New York City has been evacuated, under siege by an incurable pandemic. Many,have been left behind, forced to fend for themselves in a lawless city. Across the United States, sleeper agents of the Division have been activated, assigned to help restore order and investigate the the cause of the outbreak, which may be man-made. If they can, Division agents must also uncover the whereabouts of the first wave of agents sent into the city, who have mysteriously gone silent.
This is the premise behind The Division, the newest game from Tom Clancy and Ubisoft that attempts to deliver a tactical online MMO shooter. Players explore the open-world New York, uncovering the plot that doomed the city and building up a base of operations in the process. Agents level up, find and create new gear, and are free to focus their skills however they want. The result is a very fun alternative to the famous (or infamous) Destiny that improves on many of the sci-fi shooter’s weaknesses, but also repeats some of its well-known mistakes.
The Division is split into two play zones, the PvE focused larger space that acts as an instance for any player or party, and the dreaded PvP Dark Zone walled off in the center of it all. In the PvE zone, players spend most of their time completing campaign missions, encounters, and side missions. Campaign missions advance the story and award players with points to upgrade the base of operations, which we’ll get into later. The Division tells a decent story of betrayal and survival, with an intriguing but inconclusive end, though I found the construction of the struggle as a whole more interesting than the narrative. Encounters award these points as well, but are much smaller in scope, typically tasking players with guarding supply drops from waves of enemies or destroying a small enemy stronghold. Side missions have similar goals, but award gear and weapon schematics instead of base-building resources. Campaign missions are exciting, and encounters are short and sweet enough to maintain their charm, but side missions tend to be repetitive, sometimes involving only the equivalent of flipping a few switches, but the schematics are helpful in filling equipment gaps while leveling up.
Building up the base of operations is how players gain new skills and abilities. The base is split into three wings—medical, security, and tech—that are upgraded by using points awarded from campaign missions and encounters. Upgrades have different point costs and can be chosen freely, so players can focus on unlocking the capabilities they’re most interested in. Each wing offers three activated abilities, each with three modifications that change how they function. They also unlock talents activated by certain events in combat—such as taking cover or lighting enemies on fire—and persistent perks that permanently upgrade things like inventory and consumable item effectiveness. Finally, each wing offers a signature skill that will give an offensive, restorative, or defensive bonus to the entire party, but requires a great amount of time to recharge. Any signature skill and any two activates abilities can be equipped, so players can change how their character functions on the fly or focus on any build they want.
Players balance three stats that drastically alter how a character functions. Firepower increases the damage of weapons, stamina increases health, and electronics increases skillpower. Gear—bodyarmor, kneepads, backpacks, etc—increases these stats along with armor rating and gives various random effects. In this way, gear plays a major role in the capabilities of a character. Luckily, the base can be upgraded to allow the limited reassignment of gear abilities, like what stat they buff. The system is simple enough to grasp but deep enough to allow a lot of deep customization and flexibility.
Though the PvE zone is fun, particularly with party members, the Dark Zone is where the most excitement is found. This area features large groups of strong AI enemies, its own currency and leveling system, better weapons and gear, and a fantastic PvP system. These zones are occupied by other players as well, who may choose to help or kill on another. Killing AI enemies awards Dark Zone (DZ) currency, which can be used to purchase high quality equipment, and DZ experience, which contributes to a character’s DZ level, required to use DZ equipment. Equipment found in the Dark Zone is contaminated and can’t simply be carried out; players must call in an extraction helicopter at marked points, wait for its arrival, and then have their cache lifted, the items then added to their private stash. Calling an extraction draws AI enemies and all players in the zone are notified.
Should other players capitalize, they might attack an agent or agents waiting for an extraction (or at any other time, for that matter). Players can open fire on one another at any time. Killing a player causes them to drop whatever contaminated items they were carrying as well as awarding currency and experience. Attacking other players and killing them immediately puts a player in rogue status, which levels up to a maximum of five as they kill more agents. This status places a bounty on the player (or party’s) head as well as indicates them on every player’s minimap with a red skull. The higher the rogue status, the more the miscreants are worth. If the rogue player or party survives a timer, which increases as more agents are killed, they are rewarded with their bounty: experience and currency. If other players are successful in hunting them down, then those justice seekers are rewarded the bounty. It’s a fantastic risk-reward system, though a player finding themselves alone in the Dark Zone is extremely vulnerable, so someone who would prefer to hunt by themselves might not like the system. The Dark Zone is challenging, unpredictable, and unforgiving, so it may not appeal to everyone.
Players max out their regular level at 30, easily reached by the end of the campaign. Once there, a player’s level is replaced by their gear score, a number achieved by equipping endgame gear with their own gear score ratings. This number indicates to other players an agent’s capabilities, to an extent, and is also a requirement for raids, of which there is just one right now.
The Division is a fantastic game which currently needs more endgame content to keep players motivated and interested. The game is strongest when played with others, and thankfully hooking up with a party is simple, easy, and quick. The cover-and-shoot mechanic works well, and the action requires tactics and teamwork to survive successfully. Fans of more typical Tom Clancy titles will find The Division to be quite unlike those stealth-heavy, realistic titles, but all the strategy, teamwork, and depth is still there.