Hello. My name is Tom Parsons and I am a Division addict.
I could see it coming, too: The Division combines Destiny’s super-addictive gameplay loops, levelling and looting with a grittier, more beautiful, more realistic setting, edgier, more strategic combat, and a story that tugs at modern-day fears of killer viruses and subsequent societal collapse.
It’s the kind of tantalising recipe that Mary Berry herself would be proud of. Like the infection that has ravaged New York in the game's backstory, The Division has been engineered to get right under the skin of us susceptible gamers, and in my case it’s worked incredibly efficiently.
In fact, judging by what I’ve seen in the support groups - by which I mean Reddit - it's had the same effect on many, many others too. But that’s OK, because this is one addiction that’s exceptionally good fun.
An irresistible recipe
When Destiny launched back in 2014, it created a new gaming genre known as the shared-world shooter. It’s a genre that’s designed to combine the best parts of single-player gaming with the best parts of massively multiplayer online RPGs. In other words, to create a game in which you feel like a hero and aren’t constantly surrounded by other players breaking your fourth wall (phrasing), but one that also makes you feel as though you’re part of something bigger and more dynamic by seamlessly connecting you to other players for specific activities.
It’s a template that The Division has followed as if it’s a Lego instruction manual. So you can tackle the entire game on your own, if you like. You still need to be connected to the internet and you’ll occasionally encounter other players in the game’s Safe Zones and Dark Zone (should you dare venture into the latter), but you’ll essentially be playing a single-player game, tackling missions, killing computer-controlled bad guys, hunting down collectibles and upgrading your character and gear.
Looked at entirely in that narrow light, The Division is a fine game, but it’s far better when you engage with others. The first 45mins or so aside, the entire game can be played with up to three buddies as your squad mates. You’re not tied to each other, though: you can be on the other side of the city to the rest of your team if you want, although obviously that won’t make you a particularly effective combat unit.
Most players, of course, will want to mix things up, and The Division supports that admirably. Wandering around on the hunt for the game’s collectibles (phones, dossiers, missing agents, etc) is the game’s most mundane activity and is best tackled on your tod, but the main missions are best approached with companions. These can be done at any time or in any order, although there is a recommended minimum level.
None of your Division-playing mates available? Matchmaking is super fast and fluid, and can be activated at the starting point of any mission or in any of the safe houses. You can go from lone wolf to part of a four-man killing machine in a matter of moments.
What’s my motivation?
But let’s go back a step: why are you shooting your way through New York? And why’s it so darn messy everywhere?
The inspiration for The Division is Dark Winter, a real-life US government simulation that tested the impact a smallpox outbreak would have on an American city. Its terrifying conclusion was that the entire country would be in meltdown within five days as food, water and electricity ran out and everyone started shooting each other for tins of beans.
Given how quickly things break down in the UK every time there's a light dusting of snow, that sounds pretty accurate. In The Division’s world, that’s exactly what’s happened to New York. Millions have died, law and order has completely broken down, and those that didn’t get out before the lockdown are stuck inside fighting starvation and trying to avoid the looters and gangs that are rife in this now-lawless land.
You're a sleeper agent of The Division, intended to operate autonomously in the event of a government-crippling disaster. Your job is to enter New York and start clearing the place up. At the centre of things is your Base of Operations, which has been set-up in the famous James A. Farley Post Office building in Manhattan. It’s seen better days, though, and your overriding mission is to put it back in order, first by completing three missions that open all three of the BoO’s wings (medical, tech and security), and then completing further missions for each wing to unlock more facilities until the base is operating at 100%.
The real motivation is more selfish: you really want to complete missions and hunt collectibles for the delicious rewards, which come in the form of weapons and ‘gear’ (essentially armour), and the experience points that push you up the character levels and unlock yet better stuff.
The never-ending quest for loot
Yep, it’s a good ol’ loot grind. Look at it on the page and it sounds a ridiculously boring reason to play, but in reality it’s an irresistible compulsion in many games, and even more so here thanks to the quality of The Division’s weapons and modification systems.
As with many of the game’s systems, the weapons (and general inventory) can be pretty overwhelming at first. You carry a primary, secondary and sidearm, with the first two categories entirely interchangeable so an assault rifle, LMG, SMG, marksman rifle or shotgun can fill either slot - or both, although that wouldn’t make you a very flexible soldier.
Each weapon has its own DPS stat (damage per second), and many players will use only that when deciding which firearm to carry, but there are many other stats that the dedicated Division agent will want to take into consideration, such as range, reload speed and accuracy.
On top of that, each gun can be modified by changing up to four parts: the scope, magazine, underbarrel and muzzle (plus the paint job). It’s a huge amount to take in at first, but RPG fans will be delighted at the amount of tinkering available, while those who pay attention to only the DPS stat will still be just fine right up to the very end of the game.
Whichever sort of player you are, finding a new mod can be just as exciting as finding a new gun.
Playing the numbers game
And then there’s the combat itself. In action this is a cover shooter in the mould popularised by Gears Of War all those years ago, and it’s a mighty fine one at that.
One tap of the cover button when next to a piece of cover (or hold the button as you approach) and your character will snap to it, ducking if necessary. Pull the aiming trigger and you’ll stand or lean around the cover ready to take your shot. Fancy a change of position? Once in cover you can look around, highlight another piece of cover, and simply hold the button to sprint there.
It’s the traditional rules of the genre, but as most of us know, in practice it’s not always that effective. The fact that it works so well here is mighty impressive, especially when you factor in the huge, open world that is The Division’s setting. I’ve been a games tester, and my heart goes out to the Ubisoft QA folks who must have invested untold, tedious hours to make sure every bit of cover works as it should.
Many people, including this writer, have been concerned about how damage is handled. Hit an enemy and a number corresponding to the amount of damage you’ve just done to them pops up. Unload a clip into them and a constant stream of numbers emerges from them. It’s a system that has worked for the likes of Destiny and Borderlands, but it seems at odds with the more gritty and realistic setting and presentation of The Division.
In reality, though, you get used to it in minutes. If you’re fighting enemies around the same level as you, which you’ll do for most of the game, most of them will be killed by a well-aimed burst of an assault rifle or one or two shots from a marksman rifle. In other words, these aren’t the bullet sponges you might be expecting, and the amount of damage you do doesn’t feel jarringly unnatural.
There are exceptions: some higher powered enemies are designed to take a lot of damage before they go down. This is especially true of the game’s bosses, which appear at the end of each main mission, but I think that by the time you encounter these you’ll already have grown accustomed to The Division’s particular brand of gunplay. I certainly had.
Put the RPG-like damage system to one side, and the combat feels superb. There’s excellent solidity and weight in the way the guns look, feel and sound, and as the bullets fly, glass shatters and masonry crumbles, you feel very much as though you’re in the middle of a frantic firefight.
Lovely little details
The overall look and feel of the game has clearly been key to Ubisoft, to the extent that some of the attention to detail is just astounding. My personal favourite is how your character’s shoulders and hat gather a dusting of snow during a storm, only for it to slowly be replaced by glistening damp patches once you get indoors. It’s the kind of thing many people will never notice, but it’s just one example of all of the little details that make The Division feel so alive and real.
There are certainly elements that take you out of the moment, though. The dialogue is a major culprit. Even if you can get past the B-movie hamminess of it all (one character actually utters the line “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”), the repetition of incidental dialogue is pretty annoying, especially when it’s yet another citizen talking to you as if you’ve just pointed a gun in their face when in fact you were just jogging by. These are minor distractions in an otherwise brilliantly immersive experience, though.
How long is long enough
In a post-Destiny world, the question of longevity is always going to hang over a game such as The Division. There’s an expectation that a game such as this should somehow last forever, constantly delivering fresh content to top-end players who may have already pumped 100-plus hours into the game.
Whether this is a reasonable expectation or not (it’s not), it’s one that Ubisoft is having a good crack at answering. Upon reaching the game’s character level cap of 30, a whole new levelling system is revealed, in which the quality of your gear dictates your level.
Yep, it’s a massive rip-off of Destiny’s Light level system, but it’s bloomin’ effective at keeping you motivated. Beyond that you also unlock a new Challenge mode for each of the game’s main missions, making them supremely tough and very rewarding, plus a new, specific challenge every day of the week. And then there’s the Dark Zone…
Highway to the Dark Zone
The Dark Zones are where things get really exciting and stressful, but the rewards are hefty.
It’s a large, walled-off area of the city that was once at the centre of the US government’s attempts to research and combat the New York pandemic. When these zones became untenable the military and governmental staff evacuated suddenly, leaving behind weapons and equipment that you’ll likely find extremely useful. But simply popping into one is something that needs to be carefully considered.
Firstly, these are very highly radiated areas, and secondly, the promise of legendary gear means you’re not the only one interested in taking a look around - you’ll find both nasty NPCs and other players in the Dark Zones.
Going NPC-hunting in the Dark Zones is pretty tough and pretty rewarding. These are higher level enemies than you'll encounter in the normal areas of the city, but the weapons, armour and mods that they drop are also much better. Unfortunately, because said equipment has been sitting in the irradiated Dark Zone for ages it’s more contaminated than Springfield’s three-eyed fish.
That means not only can you not immediately equip it, you also can't simply walk it out of the zone - the solution is to find an extraction point and request a chopper to come and collect the item. But here's the thing; every other player in the Dark Zone also knows where the extraction points are, and the moment you send up that chopper-coaxing flare, they also know that you're there, laden with lovely loot.
This makes for a really interesting dynamic, as everyone waits for the chopper to arrive in vulnerable terror. Some players will simply attempt to harmlessly use your chopper to extract their own loot, but they'll be nervous of you and you of them, as you each know that at any moment you could be shot in the back and your loot stolen. But some players are far worse than that. Rather than explore the Dark Zone and collect their own loot, they simply camp out near the extraction points, waiting for other players to arrive with loot that they can mercilessly steal.
The punishment for attacking another player without provocation is to be marked as a rogue agent so that every other player in the Dark Zone can see you on the map and is encouraged to hunt you down. It's a dangerous game to play, then, but if timed right it's possible to steal another player's loot, get it extracted and do a runner before anyone can catch you.
In the Dark Zone there's a nervousness that accompanies every meeting with another player, and when everyone teams up to take down the consistent rogues it becomes a thrilling multi-team hunt. It’s a tough, unforgiving place, then, and while in the full game it’s split into six sections, each with its own level recommendations, you should think twice before venturing in alone. For top-tier players, though, this is the place to go for that lovely, end-game loot.
The Division verdict
On top of what’s in the game now - and that’s a huge amount in my opinion - Ubisoft has a really robust plan for regular content updates, from loot swapping to horde modes to whole new areas, many of which will be free.
The long-term health of The Division looks rude, then, and even if all we ever got was what’s there now, it’s 50+ hours of genuinely awesome entertainment. That’s a mighty fine deal as far as I’m concerned.