In reviewing a game, there’s a never-ending debate as to whether the reviewer needs to finish the game in its entirety first. Should the writer delve dozens of hours into every nook of the game before they pass judgement? Or should their time with the game be more indicative of a natural experience—one that misses quests and dialogue barks and collectables, that enjoys the little moments instead of drowning them in the bigger picture, that isn’t quite out of the honeymoon phase.
And then there’s the question of time: If I get a review code a week in advance, or only days before launch, should I go nights without sleeping, grinding the game for a hundred hours and then churning out a saturated opinion on a tired mind? Or should I write it when I’m only halfway finished, but have a tangible grasp of the game’s systems, and an opinion as to whether it’s worth your dollar. With more and more games putting out massive month-one patches, it becomes harder to accurately represent a game without waiting for and recognizing that development precedent.
So I played The Division alpha. I played the closed beta. I played the open beta. I ran through those starting missions each time, not because I was enamoured by them or by the game, but because they were required to get me to the Dark Zone—the mouth-watering, open-world player-versus-player meat of The Division; the tough, well-done steak. This was it: This was the shit that got me hyped three years ago.
At E3 2013 Ubisoft’s demo of The Division showed off some steamy physics action. A character walks in cover along the side of a police car, door ajar, and the character dynamically shuts it as he crouches along. He shoots a tire on a vehicle, and the hood drops just enough to get a better shot at an enemy. Bullets leave tiny holes and webbed cracks in windows. These little details felt very Tom Clancy—technical and gritty—and they were replayed and shared in gif form on forums for weeks. The demo showed a few other things, like a friend who could join the game as a drone (controlled via a tablet companion app), and an early vision of the Dark Zone that was seamlessly integrated into the main world. But neither of those ideas made it into the final release.
The main world in The Division works a lot like Destiny, where you, or you and your posse of up to three friends, roam an open world inhabited by NPCs and filled with missions and collectables. There’s a hub area that can upgraded based on the types of missions you complete in order to unlock your preferred RPG skill branches, between medic, tech, and security. Medic skills can heal yourself or others; tech gives you an arsenal of robotic weaponry (including an automatic turret and seeker mine); while security offers a variant to traditional tank properties, with a ballistic shield and stat-buffs to friendlies while in cover.
The RPG mechanics in The Division exist and they’re functional—you have a level, your weapons have a level, and there’s a variety of optional skills and static abilities for both. You can craft and mod, and buy and loot. The main divergence is that you’re never set to one class, and your skills are only restricted by how many slots you have unlocked. Because your gear dictates your stats entirely, you can balance your class and skills on-the-fly for skill power, health, and damage, or create a hybrid by stacking damage stats and then using only medic skills.
As of writing I have 114 hours into The Division. I played on launch day. I played during launch week. I played all of launch month. I finished every mission in the game. I have almost 80% of all collectables. I grinded that shit until I was max level, and I scoured for every drop of gold I could until each gear item and weapon on my character was high-end. I didn’t grind the game because I like shooting AI. I did it to prepare myself for the Dark Zone—the ostensible final frontier of PvP end-game. I went in ready to take on the world. But the world was empty.
In The Division, you don’t speak to NPCs. You hear them over radios. Sometimes you can give a friendly NPC a candy bar when they stumble past you, starving. Other times you can watch them die in the streets. Or fight amongst each other. Or coddle their wounded. And then you can watch those same pre-set interactions animate over and over again in between shooting gangs of bad guys who just sort of yell at you before offering their bodies to your bullets like mindless martyrdoms for a cause that’s never effectively developed.
Narrative is told through collectable voice logs, radio coms, and two cutscenes—one at the beginning of the game, and one at the end of the main story. You are an agent of The Division, a taskforce meant to keep Manhattan safe after a viral epidemic wipes out New York and leaves power-hungry crazies with the idea that the sick should be left to die. These gangs attack on sight in order to stop you from stopping them from killing survivors. Nobody tries to talk it out. Nobody tries to talk at all, really. There’s no dialogue with quirky characters, or with menacing baddies, only monologues by voice actors talking into your character’s earpiece, or yelling at you from across the room with guns in their hands.
The door-closing physics seen at E3 is still in the game, but only as a fan-service gimmick—almost every car has an open door that you can close by brushing it with your hip, but for some reason you can only ever close doors, never open them to loot vehicles. You can’t shoot through car windows either (the glass is too foggy), and shooting tires is never an advantageous way to draw an enemy out of cover. Every single thing that Massive Entertainment developed in The Division feels artificial.
The Dark Zone and Update 1.1
The Dark Zone stands out because of its human dynamic—because humans can run around and decide if they want to shoot each other in the face or to party up on-the-fly and help each other. Everything works the same as in the main world, where you shoot and loot NPCs around the map and that’s pretty much it, except that when you die you drop any loot you’ve found since entering the Dark Zone, and other players can pick it up. The only way to permanently collect the loot is by reaching an extraction point, surviving the minute-and-a-half timer, and then sending your loot bag out with a helicopter.
In The Division’s first big update to 1.1, Massive added randomly-occurring supply drops which appear in clusters around the Dark Zone map every hour or so. The supply drops were an attempt to drive friendly players to a common goal, and to increase the chances of rogue players finding another person to kill and loot. The change was an attempt to tweak the Dark Zone meta which was generally timid.
Along with adding supply drops, Massive also buffed NPC loot drops and nerfed crafting conversion rates in order to promote the former over the latter. The Dark Zone was always the place to find the best loot, and now players can find more high-end loot more frequently. Before 1.1, the loot alone was never a reason to kill another player in cold blood; going rogue puts a price on your head and pings you on the map for everyone to hunt you down, and if you make it out of rogue status by surviving a timer, you only get a small XP reward. If you’re killed, you lose your loot, some money, and XP—likely more than you’d earn for surviving.
With 1.1, there’s a higher chance that another player has loot that’s worth killing for, but it’s not enough to fix the illusion of choice in the Dark Zone. The Division is not Rust or DayZ where you never know if you can trust another player. Playing with a group guarantees that all players in the party get a drop from the same chest, and the lack of friendly fire means there’s no way to kill your partner and steal their loot. Playing solo offers no advantage, and only makes you more likely to be picked on by larger groups who see your character holding a loot bag. Going rogue is really only worth it for a laugh as a group, because the XP and loot gained for surviving rogue is a pittance for the effort.
As an innovative MMO experience, The Division fails. The Dark Zone is a poorly executed concept that feels more like a “mingle-player” game where you can run past other players doing their business and emote to them, than it does a dangerous PvP battleground. As a technical showcase of next-generation aesthetic, The Division fails. Its mechanics are pulled directly from cover-based shooters and Tom Clancy action games of the past, and the game has been subject to a countless number of clumsy Loot Cave-esque exploits which have split the player base drastically. As an RPG time sink, The Division fails. The endgame is tedious and empty, the level cap is low, and there are so few useful skills to use at max level that every area of the game devolves into simple cover shooting for hours on end with little reward.
The problem with The Division is that it doesn’t care if you keep playing. It wants your $60 and it knows you’ll have fun for a few hours. While there’s still stuff to do and find in the main world, The Division is a good time. If you have a few friends who want to go around the Dark Zone one afternoon shooting other people or tracking down rogues, you will have a good time. But once you start trying to find things to do—when there’s no more set-pieces left for Massive to curate, and all you want is to find something secret or nuanced or interesting because that’s the reason you play open-world RPGs—you won’t find a thing. There’s nothing special hidden away in The Division. Just bodies and ash.
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The Xbox One version was supplied to the editor for the purpose of this review. The Division is also available on PS4 and PC.