“Well that was pretty easy…want to hit up the Dark Zone?” I asked Kris. Kris and I just successfully rescued two hostages in an abandoned electronics store from The Cleaners – a gang equipped with flamethrowers and heavy weaponry whose sole purpose is to wipe out any of the remaining infected New Yorkers. Growing bored of the encounters we decided it was time to roam the streets of New York and find some trouble. “Oh shit, you can climb this wall and enter The Dark Zone from here.” Kris says through his mic. I immediately follow him, even jumping over the wall before him. “Shit, there’s no way out! We have to find an exit because this is a level 18 zone.” I knew what time it was. The Dark Zone isn’t necessarily the place you want to be without a plan. Kris jumped over the wall behind me and not two steps into the Dark Zone do we run into a group of enemies. It’s not an easy battle. We’re outnumbered and pinned down. We coordinate our attack, with a combination of grenades and support attacks. We survive that wave and enjoy the few seconds of peace. We collect the loot and quickly pull up the map. “We got to get the hell out of here!” I say. We locate the closest evacuation point and begin making our way there. Midway through our trek, I noticed a red skull on the map.
“Aww man damn, someone went rouge. We need to run the other way.” We turn the corner, only to find another group of enemies in front of us. Fighting them is out of the question because the red skull on the map is moving closer and we’re not trying to lose the gear we’ve acquired. Hiding behind a car I hear Kris say “I’m going to run up these stairs and see where they lead.” He runs up the stairs while I provide cover fire. Our bet pays off, the stairs lead to the evacuation point. Of course nothing is easy in the Dark Zone. A firefight is happening in our target area. We’re in luck because another pair of players is fighting the enemy.
We jump into the fight, flanking the enemy and securing the zone. We pause, reload our weapons and get our bearings. While kris is in cover I see a body pop out of cover and run towards us. I don’t see a highlighted name so I open fire. The body drops, but it doesn’t fall. It begins crawling. “Aww shit, I didn’t mean to shoot him. Dammit.” We just went rogue…by mistake. Kris, runs to the downed player, trying to heal him to fix my mistake. But, the player’s teammate isn’t trying to hear it. He runs towards Kris, opening fire and injuring him. Now it’s on. I jump out of cover, running behind Kris and killing the second player. I didn’t want to, but it was him or me and he had to go. I revive Kris and we call for the helicopter. “Man I didn’t mean to kill the guy.” I tell Kris. “I know, and when I tried to help him, his friend ran up on me. Oh well…fuck it. And we got their loot” I start laughing. We call the helicopter, airlift our new gear and begin running to the nearest exit – all while laughing and talking about what just went down. We make it out The Dark Zone and restock on ammo and supplies. “Damn we made it. Wanna go back in and see what else we can find?” “Sure.” We head back in…welcome to The Division.
The Division is Ubisoft’s first entry in the shooter/MMORPG genre for consoles. Following up on the success of Destiny, The Division seemingly takes some of the lessons learned from that game and applies it to a formula that creates a great experience for co-op gameplay, but falls short during solo play sessions.
Story and Environment
Here’s something that I find interesting. When Destiny was released people slammed the game for its lack of story. You would hear people say that there wasn’t enough meat to keep up with the constant grind that the game asked of its characters. Of course as content was released, more of the story became available. With The Division, the story is right there driving the action and motivations of the characters. But you know what? I could care less about the damn story. Yes, Ubisoft has done a great job giving the city life. Echoes, which create an augmented reality overlay of past events, cellphone recordings, documents and even downed drones provide you with the bite sized chunks of information that add to the story. And whenever you finish a main quest you are treated to a cutscene in the form of a recorded video. At no point in the game are you ever lost on what’s happening story wise. You just don’t care.
Loot driven games were never really about the story. It just needs to be enough to give you motivation to keep going. I remember the first time I played Diablo III with other players on Xbox One. No one watched a cutscene or read the dialogue. It was all skipped in order to get to the all important boss fight. Why? Because all anyone gave a damn about was the loot. In The Division you could finish a main quest and receive a cutscene and while you watch the new footage you’re chatting with friends over party chat; Completely negating the impact of the cutscene. Of course you can always watch any of the footage,notes,and cellphone logs at any time in the game.
Running New York Solo
The one thing that I do not understand about The Division is the choice to isolate players outside of The Dark Zone and the safe houses. If you’re playing solo, which I do sometimes, the game can become pretty boring. Sure, there are things to do and people to kill…even loot to collect. But you do it alone. You’re running around New York City and you’re the only Division agent you’ll see. “Unforgivable.”
Seriously, why create such an expansive sandbox and only allow me, as a division agent, to populate it? It’s been said before in many reviews and I agree, that if Ubisoft had found a way to merge aspects of the Dark Zone with the outside map this game would have been close to perfect. I would love to find another group of players or even another solo player in the middle of an encounter and be able to run into the fight and help them complete the quest. It would be cool to see other people running around New York so I wouldn’t feel so alone.
*Some early level combat. Music in the background by artist Bonobo
Okay so the big question is how does the game play? Because Ubisoft could have built the most immersive sandbox known to man, but if the game played like shit it wouldn’t be worth talking about. As a third person cover shooter it’s solid. Is the cover mechanic ‘Gears of Wars’ good…not really. And the feel of shooting a gun isn’t as tight as Destiny. It’s somewhere in the middle. Because this is a Tom Clancy branded game, the mechanics have to incorporate some ‘realism’. Take the shooting mechanics. In Destiny most guns have recoil, some more than others. But I can squeeze the trigger on auto rifle and unload a full clip without worry of the gun straying too far from it’s target. Try unloading a full clip in The Division. You’re lucky if a quarter of the bullets hit the target. The rest of the bullets will hit everything but what you’re aiming at. And according to my friend who was in the military that’s pretty standard. In real life, you can’t just unload a clip and not expect to the gun to end up further off the mark than when you started. In The Division, burst firing is your friend…unless you’re five feet from the enemy.
So that’s shooting. What about the cover mechanic? It’s good, but not without its problems. I find that cover works how you would expect it to – until the shit hits the fan. There are instances during a boss encounter where an object that should be available for cover, isn’t actually cover. It’s just an object in the environment. Which isn’t something you’re trying to find out when someone with a mini-gun is shooting you in the face. When cover works, it works well. The game highlights an object and the ‘x’ button appears, allowing you snap to the object. You can stay in cover and bend a corner or even run cover to cover, which will come in handy against tougher enemies. But again, when I’m scrambling, cover can become my worst enemy.
For example, in this game tougher enemies will rush you. I’ve run missions where the enemies were 2 – 5 levels higher than me. Instead of hanging back and firing from cover, they run full speed with a Mossberg shotgun to where you’re hiding. It’s as if they know how weak you are and plan on exploiting it. Well in those instances I need to get up from cover and run or roll out of the way. And it doesn’t help if I roll out of the way only for that extra tap of the ‘X’ button to cause my character to stick to a wall that doesn’t give me cover from a shotgun blast. There have also been instances where the camera wasn’t exactly working in my best interest. For the most part the camera works well, and you can also control where the camera is pointing. Yet, in the heat of the moment all those same camera mechanics will create a view where I can see what’s behind me or beside me and I dive right into a wall, only to to get shot in the back.
A Quick Note on Realism and Bullet Sponges
The first time I played The Division my brain couldn’t make sense of what was happening. “Okay Charles, you have a military-grade auto rifle. This is a real life representation of New York. All enemies should die pretty quickly, like they would in any action game.” Except this isn’t an action game. It’s an MMO. And enemies don’t just fall over. They take damage like they would in Destiny. I’ve always had an issue with enemies becoming bullet sponges in a realistic setting. If a person has no shield, special armor or some type of special mutant ability that lets him or her heal like Wolverine, why would I find reasonable to think that any enemy should take 200+ rounds to put down? I know, I know…semantics. But, it does have an effect on the game.
Playing The Division with Friends and Others
This game is best played with friends. And if you don’t have friends who are playing this game you’re in luck. Unlike other games *cough* Destiny *cough* you can utilize matchmaking for any of the main missions or to roam around New York and the Dark Zone. I’ve played with friends and ‘randoms’ and in both instances I was appreciative of the helping hand. However, there’s some things you need to know(bring on the list!).
- Enemies will match the level of the highest person on the team
- The more people on the team, the more enemies there are
- Teamwork makes the dream work
- If you’re matchmaking don’t be surprised if you’re matched with someone 2 – 5 levels higher than you. It’s happened to me.
- Always…always play every mission on ‘Hard’. You get better loot and missions are more exciting.
It’s when you play with friends that character builds begin to make sense. When you’re playing solo you might stick to the same two special abilities. A healing ability and either the radar perk or some type of explosive. However, when you’re playing with friends everything from your choice of weapons to the specials matter. There were instances where I had to play support and use my medic abilities to heal my teammates while they did the heavy lifting of surviving an enemy wave. Or using a Marksman rifle to pick off enemies from a distance while other players use cover to close in on the enemy. In the beginning of the game you’ll most focus on the DPS rating for your weapons and choose the gun with the highest rating. But as you’ll find out, it’s not always about DPS…it’s also about your play style.
The Loot Cycle
Games like The Division and Destiny are geared for repetitive play. In order to keep us logged in, the game creates a loot cycle – A constant grind for new loot and gear. Otherwise there would be no point in completing the side missions. You would play just enough to complete the main story mission and move on to another game. With Destiny, the grind was straight to the point. You knew what exotic or legendary weapon you wanted and you endured the grind to get it. On the other end of the spectrum you have a game like Diablo III which doled out loot in such a rapid pace that you would become overwhelmed by your inventory after a few hours of play. The Division, however is somewhere on the other end. Just enough to keep you motivated.
For the uninitiated, games like Destiny and The Division give you the good loot after you reach the level cap. It’s the reason you see people rush to level 30, not paying much attention to the story. They want the good loot. So if the best loot can only be obtained after the level cap, what the hell is left for those people between level 1 and 29? Well…it’s a mixed bag. Yes, there is a steady stream of loot drops, but it really depends on your level and your location in the game. When the game first starts you are charged with the task of rebuilding your base of operations. In order to build your base you have to get materials for each wing of the base. The wings are:
- Tech Wing
- Medical Wing
- Security Wing
You earn these materials by completing wing specific encounters and main missions. Main missions will give you more materials than encounters, but there are more encounters per region than there are story missions. Why am I telling you all this? Because if you play like me building your base becomes a priority and you spend much of your early hours on the left side of the map. Doing such will put you in a situation where your character is levels higher than the enemies in a particular zone. So when you kill these enemies the loot that drops is somewhere in between your character level and the level of the zone. It presents a particular problem. How do you find weapons and armor that will give you the best chance of completing a story mission while cleaning up one side of the map? The answer is pretty simple. You just have to rock what you got, which can become a little boring.
Take my character, who is now at level 24(as of April 11th he’s now level 30). I can run pretty much anywhere on the map and hold my own, but I’ve decided to focus on the main base and clean up the encounters and side missions on the left side of the map and work my way around to the upper right. On more than one occasion I’ve received an in-game message that a piece of armor or weapon is lower than the rest of my build and I should upgrade. But the problem is that I have nothing to upgrade to! The weapons that are dropping are shit and the stat rolls on the armor would put one or more of the stats at a disadvantage against higher ranked enemies. If loot dropped at my level instead of some weird trade off between character and zone I wouldn’t have this problem. And I can’t buy weapons or armor because the ratio of how much things costs to how much money I earn is skewed in a direction that I have to hoard my money until level 30. Because I don’t want to wish I could buy something at the level cap only to be pissed at myself because I spent the money on a gun I haven’t used 6 levels ago.
And then you have the visual character customizations. Like most MMOs part of the fun of the game is making your character look unique. A particular set of armor is a sign to other players that you, against all odds, have completed a particular quest that most have not. Your armor tells a story. In the Division armor isn’t as visible as it is in other games. So pieces change, like your gloves, weapon holster, and backpack but how often are you going to look at someone’s gloves? In this game you can change your clothing, which like the rest of the loot drops at random. I’ve found that clothing drops at a good rate. You’re never hurting for a new ‘modern bubble coat’, it’s that all the clothing looks alike. The first time you get a “cool pom pom beenie” you’re excited. The tenth time you get a “modern pom pom beenie” you’d wish there was an option to get a space suit. Of course you can buy certain outfits…
The Dark Zone
And finally we’ve come to what most people consider as the best part of the game – The Dark Zone. A mashup of PvE and PvP where you can group up with other players to help each other earn the best loot, or you can just kill each other and let the chips fall where they may. In order to truly understand the Dark Zone I’m going to tell you another story, different from the one I told at the beginning of this review.
Once upon a time there was a Division agent. Fresh in the game and not very experienced he decided to wander into The Dark Zone. Now, this agent had visited The Dark Zone before. He and some fellow agents that he didn’t know were helping each other roam the Dark Zone in a quest for more powerful loot. They were successful in their endeavors and everyone went on their merry way. This time however, things were different. As soon as he walked through the door he was met by rogue agents. Coming into The Dark Zone alone he figured he would leave them be and go about his way. The agents, seeing a lone agent surrounded him and attacked him. Perturbed, the agent fought against the group, but did not survive. He lost money and experience. He revives, back in the Dark Zone safe house, pissed but determined. He ventures back into the zone, alone. He sees the group of rogue agents in the distance fighting a new group of agents. He decides to let them be and go on his way. He’s exploring and finds a group of enemies. He engages these enemies and is holding his own. Out of nowhere a group of agents arrive to help him. They kill the enemies and all is well. But unbeknownst to our hero that group of “friends” was actually the same rogue agents. The agents surround him and our friend dies. Losing more money and experience.
– The End
You’ve now read two stories with two very different outcomes. This is what makes The Dark Zone so fun, it’s also what makes it so fucking frustrating. I’m sure I’m going to be in the minority when I say this but there should be a separate section for PvP within The Dark Zone. Why do I say this? Because the current system isn’t properly structured for the current setup. The way the system is currently set up, death is punished. When you die you lose experience and DZ money, the currency you use to buy weapons from the safe houses in the zone. For anyone who has ever played an online competitive game (like Call of Duty or the Crucible in Destiny) then you know you’re going to die…a lot. But when you die in those games you’re not punished for each death. That would be ludicrous, because no one is that good. Yet, for some reason if you die in the Dark Zone you’re going to lose money and rank. Which puts you at odds with the game depending on your play style. If you’re trying to get the best gear and level up you’re going to be more likely to play it safe and not engage others. But what if you are engaged, not by your doing but someone decides it’s time for you to go, and shoots you in the back when you’re not looking? Why should you be punished for that? Yes, the current Dark Zone is tense. You never know if the person helping you is friend or foe. But when you have people jumping in front of your fire on purpose to make you go rogue the shit becomes annoying. If the Dark Zone is the only place where I can see other players outside of the safe house there should be a place for people who enjoy PvE and a place for people who enjoy PvP. Hell, give folks a public event or two so they don’t feel left out.
I’ve been on both sides of the equation. And even when I was the one doing the shooting, my initial reaction was to help the person I shot. What I don’t like about the current setup is that I have no choice. I’m sure like most people, sometimes you’re in the mood for PvP and sometimes you’re not. It would be nice to have a place to gather with other agents when I’m not in the mood for PvP.
So here we are, the end of the “review”. And what do I think about the game (for those of you who just want the answer)?
The Division is a solid third-person shooter/MMO that is great if you have people to play with. The combat is solid and matchmaking is there if you want to play with others. But a majority of your time spent in this digital creation of New York will be kind of boring if you’re playing alone. Why? Because unlike Destiny, the only time you’ll see other people is in the safe house or the Dark Zone.