New York City has always been able to take one on the chin and get back up. September 11, Hurricane Sandy, the Fear City crime waves of the 1970s - no matter what the world has thrown at the Big Apple, its denizens always come back stronger and more determined. But after a designer virus hits the city on Black Friday, deaths spike to unprecedented levels, panicked evacuations begin, and the social fabric that ties the city that never sleeps together rips to the point it become a lawless ghost town with more stray dogs on the streets than people. Welcome to The Division, where you may be the last hope to restore order to the capital of the world.
The Division setup is classic Tom Clancy: As a covert government agent trained for doomsday scenarios, you must establish a new foothold in the city, discover the origins of the virus, and find out what happened the first wave of agents. Rebuilding the city won't be easy, since escaped convicts, a sanitation union gone rogue, and privatized military contractors are all operating with impunity in the largely abandoned streets. Story missions introduce the faction heads, but thanks to a goofy cast of underdeveloped characters, the narrative isn't as strong as it could be when it ventures away from the backstory about the attack.
Your first task upon arriving in Manhattan is establishing a base of operations, which is comprised of tech, security, and medical wings. Here you can spend currency on weaponry and gear, and craft new items with blueprints you receive for tackling side activities. As you complete missions for the leaders of each wing, you unlock new abilities, talents, and perks that aid you in combat. Watching the base improve and earning these as you successfully push back against the various factions is one of the strongest hooks in the game.
The story may feel right at home in the Clancy universe, but that franchise cohesion is shattered once you enter combat. Tracing the Clancy roots back to the original release of Rainbow Six, the brand has always been grounded in realism and stressed military tactics; if you got the jump on the enemies and land a headshot, that tango went down in a hurry. Not in the Division, where combat is more aligned with sci-fi shooters like Destiny and Borderlands. You may be using modern military weapons and squaring off against human enemies in a contemporary recreation of New York City, but to enjoy this combat, you need a willful suspension of disbelief. Enemies absorb an absurd number of bullets before they go down, and it can be immersion-shattering to pump a full clip of ammo into a hoodie-wearing thug who's charging you with a baseball bat and still see him tee off on you. Whether or not you can look past this and buy into the fantasy will likely make or break your enjoyment of the combat. I struggled with this dissonance through most of the game, but came to accept it after the combat introduced more complex tactical scenarios.
The second-to-second gunplay is competent, but the cover system is problematic. Expect to occasionally get caught on objects and subsequently exposed to enemy fire. Military tactics may be thrown out the window because you can't employ stealth to gain an advantage on your enemies, but defeating the well-armored baddies that appear later requires your team of agents to carefully coordinate attacks. The game is at its best when you're fending off shotgun-toting chargers, snipers, heavies, and medics at the same time. You especially must take your character build into account when late-game enemies employ the same abilities used as Division agents.
Most of the action consists of firing your weapons from behind cover, but each agent also brings two active abilities, and one of three signature skills into combat. These turrets, sticky bombs, seeker mines, cover enhancements, ballistic shields, and healing devices add dynamism to the combat, and when matched properly to your fellow agents' loadouts, they can turn your group into a formidable faction. The Division eschews a class-based structure in favor of letting each agent unlock the entire array of abilities over the course of the game, giving you the flexibility to hot swap your skills on the fly as the situation or group composition dictates. This also ensures you don't have to replay the entire game to learn skills from another class like you do in Destiny.
The action is also aided by Ubisoft's impressive collection of combat arenas. Each space takes you to an interesting location in Manhattan and allows different approaches to combat, with many featuring an element of verticality. Settings range from multilevel sporting arenas and department stores to power plants and the United Nations headquarters.
The majority of missions in The Division can be played solo, but the difficulty curve spikes in later levels to the point that I often felt overwhelmed without a compatriot around to revive me; A.I. companions would go a long way to relieving this frustration. That said, this game is best when you team up with other players. Massive Entertainment has designed a peerless infrastructure for finding players to join; you can access your friends list directly from the menu and hook up with them in a matter of seconds, or matchmake with strangers from each safe house or at the start of any major mission. These missions change dynamically based on the amount of players in your group, altering the number and type of enemies you face as players drop or join to keep the challenge at an appropriate level. Whether I had one or three players alongside me, I always felt the level of opposition was well tailored.
The impressive flexibility of this system actively encourages team-ups, which makes it all the more disappointing that it doesn't also take into account the individual levels of the players when determining the enemy composition. Low level players will rank up in a hurry teaming up with those who have hit the level cap of 30, but their weapons are so underpowered against high-level enemies in the more dangerous neighborhoods that it may not be much fun for them to do so. They also can't venture into the dangerous Dark Zone together if their level gap is too far apart, both curious decisions that kneecap a game based around social play considering many contemporary MMO games have found ways around the dilemma.
The Division's story may be about saving New York City, but in a gaming sense the experience is ultimately defined by loot. Just like a Diablo or Destiny, as players rank up they gain access to better weaponry and gear, demarcated by the traditional green/blue/purple/gold designations. The high end gear in particular can be a game changer, offering must-have talents like significantly cutting down skill cooldown times and increasing signature skill durations with kills while activated. Like the exotic loot in Destiny, long-term players will view some gold items as must-have status symbols, but to get them you're generally just grinding.
Once the story is completed and you reach the level 30 cap, your options are minimal outside of this loot grind. You can wrap up whatever leftover side missions remain, seek out collectibles, or replay the missions as daily challenges on harder difficulties, which rewards you with better loot drops and a new form of currency you can spend on high-end weaponry. Since The Division lacks a dedicated competitive mode, high-end structured cooperative activities like raids, or level capped item quests, most endgame time is spent venturing into the dangerous Dark Zone.
Occupying a large portion of the center of Manhattan, the Dark Zone operates discretely from the rest of the city, even featuring its own leveling system. After you've battled high-end enemies and recovered some gear, you must get it removed for decontamination at one of the designated extraction zones. Anything can happen during the harrowing experience of waiting for the chopper. After you shoot that flare into the sky chances are you must fight for your right to that loot. I strongly advise against playing solo in the Dark Zone; you get overwhelmed by A.I. enemies quickly at the higher levels, and if you enter an extraction zone by yourself, other division agents will likely go rogue and turn their guns on you in hopes of stealing your gear.
Severe bounties are placed on the heads of rogue agents, and they cannot leave the Dark Zone until justice has been served or they run out the clock on the bounty. Running for your life as you try to protect the hard-earned gear you rightfully deserve (or stole off a corpse) can be as frustrating as it can be thrilling. I'm curious to see how the lawless region evolves as The Division moves forward and players test its boundaries, but as of right now it feels more like an experiment with limited options than a fleshed out experience.
If you can accept its myriad tonal inconsistencies and buy into the bullet-sponge combat, The Division is an intriguing social shooter that taps into the addictiveness of loot grinding in a novel setting. The game has suffered from the occasional network outages and some progression-crashing bugs, but these seem more like hiccups in the road rather than deal-breaking problems. Ubisoft now has a solid foundation for operating its first persistent open world. If Massive and co. make smart additions to the end-game content and keep a steady stream of new activities for players to enjoy, I could see this game going strong years into the future. But if the Dark Zone and PvE environment don't evolve, I'm not sure many people will be left in New York City come the winter.