The first hour of The Division introduces us to a well-conceived and believable universe. Every corner of Manhattan is filled with plausible detail that shows a city in ruins, yet hints to its former greatness. If you've seen the movie I am Legend you'll know what to expect, if not, prepare yourselves for a vision of New York on the edge of anarchy. Survivors limp down the sidewalks, begging for some of your water or medkits in order that they might survive. This world is harsh, and not for everyone, but as a part of the group called The Division it's your job to make it a little bit safer. As is the case in most MMORPGs, you are the chosen one and everyone bends to your will.
The story mostly functions as a backdrop for your killing and looting, and you won't meet many memorable characters. It feels more like an excuse for the setting than something that will engage you emotionally. Fortunately Manhattan is filled with interesting detail, smaller stories that make the world feel real. It's the little observations we make that cause our imagination to run riot: would and could this be us or our friends if something like this ever really happened? Ghost-like objects called 'echoes' tell tragic or enlightening stories, phone calls depict life before the disease spread, and there's much more waiting to be discovered. These are the best and most interesting collectibles we've ever seen in an Ubisoft title.
After its announcement at E3 2013 people were blown away by the game's visuals, but it didn't take long till we heard rumours of "down grading". We'll make this simple: the visuals are less impressive than they were in the first trailer, but they still look good. The lighting and animations are especially nice. It might be macabre to say so, but the first time an enemy exploded into flames we couldn't help but be wowed. Combined with fluid movement animations, the PlayStation 4 version doesn't leave much to be desired (and the PC version, which we've not played to the same extent, also stacks up).
Unfortunately the visuals are also one of the few elements that have lessened the experience. While we greatly appreciate the few and very short loading times, pop-in and loading textures are a frequent sight. In some extreme cases we were startled when we walked past a car or building and a character suddenly spawned right next to us. These quirks are a real shame as it detracts from the otherwise great sense of immersion. The menus could also be better, with all the different skills, perks, weapons, gear, settings and such spread across different pages to be cycled through. People experienced with RPGs won't have much problem with this, but "noobs" will probably need some time to get used to it.
On the other hand, the audio design is close to flawless. While walking down the street you'll hear Christmas songs coming from a radio far away, or the screams of victims feeling rioters, and it's a soundscape regularly punctuated by the echo of gunshots. You'll have no problem becoming immersed in this world. Look forward to your body tensing up when you hear a flame-thrower closing in.
The Division is, for all intents and purposes, an MMORPG, and it shows. After the first introductory hour you're left to your own devices. At first you won't have many weapons and skills to play with, but it's still possible to see how different play-styles are supported. The three first skills you can choose from are a grenade launcher (aggressive), being able to scan an area for enemies (more cautious) and a ballistic shield (defensive). By earning XP you'll get access to more of the many skills available. These can be changed whenever you want, which comes in handy as different situations call for different combinations.
In our case we're fans of using a mid-range assault rifle with the grenade launcher and turret skills when we're alone in the regular areas of the island. This lets us damage clusters of enemies when staying in cover, while diverting their attention with a handy turret placed on the opposite side of the area. The Dark Zone requires a different approach. There we try to stay on everyone's good side by being a more supportive character with healing and adaptive cover skills. Depending on the other play-styles in our party we can play it in different ways. If we know our comrades will mostly be operating at a distance away from us we'll modify our skills so that we heal better at range, otherwise we opt for the regular close-quarters version.
If you're not the cooperative type it's easy enough to be a lone ranger. Some would say that the enemies are bullet sponges, but so far this is only noticeable if you choose the hardest difficulty on missions. Tackling these alone makes them feel close to impossible and at times frustrating, even if you're the exact recommended level for that particular mission. Even with three companions in your party you'll use a lot of ammo to take down enemies. In one of the boss fights everyone had to use a conveniently placed restock box five times before we finally took him down. There's no question that this will turn off a lot of people, even if it's quite common in MMOs. But again, this is only on the hardest difficulties. By playing on normal you'll get a fair fight where normal enemies go down after three-four bursts from a good assault rifle. Just don't expect a twitch based shooter as the RPG systems lead to a small delay from your final shot to the enemy reacting and falling down. The same goes for the cover system. It works okay, but we really missed the option to crouch as it would've helped when moving in and out of cover. Really, Ubisoft? No crouch button in a Tom Clancy game? It would surely have made playing it stealthy more accessible and satisfying.
When it comes to the weapons, we really like the loot system. It's more like Diablo than Destiny. There are far more similar looking weapons than Activision's popular shared-world shooter, but the stats are more diverse here. The damage per second on two AK47s is rarely the same, and with different attachments the diversity goes even deeper. Each weapon handles differently and it should be easy to find something for your specific play-style.
Diversity is also worth mentioning in terms of gameplay. Most story missions and side missions require you to go from A to B, then kill a large amount of enemies in B (maybe even a boss). The four developer studios have done a fairly good job mixing in some missions where you must find a number of objects within a set time limit, defend objectives from enemy waves, and similar activities, but as with many like-minded games the grind may feel repetitive very early on for some of you. Even we felt fatigue set in after walking past the same two looters time and time again while we were moving through the streets on New York.
The same goes for the fairly standard enemy types. You'll see the usual rushing melee, mid-range and sniper classes. There's only the flamethrower-wielding Cleaners that are really differentiated from the pack. At long range they'll suppress us by using their guns, then barbecue our entire party when they get close. The Rikers and rioters are usually easier to handle, whether it's their kamikaze melee fighters, mid-range assault units, or covering snipers. You'll usually know who's coming up by the type of mission you're on. If, for example, you are going down into the sewers to fix a water line, chances are it won't be long before you smell something burning. This is because the different factions have different motivations, which again builds up this intriguing universe.
Depending on what type of side mission you choose you'll be paid in currency that can only be used to upgrade the section of the base that gave you the mission. By upgrading the different wings (Tech, Security and Medic) you'll open up new skills, perks and resources, so if your looking to get anything specific you better start grinding. We actually like this solution as it doesn't make us search for rare resources or anything like that, instead you just complete the special missions that randomly show up. It maintains the flow of the game without forcing us to do weird pick-up quests or anything of that ilk.
If you get tired of questing, the Dark Zone is always an option. This is a separate area where your skills are truly tested. Not only are you fighting against some of the toughest enemies in the game, there's also the danger of other players. Your main goal in the Dark Zone is to collect the best loot, before calling for extraction. To do this you'll have to go to certain areas on the map and light a flare, in the process calling in a chopper to come pick you up. After doing this you'll have to stay alive for 90 seconds before your ride arrives. Easy enough, right? Nope. Your flare doesn't just alert the pilot of your presence, but also other players. They now know that you've got some precious loot, and it might well be easier to kill you than waves of hardened enemies. If you're killed you'll drop some of the loot, which can be picked up by other players. Luckily there's also a catch for your attackers. By attacking other players you'll be considered a rogue agent, and then there'll be a bounty on your head. The more player kills, the higher the price on your life. This makes confrontations in the extraction zone very intense. If you fear the people you meet and think they come with bad intentions, you've got to ask yourself: should I shoot them first, and become rogue, but not lose my loot? Or hope that they're there in good faith and hold fire, but risk being caught off-guard while you're in a firefight? Trust us, some of those countdowns will be the longest of your gaming life.
Luckily you're likely to have a good idea if another party is going to attack you as voice chat is localised. This means that you'll hear what other players are saying if they're within a certain distance, even if they're in-party. Having said that, we and our own party members often planned how we would signal for an attack without saying anything at all. Whether it be certain emotes, gear changes or other signals we'll keep secret in case we want your gear, there's ways of springing an effective trap without alerting your prey. It's a really great feeling nailing a perfect ambush, killing opponents with great gear before they even have the time to blink.
Choosing your partners wisely is extremely important in The Division, because party members can go rogue on you. Having partners you can trust is also important if you don't want to cause trouble, as the whole party will be marked as rogue if one member pulls the trigger on a fellow agent. If this happens you better be fast and leave the party if you don't want to get a high price on your head. Matchmaking has been nice to us so far by not teaming us up with would-be rogue agents, but we did hunt down a rogue team where one of our opponents kept yelling at us not to shoot him. We didn't listen... we needed that reward. At least until we reached the endgame.
The endgame is where the real challenge begins. When you reach max level (30) every enemy in the Dark Zone will become level 30 or above, and you'll get access to three special daily missions. Special is maybe the wrong word as they're only more challenging versions of existing story content. By completing these you'll be rewarded with a special currency called Phoenix Credits. These can only be used at two vendors in game. They sell the best equipment, but you'll be doing a lot of grinding to get enough credits to buy it. Doing the same missions as before over and over isn't fun, and we really miss The Division's version of raids or strikes. Ubisoft has promised that we'll get them later in the form of Incursions (next month), but for now there's really not a lot of entertainment to be had when you're done with the story and side missions.
All in all The Division is a fantastic experience. Even if the story isn't as good as our first impressions led us to believe, the universe itself makes up for it. Every minor detail combines to make it a believable world. The same goes for the the gameplay loop, which ensures that hours go by in the blink of an eye, even if we did want a bit more variety from the missions. The camaraderie/betrayal in the Dark Zone will keep you engaged for dozens - if not hundreds - of hours. Every second is filled with tension and you never feel safe. We never expected much of a story, and the relative lack of mission variety and a few minor technical issues aren't enough to detract significantly from the overall experience. We're still early in 2016, but we've already made room for The Division in our game of the year list.