The VG247 team chart their journey through The Division. Should you drop the cash?
The Division review: is it worth buying?
The Division is the new Tom Clancy RPG shooter from Ubisoft set in New York City. The population has been wiped out, looters are running riot and you’re called in to try and restore some form of order among the chaos. Mixing PvP and PvE gameplay, it can be tackled solo, in co-op or competitively against others players. It’s one of the biggest games of the year and you want to know if The Division lives up to the hype, right? Can you be confident that spending your hard earned cash gets you tens-to-hundreds of hours of deliriously exciting gameplay? Well, we’re here for you.
The VG247 team is currently roadie-running through New York, putting in the hours in-game before checking out to write the definitive review. It’s a massive task, so we’re going to be updating this review as we go over the coming weeks. Our feelings will change, our allegiances might switch, and we may even begin arguing and throwing punches. But we’ll be pulling apart the game, analysing its single-player, co-op and PvP differences (remember to use The100’s The Division LFG service if you’re looking to find like-minded players to share the burden), sharing stories of triumph and failure, highlighting problems, going deep on tactics, comparing it to other games and most importantly answering the big question: is The Division worth buying?
Update 1: March 11, 2016.
Brenna: I finally “got” The Division when I stopped playing it like Destiny. The gun play asks very different skills of the player. Also, each individual weapon model feels unique, even within a class – the rate of fire, reload speeds, accuracy. Finding a better version of one you like is Christmas. It’s funny that they all have these dull real world names like ZX-47K-11 or whatever but they have a lot more personality than 99% of Destiny’s weapons.
Pat: I agree with you. It’s nothing like Destiny, and I think it’s unfair to compare them. They’ve got the same core concept, but that’s pretty much where it ends.
So, I’m going to get straight to the point. I really like The Division, primarily because it’s so different to Destiny, a game I’ve now ground so hard into the ground I’ve lost a foot. The first “green” section was a bit of a grind, but now I’m level 12 and I’m getting loads of blue drops it’s making a lot more sense. The combat’s endlessly tactical (meaning playing with randoms is basically pointless), and the more you fiddle with perks, talents and mods the deeper it goes.
And you’re totally right about the weapons. I thought they’d just be these faceless, nameless things, but I’m emotionally attached to my AK-47. There are many like it. But that one is mine.
Matt: I’m glad the Destiny thing is out of the way. For me, the weapons and gear remind me of the early Modern Warfare days, before Call of Duty got double-jumps and robo-suits. I like a meat and potatoes machine gun with an extended clip and a clear scope.
It hasn’t felt like I’ve been grinding, but now I’ve got all blues I’m thinking about getting my first yellows and I’ve started to plan a route around the districts. In my first ten hours or so I was simply hoofing it to the nearest icon and attacking whatever was there, but there are encounters that soon put you in your place. It doesn’t feel like I’m restricted or content is gated, and I know I can either hang back and farm earlier side missions, or challenge myself and push at a task that’s a little outside my comfort zone. That feels like a really clever design balance between boundaries that will push back when I prod them, and comfort encounters I know I can win.
Pat: I definitely did find that early bit grindy, but it didn’t last too long. I think it may have been because I was soloing for a lot of it, and I had a few wasted sessions with randoms that just didn’t work out, and I got booted because of server fuck-ups a few times. So yeah. Maybe that was just my personal experience.
The progression balance is much better now, though, because I’m using gear with talents and I’ve unlocked a bunch of skill mods, so I’m starting to set myself up as I like. I get a 2%-per-metre damage buff for auto-moving between cover, for example, so rushing up on named snipers means I’m totally OP by the time I get there. If I’ve had a drink of water before the assault, I get an extra 20% damage against elites. I pop up near them and they just melt when I open up. It’s satisfying to figure this stuff out, but you don’t really get a chance to in the early game.
Another thing that’s coming together at this point is team-work, and I can see it’s going to be amazing when everything’s unlocked. I’ve modded my health skill now, meaning I can fire a reviving shot at a bleeding team-mate. We don’t have to stand directly next to each other any more. Providing I have line-of-sight on others in my squad, I can bring them back to life, so I can already see how that clashes with my turret choice for the second skill, as you need to be quite far forward to pitch it into a relevant location. One wants me to hang back, the other wants me to push forward.
It’s the same with the weapons. At the moment I’ve only got limited options because this is just the start, but it’s obvious you’re going to be able to have guns rigged up with very specific mods for specific situations, and making sure you have the right kit is going to keep people playing for a long time. I was worried about the content running out of steam when people started hitting the cap so early, but considering we’re going to get a bunch of packs this year and free raids soon, I think we’re in for a captivating 12 months.
Brenna: Combat shines so brightly with a close-knit team, but there’s loads here for solo players, too. It’s challenging and you may need to over-prepare, because missions are balanced for groups, but with skill and care you seem to be able to get through everything but the Dark Zone alone. You could solo right up to raids, if you wanted.
Some of it is best played alone – like grabbing the collectibles. When you’re playing in a group it’s easy to overlook just how good the environmental design, music and storytelling is. I really admire how Ubisoft has provided a decent XP incentive to go after individual collectibles, a task that is usually just a thankless chore, and I’m fascinated by the stories they contain. There’s so much in there – some sort of conspiracy, the rise of the factions, the everyday lives of people caught in the disaster. I’m sorry to mention Destiny again, but it’s a bit like the Grimoire cards in that all the best stuff is not foregrounded – only you can access it in game, and most of it is audio you listen to automatically on collection.
It’s a great way to balance impatience with storytelling while still making those elements easily accessible. It’s the same with the main storyline: the cutscenes unlock as you complete main missions, but you have to actively choose to view them. I’ve been really surprised by how much I dig it, given I’m usually uninterested in all this Tom Clancy business. There’s a great single-player narrative game in here! Amazing.
Pat: I soloed myself close to 15 this evening, and loved the two hours. Just great atmosphere. Love the realism and the sense of menace, and the way it becomes more daunting when you try to clear out a 15 region when you’re 14. I’m using a Military AK and a blue M60 I bought from the Post Office for seven grand. It’s all good. Getting nice drops, too, so I’m happy right now.
You’re so right about the narrative stuff, Brenna. I won’t spoil any of it for anyone, but I’ve just rinsed about six of the side missions in a row and the voice-acting and framing of The Division’s world is a-grade. I was totally absorbed. The snow falls and your handlers pawn you around Manhattan sounding like the radio presenter from The Warriors. The elites all have proper stories and you’re going in to kill a person and their lieutenants, the voice in your ear layering on the grime. Great stuff.
Very much enjoyed my time with it today. Good experience from beginning to end.
Brenna: It really improves as you jog along, doesn’t it? It’s not just the difficulty, because once you get the hang of it you start to enjoy punching above your weight. The unfolding build options just make it all so much more satisfying than the opening hours suggest. It’s no secret I wasn’t at all keen on this one to start with, but now I look forward to it every day.
Pat: I think what I’m saying right now is that I like it a lot. Pretty sure that’s what I’m saying.
Matt: The map is a big draw for me. You can have these tight little firefights in underground corridors, or flip to large running battles across places like Times Square. And then the way the ladders, climbing spots and emergency fire escapes spiral up to the rooftops makes for some great exploring. And there’s almost always something – fabric, encounters, drones, gun chances – hidden away as you go. It’s really intricate, more so than other cities based on real world locations I’ve played around in. It’s something similar to GTA’s Los Santos for me, but with more detail. I feel like my character is connected to the environment.
Games that I want to play outside of work are rare. The Division is one of those.
Update 2: March 14, 2016
Brenna: I hit the level cap this weekend and it has changed everything for me – not for the better. There’s a huge difficulty spike in Murray Hill and beyond, and just being level 30 doesn’t cut it. As a solo player, you’re stuck spamming First Aid all the time just to survive random LMB patrols in the streets – let alone tackling missions and Dailies. It’s stopped being any fun.
The only way forward is to get better gear. I can either grind for days at a time to buy a single piece of end-game gear from the vendors I’ve unlocked in the base of operations, or I can group up. Only one of these is viable, really, because we’re talking free-to-play mobile game levels of grind – each piece of end-game gear costs about as much as I have earned in the entire game so far.
That’s fine I guess, because this is and always was advertised as a multiplayer game, and as we’re often told, the majority of players don’t even finish single-player games – so why shouldn’t Ubisoft cater mostly to groups? But as one of nature’s solos I find it hugely frustrating not to be able to go and complete all the story stuff on my own, with nobody chatting over the voice channel and sprinting through areas I want to explore slowly.
Obviously the answer is to form a group and grind in The Dark Zone until I am an almighty beast, and then come back to do the story stuff alone. I’m not hugely motivated to do this, to be honest. I wish I were on PS4 with all my pals and a working headset!
How are you two going with it?
Pat: I’m only at level 20 at the moment, so I haven’t experienced a progression problem yet. Sounds to me as though it’s a really similar deal to Destiny, in that you get through the story and are then forced to group for the end-game. I definitely am missing my PS4 friends list, to be honest. Maybe you should hit up Arrekz? He’s on all the time (obviously) and he plays on Xbox One. Did you try the LFG sites?
There definitely is a problem with the in-game grouping in that randoms just don’t talk, and without communication it’s nigh-on impossible to do more difficult activities like missions. I really wish people would just turn on their frickin’ microphones. I’ve essentially stopped using the matchmaking, even though it works really well, because the outcome’s always the same: people running forward and dying and no one paying attention to anyone else. The Division’s a team game. You’re not playing in a team if you’re deaf and mute.
But apart from that I’m still really enjoying it, despite not being able to dedicate much time to it over the weekend. I’m just building up to 21 for the next mission, and I’ll rush to the cap in the next day or two. Then we can group up and smash your virtual problems into smithereens.
Matt: I’ve only played with people I know, not randoms. I tried soloing one level 22 mission out of curiosity and got nailed even though on paper I’m the right level. My gear was fine, but I couldn’t keep a JTF officer alive while under fire. I know from past experience with other games I get no fun out of banging my head against a brick wall, repeating the same mission over and over. I just won’t do missions without other people unless I’m ridiculously OP.
But then I’m not level 30 yet. I should get there in the next couple of days. One thing that does concern me is I can’t see any point in doing missions on the hard setting if they don’t hand out any new XP (apart from kill XP). I’m hoping the rewards from Challenge mode will be enough to draw me back to them because some of the missions are great. For now I’m likely to do encounters and side missions to get me up to level 30, then come back and finish any story missions and get really stuck in to the Dark Zone.
Update 3: March 16
Pat: I finished the campaign with Matt last night, got the exposition (just in case in wasn’t keeping up with the whole “people are fighting each other” storyline), and had a little squeak over my purple drops. I’m pretty much ready to say, in plain speech, what I think about The Division.
It isn’t perfect, and it can be surprisingly broken on occasion, but I have no problem recommending you buy this game. It’ll satisfy every itch you have to acquire and modify gear, and it’s well-made. Played with others it’s compulsive. Played solo it can be too much of a grind, so my biggest caveat is that you should probably know other players, or at least have access to players willing to use microphones, if you’re going to fully enjoy The Division’s format.
The worst thing about The Division is repetition, at least in the campaign, but it’s a minor problem and it shouldn’t stop you getting involved. Each area contains side missions and all confirming to one of four or five types. One, for example, is Virus Research, in which you have to locate three boxes in a building then reach the roof. Another is disrupting an arms deal. In one of the others, you’re called in to support some soldiers, and you hear the same voice sample every single time (“I repeat, small arms fire!”). I have no idea why Massive didn’t record one for each area. It would have been better.
So there’s that. Another minus is the notorious difficulty spike in the Murray Hill area at around level 25. It’s very noticeable and I can easily see how it would quickly turn the entire experience from “thrilling” to “fuck this”. You probably will need fellow players to get through it. I was teamed with Matt for this section, and he was 4-5 levels higher than me, so, even though I kept dying every two minutes, we got through it relatively quickly. I wouldn’t have liked to have played this part alone.
But the fighting mechanics, provided you play in a group, are brilliantly designed. Buffing teammates and throwing down explosive and incendiary rounds onto tough yellow enemies works well. It’s enjoyable and empowering. I still haven’t played with a group of four, but apparently it keeps getting better. The cover system usually works exactly as intended, and you’re able to apply tactics, work with friends and beat the bads. When it works, which is the huge majority of the time, The Division is a great game.
It’s well worth bearing in mind that this initial Manhattan campaign is the very beginning of a long road. This is just the bit you get done to hit the cap before moving onto the Dark Zone, Challenge mode, and, as of next month, the raids. Really, I’ve only played through the prologue.
With that said, you should, in my opinion, buy The Division. You absolutely should be aware that this is a multiplayer game, as Brenna said in her op-ed earlier today, and you’ll need to group to progress, not just to get the best from it.
But provided you can, you will find a huge amount to occupy you here, from intense firefighting, to exploration, to innovative PvP (yes, it needs balancing, but that’s hardly reason to stay away), to cotton-wool early missions, to insanely difficult challenges. You will find drool-worthy gear, enough stat-fiddling to ruin an already shaky life, and some of the finest combat mechanics seen in this hardware generation. I’ve played The Division for 34 hours and I can’t wait to get back in there, to be frank. That, as far as I’m concerned, represents unqualified success.
Matt: I’ve completed the campaign after 40 hours and hit the level cap at the same time. It really does feel like the start of something from here on in. That’s a triumph of design and for me, personally. I usually have the attention span of a giddy meerkat.
But to briefly talk about my complaints, there are a few issues that bugged me. The Division runs smooth for 99.9% of the time, but occasionally the frame rate doesn’t just stutter, it completely stops for a second or two. There are a few weird visual bugs on top of that, more comedic than game-breaking. And there are times when it feels like the AI is a little cheap – grenade spamming, doubling up on rushing enemies, or shotguns that seem to have the range of a marksman rifle. These are niggles in the grand scheme, nothing that should put you off buying the game.
Because you should buy The Division. It’s easy for us to run through the campaign and then on to the Dark Zone PvP and forget that we’re tens of hours into it. For the price of £40. I’ve paid more and got a lot less game, let alone fun, out of 75 percent of the titles on my shelf.
The campaign is packed as tightly as an open world game, all of which you can play solo and in co-op. And then the Dark Zone exists for multiplayer. For me, Manhattan feels like a smaller version of GTA 5’s Los Santos, where two different games exist in the same world.
Brenna: It’s such an incredibly rich and polished package that complaining about the occasional ice-skating goon or AI cheese feels a bit petty. Even just as a single-player experience, there are dozens of hours of quality content here. The admirably varied arena design, huge catalogue of viable builds and escalating difficulty mean gunplay stays interesting; you can’t just keep squatting in cover and waiting for enemies to walk into your sights as with some competing titles.
I’ve already harped on it elsewhere and Pat’s mentioned it again, but it really is a multiplayer game even if you only want to finish off the story content – let alone prepare for and participate in endgame and future content. I doubt Ubisoft Massive is prepared to compromise on difficulty just because I can’t get my shit together and get a group going, and the gameplay would be dry as a cat’s arse if it did. The curve could certainly be smoother but this isn’t just a case of git gud; if you’re not grouping and working tactically to overcome these challenges, you’re missing the best part. All those “bullet sponges” fall like dominoes with the right team set up.
Pat’s verdict after 34 hours of play: should you buy The Division? YES, because it’s a fantastic example of a pure-blood cover shooter and there’s a huge amount of content here. There are some niggles, such as the insistence on grouping, but this is the start of a banner game for this console generation. Get involved.
Matt’s verdict after 40 hours of play: should you buy The Division? YES because it’s incredible value for money. It’s huge. The constant, compelling running gun-battles never tire. And its classless structure means you’re compulsively tinkering with your character build for days.
Brenna’s verdict after 52 hours of play: should you buy The Division? YES, because it’s a terrific team shooter with a tasty loot cycle to keep you going if you’re not ready to let go after a 30 hour campaign.
Bookmark this page for more more updates as we work towards The Division’s end-game, and be sure to check out our guide to The Division.