Since becoming an ‘adult’ I’ve found a distinct lack of time to dedicate to games, so I’ve started leaning towards quality over quantity – specifically, ones that allow me to have quality time with my husband as well as satisfy my gaming itch. This has led us to games like Destiny, the TellTale series, Divinity 2: Original Sin and most recently, The Division.
When The Division was first announced at E3 2013 I was unimpressed – woo, another console pseudo-MMO that wanted you to be SO TACTICAL with friends. Seriously, every time I see a gaming conference use that fake-friend-tactical-talk I cringe a bit more inside. Not to mention Tom Clancy games aren’t my cup of tea – that’s nothing against them specifically, I know they’re good games, it’s just that I personally don’t enjoy them. Then, at E3 2014, Ubisoft launched their cinematic trailer and boy, did I do a complete 180; there appeared to be so much emotion to the narrative that I was fully on board with the game and my husband, being a fan of the Tom Clancy games, was there before me. He got the game at launch in 2016 which allowed me to witness what the release was actually like; buggy, unbalanced and a hot mess with little narrative impact from what a casual outside glance could see. Ho hum, I put The Division from my mind for the next couple of years and moved on.
Then in early 2018, after coming to an end with what the original Destiny had to offer and being drastically underwhelmed with Destiny 2, I took the time to look into what Ubisoft had done since launching The Division and I had to say, I was impressed. So impressed in fact that I went straight to Amazon to once again abuse the crap out of next day delivery and bought The Division for the princely sum of £10.00. I mean, that’s a pretty good price for a game even if you don’t end up loving it! In this case, The Division quickly became a firm favourite in our household: the combat was tight and surprisingly well rounded, the major gameplay issues seemed to have been resolved and the story, if you took the time to travel off the beaten path, was genuinely engaging and even haunting at times. Levels 1 – 30 were fun in co-op and the game managed to sell the idea of us-against-the-world when you faced off against the myriad of enemies that Manhattan had to offer; the Cleaners were a group of sanitation workers who had taken it upon themselves to ‘cleanse’ the city of the dollar flu by burning alive anyone they found, the Rikers were convicts that had escaped from Rikers Island and was now attempting to take over the city, Rioters were every day citizens that had turned to lawlessness to survive, the Last Man Battalion who were a private military company brought in to try to regain control of the situation before being cut loose, and rogue Division agents were your fellow spec ops agents who had turned against you.
And about halfway through writing that list I had a moment of genuine realisation and appreciation for just how many enemies there actually are in the game before you even touch the PVP stuff; each enemy type had a unique play style which meant you had to adapt on the fly, often multiple times within the same firefight. This is where the Loadout feature comes into play – with the large inventory space available you could hold a lot of different kits and as the game allowed you to save weapons, armor, mods and even special abilities to a particular Loadout this meant that in the middle of combat you could quickly change your entire play style on the fly. I won’t lie, I’m a creature of habit so I always stick to my trusty M700 marksman rifle and a Final Assault/Nomad armor mix, but it’s reassuring to know the option is there if I did want to get more tactical. If there was anything negative to say about the combat, it’s that enemies can be pulled into combat from just walking near to the firefight you’re currently in, which can be extremely frustrating if it’s a group of enemies that had a named elite for instance.
In terms of PVP, I would say that the game is a still a broken, buggy and unbalanced mess. The Dark Zone (DZ) is the PVP area in the game where you can encounter other players out in the wild, and that somehow ruins the experience. In game lore, the DZ is a contaminated hot zone that bore the brunt of the virus; in gameplay this means that any loot you find has to be extracted out from specific areas before you can use it in the rest of the game. The only problem there is that as there are other players in the DZ, they can go rogue at a moments notice and turn on you, stealing your loot and forcing you to respawn at a checkpoint. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to extract a bunch of items – especially customisation items with no actual gameplay bonus – only to be gunned down by a squad of 3 rogue agents that you then watch as they steal your stuff and run off into the night. However, the DZ is entirely optional and you can quite easily avoid going into it at all if that’s what you prefer.
Outside of combat you spent most of the time hunting down the various collectables across the map, and this was where the game truly shines – whilst the main narrative is decent enough and serves as a good vehicle for overall map exploration and leveling, the side narratives you discover through the collectables are truly memorable. There are your traditional documents, videos and audio clips (in the form of phone calls) for you to find but the most interesting collectibles are the ‘ECHOs’ which are literally echoes of people around you in the environment that you’re free to walk around and investigate at your leisure. Whilst the in-game explanation of how it was possible was tenuous at best (apparently they were created using surveillance, discarded phones and information datamined from phone calls which, now that I think about it, is something I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually happened one day) it’s easy to forget about it when you’re in the middle of one. These ECHO’s are often glimpses into the lives of people surviving in the aftermath of the Dollar Flu, and it really hits home the reality of what would happen in that situation. They aren’t afraid to pull punches either with an alarming number of ECHO’s and videos featuring people being burned alive (off-screen) or tortured and then killed. There’s one in particular ECHO that is burned – no pun intended – into my brain that featured the Rikers gang who had taken JTF soldiers – who were trying to save Manhattan – captive and were using them as participants in their games. It was… grim. Suffice it to say, The Division IS narrative rich – you just have to be willing to find it which, I’ll admit, kind of goes against everything I expect from a game. But I’ll give The Division a pass on account of being so damn addictive.
No game these days would be complete without controversial loot boxes, and although The Division is no exception to this it’s actually more wholesome than others you might find. Yes, you can spend real world money on in game currency in order to open these boxes – only they’re called ‘caches’ here – but they won’t give you a gameplay advantage over other players. Indeed, all the caches contain are vanity items in the form of backpack or weapon skins and customisation items to dress your characters with. It’s not ideal, but at least you can’t pay to win. In fact, you don’t have to pay at all as you can also collect the keys or key fragments needed to unlock caches through regular gameplay – and they drop at a pretty steady rate. We play The Division daily and rarely a day goes by where we don’t open a chest through in game resources. The items you unlock are account wide and not locked to specific characters too, which means that everything you find is yours to own forever, regardless of which character you use. If a game is going to have loot boxes, this is definitely the preferred way for me.
Although it is not a traditional MMO per se, The Division has surprisingly strong end game content. Aside from the collectables mentioned above and the usual daily/weekly challenges there are Incursions which are exclusive post-story missions that are similar in difficulty and reward to raids in MMO’s, PVP content in the Dark Zone where some of the best equipment can be unlocked, Global Events such as Blackout which add modifiers to both the player and select missions, a bona fide horde mode in the form of ‘Resistance’ and the expected downloadable content to further expand the base narrative. All of these are fun ways to continue playing the game well after the story has finished, especially in a group setting where you have friends you can rely on. You can technically do it solo, but there is a sense of loneliness that comes from roaming Manhattan on your own and – to be honest – there won’t be a great deal to motivate you to do it over and over each day if you don’t have a friend to annoy and amuse you.
In the run up to the launch of The Division 2, Ubisoft have added a new feature called Shields; challenges that give the player a task – or series of tasks – to complete in order to earn rewards to be redeemed when the sequel drops. Whether you’re a new player or a returning player, these Shields are a great motivation to spend just that little bit of extra time in The Division end game and they have a staggered release over the coming months to keep you coming back for more. Personally, we hadn’t spent much time chasing down the Daily or Weekly HVT’s (that’s High Value Targets, named enemies that pose a higher threat and are more difficult than the average goon) but as one of the Shields challenged us to complete all the Weekly HVT’s in a single week, it suddenly became all we were interested in doing. I’m not sure if that says more about us as players than the game design, but it worked on us so I’m willing to bet it worked on a hell of a lot more people too. Plus, it meant that we spent time with a feature of the game that we had previously overlooked, so whichever way you cut it that’s pretty smart work. When July’s Shield was launched it actually required the Underground DLC to complete but Ubisoft – being relatively smart cookies – unlocked the DLC for a week so that everyone could have a go. We managed to complete this Shield over the course of a couple of evenings, so this free trial worked out pretty well for us in the end.
All in all, The Division has an unmistakable quality and addictiveness to it. If you want a game with a good story, solid combat and so many collectables and other items to hunt for in the end game, then this is almost certainly the one for you. I’m serious when I say it’s addictive too; my husband and I are now itching to collect all the Classified armor sets and Exotic items so that we can say that we’ve done it.
I would encourage you to find a friend who wants to play the game too; alone is fine, but playing with a friend makes the experience even more enjoyable and satisfying. Ubisoft might have had a rough start with this series, but after the effort they’ve put in over the last 2 years they’ve got themselves a winning formula.
I can’t wait to see what they do with it next.