The Division? Oh, we all know about that one. While it’s branded as a Tom Clancy game, The Division is a new franchise entrant from Ubisoft, and an ambitious one. Now we all probably remember Watch Dogs hitting the scene as a big, new AAA title from Ubisoft, and we also watched how well it managed to disappoint. But The Division is a little — read “lot” — bit different, and I’m here to tell you how and what it’s all about.
Let’s start from the beginning. As is natural in a Tom Clancy title, we’re going to have some tactical action, nifty tech, and a bit of a thriller environment. Such is the New York City players are thrust into. What’s known is that small pox is back, doing what it does best, and across the world, major cities have been hit hard. Death and chaos are the words of the day, week, and year, and a force of skilled sleeper agents are activated in such a crisis to help restore order and put civilization back on its feet however they can. You’ll play as the agent of your making and work to put an end to the chaos in New York City and maybe get to the bottom of what really happened. The game will let players go it on their own, but also offers PvE gameplay, as gamers can form squads of four to benefit from the combined firepower and various special skills and perks each agent can be equipped with.
Let’s take a closer look at everything we know so far.
Let’s start where the game starts: character-making. We’ve seen some recent role-playing games with not-so-great looking characters (*cough* Fallout 4). It’s a pleasure to say that The Division does not suffer from last-gen face syndrome. In fact, the character customization is pretty dazzling. You can just hit the randomize button and come across tons of life-like, unique faces. They look almost like motion-captured faces look, but with the perk of being designed to look however you want, not how the actor behind the camera looked. So whether you want your agent to look like you or like your next door neighbor, you shouldn’t have any trouble.
There is a drawback here. As far as we’ve seen, the impressive customization is limited to the face. Tough luck if you wanted to be 6-foot-10 and 390 pounds or to be the tiny badass. I guess that’s not the kind of person the eponymous Division recruits as an agent. At least there should be a decent amount of body customization through the application of both functional and aesthetic equipment.
RPG fundamentals with a twist
If you’re still a bit upset about the aesthetic character customization, the functional character customization is here to please. As with almost any role-playing game, you get to customize the class of your character in The Division. But we’re not talking wizards, mages, rogues, paladins, and the like. From what we’ve seen, it appears there are three general categories — healer, support, and tank. Those probably sound familiar. The catch, and it’s a good one, is that players are not locked into these classes. Why? Because they’re really more like load-outs.
Players unlock skills by gathering certain resources to advance parts of their Base of Operations (BOO). With advances in certain sections of the BOO comes new technologies for the player that act like a class-specific skill. And these new technologies aren’t soul-bonded or anything crazy like that. No, no. If you want to be a healer one mission, go for it. If the next you decide you want to go tanking with a riot shield, by all means, you can go right ahead. The class system is fluid, and may be better of not described as a class system at all. Your role in combat is going to be defined to varying degrees by the weapons you take, the actives skills you select, the passive skills you select, and the perks you’ve unlocked.
Aside from this switch, a lot of the RPG elements should be pretty familiar for gamers. There is gear and loot. There’s DPS, critical hit chance, and aggro. The familiar and the novel come in one package.
The Division has a lot of different genre’s that it fits into, but when it comes to the combat, it may be most accurately described as a real-time, squad-based, tactical third-person shooter. Confused? I’ll clear that up.
While a lot of people compare The Division to Destiny, that comparison doesn’t really apply the combat. The next likely candidates for comparing combat are Uncharted or Gears of War for their focus on cover-based shooting. But maybe the best comparison is to a game few will think of: X-COM. Anyone who’s played X-COM should be familiar with the emphasis on cover, but another crucial aspect of the game is a squad working in unison to simultaneously attack, defend, and support, all while remaining flexible to change strategies. What’s different about The Division? It’s real-time, third-person, and each character is controlled by a different player. Those may seem like big differences, but the approach to combat still feels quite similar.
Now that the comparison is out of the way. Let’s talk about what it’s really like. It’s good. That’s what. Unlike a lot of other cover-based shooters, The Division will not see you hiding behind one wall for 30 minutes as you spray down each wave of enemies too stupid to avoid your bullets. Go ahead and try it in the Beta or in March if you don’t believe me. The A.I. in this game range from dumbos with baseball bats to actually clever opponents, and the mixing and matching of these enemies keeps you moving from cover to cover, changing your tactics and angles to keep from dying or to flank that last enemy.
With the possible combinations of guns and skills, you’ll find yourself matching the dynamic battlefield with dynamic strategies of your own. Maybe the enemies are sniping from high up, so you work your way to them behind cover and show them how a shotgun works. Maybe all the enemies are rushing, so you position yourself in such a way that they are forced into a single lane that you can light up. Odds are the enemy will be combining these strategies, and you’ll have to change plans as well. It’s a surprise to get a bit of a mental sweat from a shooter, but it’s easily a pleasant surprise.
Realism: the little things
Ubisoft wants you to feel like you’re in this post-disaster New York City. That’s no small task. Now it may not work so well on actual New Yorkers, but for everyone else, the map is going to seem pretty realistic, as will the buildings. All that’s missing are the traffic jams and the hustle and bustle, and there’s a pretty good reason for that: small pox. That’s kind of a big thing though, what seals the deal are the little touches.
One of my personal favorites is that I can kick around random debris on the ground. Nothing spells fake to me like a world of junk superglued to the ground. But there’s of course more than this. Little things like scaring away civilians by aiming your weapon at them, getting hurt from realistically painful fall distances, being able to trip up a running enemy by shooting them in the leg, among other things.
One small detail related to communcation should really prove to be the most important to the dynamics of the Dark Zone — the extra dangerous section of the map where the best loot is, and where other players may be waiting to kill you, because it’s PvP in that bad boy. On top of having some character gestures, like waving or doing jumping jacks, you’ll have voice communications. But unlike other games that just have you in a channel with your squad, the voice comms in the Dark Zone will also be proximity based. If you’ve seen Dark Zone standoffs in early videos of The Division, you know they can be a bit tense, with the threat of betrayal ever present. Add to that the fact that you can’t discretely tell your squad mates what you should do, and you’ll find yourself in situations maybe a little bit too much like a post-apocalyptic New York.
On a down note, not everything can be perfectly realistic. It’s a game, after all, and if you’re level one, it won’t matter if you headshot a level 20 enemy. They’ll shrug it off, because RPG rules override reality.
You won’t have a car or any number of yellow cabs to take you around Manhattan, but that won’t stop it from being really easy to get around the city in the game. There is naturally fast traveling between explored destinations, so you’re not hoofing it all day through the sizable city. There is also a fast travel option between squad mates. So if you need to spend twenty minutes comparing the stats of ever weapon you have and carefully considering which perks will best fit your play style, your squad doesn’t have to wait around for you. They can venture on ahead, and you can simply warp to them when you’re ready.
The game also features a very effective way point system, with a subtle, but easy to follow, orange line that directs from your location to your destination. In my time playing, it never led me astray. That more than I can say for most in game guidance systems. Add to all this the fact that New York City’s main roads are pretty grid like, and you’re going to have no trouble getting around.
Naturally, playing with friends is going to be one of the biggest aspects of what makes The Division fun. Thankfully, Ubisoft made it very easy to join up with friends. If your friend invites you to squad up, pressing a single button will accept the invitation, and you’ll be transported to them. If you’re game crashes and you have to reboot, you’re still all good. Once you start the game again, you’ll pop in right where you had been — no running through empty battlefields to catch back up to your squad.
The dark zone also offers and interesting multiplayer experience, because no one is truly you’re friend. You can work together with other agents you encounter in the dark zone, and you can murder them. Now, naturally, we all know that being able to kill one another in a video tends to bring out the devil in all of us, and this area would likely be a 24/7 bloodbath if the Ubisoft devs hadn’t thought up a clever penalty to doing so. When an agent attacks another agent in the dark zone, they are disavowed. What this means for them? Danger. What it means for every other agent in the dark zone? A license to kill the rogue agent without going rogue yourself, and incentives to do so. So, gamers who want to be a jerk in the dark zone are allowed to, but they’ll have to be ready to face the consequences.
OK, there is a little less information available about this so far. Just how the game world will change as players make progress in the story is unclear. There is a lot to the map, and it seems likely that even after players beat the game — if there even is such a thing — that much of the digital New York will remain unchanged. What is clear though as that the Base of Operations will be linked to each player and will reflect their progress in the game. A new player will have a run-down BOO, while an advanced player should have a more developed BOO. While this might seem small, it is a nice touch, as many online RPGs feature a somewhat static world where progress in the story doesn’t change a thing, because game spaces are shared, and a new player can’t enter a game world that’s already been conquered by other players. It does seem possible that other parts of New York will change to reflect your progress as well, but none have been disclosed yet.
A lot of smart moves
This game already has a lot going for it. But some of the nicest touches to the game are the ones you might never notice. For example, you might not notice the loading screens. Why? Because they’re not there. While you might have to wait for the game to load, once you’re in, that’s it. There didn’t appear to be any in several hours of play. Loading seems to be cleverly embedded into time spent in elevators or walking through hallways. Another thing that’s impressive is the user interface. The menus are quick, easy to use, and the design leaves you feeling like you never left the game. All the information displayed on the HUD also does an impressive job. There’s information about you, your squad, your enemies, and your surroundings, but after playing a little while, it never felt cluttered, and the HUD graphics didn’t seem to get in the way of anything. It all just feels like augmented reality, which seems to be exactly what it’s meant to be.
The pistol, though
There’s a lot to learn about The Division in this article, but if there’s one thing everyone hoping to play this game in March should take away, it’s that the pistol is your friend, not an afterthought. For probably the first half hour of gameplay, I think I stuck mostly to my two primary weapons: an automatic rifle and a sub-machine gun. But every agent also has a sidearm, and it has unlimited ammo. It seems like the kind of weapon that would then be under-powered, but it isn’t at all. In a tight spot, the pistol is often a better option than waiting to reload a dry primary or secondary weapon.
The last little bit of information you need to know is that the game will launch on Xbox One, PS4, and PC on March 8, with a Beta starting January 28 for Xbox and January 29 for PS4 and PC.