The Division review

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Massive Entertainment
Release Date Mar 8, 2016

The Division has made a fair few promises since its announcement in 2013.

When Ubisoft and its Massive studio pulled the curtain back on The Division several E3s ago, they promised a new kind of game in the Tom Clancy universe that married extensive online multiplayer support with a unique, beautifully rendered modern-day New York City setting. But as years came and went without a release and delays piled up, doubts collected at The Division's feet as to whether it could actually deliver on any of the hype.

The good news is that in many ways, The Division executes well enough on the parts of its identity that would seem the hardest to get right in an open world. But The Division's slavish adherence to the drip-feed mentality of massively multiplayer online role-playing games makes it feel like much less than it could be.

There are few things you do in The Division that don't involve guns

The Division is set weeks after a weaponized pathogen called the Green Poison ravages New York City. The titular organization is a government sleeper agency called from the denizens of the city to try to restore order and investigate the cause of the plague but, this being a video game, things go bad quickly. Left to pick up the pieces, it's your job to restore the Joint Task Force of local law enforcement and medical services and try to bring hope back to the people of NYC.

You primarily do this through shooting people.

I'll get this out of the way now. There are a few things you do in The Division that don't involve guns — cool augmented reality tech allows for in medias res snapshots of events during the outbreak and provide little mysteries to follow, and sometimes you'll help citizens in need on the street. But these scenarios are pretty underdeveloped, and the gross majority of The Division is spent running from one place in its open-world Manhattan where you shoot people to the next. This isn't unusual for a video game, and I'm not going to slam Ubisoft Massive and its partners for it unnecessarily. I'm just saying, there's not a lot of variety here in that regard.

Thankfully, there's a lot to like in The Division's shooting, and when combined with some varied terrain and a lot of differences in verticality, the foundation of a good third-person shooter is present. This is more impressive for two reasons: First, The Division is an open-world game, a genre not typically known for competent shooting; second, for all intents and purposes, The Division is an RPG.

When you shoot enemies in The Division, damage numbers fly off as loot drops and experience is earned. Other games have tried this model with varying success, two of the best examples being Gearbox's Borderlands and Bungie's Destiny. Both of these examples often struggle to make their shooting feel properly responsive, meaty and powerful. But somehow, The Division's gunplay more often than not feels like a shooter should.

Don't get me wrong: Contrary to some of Ubisoft's messaging around the game, The Division is largely playable solo, and a scaling difficulty system made sure that as long as my level matched the recommendation for the encounters in question, I had a surmountable challenge in front of me. Also, despite the MMO overtures, there is a story and important characters in The Division, complete with cutscenes and some plot development that goes beyond the more passive presentation in many online RPGs.

The Division review
The Division is constrained by its MMO ambitions

But you don't need to play alone, as there are deep multiplayer hooks in The Division in almost every part of the game. Finding people to play with is remarkably easy, both with friends and strangers, thanks to some very good in-game tools. Friends are shown on the map and are joinable at any time, and there are easy matchmaking systems in place for every main story mission and at every safehouse.

The Division - midtown

Like most things, The Division is more fun with friends, generally speaking. And as importantly, it allows the skill system to function as intended. There are three trees of upgrades that are unlocked by improving your base of operations — one for medics, engineers and tanks — and when each class is represented, there's a suggestion of what The Division could be. If, that is, The Division weren't so constrained by its MMO ambitions.

Character progression feels very minimal, as skills and perks give bonuses that are often small percentage improvements to existing abilities. Others give practical benefits, like the ability to carry more medkits or grenades, or to enter more contaminated spaces, but these aren't especially distinctive or exciting. It feels very rote, and the way The Division's New York plays at level 27 isn't especially different than it was at level 5.

The Division dark zone sidebar

The Dark Zone

While The Division's main component is strictly PVE, there's a more dangerous chunk of Manhattan walled off from the rest of the city. This Dark Zone, so named because it was abandoned due to excessive viral contamination and chaos, is an all-bets-are-off space where just about anybody can be an enemy — including other players.

The Dark Zone is clearly intended to be late-game content, with a suggested level of 25-30 — which could take most players 25-30 hours to reach, if they're extremely goal-oriented — and low-level players are in for a rude awakening if they wander in unaware. The Dark Zone holds special, more powerful loot that can't be carried out. Instead, it has to be extracted via helicopter. This process takes time, and sends an alert throughout the zone, so less scrupulous players can take this opportunity to attack and steal your spoils.

In addition to providing a competitive element, the Dark Zone also has its own progression system atop The Division's basic leveling component, which gates the Dark Zone gear you can use and containers you can open.

So far, I've only spent a bit of time in the Dark Zone. Initial impressions: It's an interesting conceit that adds a level of tension that other multiplayer shooters don't quite manage, and the consequences for being a marauding villain — which puts an increasing bounty on your head that you can then collect yourself if you can evade interception by justice-seeking players looking to end you — add some great wrinkles as well. I'll continue to play The Division in the coming weeks and update our review if necessary.

As only a casual MMO player, to me this nonetheless seems like a case of systems and sensibilities lifted from that genre with little practical reason. I know my character was getting more powerful on paper because I saw the numbers go up. But in practical terms, the only real result I saw from better guns and gear and higher levels was keeping up with similarly leveled AI opponents, who otherwise kicked my ass up and down Manhattan with just a couple of levels above me. This stands in stark contrast to action RPGs like Diablo or even Borderlands, which more effectively manage the balancing act of more powerful stuff with more powerful enemies.

And while wandering around The Division's frequently beautiful — albeit destroyed — Manhattan with friends is the sort of open-world experience I've been waiting for since the game was announced almost three full years ago, it often feels full of busy work, rather than meaningful tasks. There also just don't seem to be that many different things to do. After securing your 10th mercy drop or performing your eighth JTF support mission, they all sort of feel the same — just harder.

The Division review side
The Division is more fun with friends

This is staved off somewhat by the good combat fundamentals and level design that, early on, feels more or less on par with other good third-person shooters. But later levels feel particularly constrained to overly simplistic level design ideas. The sort of iteration and slow introduction of new factions and enemy types finally gives way to "this one is purple, and that one is yellow." Almost as if in acknowledgement of this shortage of new ideas, the challenge in later missions is often reduced to elite enemies rushing your position with shotguns or LMGs, rather than anything truly new or inventive.

In wider, more open spaces, this made for some fun, on-my-feet strategizing as I scrambled from one piece of cover to another. But in more constrained spaces with lots of level geometry to get hung up on, it led to quick and frustrating deaths, making the The Division feel artificially bogged down, and much less fun.

This late-game drought of new ideas is frustrating in part because The Division teases at least one encounter later on involving the kind of escalation it struggles with so often. It wasn't just exciting, it felt new — and then the game ended.

That is, insofar as The Division ends. I was greeted with a pop-up after finishing the last "proper" mission in the game that there would be more story-oriented mainline missions and "endgame" content to come. I understand that MMOs have to make promises like this, but in a game I played by myself — effectively, and enjoyably, I might add — as often as I did with other people, the lack of any proper resolution to The Division's story doesn't feel like a promise. It just doesn't feel finished.

Wrap Up:

The Division's MMO aspirations get in the way of its shooter fundamentals

Many games trying to mix MMO systems with combat-oriented design get mired in a constant number chase that makes enemies feel like too much of a damage investment, rather than satisfying challenges to overcome. But The Division gets shooting and encounters right in ways plenty of other games have tried and failed, building a basis for a truly social tactical shooter.

I just couldn't help but bump my head against a ceiling that felt built for an MMO mindset at odds with what The Division does well. Now we’re all waiting to see what Ubisoft Massive’s priorities for post-release support are, and whether it leans into what’s working — and whether it can avoid the pitfalls that have claimed so many of its peers.

The Division was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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