Fun Firefights Held Back By A Dull Endgame
Tom Clancy’s The Division is not the game I had hoped it would be. Ubisoft does a lot of things right with its post-apocalyptic third-person cover-based RPG shooter, but the lackluster story, repetitive gameplay loop, and boring endgame content hold back what could have been a much better game.
To its merit, The Division offers players some truly stirring firefights in an absolutely gorgeous rendering of Manhattan. The cover system is also fantastic; it feels like the final culmination of a control scheme that’s been evolving out of the Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon series, and it works with ease and fluidity. The actual gameplay of moving through a virus-ravaged Manhattan taking down squad after squad of rioters and paramilitary vigilantes is fun, and the AI is decent enough to create some heart-pounding moments. At its best, The Division makes you feel like the ultimate ground soldier, with enough firepower and tech to take down entire battalions of enemies in your effort to restore stability.
That’s when it’s at its best, however, and unfortunately the game misses that mark more often than not. I’m no stranger to Tom Clancy games; I’ve played almost every release since the original Rainbow Six on the Dreamcast. That said, Tom Clancy games have never really been particularly strong in two departments: story and voice acting (save the original cast of the first few Splinter Cell games, of course). But you don’t come for the story, you come for the gameplay and to get tactical with your friends. And tactically-speaking, The Division can be really fun. But in a game that’s designed to have hours upon hours dedicated to it, there needs to be more than just fun firefights to keep players engaged.
The game drops players in a massive open-world map of Manhattan, with the different boroughs being divvied up by level (the farther north you travel, typically the higher level you’ll need to be to survive). The map is littered with missions, side missions, intel collectibles, and gear bags to loot, and the lack of loading screens once you’ve booted up the game is impressive. You’ll spend your time leveling up your agent and hunting for new and better weapons and gear, all the while upgrading your Base of Operations. The Base of Operations consists of three wings: medical, tech and security. Missions will be assigned to one of the three wings, and their completion unlocks upgrades that can be purchased with wing-specific credits. Those upgrades provide your agent with perks, talents, and skills that can be assigned to create your own custom character build.
There’s plenty to do as you make your way to level 30, and it’s incredibly easy to get distracted from the main missions by all the side content and random events that pop up while you’re trekking down the abandoned wintery streets of Manhattan. It’s also easy to get side-tracked since the story is almost non-existent; the main missions are almost completely disassociated from one another, and the only over-arching plotline (besides “taking back New York”) is to hunt down the man possibly responsible for the Green Virus outbreak. Oddly enough, you never meet him in-game, so it’s kind of hard feeling compelled to find a man whose face you’ve never even seen. The story puts far more focus on the different groups of enemies that have arisen in the anarchy, as well as on the rogue Division agent who plans to use this outbreak and societal breakdown to his own personal advantage. It’s pretty clear that Ubisoft is prepared to stretch this story out as much as they can over the course of its multiple DLC offerings.
Once you’ve hit level 30, you’re treated to the endgame content. This is where a game like The Division lives or dies, as the gameplay loop has to be fresh enough to compel players to keep coming back to grind for better gear. That content is pretty much all found in the Dark Zone, a PvPvE region of the map where players can hunt down high-level enemies and each other for the best gear in the game. The kick is, once you’ve found that gear, it’s stored in a bright yellow bag on your back, and you’ll need to have it extracted via helicopter before you officially own it. Extractions work by reaching certain areas (Extraction Zones), firing off a flare, and waiting for a chopper to come pick up your gear. Once you fire that flare, however, everyone in your lobby becomes immediately aware of your position, giving them time to decide if that turtleneck sweater you’ve fought so hard for would look better on them. I’ll admit, standing around with a bunch of other players, all of us with gear in hand and fingers on triggers, tensely waiting for the helicopter to show, can be a thrill. I’ve been in a few Mexican standoffs that would have made Tarantino proud.
While it sounds great on paper, the tougher Dark Zone enemies (who subsequently have the best gear) are frustratingly hard to kill. It also feels pretty weird, given Tom Clancy games’ penchant for realism, when you pump clip after clip into a guy’s head and have him still standing. At max level, pretty much every enemy in the game is a bullet sponge; there’s no real objective in the firefights besides to avoid being flanked and just shooting the bad guys ‘til they drop. It wears thin really fast. Frankly speaking, the most fun I had in the game was just going around the Dark Zone killing other players indiscriminately.
Most of the gear you find is useless as well, so it takes some serious grinding to get the High-End level gear. You can buy High-End blueprints from Dark Zone vendors, but you’re going to need to be level 30 in both your main game and Dark Zone rank, the two of which are increased separately depending on what part of the map you’re in. After about 40 hours of game time, I just couldn’t bring myself to grind anymore in the Dark Zone, so I never ended up with anything High-End past the pistol they set you up with after beating the final mission.
Another major issue I had with The Division was its lack of personality. In Destiny, weapons like Thorn and Gjallahorn had reputations to them. They were instantly recognizable, tough to find, and had a look and feel that helped them stand out amongst the hundreds of other weapons. The Division doesn’t have that. The High-End weapons, although unique, don’t provide the sort of chase that Destiny’s Fatebringer did. When it comes to gear, there’s literally zero personality to it as you’re only after gear with better stats. The look of your agent is dictated by the clothing that’s layered over your armor. Clothing have no stats and are purely aesthetic; this alleviates the “uniqueness” problem Destiny had early on, but it also makes hunting after the best gear a strictly tactical endeavor. In a game like The Division, having that communal competition to finding (and flaunting) the best gear is, in my opinion, essential, and yet it’s an element that’s sorely missing from this game.
For the style of game The Division is, comparisons to Destiny are inescapable. Both are a hybrid of genres, blending shooter gameplay with RPG elements in a MMO-like game world. The Division does a lot of things right that Destiny initially misstepped on; namely character customization, menu navigation, resource farming, and fireteam matchmaking. But it also has plenty of its own faults. There’s no real sense of community, the endgame content is dull and repetitive, and there’s no real charm to its personality. It’s also incredibly lonely if you don’t have a group of friends to play with, as you will only cross paths with random players in safe areas and the Dark Zone. This means if you’re playing the main content solo, you’re only ever going to experience it solo. You can team up easily enough with other players via in-game matchmaking, but don’t expect those players to stick around for long after the mission is over. The friends I played the game with didn’t pick it up until after I had already completed most of the content, so I was able to experience the game both by myself and with a real group, but we all found ourselves bored with the gear chase before too long.
The Division is still a work in progress, of course. A game like this is designed to evolve over time, and I’m looking forward to see how it does. The 1.1 patch has just gone live, and with it comes a slew of updates and tweaks, as well as the game’s take on raids with the first Incursion mission, Falcon Lost. While my agent was too low-level to partake in the mission at the time of writing, I’m hopeful this mission (and the subsequent Incursions to be released with each DLC offering), will provide at least enough content and entertainment to keep me coming back.
Tom Clancy’s The Division isn’t the game I was hoping it would be. Ubisoft set its sights high with this game, but unfortunately came up short. There’s still plenty of fun to be had taking back New York, but I have a hard time seeing it holding players’ attention when newer games start to come out. I was hoping The Division would be a game I would go back to again and again, but ultimately, it just made me miss playing Destiny.