Game Reviews

The Division

It was the best of games, it was the worst of games, it was an experience full of addictive fun, it was an experience full of frustration.

The Division is a game full of contradictions. An experience so befuddling it is at once one of the most fun and interesting games you’ve played in years while also being so annoying and broken it makes you want to smash your controller.

 

 

For every moment of pulse-pounding exhilaration there’s another moment of despair for opportunities the developers never realized. When The Division is doing something well it is a beautiful open-world version of a decimated New York City, succeeding in capturing the essence of the place in a way that Watchdogs failed to do with Chicago. From the haunting Christmas Lights sadly flickering with the celebration they were intended for now derailed to the bizarre and creepy sight of a blacked out Times Square the atmosphere feels very real. But as far as the campaign itself goes this is a huge playground without much to play with. The city is strangely bereft of people and at times so empty you run for minutes at a time without encountering anyone. And when you do it is usually the same character stumbling around hungry asking you for soda or an energy bar. A dynamic populace would have made the game far more interesting and it’s frankly an oversight by Ubisoft so obvious that it is puzzling. Imagine a Manhattan decimated by disease where the most interesting thing you can find to do is pick up old phone recordings and other assorted collectibles that you will quickly give up on finding and that’s The Division at it’s worst. A series of scripted conflicts that, once complete, vanish forever making revisiting most areas a tedious and unnecessary endeavor.

The missions themselves are nothing special either, shoot your way through waves and waves of enemies with little or no variation in order to trigger a boss, find some cover and put several clips of ammo into him and you’re done. Rinse and repeat. Worse yet is that while you can change the difficulty settings to replay the missions, the characters never change. They spew the same dialogue, they stick to mostly the same patterns; Here comes a shotgun wave so fall back, here comes a sniper wave, this one is a heavy machine gunner and so on.

Having said that, there is a pretty robust RPG style engine underneath it all, progression is fun and loot hunting is pretty compelling. The variety of ways in which you can earn that valuable gear is highly entertaining, though the reasons for not including the legendary sets like Striker or Tactician gear at launch aren’t all that clear to me. To give Ubisoft credit they recognized the inequity of some aspects of the leveling system pretty quickly and issued a new system, complete with gear scores, in short order while also improving the drop system in the Dark Zone giving players a better reason for venturing out there.

The Dark Zone is an area in which The Division does work pretty well. PvP is enabled out in The Division’s version of the Wild West and it makes the experience tense and unpredictable. Forcing you to extract your precious loot is a master stroke for the games designers, creating agonizing tension while you wait for the helicopter to arrive, scanning the dark horizons to see if rogue players are laying in wait to dispose of you, loot your corpse, and extract your hard earned gear themselves. On one such excursion I finally got a named baddy to drop a legendary gear item, what would have been my first such item, and my companion and I made our way to an extraction. Calling in the chopper naturally alerts all the nefarious players nearby and sure enough they appeared. And once they gunned me down beneath the incoming extraction all I could do was watch helplessly as they plucked my precious Striker Gloves from my corpse and made off with them. It’s in these moments that the game really is at it’s best. Creating an atmosphere of paranoia where players who pass by each other in the streets quickly turn around and walk backwards, each feeling the other out, trying to assess if they aim to start trouble or not, making sure they are alone. The constant game of “friend or foe” that plays out in The Dark Zone is deliciously tense and highly entertaining. And yes, it is frustrating when you run into packs of over-powered rogues against whom you stand no chance of survival, but it does force you to be more social; make friends with other players quickly or face the prospect of wandering the Dark Zone alone and that’s a recipe for repeated death. I have gotten friend requests from several players while roaming in the Dark Zone and most of them have turned into really fun partners to team up with. It’s this aspect of PvP interaction, filled with both good and bad players, that succeeds as the social platform that I hoped Destiny would be but ultimately wasn’t. Free to roam on your own, team up if you want to, there’s a flexibility in play styles and interactions that feels very organic. And of course, after being ambushed enough, it is likely you will develop a “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality. There’s nothing like being alone in the Dark Zone, having 4 guys come sprinting towards you and knowing you have no chance in this shoot-out to angry up the blood. Luckily all you need to do is find someone else even lower in rank than you and take out your frustrations, it’s quite therapeutic.

Now, at it’s worst I must admit that The Division can be a glitch-filled disaster replete with game breaking issues and maddening load times. To be fair, Ubisoft and Massive aren’t responsible for all that ails the game, some of it is, I am sad to say, my fellow gamers just acting like dicks with no sense of decorum or etiquette. Trying to find a suitable batch of partners for running through Incursion, the games free add-on that is both difficult and as fun as any single shoot ‘em up level in recent memory, can be annoying and time consuming. Clicking on the “matchmake” button is basically Russian roulette. It is not uncommon to stare at the load screen only to appear back in a Safe House with a message informing you that you’ve been “kicked from group” before you’ve even had a chance to load in. This is not Massive’s fault, it’s gamers acting like jerks and leaves you wondering just what criteria you are being judged for.

Another example would be the time I was playing through a mission on challenging and the other 3 players, who I assume were friends in real life, simply refused to assist me when I succumbed to a lethal barrage. At times teaming up to stand over my lifeless figure and shoot bullets into me before moving farther into the level and leaving me to spectate. Behavior like this breaks the fun of the game through no fault of the developer but does leave you wondering just how social you want to be with other gamers (and left me noting their gamer tags in the hopes I found one of them wandering the Dark Zone–sweet revenge will be mine eventually).

What is the fault of Ubisoft and Massive are the times missions simply refuse to start, enemies popping in and out of the map while you’re shooting them, sometimes even reappearing behind you and peppering you with bullets before you know what’s happening, the game mistakenly thinking you are in a “no respawn” zone making matchmaking impossible for no good reason, or being booted randomly from the server. I have had missions simply freeze, I have seen mostly completed Challenging-level missions where the next wave just refused to spawn forcing us to quit and I have seen an extraordinary number of players randomly disconnected. There is nothing as agonizing as being in the middle of an hour long run through Incursion only to have a teammate disconnect several waves in and since Ubisoft and Massive won’t allow matchmaking even under extreme circumstances this makes the match all but a forfeit for the remaining 3 players. Most of this would be excusable given the reported 10.5 million registered users roaming The Divisions post-apocalyptic city but Massive has shut down the servers for patches nearly every week since launch, with another scheduled at the time of this writing, with none of these issues being addressed.

I freely admit to being addicted to The Division as I am in love with the concept as a whole. I am often reminded while playing it of Contra, in terms of difficulty, and the feeling of triumph you get from sweating your way through a level. Finally beating Incursion is one of those rare gaming moments where you set the controller down and just revel in your achievement. Games today are generally far too easy and it is refreshing that The Division can be absolutely punishing at times.

Summary:

Graphically exquisite, complete with blinding snow drifts and highly detailed abandoned apartments to walk through, it is so close to being something special but, as mentioned before, the sameness of it all and lack of things to do in the vast playground keep it from fulfilling it’s potential. Incursion and the challenging mission modes are difficult and fun enough to keep me going back so replayablity is high and the never-ending hunt for loot is engaging enough. The newly arrived system that enables you to swap gear is great and shows that Massive is listening to feedback, but it’s absence at launch is weird; as an aside every RPG’ish game out there should implement Diablo 3’s gear swapping system and leave it at that, it was perfect.

I will keep returning to The Division, mostly out of spite now. Once I complete a gear set there are several rogues wandering the Dark Zone that are due for a comeuppance. And that sentiment sums up the appeal to the game pretty well: play through some fun and painfully difficult missions to earn your loot and then you and your new-found friends can go teach some of those bullies a lesson. Call it a bulletsponge game if you want, and I can’t argue that, but if you don’t acknowledge the original and entertaining PvP system, the nextgen graphics and the old school difficulty levels you’re selling it short.

The Division earns 3 out of 5 bacon strips because the title has so much unfulfilled promise, a pedestrian campaign and is riddled with inexcusable glitches that go beyond annoyance and actually break the experience. However I maintain that it is such a leap forward in the PvP experience and in terms of challenge that I anticipate the inevitable follow-up game from Massive will be a 5 bacon strip experience!

Below is a pretty long video of some of my runs through Incursion. I resisted the temptation to edit it down to the last 1/2 hour where our team finally beat it because the hour of constant failing that precedes it is both entertaining and illustrative of the games punishing difficulty. Enjoy the full video if you want to laugh at my pain or fast forward to about the 1 1/2 hour mark to see how we defeated Incursion.

Buy the Division for Xbox One Here

    

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