I’m going to just come out and say it: as I’ve aged I’ve become acutely aware of the cycle of monotony that embodies most online multiplayer gaming.
I’m especially wary of anything that’s massively multiplayer online (MMO), as those games tend to be more repetitive, more tedious and more “grindy” even than the standard fare of your first-person shooters, real-time strategies, MOBAs, and the like. So it was with a LOT of skepticism and only a faint glimmer of hope that I started reading up on Tom Clancy’s The Division after they released what is possibly the greatest video game trailer ever made at E3 way back in 2014:
It still gives me chills.
My research led me to the quick revelation that I was reading up on an online third-person shooter, and worse yet, a massively multiplayer online RPG/shooter. Yet, as gameplay footage trickled out into the world I was captivated by the idea of its team-oriented, cover-based gameplay and its seemingly picture-perfect recreation of New York City left in snowy ruin. With Destiny and Tom Clancy’s The Division (I’ll be referring to it as The Division for the remainder of this piece because — well, let’s be fair — the guy sold his name to Ubisoft in 2008, died in 2013, and has basically become the ghost-written R.L. Stine of military video games) on the horizon, it seemed like the years ahead were going to be rich for people who were tired of the World of Warcraft-y MMO grind that massively multiplayer online gaming had been for years and years.
And then Destiny came out.
Destiny, as tens of thousands of frustrated gamers (and angry spouses and partners) will tell you, is an online shooter/RPG from the original makers of Halo, that takes players on a wild journey into a grim, underwhelming future where players mostly complain about a lack of content when they’re not busy doing the same handful of quests over and over again. Destiny was supposed to be the cure for the MMO; it was supposed to be a juggernaut of gaming that players would be invested in for a decade to come, but it ended up being more of the same, give or take a few interesting features. I played it off and on for a few months in 2015, lost interest pretty quickly, and subsequently lost interest in The (Perpetually Delayed) Division.
Flash-forward to last week and I find myself in possession of a key for The Division‘s closed beta weekend (Jan 28th – 31st, in advance of the March 8th release date), so… what the hell, might as well see what Ubisoft is bringing to the next-generation MMO party.
Voiceover + Slow motion chaos + autotuned cover song = VG trailer gold!
Now, as I may have implied earlier, I don’t game quite like I used to. I’m in my *gasp* thirties now, and “achievement unlocked” oriented, grind-to-the-next-level/tier/set-of-guns type games just don’t do it for me like they did when I was 23 and felt like a whole day playing the same six Modern Warfare maps was a valid investment of my time. So it was with a large grain of salt, not-high expectations, and a few beers that I sat down with a major tentpole RPG/Shooter MMO three years in the making.
I’ll spare everyone a rundown of the gameplay/graphics/character building of The Division, as there are bound to be dozens upon dozens of sites covering the details and minutia of all of that, so I’ll summarize it thusly. The graphics are AAA Call of Duty gorgeous (and ruined Christmastime NYC is a pretty nifty backdrop), the gameplay is a friendlier Gears of War, but with Destiny’s RPG-style damage, and the character leveling seems a lot like you’d expect from any RPG type game: you level up, you gain new abilities, you get better gear, and you keep leveling up. Okay, that’s out of the way.
So, after roughly six hours with The Division I was left not entirely sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life playing the game, but definitely wanting more. The open world of nearly 1:1 New York City is huge and intriguing, despite the limited scope of the beta, enough to make Destiny‘s maps feel cramped. There’s a good deal of trekking to be done in The Division, so it’s nice that the world is an interesting, detailed mix of realistically bleak and (somehow) colorfully surreal (but in a disaster-movie kind of way). The city is also alive, to an extent: roaming gangs exist to intercede in your travels, not unlike random encounters in, say, Skyrim or Fallout, and most streets have a sprinkling of innocent civilians and violent looters, topped with a generous dusting of rats, pigeons and the occasional stray dog, just to add more depth.
If you only watch one video in this review, this should be it.
The crux of The Division, and the reason for all the traipsing around the beautiful, living ruins of NYC, is the “simple” task of saving the Big Apple from itself — rescuing the innocent and eliminating the hordes of (crazy, well-armed) evil-doers with extreme prejudice. These violent humanitarian missions are executed from your Base of Operations, the player’s “home” where one takes on missions to help re-establish medical, security and infrastructure services for the remaining survivors in the city. As missions progress these three branches grow; the base evolves and changes, filling with refugees and workers alike, and players get access to better skills and items. It’s a rewarding sense of progress and, in my opinion, underlines one of the more charming and under-reported qualities of The Division: the human aspect. Whereas Destiny and other MMOs are typically all about personal glory and the slow slog to find the next magic so-and-so, The Division is about helping the helpless, be it random civilians on the streets begging for supplies or the multitude of kidnapping victims that find themselves locked in any number of closets, cells and storage rooms across the city. It’s a minor aspect, and it doesn’t impact gameplay per se, but there’s something nice about feeling like a legitimate hero rather than just a gun-toting mercenary… then again, maybe I’m just getting soft in my age.
“When society falls, we rise”
I’m also apparently becoming long-winded in my age, because I seem to still be skirting the most important questions: “Is The Division fun? Is it worth buying? Is it worth playing?”.
Well, YES, to all of those.
Despite the fact that I only had a handful of hours to spend with the game (and no one to play it with), I really enjoyed my time with The Division, even without all the features set to be in the full release. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a competent, accessible, gorgeous shooter with a real sense of progress and reward that felt decently gratifying with every milestone reached. The missions didn’t feel lacking in single-player, as there wasn’t anything I couldn’t overcome alone and, in fact, one “missing persons” mission-type (that played out like a CSI-style mystery) even felt tailored to a single player experience. Even if I could never wrangle another soul to join me on what I can only assume would be very engaging cooperative missions (another fun part of getting older), or didn’t feel like joining forces with (likely adolescent) strangers, working through The Division solo still seems like a fun prospect.
The only aspect of the game that struck me as heavily geared toward team play was the “Dark Zone” a quarantined PvP (player vs. player) zone where some of the game’s best loot awaits, but everyone is fair game to be gunned down and have their booty claimed by their killer. I spent a little bit of time in the Dark Zone, but found myself constantly at the mercy of organized groups who helped themselves to my spoils after riddling my avatar with bullets (often from well-concealed places) as I tried to extract my loot from the area. I would love to experience this chaotic sector with a friendly fireteam on my side, but would advise against doing that alone, as it will likely end in bang-your-head-against-the-wall heartbreak. That said, the Dark Zone is a rather fun, original way to introduce PvP into The Division, as it incentivises teamwork OR treachery (or both: team-based treachery, ftw!) in a way that breaks up the potential repetition of the “go here, find/kill this, then go somewhere else” mission structure that seems to be inescapable for ANY MMO.
The bottom line is, The Division is a solid MMO, easily the best one available on console, and, in my humble opinion, easily worth the price of admission — even as a single-player experience. So, on March 8th, I’ll be popping my copy of The Division into my XBox One and setting out to save New York Even if there aren’t a thousand hours worth of fun packed into this game, if this adventure can keep me quietly at home, even for just a weekend or two, then it’s easily worth $60.