians scampering by, or you head up to the top of a building and look out over the city’s distant harbor, or you peek around every corner with dread as you skulk through the foreboding Dark Zone, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Ubisoft really nailed The Division’s dark atmospheric tone.

Nuts and Bolts

Of course, wandering around post-crisis New York City is just a small part of what The Division offers. For shooter fans, there’s the tactical third-person shooting which functions as the game’s main gameplay system, and for RPG fans, there’s a surprisingly deep progression system which allows players to approach each combat scenario in a multitude of ways. The two don’t always work in harmony, but under the right circumstances, they come together to throw players into a high-stakes conflict in which bullets are the main currency.

First, the shooting mechanics. There’s nothing really crazy or “out there” on this front, you equip guns, outfit them with mods, point them at bad guys, and then pull the trigger much like you do in any other shooter game. The third-person cover mechanics offer a nice change of pace from more mile-a-minute shooters like Destiny or Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, but they also take some getting used to as Ubisoft made the odd choice of mapping the “stick to cover” action to the X button (on PlayStation 4) and the “mantle over cover” action to the O button, which meant that, in the heat of the moment, I would often accidently jump over a piece of cover instead of hunker down behind it.

As for the RPG mechanics, again, there’s nothing here that RPG and MMO players haven’t seen before. You gain XP, you level up, you unlock new active and passive skills, you can break down unneeded items for materials and use them to craft new items, you slowly make your character more powerful by equipping better and better gear, rinse, repeat. This may all sound boring on paper, but since you’re progressing your character while also simultaneously working through The Division’s story and exploring its highly immersive world, it actually doesn’t really ever feel like grinding, especially since there are so many activities Division players can occupy themselves with.

The game’s spaced out story missions and gradual leveling track ensure that even dedicated players won’t be able to simply power through the main story campaign. In between story missions, players can undertake a larger number of different secondary tasks, including collectible-hunting, multi-part side missions, outdoor encounters, and, of course, the Dark Zone. While the encounters pretty much always involve fighting off a group of AI enemies, the side missions are surprisingly varied, with objectives ranging from tracking down a missing person, to securing a stationary location against waves of foes, to navigating environmental puzzles in order to switch on the power grid for an area or gather virus samples.

Players looking for the ultimate thrill can venture into the Dark Zone, which is The Division’s answer for PvP combat and also where you can find the best gear. In the Dark Zone (which players can enter as early as level 10), all bets are off, and players must contend not only with more powerful AI foes, but also with each other. Shooting and killing other players tags you as a “Rogue Agent,” putting a bounty on your head which makes you a very enticing target for non-rogue players. If you survive for the bounty’s time limit, you’re rewarded, but if you die, the penalties are more severe than if you die as a non-rogue, creating a very tense (and very fun) risk/reward mechanic. The Dark Zone is mostly intended as an endgame activity, but even low-level agents can enjoy its unique PvP format (at their own risk of course).

Misfiring

Aside from the sometimes unforgiving nature of the Dark Zone, my only other criticisms of The Division are mostly manageable affairs. The game’s difficulty curve is noticeably steep, especially when you’re starting out, which might frustrate solo players or those who are used to the more gradual difficulty curves of shooters like Destiny or MMO’s like World of Warcraft. The Division also falls into the same pitfall as Destiny when it comes to explaining the finer points of the game’s story. More casual players should be able to get at least a basic idea of what’s going on, but only by meticulously poring over the game’s optional lore will players be able to confidently identify the many key players (both allies and enemies) who show up during the main story campaign.

Off to a Good Start

So far, The Division’s launch has been surprisingly smooth, which isn’t a knock against Ubisoft but rather a reminder that most online games, even ones with the backing of AAA game studios, are rarely so lucky. It still remains to be seen exactly how well The Division will be able to keep its forward momentum in the coming months, but if the base package is any indication of the level of quality that Ubisoft is aiming for, I’d say The Division’s future is in good hands.