The Division – Review

The Division has been out for a couple of weeks now, and the first major update is expected in April. So why am I just now getting around to writing a review? Simple: I wanted to actually review the game – rather than just provide some early impressions based on beta or my first few hours after launch (like many other reviews I’ve seen). I’ve got over 70 hours logged on the game at this point, and I’ve experienced most – though not all – of what the game has to offer right now.

Visuals

Overall, The Division is visually impressive. Admittedly, there is a noticeable difference between the version of the game shown at E3 2013 and the final PC version, even at maxed settings. (This was due to necessary changes to allow the game to be ported to consoles. I’m not a fan of that common practice, but that’s a topic for another time.) Despite this unfortunate fact, The Division is still gorgeous. Volumetric effects of smoke and steam, myriad light sources, etc. – all look great. This is also one of the few games where weather feels realistic. Walking down the street in a snow storm looks and feels completely different from walking down the same street during a sunny day. Snow will accumulate on your clothing during a storm (and slowly melt while you are indoors), and visibility is appropriately compromised. The day/night cycle is well done, and the game world feels different depending on the time of day and the weather.

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Just a random cool buildings I happened to walk by while roaming Manhattan.

It’s also important to note that everything takes places within the game world. By that, I mean that the open-world PvE area, the Dark Zone (PvP), and the locations of the main missions all exist within the same instanced space. In other words, when you’re in the open world, you can literally hear what’s going on behind the massive wall that separates it from the Dark Zone. While inside a mission space, objects will often show up on your map that are located in the surrounding world. The day/night and weather cycles of the world also occasionally have an interesting effect on missions. Playing an outdoor mission in a snowstorm or at dusk is noticeably different due to changes in visibility. One mission in particular which I had played a few times already became more challenging when trying to deal with a sniper boss while the sun was setting directly behind him.

The game also runs very smoothly and looks great even on my aging rig. (I’m running 2x GTX 680s in SLI. High-end when they came out, but a bit dated now.) I will occasionally notice some slow-loading textures, but usually only when first exiting a safe house into the world proper, and the low-res textures that are visible in the meantime aren’t too jarring. Given the level of detail and size of the world this is understandable, and I’m glad they didn’t compromise the game just to speed up the texture-loading on some machines.

Detail

Simply put, the game is gorgeous, and the level of detail is superb. When you consider the open nature of the game world and the near absence of loading times, the level of detail in the game world is outstanding. Snow on the ground actually looks like snow – not just some white textures and a few white drift-like shapes – and you leave footprints. There’s junk everywhere – as you would expect when all hell has broken loose in Manhattan. Some of it is static (like heaps of trash bags), but plenty are represented as discrete objects (like cardboard boxes that move when you try to walk through them). Vault over a car with the hood open and the hood will close, and moving along a car while in cover will also result in you closing the car door. In fact, there’s even an achievement tied to doing just that.

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The remains of a supply drop. Note the nice smoke effects – and this is not at max settings.

The effects of gunfire on cover are also highly detailed – broken glass, holes in walls (cars, barriers, etc.), burn marks, blowing out tires, and so on – though full-blown destructive environments aren’t implemented. There are myriad light sources throughout the city, and the game really maximizes the use of shadows to aid in immersion. Anti-aliasing is impressive, and jaggies are virtually non-existent. Really, Massive and Ubisoft need to license this engine – it’s called Snowdrop, by the way – as there is a great deal of potential here for a lot of different game styles. I found myself wishing The Division had some horror elements to the story, though the Dark Zone does sometimes have that sort of feel to it.

Audio

The sound effects and music are nothing mind-blowing, but they’re not bad. However, The Division does use sound to great effect in immersing the player in the game world. Your primary means of receiving information on missions is via radio, and more than a hundred phone recordings scattered about the world tell the story of the fall of Manhattan and its rapid spiral into anarchy. Pirate radio broadcasts also tell more about how some people feel about the existence of Division agents, people will occasionally yell at you from their windows, and you can overhear all sorts of interesting conversations in your base of operations. All of this serves to make the world feel alive – in some ways more so than even most MMOs, and certainly more than nearly all first-person shooters. The voice acting in particular deserves special mention.

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Green Poison was unleashed on Manhattan on Black Friday.

Technical Polish and Bugs

Overall, the level of polish in The Division is quite high compared to most games at launch – especially compared to other massively multiplayer titles. There are very few bugs at all, and this marks one of the first times in recent memory that a game launched with sufficient server capacity. Queues occasionally exist during peak times, but a long wait is still on the order of 2-3 minutes and usually more like 60 seconds. I’ve encountered only four notable bugs. One was a side mission which couldn’t be completed because the enemies didn’t spawn – resolved by simply restarting the mission. One is an odd issue where some of your character’s stats don’t show up correctly in certain parts of the UI – not sure exactly what the deal is here, but simply looking on a particular tab is an easy workaround. I’ve had a couple of crashes when playing challenging missions in a group when a lot of fire and smoke effects were going on simultaneously – probably just due to aging hardware and simply logging back in puts me right back into the mission with my group. The last also relates to grouping for missions: Sometimes you will matchmake and travel to the mission start to find the mission won’t actually begin; the instance is bugged. It can sometimes take a few tries to join a working instance, but this is the most significant issue I’ve encountered thus far – and it really only impacts players at max level who are running the daily missions.

Customization

Long-time MMO players who relish fine-tuning every little aspect of their character’s appearance are going to be disappointed by The Division – it simply doesn’t have as many options as most MMORPGs. In my opinion, it doesn’t need endless options for customization and including them would only be irrelevant, not to mention taking development time away from more important pursuits. That said, there are still some good customization options.

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Sporting my then-limited cosmetic options, as well as a modded assault rifle.

Character creation is simple and just allows you to essentially pick your character’s head. For some bizarre reason, this is the only time you have the opportunity to add glasses to your character. Other character cosmetics come in the form of clothing. There is a wealth of clothing to be collected in the game – at least 400+ pieces – that can be obtained via loot drops, purchased from an appearance vendor, or dropped as a thank you for helping random civilians in the game world. A few jackets are also awarded for collecting intel scattered about the world. The nice thing about all this is that your character’s appearance is largely cosmetic – none of that “everyone looks the same because they wear the same high level armor”. Your actual gear (e.g. gloves, mask, vest, pack, pads, etc.) look different depending on what you have equipped, but the stand-out elements of your character appear how you want them to. Which brings me to weapons and gear…

Some pieces of gear can be modified to provide different benefits, but the majority of gear customization is tied to weapons. Depending on the weapon, you can modify the magazine, underbarrel, muzzle, and sights – all of which have specific mechanical effects based on the mod used. In other words, this stuff isn’t cosmetic, it’s functional and significant. However, you can also apply a weapon skin to each weapon to alter its appearance. Collecting these has become something of a thing amongst many in the community.

Crafting

Tied in with gear customization is crafting, which is also relatively well done. You can acquire crafting materials around the world, and once you locate them their position is marked on the map so you can farm them later – they refresh every couple of hours. There are three tiers of materials that align with five tiers of gear, and you can deconstruct unwanted gear for materials. Early in the game it is sometimes better to sell gear for credits if you haven’t been lucky with loot drops and need to purchase gear from a vendor. Later in the game, it’s usually better to deconstruct for materials as you can exchange lower-tier materials for high-end – and you’ll need plenty of those if you’re trying to craft anything close to your ideal gear and weapons. This is because of the way crafting works.

When you craft a piece of gear – a mask for example – you can choose the blueprint to use. Prior to endgame blueprints are awarded at the end of side missions, with high-end blueprints being purchased from certain vendors later in the game. This determines the level and general type of mask you are crafting (focused on firearms versus stamina, for example), but the actual attributes are rolled randomly when you craft the item. As a result, crafting becomes a significant endgame activity as players hope for the “perfect” item. In fact, a lot of the current endgame revolves around getting specific currency or materials needed to craft the highest level gear. There are still some issues here that are continually being balanced, but the overall result is that crafting remains relevant and provides motivation to continue playing.

Gameplay

Okay, now for how the game plays. In short, really well. The core gameplay is essentially that of an open-world cover-based shooter, and combat is satisfying. There is the issue of some enemies being “bullet sponges” – they just take an insane amount of damage to kill. However, this isn’t really noticeable until you start dealing with the Hard and Challenging versions of the missions or elite mobs in the Dark Zone. The AI is nothing spectacular, but enemy mobs definitely react in a more realistic fashion than many other games: they act based on what they see and hear. If they take cover and lose sight of you, they continue to operate based on the assumption that you haven’t moved. This creates great opportunities for flanking and introduces a degree of realism.

There are plenty of skills to choose from – each of which can be modded to provide different effects – and they are different enough from one another to allow for distinctive builds. Admittedly, some are much more prevalent and important than others once you reach endgame, but this is to be expected.

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Working to bring down an elite enemy during a Challenging mission.

The bulk of your time in the PvE area will be spent roaming around between Encounters and Side Missions. You will encounter random roving mobs of rioters, escaped prisoners, and others; these mobs are unscripted which can sometimes result in some interesting developments. For example, when dealing with a group of five or so enemies, after I killed the first 4 the last one decided to fall back and take cover. I waited for him to reapproach, but he didn’t – then I heard nearby gunfire and decided to investigate. Evidently his retreat had brought him within sight of another group of rioters and sparked a gunfight between them. I sat back to watch and then mopped up what was left.

I later stumbled across a gunfight between some mercs gone bad (Last Man Battalion) and a group of escaped prisoners (Rikers). The two groups employed the same tactics against one another that I had encountered before, and it was satisfying to watch them take each apart until I decided to wade in and clean up.

Encounters are more scripted but generally revolve around defending an area against a few waves of enemies or exploring a contaminated area. These are also one of the primary means of gathering resources needed to upgrade your base of operations, which in turn unlocks more skills. Side missions are a little more involved and require you to rescue hostages, track down a particularly troublesome individual, or look for a missing person. This leaves the game’s main missions.

Main Missions = Dungeons

For those that are more familiar with first-person shooters, the game’s main missions are more like individual scripted levels on self-contained maps. For the MMO crowd, think of them as dungeons. Either way, the important things to understand about these missions is that they are the primary ways to advance the main storyline, they give you lots of resources to upgrade your base, and they scale based on difficulty and the size of your team. You can play these solo or in a group of up to four. As you are progressing through main story you will play them on Normal, and you can return later to try them on Hard once you have leveled up a bit more and gotten better gear.

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Protect what remains…

Hard versions also play a key role in endgame activities, as 3 missions are designated as Daily missions on a rotating basis. Completing these will award you endgame currency (phoenix credits) and help get you ready for the Daily Challenging mission. The Challenging mission also rotates on a daily basis (though currently only between the same 4 missions) and awards you even more phoenix credits and a guaranteed piece of high-end gear. Unlike the daily Hard missions, the Challenging mission can be run multiple times per day and is currently the peak of PvE gameplay (i.e. outside of the Dark Zone).

Grouping

On that note, let’s talk about grouping in The Division. As a player who tends to play most game solo – and who has so far played the majority of this game solo as well – I’ll say that the game is markedly more fun when playing in a group. Weather roaming the map or playing missions, the gameplay is just more enjoyable with at least one teammate. That said, the storyline and overall atmosphere of the game is probably best experienced solo, so a balanced approach is needed. After playing a lot of the Dailies in a group (virtually a must for the Challenging missions), I found myself wanting to find a group to explore the Dark Zone – essentially the only thing I haven’t yet accomplished in the game so far.
Grouping itself is fairly simply, you can approach other players in common areas (the initial hub and safe houses in each zone) and attempt to group, or you can use the matchmaking feature from common areas (or via the map for missions). If you have people on your Uplay friends list, you can also see who is currently online via the Uplay app and just click the Join link next to their name. This will launch the game and automatically put you into a group. Note that the only players you will encounter in the PvE area are those in your group; you can play the entire PvE area solo if you wish.

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Exploring the Russian Consulate on Challenging. Actually, these guys didn’t speak a lot of English, but we still had a blast finishing this mission!

Voice chat is built into the game and is proximity-based, so you only hear people nearby or in your group. Regional chat is also available and can be hidden outside of common areas if you wish. This is one area in which The Division has a significant advantage over Destiny – with which there have been a lot of comparisons – as communication is simply easier in The Division and not limited to emotes.

End Game

The Division’s endgame essentially begins once you reach the maximum character level of 30, at which point the Daily missions become available. The focus of endgame is essentially a quest for the perfect loot – either crafted or dropped. Sources for loot drops, crafting materials, and currency for blueprints come primarily from Daily missions or the Dark Zone.

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End Game

Dark Zone

The Dark Zone is really the only aspect of the game which I have not yet fully explored. It’s essentially a combined PvP and PvE area, and I’m generally not a big PvP kind of guy. There are plenty of articles and videos out there explaining what the Dark Zone is, but here’s the short version:

The Dark Zone is a separate area of the map with higher level enemies and loot that also allows for open PvP. Loot acquired in the DZ must be extracted via helicopter is specially designated locations before it can be used. Engaging your fellow agents allows you to potentially steal their loot, but also marks you as rogue and makes you a target for everyone else. You gain DZ experience and levels (as well as dedicated DZ currency) independent of the rest of the game, both from enemies and agents killed in PvP. You can also lose experience, levels and DZ credits with each death inside the zone. This all results in a tense gameplay experience that is reinforced by the design and feel of the Dark Zone.
Many of the game’s better blueprints are only available from DZ vendors and only craftable using special DZ materials. And those vendors (and many loot chests) are only available once you’ve reached DZ level 30 or 50. While it’s technically possible to accomplish this by grinding the lower difficulty DZ zones, that could take a while, so grouping up or forming temporary alliances works to your benefit – assuming you can trust those you are with.

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Exploring the Dark Zone.

Massive is still working hard to balance the benefits and risks of going rogue – which is something of a challenge given that you always have players that want more of a cooperative or solo experience and others that want a grand melee deathmatch. Some players will like it and some will hate it no matter what, but for now I can say there is definite potential here and that the developers certainly seem willing to make continual adjustments based on community feedback. One positive aspect about The Division’s design is that while certain pieces of gear are only available via certain avenues, it is possible to get the highest level gear via either the Dark Zone or Dailies.

Other Issues and Ongoing Development

There are a couple of other issues with the game. New players at launch were greeted with a virtual line of players all waiting to access the same laptop. People had complete meltdowns over this rather odd design decision, but it not emblematic of the overall game and probably would not ever be an issue outside of launch weekend.
There is also a strong desire to have more of the buildings accessible so you can actually enter them. You can actually enter quite a large number of buildings – though the way in is not always obvious at first – but there are limits to how much the developers can create and how much of that would include meaningful content. I’d still like to see more buildings opened up down the road, hopefully with some purpose but even just for exploration. Some of these buildings might be planned for future content, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The other big concern in the community is the lack of use of the massive PvE areas in endgame. Once you’ve completed all the encounters and side missions and found all the intel, there is very little reason to return to explore most of the map. There are plenty of ideas floating around about how to fix this, and Massive has already said there are additions to endgame coming soon, so we’ll have to wait and see.

On that note, the game’s first major update is due sometime in April and will add Operations (formerly known as Incursions), which are believed to be something along the lines of a large dungeon/mission or raid-like activity. Loot trading at the end of missions is also being added around that time. There are two additional free updates with new features and three paid expansions anticipated during the game’s first year. I’m looking forward to these, but the fact that the 3 paid expansions suffer from 30 days of exclusivity on Xbox One really pisses me off. A couple of days early access for one group or another is one thing, but a month of waiting for additional content that already exists just because of some exclusivity contract is the kind of thing the gaming industry can do without. Oh well, hopefully the free updates add enough to the endgame to keep me interested while I wait.

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Snowstorm outside of the Base of Operations – more commonly referred to as the BoO.

What’s Still Needed

As mentioned, the PvE areas really need to be better integrated into the endgame experience. There are lots of ways this can be accomplished, but it needs to scale properly for both solo and groups to keep with the rest of the PvE elements in the game. This is arguably the one area where Massive can take a page from Destiny. Adding random events, bounties, and repeatable dynamically-generated side missions are just a few of relatively simple ways this area could be utilized, and the community has lots of great suggestions for more involved options.

Virtually the entire community would also agree there also need to be some tweaks to storage and weapon skins. Weapon skins are cosmetic, but because of how they are applied to weapons they are treated as mods in your inventory and take up valuable space. Combined with the limited inventory space in your pack and stash and the fact that you may want to keep different gear sets and mods for different builds and inventory space becomes an issue once you reach endgame. Easy to fix, but it needs to happen.

Balance issues still exist – depending on whom you ask – in the Dark Zone, but it seems the devs are willing to keep working on this. Many players also argue that there needs to be other ways of gathering the DZ-specific crafting materials (Division Tech), as their respawn rates and the fact that they exist in a PvP area makes farming them problematic. Again, lots of suggestions and lots of potential for a fix.

In One Word: Potential

Overall, the best way to sum up The Division is to say that the game has lots of potential. Plenty of players will hate it, usually because it does something differently from how it would if they made the design decisions – nothing new in the gaming industry. In the end, I’d say this game has more going for it than Destiny had at launch, and if Massive continues to devote sufficient time and resources to the game it should be around for quite a while. I’ve enjoyed it so far and cannot wait to see what’s next.

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A couple of kids playing inside of a safe house. This isn’t part of any mission – it’s just detail.
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