Stop me if you’ve heard this one; A console game MMORPG shooter with cover-based mechanics, singler player/co-op story and skirmishes. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, so far, so Destiny. But it would be unfair to bundle Ubisoft’s The Division in with Bungie’s space-based shooter just because there are some superficial similarities. Look deeper into the game and you’ll find a very different beast.
The premise for The Division, if you haven’t already caught Ubisoft’s (literally) viral PR machine at work, is that terrorists have released a mutated smallpox virus on to bank notes during Black Friday, causing a city wide and potentially world-wide epidemic. Streets are all-but empty, law and order has broken down, McDonalds have stopped serving Big Macs, that sort of thing. You, as a member of a squad set up for such emergencies, have to start piecing the city back together.
It’s a Tom Clancy game, so it comes with a certain level of realism and a little pinch of salt. The realism side of things is helped a great deal by the environment. If you’ve ever visited Manhattan then you’ll instantly recognise not only the famous landmarks but some of the less famous areas, too. The city is certainly the star here. The virus aspect means that the developers have been able to cheat a little with populating this city. You’ll encounter odd citizens in need of help or those just trying to eek out a living, dogs on the loose and looters prepared to grab any items left for the taking. It’s the latter that you’ll be interacting with the most, random encounters often lead to gun fights, but your main opposition comes from the organised gangs trying to grab a hold on the city and these are much harder to keep under control.
The campaign is aimed at getting the city back on its feet, finding key people who are experts in medicine or security and rescuing them to bring them back to your base of operations. Along the way you’ll unlock base camps that can be used as fast travel points and spawn points for missions and random shoot-outs. It’s cover-based to the extent that being out in the open during a fire-fight is a very bad idea. Thankfully, the cover system is great and feels natural, though at times I found it a little too ‘sticky’ when trying to move between objects.
As you’d expect, the campaign challenges get tougher as you progress and the only way to get you ready for these is to try and complete as many side-missions as possible to up your XP. Yes, this is where the RPG elements come in, though they’re mostly based around gaining XP and trying to get the best weapons and clothing possible. Clothing? Well, the city is still rife with disease, so any trip into the deeper areas often requires a certain level of protection. Special abilities, too, come into play as you learn to throw medical bombs out to team-mates or set up sentry points. You can specialise in one area to start with, but the game encourages you to mess around with all three of the upgrade paths to get the best mix.
The game’s campaign can be attempted alone or co-op. The latter is easier, of course, but the game doesn’t penalise you too much for going it alone. You won’t see random players outside of the Dark Zone, though, and you’ll need to create or join a party to work together.
The Dark Zone is the true multiplayer arena of the game, at least until Ubisoft begin to add more content. It’s a central map area cordoned off from the rest of the game which feels ominous and confrontational from the moment you enter. Levelling up is essential before attempting the Dark Zone and teaming up is highly recommended, too. The idea of this area, almost like a separate game mode in itself, is to grab hard-to-come-by loot and hot foot it to an extraction point when a chopper will lift it out for you. The problem is that as soon as your transport is called, you attract attention. Every player in the Dark Zone is alerted and can rush towards you, trying to grab all your hard fought for loot before you’re able to escape. It’s fun, frantic and more than a little tense, a perfect counterpoint for the campaign.
Once you’re back out of the Dark Zone, though, the comparisons to the main game world make it feel far more barren and free of ‘fun’ things to do that it sort of spoils the atmosphere a little. Yes, the city is devoid of much life thanks to a virus, we got that, but it means that you hardly have any interaction outside of missions and side-missions, many of these featuring boss battles with bullet-sponge enemies that take some grinding to get through. It’s not a massive issue thanks to the atmosphere that the team have carefully cultivated and the gorgeous looking city it all takes place in, but I couldn’t help feeling that they’re keeping something back for the season pass and future updates.
When taking back the city with friends or braving the Dark Zone, The Division shines at being a competent cover-based shooter with some interesting RPG elements that make sense within the game world. The Tom Clancy aspect also helps to keep the atmosphere on the right side of realistic. Despite the issues outside of missions and the enemies that just won’t go down without a ton of bullets, it’s still an enjoyable solid game and the Dark Zone can always be tempting to revisit. I can see how future updates and regular challenges could keep the game fresh in the same way as Destiny but until you hit that level cap it’s still a great experience with a good team of friends alongside you.