The Division doesn't make the best first impression. When the game begins, you're dropped into a section of New York City that's devoid of substance. There are few missions that show up on the map, and running through the lifeless streets from A to B is a chore. There are no unscripted moments, no random events to engage in, and the limited character creation options are baffling. But after you complete the few missions available to you in this area, it becomes apparent that this remote part of the city exists entirely for the sake of a gentle introduction. When you reach the next stop, The Division opens up and the gameplay loop kicks into full gear.
In this post-pandemic New York City, members of a government-sanctioned organization called The Division aim to reclaim Manhattan from ruthless gangs, as well as uncover the source of the virus that has devastated the city. You play as a Division agent, navigating the open world with or without friends and engaging in numerous missions and activities to level up and acquire new weapons and gear. Yes, it's a little bit like Destiny, but it's also a little bit like Ghost Recon, Watch Dogs, and other like-minded third-person games. For better or worse, The Division borrows many of its ideas from its contemporaries, fuses them together, and wraps the framework in a dense coat of RPG/MMO systems to make it feel somewhat fresh.
In many ways, this is a traditional open-world game. The city is filled with activities – collectibles, encounters, side missions, and story missions – and you can tackle things in any order you want, provided you are leveled accordingly. The difference is that every aspect of the world has been designed to accommodate online multiplayer. You can party up with three friends and wander the streets looking for trouble, or you can invite random players just to help you with a story mission. While going at it "lone wolf" is also an option, and it's manageable in most cases, The Division shines as a tactical team-based experience. You don't need to be social at all times, but if you have no intention of calling on the aid of others, this probably isn't a game for you.
To distinguish itself in the combat department, The Division takes a page from Watch Dogs and Ghost Recon: Future Solider by integrating hi-tech gadgets and skills that factor heavily into success. Without this ancillary layer of depth, the cover shooting would be entirely by-the-numbers. Thankfully these skills spice things up substantially, especially in team scenarios where each player can assist the group in unique ways. The right combination of skills – offensive, defensive, and support – can make all the difference in the world when the going gets tough, and it gets tough quite often.
While this isn't an exceptionally difficult game, the bullet-spongey enemies fire their weapons aggressively and rarely miss a shot, which means it's imperative to stay glued to cover. The problem is that there's some clumsiness and inconsistency with various aspects of the cover system, and on occasion it can lead to unwarranted deaths. But it's not just the cover mechanics that are unrefined. When attempting to collect loot or interact with objects, inputs can be unresponsive and require multiple button presses. This rarely interferes with combat scenarios, but it happens frequently and grows irritating the deeper you progress into the game.
There are many types of activities scattered throughout the world, and the primary goal usually aligns with "kill all enemies to advance/win." Sometimes you'll have to protect an NPC, fetch cases of supplies, or locate missing persons, but rarely is a shootout not the path to meeting an objective. Let's put it this way: Other than story missions – which are beefier, linear operations – activities feel comparable to second and third tier missions in Ubisoft's recent open-world games. But, remarkably, that doesn't lessen how enthralling this game is with friends, because for at least 35 hours (which is how long it took us to reach and beat the final story mission), you'll be making some sort of progress instead of exclusively grinding for XP and loot.
The narrative that unfolds along the way does little more than add context and purpose to your actions. Most of the plot details are shared through collectible data files and radio communications during story missions, and it's hard to digest or feel an emotional connected with. Don't expect flashy cinemas to serve as introductions to key battles and conflicts, because there's almost none of that here. The few characters that you do get up close and personal with are bland and forgettable. If you thought the characters and story in Watch Dogs lacked personality, well, The Division is at least just as flat in that regard.
It doesn't help matters that, while there's plenty of detail on display, the backdrop for this story is light on visual diversity. Subtle differences are detectable in most districts, but repetitious scenery makes it extremely tough to travel the streets of Manhattan without the assistance of the map and navigation system. Every street is clogged with abandoned vehicles, scattered trash, and other remnants of a functioning society, with a layer of powdery-white snow spread across the terrain. It's an effectively somber, atmospheric scene, but it could've benefited from more distinctions.
Safe houses, on the other hand, have a lot of personality. Each one has a unique identity and layout, from an Ubisoft-themed office building to a dank, tucked-away sewer hangout. It's at these locations that you can socialize with other players, shop for equipment, replenish ammo, and store superfluous inventory. The home base is the best of all, as it can be upgraded to provide additional skills and services to the player. Witnessing this facility transform from disastrous post office to flourishing base of operations is one of the most rewarding facets of the game.
The acquisition of loot also serves as motivation and reward for your heroic services, and it comes in at just the right pace. Weapons, gear, mods, and clothing are found hiding throughout the world, left behind by fallen enemies or awarded for completing missions. Managing these things in the inventory requires a decent amount of upkeep and UI navigation, which can be overwhelming in the early hours of the campaign. After a while it becomes second nature, but there's still a lot to consider: weighing buffs vs. damage output or transferring mods every time a weapon is upgraded can be a tiresome process. Nevertheless, the desire for powerful new toys is a big part of what keeps the wheels turning.
For premium loot, the Dark Zone is where it's at. This isolated section of the city is where players work together or against each other to eliminate hostiles and acquire the best goodies. The catch is that, to get these newfound possessions beyond the walls, players need to call in and wait for an extraction chopper. With two-faced agents and enemy gangs on the prowl, there are many threats to consider during this wait. If you get killed, someone else can swipe your loot. This unpredictability is largely what makes the Dark Zone compelling, but the idea is a bit under-cooked on the whole. Without any organized activities at the time of writing, it's fun in short bursts but not for lengthy sessions. It'll be interesting to see how Ubisoft builds on this concept with DLC to keep long-term players engaged, because there's definitely a lot of potential here.
That brings us to the most important question: Will The Division have the legs to stay relevant beyond the 40-ish hours it takes to beat all the missions for the first time? It depends on how open you are to repeating the same activities over and over again. Variable difficulties and story missions repurposed as daily challenges become the primary end-game options, and we expect most players will lose interest with these very quickly. But with free content updates and paid expansions scheduled to release throughout the year, The Division just may have what it takes to stay in rotation for a while to come. Only time will tell.
For now, it's important to know that there's an exciting game here for a group of friends, and no connectivity mishaps have interfered with our fun. We did fall through the ground during a mission, but that was the only major bug to rear its ugly head during our review sessions. Should you feel that The Division is a game you want to take for a spin, rest assured that it's currently running smoothly on Xbox One.
The Division doesn't have many ideas of its own, but the way it unites traditional open-world design with online multiplayer makes it an addictive social shooter. The repetition does wear thin after a while, and the end-game content isn't as robust as it needs to be, so there's a legitimate concern as to whether the game will remain engrossing in the long run. Still, Ubisoft has erected a solid foundation, one that can easily be bettered by impending content updates and expansions.