In the wake of an outbreak, Manhattan has never looked so good.
I don't know whether to be amazed or terrified of Tom Clancy's The Division. Its beautiful, accurately-realized version of Manhattan is remarkably detailed, but it's the detail that's so frightening. This isn't the Manhattan you see on postcards or in Home Alone; this is a Manhattan devastated by a terrorist attack. A deadly virus spread by contaminated banknotes on Black Friday has devastated the island and what's left is a precise representation of life after an outbreak.
Manhattan is under quarantine. All that's left are desperate survivors, opportunistic gangs, groups of lunatics intent on purging the disease and The Division -- a team of sleeper agents trained to deal with appalling disasters like the one that has befallen Manhattan. As one of those agents you'll journey from Brooklyn into Manhattan trying to stymy the collapse of the city and discover the source of the outbreak with the hope of engineering a cure.
As soon as you arrive in the island's base of operations it's clear that the famous New York district is the star of the show. I am a sucker for environmental story-telling and it takes centre stage in The Division. Abandoned cars litter the roads, all with their doors ajar -- a reminder of the owners who cared only for survival. Piles of rubbish bags make ugly, snow-capped hills against apartment buildings. The people responsible for their disposal are now intent on immolating anyone they think is contaminated. Stray dogs and stray people wander the streets like they're already dead, and those are just the obvious signs. Look a little closer and you'll see the bodies strewn across the streets tell their own stories: a crumpled corpse lies a few feet from the lorry that spat it through its windshield on impact, with a concrete barricade and charred bodies in an alley, are a chilling reminder of the flamethrower-armed madmen that stalk the streets.
An orange line above your head guides you to your next objective, but I would urge you to venture through the back streets and soak up the detailed environment. You'll find mobile phone recordings and status reports off the beaten path too, and the frantic messages from frightened survivors can be chilling and upsetting. It's not all quiet exploration however, there are plenty of armed gangs to contend with and those wrecked cars and concretes barriers that so accurately transform Manhattan into a scene of disaster make for good cover.
Up your game with a barrage of High-Tech Weaponry
You're equipped with three weapons at any time -- two main weapons and one sidearm, with the added bonus of unlimited ammo. You'll come across assault rifles, precision rifles, sub-machine guns, shotguns and pistols on your travels, but I found a scoped rifle for headshots and a fast-firing machine gun for close encounters worked well whether I was fighting ill-equipped rioters or the hi-tech Last Man Battalion.
The shooting is precise and challenging. The enemies you face aren't pushovers and are more than happy to swarm you with grenades and close combat soldiers that force you out of cover and into the firing line of their sniper companions.
Being a Division does have its perks though, and you'll have access to some state-of-the-art gadgetry to level the playing field, including remote turrets, mobile cover and roller mines that seek out the nearest enemy and make a mess. Combining your skills with your weaponry gives you the means to outflank your opponents, especially if you manage to suppress them. Throw in some grenades and you've got a satisfyingly-varied combat system that offers plenty of tactical options whether you're on your own or in a group.
As satisfying the combat is, it's still bogged down by bullet-sponge enemies that barely react to the many shots you pour into them. Elite enemies -- ubiquitous in the hard mode missions -- take forever to put down, even with headshots, and the enjoyment garnered from the tactical options suffers as a result.
Take on enemies alone or with some backup
The Division's many side and story missions can be tackled alone and the claustrophobic nature of many of them lend themselves well to solo play, but the synergies and tactics afforded by the different equipment makes it worth trying the repeatable missions in a group, at least once.
As you level up you'll be able to equip one, two and finally three gadgets at a time, and if you're alone one slot will always be for healing. You're then left with a quandary over which to choose: turret, mine, or mobile cover. Add party members into the mix and you can have someone devoted to healing, another who deals with offense by bringing turrets and mines and someone who keeps everyone protected with portable barricades.
If you don't have anyone to tag along with, the game does a good job of grouping you together... if you want to. Before you go into any major story mission you can match-make to group with up to three other agents -- all the better for tackling the game's missions on hard mode which reward you with better loot.
Upgrades & Customization
Like Destiny and Diablo, upgrading and finding better loot is at the core of The Division. Most encounters -- whether in a mission or in overworld Manhattan -- will leave you with a new piece of equipment such as clothing, a new weapon or backpack. Whether it's better than what you're already using is not always clear cut. There are many attributes attached to equipment and choosing one over the other usually means a trade-off between health, armour and how effective your skills are. The varied gear means you can build your character as a tank with a tonne of health at the expense of skill damage -- a glass cannon whose turrets do as much damage as another agent or somewhere in between.
You can mod your loadouts too, giving your weapons a scope or new magazine can turn an average gun into a bullet-spewing powerhouse. Likewise, your clothes can give you more stamina, health or increase damage from a certain weapon or ability with the addition of a mod or two.
Customization doesn't stop at clothing . You also gain access to a range of perks and talents which are unlocked as you update your base of operations. The base is split into three wings: tech, medical and security and each can be upgraded independently using points gained by completing side missions. You can equip up to four talents once you've hit the level cap of 30 and they can do anything from boost the power of your medkits to reducing the recoil on your guns. Experimenting with different talents to find a build that compliments your play style is part of the fun, and since you're responsible for what order you unlock the facilities in, each wing you can choose your own upgrade path. Perks are less powerful versions of talents, granting an instantaneous smaller upgrade to your abilities as soon as they are unlocked.
As you reach the safe house in each new district, a chat with your contact reveals all the side-missions in the area. These usually consist of a clearing out an area of hostiles before saving hostages, securing supplies or taking out a more powerful enemy. These missions are essential for unlocking new abilities, but the varied combat doesn't save them from being repetitious. The main missions are far more inventive not least with the locations they take place in and how easy it is to get player support, but they even amount to little more than clearing an area of hostiles before moving on.
Journey into the Dark Zone
The most interesting side to The Division's gameplay is the Dark Zone, a high risk quarantined area at the centre of Manhattan where anything can happen. Other than safe houses, the Dark Zone is the only place where you'll see other players you aren't grouped with. These agents are either friendly or rogue, and the latter can become the former on a whim.
It's in this deadly PvPvE zone that you'll find the strongest enemies and fighting them will unlock high level gear, but it's contaminated and you can't equip it straight away, you need to airlift it out first. Activating a beacon will send a helicopter to your location and you can unload any gear you've found. The rub is that every other agent -- friendly or otherwise -- in the area will see where the helicopter is headed. They can help you by securing the drop sight from enemies who are attracted to the commotion or use the distraction to kill you and take your loot.
The constant possibility of betrayal breeds mistrust, but you'll need help to defeat the toughest enemies and it's in these situations that shaky alliances form. If you do choose to go rogue by shooting another player then everyone else in the Dark Zone is alerted to your presence on the map and you become priority number one, since killing rogue agents nets a big reward.
The same cannot be said for the potential benefits of betrayal. You can loot any contaminated Dark Zone gear the defeated agent had, but if you're killed you'll lose your progression as well as your loot. You have a Dark Zone level which is separate from your player level. The higher your rank, the better equipment you can buy from the Dark Zone vendor. This is the best method to get the highest level of loot once you've hit the level cap. Losing hard earned progress is too severe a punishment, and the lack of a decent incentive to kill other players means that, currently, everyone in the Dark Zone is a bit nice. I've still been on the receiving end of a back stab, but there needs to be less risk to killing your fellow agents to make it a more attractive option.
The buzz of activity in the Dark Zone highlights The Division's most significant shortcoming -- it feels empty. Once I'd visited the chaos of the Dark Zone, I lamented the lack of extra players in the rest of Manhattan. Having too many players running around would dilute the feeling of overwhelming tragedy, but having a handful of other players populating the same instance as me would have felt natural -- like I was part of a bigger operation. The prospect of help would have alleviated some of the tedium of the side missions as well.
Despite the repetition and needlessly solitary environment, The Division's captivating world is still one that's worth exploring. The strong, varied combat is let down by unreactive, bullet-sponge enemies, but having friends along for the ride make this shortcoming more bearable as will the constant stream of loot that requires you to really think about what aspect of your play style you want to augment. The Dark Zone is a fantastic experiment that creates unexpected stories and events with every visit and is, along with the phenomenal representation of Manhattan, the best part of The Division.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One with a digital copy provided by Ubisoft.
Images courtesy of Ubisoft.