New York City: If you can make it there, you probably have a working knowledge of organic chemistry and a very particular set of skills, a la Liam Neeson in every movie he’s done in the last decade.
At least, that’s what is necessary to survive the dystopian Big Apple thrust on players in Tom Clancy’s “The Division,” Ubisoft’s latest all-out blitz on the lucrative online gaming market. We’ve waited a long time for this one – nearly three years. Over that time, the highly anticipated game-changer mutated into patient zero in the delay disease currently rampaging through big-studio game development.
“The Division” was ripe for a letdown. Many of us remembered the similar hype we felt for Ubisoft’s “Watch Dogs,” which disappointed. The publisher also chose not to release review copies – something we critics usually take as a show of weakness. “The company isn’t confident about its product – it won’t let us tell them how bad it is beforehand,” we think – often out loud.
But a funny thing happened on March 8: I booted up “The Division,” and it wasn’t a dud.
The fact that I was able to log into the online-only game within 24 hours of its release shocked me. Typically, large online releases like this – Massively Multiplayer Online Games and shooters not named “Call of Duty” – suffer massive server failure for hours or even days after launch. Some people had trouble getting in, but the servers held up.
I was immediately struck by the beauty of the game. Its characters and environments are stunning. The recreation of New York City captures a grimy existence in which half the population needs saving from the other half, which is bent on robbery and destruction. So basically, players feel only slightly less safe than they would if they were walking across the actual New York City – an impressive commitment to realism.
“The Division” looks a bit like “Watch Dogs” and feels a bit like “Destiny.”
Like its Ubisoft cousin, “The Division” has a lot of “go forage for this” or “use this gadget to investigate that” quests. I’m not a fan of these, but the slice taken from “Destiny” – missions in which waves and waves of bad guys crash into the mighty rock that is your team – balances everything out.
The controls are solid, but they’re slightly unresponsive. There’s a split-second delay between when you pull the trigger and when your guns actually fire, but it was little more than a minor annoyance. I am sure this, some minor server issues and the hilarious fact that players can’t pass through one another and must wait in line to talk to quest-giving computer characters will get ironed out soon. It’s an online-only game after all – those are seldom whole at release.
I enjoyed the role-playing game aspects incorporated into “The Division.” Plenty of item slots, cosmetic clothing options and special abilities allow for the customized specialization we expect from modern titles.
It’s also quite difficult, which is a plus. The best co-op vs. AI shooters – “Left 4 Dead,” “Grand Theft Auto Online,” “Halo” – are tough. I need to feel frustrated early on in this genre, so I have the motivation necessary to get better and progress.
There are some spicy villains, too. I especially like “The Cleaners.” They seem to be a group of New York Department of Sanitation workers who found a hidden cache of flamethrowers. These committed employees are set on destroying all traces of the viral smallpox rampaging through New York – even if that means barbecuing all of the city’s inhabitants.
I don’t know why, I just love the idea of city employees forming their own gang after the end of the world. The other sects – prisoners from Rikers Island and generic looters – are par for the course, but sewer cleaners uniting to kill us all? It’s awesome.
Repetitive quests are a major problem in “The Division.” The game tries to sell a few different types of tasks to us, but most of them ultimately revolve around killing some bad guys and taking your stuff back from them or saving innocent New Yorkers. This makes solo play a bit of a drag. However, I don’t mind repetitive tasks quite as much in a multiplayer setting – mowing down evildoers with friends is relaxing and enjoyable no matter what.
I haven’t reached the endgame yet, but “The Division” appears to be a solid first offering for a new franchise. “Destiny” has improved quite a bit in its first few years, and I hope Ubisoft will follow that trend. Moving from good to great is the next step.
Video Game Review
▪ Rated Mature for blood, language and intense violence.
▪ Developer: Ubisoft Massive
▪ Publisher: Ubisoft
▪ Out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC