Tom Clancy’s The Division Review – Xbox One

At the start of the current console generation, much was made of co-op online gaming experiences. From E3 2012 up until present day, every game seemed to have some online co-op element weaved into its design. I suppose this can be traced back to titles like Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, and Borderlands, but the trend has really flared up over the past few years. One of the original torch-bearing titles for this trend is the long-in-development-and-recently-released Tom Clancy disease-filled, post-apocalyptic epic, The Division (try saying that out loud). We all remember the eye-roll-inducing E3 demos over the past few years; the ones where trained, rehearsed PR reps and producers would play “in-character” through a tight, controlled scenario. The question is, just how well does the reality of this game match up with those lofty promises?

When talking about The Division, you have to first talk about its influences. Narratively, two clearly stood out to me- both of them comic book series. This game’s story is clearly a mash-up of the mid-2000’s series Global Frequency and DMZ. Global Frequency revolved around a group of unique undercover individuals who were each called into service whenever their specialties were needed. Need a nuclear physicist to save the world in less than an hour? G.F. has you covered. Need a parkour runner to deliver the cure to a virus in less time than it would take to drive across the city? G.F. can handle that, too. The second series, DMZ, revolves around the concept of New York going into lock-down, being cut off from the rest of the nation, and becoming a demilitarized zone. Yeah, this game is that on the nose.

On the game play side of things, The Division is clearly aiming to be a more refined, user and narrative-friendly version of Destiny. Built within the standard Ubisoft 3rd-person cover shooter Tom Clancy mold, it hits just about every beat that Destiny does, and pulls them off just as well… sometimes better, sometimes worse. What you get once all of these ingredients stew together is a large group of clandestine private soldiers with little to no overhead supervision making their way through a disease-ravaged New York City in the style of most Clancy games.

My feelings on The Division ranged from curious to entirely dismissive over the years that it was in development. Historically, I’m not really a multiplayer kind of guy. Now, add in MMO elements on top of that, and I would only check in on it when the information was literally shoved in my face. I’m happy to report that The Division greatly exceeds my low expectations. There’s a lot to like about the game; it honestly does several things very well, and accomplishes most of what was put forth in it’s mission statement. Combat is tight and tactical, the co-op elements aren’t overbearing- surprisingly adding to the experience, and while sterile and cold in the ways that most Ubi/Clancy games can be, the story strings you along well enough.

On the negative side of things, The Division leaves you wanting in a few different key aspects that prevents it from being an absolute must-own. It may seem minor, but there are several different game play elements that are never properly explained in the game- stuff like communicating to other players, understanding the need for lock picks, navigating certain menus, and understanding the mod and crafting systems. Visually, the game is striking and yet somehow manages to look both beautiful and boring… often at the same time. The streets of New York- at least in the outer zone that surrounds the dark zone- are completely abandoned, save for the occasional AI survivor, dog, or “looter.”

It can be pretty to look at, but the longer you do, you realize how little is actually happening on screen. This is tied to the fact that, for as big as the environment is, there’s not that much to do outside of missions and side-missions. You don’t really interact with the world, and random encounters are limited to giving survivors water or food. Opportunities were missed. Perhaps the most damning thing working against The Division is that while, yes, the story does string you along, it’s never really engaging despite it’s heavy themes and world-ending high stakes. You play because the game is just fun enough, not because it’s addictive and compulsive from a narrative standpoint.

And here’s where we come to my main issue with The Division (and most MMO’s and co-op experiences, for that matter): it’s only as immersive as the tea-bagging knuckleheads around you allow for it to be. It’s hard to lose yourself in listening to an emergency broadcast when there are other players jumping up and down and saluting each other just off to the side, or pay attention to a simulation of tragic events when the random player you’re running a level with charges ahead of you into combat.

Also, this game has a big problem in the suspension-of-disbelief department. Namely, it wants you to believe this is a plausible near-future situation rooted in reality. And yet, that plausibility completely breaks when the combat begins. Guns aren’t stronger or weaker than other guns. Normal people aren’t more or less impervious to bullets. It’s a tough thing to let go of, especially when the game goes out of its way to constantly remind you that “this is the real world.” I know that at a certain point you have to let a video game be a video game, but come on, guys.

The Division isn’t a bad game- far from it, honestly. It’s core game play loop will be enough to keep you coming back, and in my opinion it pulls of the co-op experience and world-building better (for the most part) than Destiny did. It’s fun at a base level as long as you don’t put much thought into it, and as long as you don’t mind the evolving nature of some of it’s core mechanics, such as the Dark Zone, which is a PvP area that feels as if it’s changing at a near-daily pace. The Division may be the same game at level 3 as it is at level 30, but it’s a fun game that should be experienced… even if you lone-wolf it for most of your time in the world.

Like most games of this ilk, it may be an entirely different experience 12 months from now, but what’s presented here is surprisingly solid.

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