Friday, 18 March 2016

The Division - Review

Developer: Ubisoft 
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4 (version played) 

The key element that The Division has on its side is flexibility. Your class is flexible, you can change your skill set at a moments notice. If you're unhappy with your guns, no problem, head back to HQ and swap them for something else. If you want to play solo the game's fine with it, and won't pester you. If you want to play multi-player it's only happy to throw in other players that you can work alongside. If you want to team up with friends it's just the click of a few buttons.

The game's greatest strength is its ability to go “play how you want” and actually stick to that. You're never forced or cajoled into going online or stick with a class that, after five or six hours of gameplay, you've only now realized is boring. It rewards experimentation and is happy to cater regardless of player type. This all might come as something of a surprise when you consider the game is an MMO-style open world shooter designed by the current king of open-world padding: Ubisoft.

Yet, The Division is remarkably refreshing, it's fun to play, however you choose to play it, and doesn't bog itself down with needless elements where it doesn't require them.

Set in a post-apocalyptic(sort of) Manhattan. A wide-spread pandemic caused by a terrorist attack has brought the city to its knees and its your job as a special agent type to get in there and sort things out, which, invariably means spending most of your time shooting people.

At its most basic The Division functions as a tactical cover shooter. Areas have choke points and multiple angles of attack. Your area map has a radial threat detector that warns you where enemies are in relation to your position. This means plenty of time spent jockeying for position, keeping your foes in front of you as best as possible, scurrying from cover to cover between bursts of gunfire.

And its satisfying. Remove all of the MMO-RPG doo-dads and the game is enjoyable on basic level as a tactical shooter. Fire at an enemy long enough whilst they're behind cover and they'll become suppressed, pinning them in position whilst a team mate swings in from the side to take them down.

Early on I was tasked with clearing out a local police station alongside a fellow player. Even without microphones to communicate it made for an exciting mission. Me moving in from one side of the building, SMG laying down a swathe of covering fire, whilst my silent companion moved in from the front, shotgun blasting away. It's only with the shooter mechanics nailed down that Ubisoft then introduce the RPG mechanics.

The Division uses a free-form approach to how you build your character. Ostensibly, there's three different “classes”; Medic, Tech and Security. Medic provides the obvious selection of healing skills, from the basic medikit through to the ability to deploy a kind of recovery station capable of healing multiple characters. Tech is the “power” oriented class, with the option of deploying a gun-turret among other abilities. Finally, the Security skill has the “tanking” skills such as moving around with a bullet shield, or improving the effectiveness of nearby cover.

Yet, the game never pigeon-holes you into one bespoke class. It's not long until you have access to two skill slots and can begin mixing and matching abilities from all three trees. Likewise, your equipment improves your stats in three different areas, meaning you can be equipped with clothing that improves your damage output, skill usage or maximum health.

It makes for a levelling system that rewards tinkering around and altering the different dials and gauges of your character. The Security skills might be great for tanking, but when it comes to loot you might want to go for Medic-oriented equipment since it'll improve your health. It's a simple system but one that means that loot collecting doesn't devolve quite as quickly into simply going “which number is the highest” and binning everything else. Even after hours of gameplay, you're constantly tweaking your load-out, perhaps swapping around a bit of gear here or there to see how things work.

All of this is governed by your HQ, with new skills, abilities and perks being unlocked as you go about upgrading the various equipment and resources back at base. This is Ubisoft at their most conventional, with the base-levelling system being essentially the same as it has been in some of their other titles. Complete a medic-mission, such as gathering some data on the terrorist-engineered virus, and you'll get points to spend on upgrading your virus lab, or upgrading the teams hazmat suits.

The developers though, seem to have learnt restraint. The Division doesn't bog itself down with becoming a rampant OCD-inducing scrounging game. Just as main missions provide you with the most resources, shorter side quests are tied to the respective three classes and provide you with a smaller amount of points for potential upgrades. And that's it, The Division doesn't have a myriad of different things to collect or hoard (there's minor story collectibles) but instead keeps itself clean and simple.

The crafting system likewise, focuses less on bloat and more on simplicity. Break down a weapon and you'll get weapon parts, break down clothing and you'll get fabrics. Both are needed in greater numbers to craft the various blueprints you'll find but by, again, keeping the process simple, the game is able to focus more on its tactical shooting and RPG mechanics and less on mindless collecting.

Of course, Manhattan is admittedly fun to explore. There's a scope and scale to the disaster and Ubisoft leverage the game engine to full effect here. There's definitely an I Am Legend vibe to the visuals here, with rows of cars left abandoned, shops hollowed out, and overturned trucks lying in the middle of the road.

MMO-shooters invariably place more emphasis on their mechanics rather than their environments, in many cases turning the game world into a bland number crunch. The Division's creators never forget to immerse the player, however. It might be a game light on story but it still manages to craft a potent atmosphere.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “Dark Zone”, The Division's player-versus-player area. Story-wise it's a walled off part of the city that's been abandoned to the virus and the gangs that now inhabit it. Just like the rest of the game's map, the Dark Zone is divided up into several areas according to the player's level but even then it's surprising just how much of a spike in difficulty there is.

After taking down enemies with relative ease elsewhere, the Dark Zone provides a more pressing challenge. Most foes are armoured and their AI seems more aggressive than you find in the game's regular areas.

Still it's the presence of other players that makes the area so tense. Players aren't required to cooperate but neither are they forced to kill each other. After gathering some loot it was nice to have other players be non-hostile as we all loaded our findings onto the helicopter. Loot found in the Dark Zone can't just be collected but must instead be taken to an extraction point so that it can be decontaminated.

It's in the looting and scavenging aspect that The Division risk becoming slightly unstuck. On the one hand, the game has moments where you traipse through housing blocks, dig through people's belongings to find things that are useful. It amps up the survival aspect of the game's theme and story but feels somewhat at odds with the clinical tactical nature of the combat and online game structure. You can't have players feel like they're fighting to survive when they're restocked with ammo at practically every location. It's here where the MMO aspects fight with the mood that The Division would seem to also want to create and the result is muddled and confused.

Likewise, some typical MMO bugbears begin to raise their heads. Almost all of the missions seem to follow the fight, fight, fight, boss formula which becomes tiring when it's utilized mission after mission. The core gameplay of The Division is tight and tactical but it almost feels like it isn't explored enough. Bosses are simply bulky bullet sponges with no personality. Rather than craft interesting objectives here, the game retreats to the most basic elements of the genre.

The weapon system too, could do with some more excitement. Despite facing flamethrower-wielding “Cleaners”, lunatics who think the best response to the outbreak is burning everything, your character is stuck with the same M4s, pistols, and shotguns for the entirety of the game, just with bigger stats and better damage rates. Given the time and setting it's obvious that the game can't offer anything too zany, but a little more variety in the weapon selection wouldn't go amiss.

The Division is a surprising not least because it turns what could have been a trite, bland online cover-shooter into a tightly made game with a solid amount of tactical depth. It shrugs off the fat and bloat that has afflicted similar titles and arguably feels more refreshing than Destiny, a game that regularly felt hamstrung by its MMO-RPG elements rather than enhanced by them.

Most importantly though, The Division is fun to play regardless of the number of fellow players you have with you. We'll have to wait and see how the game evolves post-release but, so far, it's a surprisingly good start.


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