A Heady Mix
Our foray into Tom Clancy’s The Division didn’t exactly start out on the right foot. The game’s graphical woes are old hat by now—E3 2013 had promised a breathtakingly detailed open-world: environments that can be chipped away at, piece by piece. Bold shadows, a dynamic global illumination system, and, well, just an incredible sense of presence and sheer photorealism.
Then Watch Dogs happened. Then The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, and a whole host of games which were admittedly pretty, but definitely not what we’d expected of a new console generation. Microsoft and Sony kinda dropped the ball on the hardware front this time around, and no, The Division in its current state doesn’t look much different from most multi-plats you’d have seen over the past two years. To put it bluntly, it’s suffered from a pretty bad case of downgraditis. Considering the nature of fixed platforms, it’s not exactly fair to blame Ubisoft for this. But—and this is a critical but—what Tom Clancy’s The Division’s playable 2016 incarnation loses on the visual front, it more than makes up for in terms of the gameplay experience, and the sheer atmosphere of its Midtown Manhattan setting.
I haven’t had the best of experiences with recent Ubisoft titles, between the debacle that was AC: Unity, the painfully okay Watch Dogs, and Far Cry 3’s iterative sequels. The bar was set pretty low coming into The Division. But 10 hours later, Ubisoft’s latest has been pleasantly surprising, to say the least. The Division ticks in all the boxes it set out to: Functionally, it’s a very competent cover shooter. As an RPG, it offers a lot more depth than “obtain 4 Cloud Leopard skins to craft a new ammo bag.” As a shared-world Destiny-kind-of-thing, it doles out emergent, squad-based play in great big heaps. And to top it off, the 1:1 recreation of Manhattan’s Midtown borough truly is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Rather than designing an open world around the game’s gameplay mechanics, Ubisoft Massive takes an actual chunk out of Manhattan and works The Division’s cover-based shooting into this existing real-world space. Walking around The Division’s map gives you this almost eerie sense of place that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
The Division is a solid game with a fantastic setting, let down by only a few minor quibbles. It’s something you wouldn’t mind sinking 20-30 hours into. And, if those Season Pass expansions turn out to be meaty, it may likely tide you over for months.
Setting and Story
This is Tom Clancy’s The Division. What exactly were you expecting? While The Division isn’t going to win any awards for original narratives, Ubi Massive has at least managed to keep the melodrama this side of cringe-inducing. That is, apart from Faye Lau, the Strategic Homeland Division’s official workplace diversity shoo-in. No, I’m serious. There are entire threads dedicated to just how annoying Faye is. Have a look yourself.
Apart from an over enthusiastic one-eyed Asian woman, you’ll encounter a slightly distracted doctor type who sends you off to find medical goodies, an Hispanic cop on the narcotics beat, and a slightly off-kilter engineer/genius/apocalypse-survivor with a bushy beard and obligatory baseball cap. My, my, aren’t we indulging in our stereotypes? Ubi’s made quite a name for itself developing characters with all the personality of a Soviet housing complex, but thankfully, nothing here falls to Connor Kenway levels of inanity. The framing device for The Division’s plot—a smallpox outbreak in New York and a subsequent localized quarantine—is typical Tom Clancy material. The Division doesn’t set out to be a thought-provoking single-player experience. Nor does it need to. The relatively loose plot structure leaves you free to engage with its biggest strengths: The open-ended, cooperative cover shooting, and the fantastic setting in which all of this takes place.
As we’d mentioned earlier, The Divisions’ map features a 1:1 scale representation of Midtown Manhattan, in December. The occasional red lights and cheery Christmas decorations stand in stark contrast to heaps of trash piled haphazardly on the street. Even with the pared-back visuals, the attention to detail on display is nothing short of incredible. Landmarks like Times Square, Madison Square Garden and the Brooklyn Bridge are right where you’d expect them to be. But love and care have clearly been lavished on even the smallest of store-fronts.
Tom Clancy’s The Division is a multiplayer third-person shooter/RPG hybrid. That works a whole lot better than it sounds, and it does so because Ubi Massive nails the fundamentals. What makes a functional third-person shooter? The cover system and the gunplay. Considering that it’s set in a quarantined Manhattan overrun by rioters, The Division has a lot of fair-sized random crap to huddle under. One quibble we have here is the inexplicable absence of a crouch button—this makes even less sense considering that your character does crouch to hide behind low cover. Switching in and out of cover is fairly smooth, and, if not Deus Ex levels of seamless, then at least functional. But with a much wider sandbox at your disposal, (and a lot more things to crouch behind) The Division’s cover system opens up wonderful tactical opportunities. Sneaking up on an emplaced enemy, stalking from cover point to cover point, while a teammate lays down suppressing fire from the front, is immensely rewarding.
Guns in The Division may feel a bit light, but that has more to do with the bullet-sponge enemies the RPG aspect of the game seems to require. It’s not that gunplay isn’t satisfying in the game. Rather, enemy health is more, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. than Gears of War. At lower levels, and with standard equipment, your typical bad guy in a red parka takes a lot more bullets to put down than you’d think. This does have the unexpected benefit of making cooperative sessions that much more engaging: When you have two or three additional players on your fireteam, the number of enemies rises substantially and you’ll end up with a lot of hard-to-put-down baddies really taking your case. The Division doesn’t have health regen per se (though there is a health regen buff you can equip, with a long cooldown). This, along with enemy… er robustnesss encourages a tactical approach to co-op play.
PvE makes up the bulk of Tom Clancy’s The Division experience. Quick Matchmaking will throw you in a fireteam with whoever’s available if you don’t have any friends playing the game. The matchmaking process is fairly seamless, at least for early days—it typically takes no more than 30 seconds to jump into any mission you choose with 1-3 obliging strangers. The Division has an MMO-style chat interface, which is hidden by default. We didn’t find much use for it as a lot of the public chat in open areas seemed to comprise of random guys going “ping.” We’d see this being more useful for discussing tactics if you’re going into a mission with friends, though push-to-talk makes this redundant. In true MMO spirit, Tom Clancy’s The Division features a range of emotes—from the kind you’d expect like applause, help, and surrender, to quirky ones like, uh jumping jacks? No, really, this is actually a thing.
While cooperative PvE play is where Tom Clancy’s The Division’s wider focus is at, the game features the Dark Zone for PvP. What makes the Dark Zone compelling is that it’s not a dedicated PvP area per se. You don’t have to kill other players, although you can. The Dark Zone features the rarest loot in The Division, but also its most dangerous enemies—those scary people that’ve already hit the level cap. Oh, and those high-level NPCs that will one-shot you if you’re dumb enough to enter the Dark Zone below level 10.
Killing another player turns you into a Rogue Agent, which is The Division’s version of GTA’s star system. Rogue agents have bounties on their heads and are fair game for anyone in the Dark Zone. If you max out your Rogue rank, you get to collect your own bounty. For some reason. Although PvP alone is a reason to dip into the Dark Zone once in awhile, it’s the high level loot that will keep you coming back.
PC Performance and Tech
Despite the visual downgrade from its E3 showcase, Tom Clancy’s The Division is still quite a looker, as far as open-world titles go. As a Gameworks title, The Division features HBAO+ alongside PCSS and HFTS shadow options. HBAO+ is a welcome enhancement to the in-house AO solution used. However, we found the PCSS and HFTS implementations to be rather dodgy. As GTA V demonstrates, it is possible to do high-end shadow filtering in open-world games without a gigantic performance hit. However, enabling NVIDIA’s new HFTS (Hybrid Frustum Traced Shadows), brought our framerate down in the high 30s at 1080p on occasion on the GTX 980 Ti. The game scales reasonably well, however, if you drop settings down a notch or two. We reckon that upper midrange cards like the GTX 970 and R9 390 should comfortably hit 60 FPS with a medium-high settings profile.
Tom Clancy’s The Division – verdict
Tom Clancy’s The Division was a better experience than we expected. True, it wears its Ubisoft legacy like a badge at times, with a map dotted with random things to do. Yet, at the same time, it manages to avoid the stagnation on view with series like Assassin’s Creed. By getting the fundamentals right, by delivering a competent, shared-space cover shooter with relatively deep RPG elements, Ubi Massive built a great game, and then placed it in one of the most lavishly detailed settings seen in a videogame. This is a game you’ll want to play, and with season pass available, it’s likely to keep you occupied for months.
|Developer – Ubisoft Massive
Publisher – Ubisoft
Genre – Third-person shooter
Platform – PC, Xbox One, PS4
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Arjun likes reading epic fantasy on his iPad when he's not busy sleeping or writing. He also likes to get really smug about his beastly PC rig. If you don't think Shadow of Chernobyl is the greatest testament to human achievement, he'll probably just unfriend you. Also, he can play metal on the electric Veena, which is just plain awesome.