A Tactical ARPG: Hands-On With The Division

The Division [official site] is, initially, a confusing game. All of the individual pieces make a certain kind of sense, but the combination doesn’t quite hang together. It’s like ordering tempura and getting a thick, creamy, eggy mayonnaise on the side in place of a good Tentsuyu dipping sauce. Both parts of the dish are enticing on their own but the combination is an acquired taste at best. I spent three hours playing the game this week and I’m still not sure if this is a taste I’ll ever be fully on board with – it’s an unusual game though and far more interesting than it’s gruff near-future shootybangs had led me to expect.

What are these two flavours then? On the one hand there’s a half-imagined half-recreated New York, at almost 1:1 scale, packed with characters who look as real as anyone I’ve ever met in a game. They’re dirty, they’re ragged, they’re desperate. One named character has the most convincingly wince-worthy limp I can remember seeing in a game, and the marauding mobs of looters and other sinisters groups fit in with the smokey, blown-out grime of the streets.

It’s a handsome depiction of a hellish situation. The Division takes place in New York post-disaster but pre-apocalypse – perhaps mid-disaster would be more accurate – and part of the initial appeal is in seeing how sights both famous and mundane have been transformed. As one of those who claims, tongue in vicinity of cheek, that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas film (RIP Rickman), I was pleased to see splashes of colourful decoration among the death and debris.

This is a near-future Christmas period and, thematically, The Division’s visual design reflects the destruction of beauty as well as the excess that may have paved the way toward ruin. The infection that brought the city to its knees – or at least allowed those who took advantage of the chaos to bring the city to its knees – spread during the Black Friday sales, reproductions of which are seen in the live action intro. It’s like watching another remake of Dawn of the Dead.

The infection is laced on banknotes, which gives me hope that the spread of contactless payments will prevent a similar situation arising in the real world. Having money as the Trojan Horse also feeds into the Fall of Rome theme – consumerism as a virus and the rich eating themselves.

That’s the tempura. The big dollop of mayonnaise is everything else, including the things you’ll be doing while playing the game. Shooting, crafting, collecting, cooperating, betraying and extracting. It’s a busy game, though I wasn’t overwhelmed by icons, but everything from the fidelity of the graphics to the beautifully smooth cover system led me to expect combat that would transmit at least a sense of the same threat and realism.

Instead, I found myself pouring clip after clip of ammunition into enemies that are not so much bullet sponges as humanoid tardigrades, capable of surviving even the blast and flame resulting from a direct hit with an incendiary grenade. The Division, y’see, has more in common with Bungie’s Destiny than it does with Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six or anything else in the big, wide Clancyverse.

For those who haven’t played Destiny (myself included), the comparison isn’t particularly useful. Essentially, The Division has all the shooting and cover systems of an accomplished third-person action game combined with looting and killing systems reminiscent of an ARPG. Guns, which look very much like the real thing, have damage per second (DPS) ratings and everything from their range to their recoil can be tweaked using parts found while looting corpses or supply drops throughout the city.

Structurally, around three hours with the game suggests it’ll find a decent flow, at least in its early stages. I played a few missions, selected from a steadily growing pile, with a low level character and then jumped into the high level stuff for a high stakes story mission. Aside from the addition of some nifty new skills that allowed me to deploy trundling BB-8-esque drones and chuck defensive structures right onto the battlefield, the experience of being a level 20 character didn’t seem drastically different from the level 5 experience.

A couple of clips were enough to take down a regular grunt and bosses required the concentrated attention of our three-person squad. The world doesn’t level to match your agents but different areas of the city are clearly marked as being suitable for players within a certain experience range. You’re more than welcome to wander into high-level zones right from the start but doing so is likely to end in death and disappointment. At level 5, one encounter with a level 18 enemy taught me that one shot can kill, if the circumstances are right. He dropped me with a single shotgun blast.

It’ll take more time with the game to figure out if it’s possible to venture into higher level areas successfully. Blundering through the Dark Zone, I figured out the distance at which I could safely skirt around overpowered enemy groups and got a kick out of creeping behind them, staying in cover and out of sight. I even managed to steal some loot while they were looking in the opposite direction but the extraction didn’t quite go to plan…

How The Division’s Dark Zone works

The aforementioned Dark Zone is my favourite part of the game, and the extraction mechanic that is a fundamental part of that zone might well be the embellishment that elevates the game into something truly desirable. The Dark Zone is a contaminated area, a huge chunk of the map that has been sealed to prevent the spread of infection. You can enter at any time, with no loading screens to interrupt your session, and the area is layered so that the deeper you venture, the more likely you are to run into groups of lethal enemies.

Here’s where you’re more likely to see the variety of enemy types that make taking back the streets slightly trickier and more engaging than the typical looters, with their baseball bats, machetes and shoddy firearms. There are groups dressed in police uniforms but they’re not cops gone rogue; they’re prisoners who’ve escaped from Rikers Island and gone on a rampage, trying to take control of the city. Then there are the Cleaners, gangs of blue collar workers who have wrapped themselves in hazmat gear, grabbed flamethrowers, and decided to burn NYC until it’s purged of the infection. They’re not taking the time to distinguish between the weak and the wounded, and those who are actually infected though.

In the Dark Zone, everything is infected, including the equipment you collect. Loot attaches to your back in the form of a bright yellow canister and if you leave the zone, it’s lost for good. The only way to retrieve and cleanse it is to call in a helicopter for extraction. This can be done at specific points within the zone. The pilot lobs down a rope, you attach the canister and the loot appears in your stash back at HQ.

Unfortunately for you – but fortunately for those who enjoy tension and a sense of personal vulnerability within their loot-based shooters – calling in the extraction alerts everyone in the vicinity. That includes NPCs and other players alike. The Dark Zone is the only place were PvP is allowed and even your own squadmates can jump out of the group you’ve formed and shoot you in the back if they’re particularly hungry for your loot.

There are consequences. Fire on another player and you’re designated as an agent “Gone Rogue”, which alerts everyone on the server to your actions. Continue to play as a bastard and a bounty attaches to your head, rewarding anyone who takes the time to hunt you down.

I had a sense while playing, perhaps undeserved, that the areas outside the Dark Zone are where the majority of the plot and scripted missions have landed, and that in the hoped-for post-release free updates and paid expansions, it’ll be the Dark Zone (or something like it) that receives a great deal of the attention. It captures a sense of anxiety and of being cut-off in a world gone to hell that the mainstreets of Loot City don’t really reach for.

A thinking person’s ARPG

There’s a sense of comfort food to the bulk of the game – all of that lovely mayonnaise – that sits at odds with the grim cutscenes showing executions and torture. I’m not entirely convinced that the two flavours are ever going to feel quite right together, but by the end of my time with the game, I’d started to enjoy both. And now I’m craving more. In particular, the abililty to switch between roles without tying yourself to a class is fantastic – I was a machinegunning heavy with area effect healing effects that I could dump into the field. There’s a great deal of customisation to discover and a high degree of flexibillity in playstyles thanks to the variety of skills, equipment, buffs and grenades.

It’s the ARPG loop of exploring and collecting that’ll provide the lasting appeal, but it’s bolstered by the combat itself, which is about positioning as well as DPS. Having the right numbers in your inventory is all well and good, but being able to coordinate with team-mates so that enemies are suppressed, pinned down, flanked or scattered by grenades is vital. I remember when Clancy games, and Rainbw Six in particular, were the thinking person’s shooter. The Division is at least attempting to be a thinking person’s ARPG.

The HQ building that you’ll bring back to life by introducing resources and rescued personnel is like a second character to upgrade and customise, and the city changes as you play. It’s not the static world of an MMO and, indeed, the entire game can be played solo. Given how well the multipayer combat works, allowing you to outsmart and outflank AI characters, I’m not convinced solo play will be all that enjoyable, but I’m glad the option is there. And you’ll only need one chum to enjoy most of the benefits that come from playing together.

I’m keen to see more of the crafting and modification systems, which seemed somewhat untidy and unnecessary at first encounter. When I saw a box of fabric marked on my map, alongside random encounters and cries for help about hostage situations and other serious business, I had no desire to investigate. Finding scopes and barrels to modify guns was fun – and everything is thankfully re-usable – but stitching together a new pair of pants might have taken me into one crafting screen too many.

There’s more to say, including an entire feature on the brilliance of the UI (it feels like an intelligent extension of Dead Space’s legibility) and the game’s infrastructure. That’ll come later, along with words from creative director Magnus Jansen, whose previous credits include World in Conflict.

The Division has been a long time coming and I had no idea what kind of game I’d be playing until I sat down with it a couple of days ago. It’s a far more effective blend of ideas than I’d expected but I can’t quite get past the dissonance between the setting and the style of play. Whether it’ll matter in the long run, I can’t say – it only took me fifteen minutes to get used to the idea that a man in a hoodie can take 30 bullets right in the chest. Maybe it’s odd that I’d accept that so readily if he were twelve feet tall or a wizard.

But there is a clash between the costume and the body underneath. I’d love to play a Ghost Recon game set in this world, or a Rainbow Six. I’d like to play more of The Division as well but I’m not entirely sure it needs such a beautiful city in which to rattle off its stat-heavy combat.

The Division’s beta will run from Jan 29th to 31st.

53 Comments

  1. geisler says:

    So this is what’s called a Tactical ARPG now? Not sure if i should start laughing or burst out in tears.

  2. El_MUERkO says:

    My concerns about it seem well founded. I’ll try the beta but I don’t have much hope. Escape from Tarkov looks far more impressive right now.

    • Aldehyde says:

      Tarkov looks cool and I am into it and yet I have little clue what you actually do in it. Definitely want to see more of it though.

  3. Blackcompany says:

    The game lost me with leveled zones/enemies. That gamey garbage has zero place in a setting like this. I mean, it was already a fairly intolerable part of an otherwise amazing Witcher 3.

    But here? No. Just an utter immersion killer with zero purpose beyond facilitating an artificial stretching out of gameplay time.

    • Atomica says:

      The Witcher 3 levelling for enemies wasn’t too bad. At least you can fight enemies who are way above your own level at your own risk.

      I think the levelling aspect is a side-effect of having an open world. If you open up all parts of the game you create complicated mess of mechanics (more so if the game is story-based) trying to consider a multitude of possibilities.

      I’m sure in years to come, game designers will be able to harness AI-based adaptation systems for games that keep the world running as the players mess with it. But for now, open world has limits, which are decidedly human limits.

      • dontnormally says:

        The process of navigating that space, where some areas are inherently more/less difficult than others, is some of the best parts of open worlds.

    • HothMonster says:

      You want every enemy in the game to be the same level? Or you want all the enemies to level with the player? I’m confused what solution you want to see.

      I think high level and low level areas is the best solution and the most realistic really. That area is controlled by a strong (high-level) gang it is dangerous to explore. They have lots of gear, people and experience. This area is full of random looters they are not particularly strong. Ect.

      • wengart says:

        I would assume he would want something more stalkerish/realistic.

        In the first Stalker you start with access to a pistol and shotgun, and I think you might be able to get a little 9mm SMG. These weapons are absolutely deadly. If you nail a guy in the face he will be going down.

        Issue being that in comparison to the well armed and armored soldiers you aren’t that dangerous. Your pistol and smg are inaccurate at range especially compared to one of AKSUs that the soldiers have, and your shotgun isn’t going to even reach that far.

    • popej says:

      You see I’m quite strongly the other way. I really don’t get on with level scaling at all. I’ve never quite forgiven Betesda for Oblivion. :P

      It can work if it’s intelligently implemented. I guess but I’d rather there be areas where you get your bottom kicked in to touch. Having said I also like the idea of you being able to handle these areas with a lot of patience, some skill and a bit of luck.

      Different strokes I guess.

    • C0llic says:

      Give me set levelled enemies and a bit of danger (the disconnect of humble bandits being a threat to Geralt withstanding) over level scaling any day. That said, I think TW3 suffered a little later on when you start to out level a lot of the content, but its a tough thing to balance when a player can go anywhere.

      Personally, I’d have liked some kind of hybrid system where stuff started to scale up with you past a certain point to maintain the challenge.

  4. Andrew says:

    Can you hunt rogue agent outside of Dark Zone?

    • Andrew says:

      Ok, (potential) problems I see:
      — Ubisoft (no, really);
      — Microtransactions and pay2win;
      — Concentration on solo play;
      — Disbalance of one sort or another.

      And you can’t prove or disprove them until weeks after release.

      • El_MUERkO says:

        Ubisoft are always a threat, they changed Ranked play in RS:Siege to make it more potato friendly because of a poll created by an idiot who didn’t see how leading the questions were.

  5. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Those screenshots are drop-dead gorgeous.

    • St_Jay says:

      Exactly! I hate what I read about the combat mechanics, but I stil wanna play it just to walk around that beatiful snowy city…

    • liquidsoap89 says:

      Are those actually screenshots?

      • Andrew says:

        They from publisher. So, actual-ish.

        • liquidsoap89 says:

          Yea that’s what I was suspecting. So it’s pretty, but not THAT pretty!

      • EhexT says:

        The game looks significantly worse in recent videos, including the official ones.

  6. kud13 says:

    Hmm. I like the concept. Liked it from the start, despite never reading or playing anything that has Tom Clancy’s name on it.

    Now, if “solo play” was available offline, I may actually be tempted to buy it.

    • Unclepauly says:

      Holy crap you’ve missed out on some of the best gaming experiences ever concocted. For a beginner I recommend Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, as that game isn’t the most difficult to get into but gives you a majority of the feel of Clancy games. Not only that the graphics are still good even for today.

  7. mukuste says:

    Sounds about as expected… the bullet sponge enemies were a huge turn-off in the gameplay trailers they’ve shown so far. Overall it all sounds a bit too much like an MMO treadmill to be really compelling, but Adam came out enjoying it overall, so who knows.

    • crazyd says:

      Yeah, the time to kill is what has almost completely killed my interest in this one, despite it otherwise looking pretty much right up my alley. I feel like we should be past chipping away at a large healthbar with bullets. They should actually feel dangerous.

      • Ringwraith says:

        It does feel a bit stranger when they’re so clearly unrealistic like say Borderlands, and even Borderlands makes it so you can fell many of the lesser enemies with only a couple of well-placed shots at most.

      • snv says:

        Bullet sponging is a direct result of designing around a gamepad. So this will sadly stay the norm in mainstream games for a while.

        • mukuste says:

          Oh come on. R6 Siege is on consoles and while it doesn’t have the fastest TTK ever, bullets are a hell of a lot more lethal in that game than in The Division.

          This constant blaming of consoles for every gaming woe is just tiresome.

          • epeternally says:

            Don’t you know, Doom II didn’t have a single bullet sponge enemy! It’s all consoles’ fault. Yup. Admittedly, it’s a trope I have a fairly low tolerance for, but to blame this particular design flaw on consoles is just absurd.

          • Cronstintein says:

            Blech, nothing turns me away faster than weak guns. Unless you’re shooting something akin to Terminators, a handful of bullets should do.

    • Herr_C says:

      Yeah, bullet spongey, grindy MMO… Not my kind of a game.

  8. gbrading says:

    indeed, the entire game can be played solo

    Thanks for confirming this; it’s a question I’ve had for a while. I think I finally more or less understand what The Division is thanks to this article, which is something I hadn’t understood for ages. As the article says, it’s kind of gunning for a Destiny/Borderlands angle. I think it’s interesting, but I have no compulsion to play immediately.

  9. Unclepauly says:

    Considering I’ve put about 2k hrs(prob more than that) into Diablo 3 I may need to stay away from this game.

  10. AdamDenton says:

    I’m interested to know how the online functionality will be implemented. Will it be similar to DayZ whereby you join a sever with a measure of persistence and a max player cap? Or is it more like Watch Dogs (more likely as also Ubi), whereby players drop in and out of each others games?

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      More on that next week – big ol’ interview with plenty more details to come.

    • Monty845 says:

      All the indications I’ve seen is that the dark zone will be a lot more like watchdogs than Day Z, or Warcraft style servers. Ubisoft has been careful to avoid terms like MMO, likely for this very reason. It seems very likely that the game will join the games of players in nearby locations into instances of the world, but if a player isn’t in your instance, you wont see them even if they are on the same server as you, and standing in the same place as you.

      The game looks really tempting, and it being a real MMO without instancing of the world would have really sold it for me. It would allow player factions/guilds/outfits/whatever to develop territories in the dark zone, and invite a pvp meta game, which is always an awesome addition, even if there are no game mechanics to reflect it. But creating a fully shared MMO world is very technically challenging, and it sounds like they opted not to tackle that challenge. As such, there is much less likely to be a meta game that naturally develops, as I can’t really claim territory if my allies or enemies can just dynamically end up in a different instance of the world.

      Its still a tempting game, but loosing the first M in MMO has left me on the fence about it.

      • AdamDenton says:

        I think you are more than likely to be correct in your assessment, and you’ve basically astutely written up my own suspicions. I was really hoping Ubi were going to pull something special out the bag along the lines of a massive persistent shared world, but all the preview chatter so far doesn’t seem to be suggesting that. The meta game is one of the aspects I find most interesting to emerge from the multiplayer survival genre. Oh well, there’s always the full release of DayZ in 2021.

  11. Laurentius says:

    It has Ubisoft’s blandness and mecicority written all over it. Also MMO type grindfest is not apealing to me at all.

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    yhancik says:

    But which do you prefer? The Division’s Dark Zones, or Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace?

    • Will the wtf says:

      Start a petition to put Garth’s intriguing show on an in-game TV, abandoned in the dark zone. Solve this problem.

  13. anHorse says:

    Well I’m out, bullet spongy mechanics with a pretend realistic framework reminds me of bad mmos rather than good games (so bad I can’t even remember the names of any of them).

    ARPGs work because the weapons get fun and diverse effects, Borderlands worked because it applied this to an FPS model similar to something like Serious Sam where you aren’t spending long hunkered in cover.

    To add “loot” stats to realistic guns and place these within a normal cover shooter framework is just stupid.

    I tend to like a lot of what Ubisoft puts out but Ghost Recon is the only game of theirs coming up that I have any interest in, and that’s just because it has a nice setting.

  14. Premium User Badge

    JimmyJamNYC says:

    Eh I think I’m in having read this. I loved playing Clancy games on my 360 with friends back in the day and I didn’t like Destiny because I wasn’t into the wizard thing, but this seems like something I can sink my teeth into…just as long as I can convince a mate or two to join me.

  15. BrickedKeyboard says:

    Uggh. Why Ubisoft, why? They spent what has to be 10s of millions of dollars for those graphics, sound, and the environments. And then they mix in bland, unrealistic, mmo style gameplay that sounds like a knockoff of world of warcraft?

    Do they think that players just won’t notice that their guns fire nerf bullets and a number over their head means their assault rifle is either blessed by Cthulu or a squirt gun?

    I can think of all kinds of clever ways they could have made a world where bullets are ballistically simulated and 1 round does the same damage it would really do. “Level ups” would actually involve securing equipment like hazmat suits and getting really good at remaining silent. The game might give you aim assistance at a perk at higher difficulty levels to rambo down several enemies. Effective silencers.

    Higher level enemies would have body armor and would attack in much larger numbers much faster. They wouldn’t be magic, though, and good shot placement would let you gun them down even as a low level n00b, it just wouldn’t be easy without the higher level gear.

    • Replikant says:

      Fully agree. This game sounds so much like not my cup of tea, it is almost amazing. Love the setting, love the looks, hate that: “He’s three levels above you, so you cannot hurt him. At all.” crap since first encountering it in WoW.

  16. tonicer says:

    So sad that it’s only third person. This as first person would be extremely awesome.

  17. Raoul Duke says:

    “the abililty to switch between roles without tying yourself to a class is fantastic”

    This is great to hear. So sick of artificial classes in games.

    • EhexT says:

      Unfortunately there’s some really bad precedent where “classless” in a shooter-rpg is synonymous with “incredibly shallow”.

      Classes, while sometimes coming off as weird in certain settings at least force a developer to come up with genuinely different mechanics for them. Classless means they can design 6 (if you’re lucky) different abilities with minor passive modifiers and call it done.

      Like Defiance. Or Borderlands. Or Destiny.
      All of which are basically exactly what Division is compared to in terms of gameplay.

      • Will the wtf says:

        Yeah… Compared to Team Fortress for example. It’d be nice if they’d automatically ascribe you a hybrid class name though. You could be Medical-Heavy-Assault… Or something more descriptive. Be helpful generally in multiplayer too, so you could get a quicker overview of your team’s capabilities and shortfalls, how much assaulty stuff, absolutely freely customised as they are.

  18. RebecaSousa says:

    Given Minecraft’s popularity minecraftpremiumgenerator2016.com it’s probably not all that surprising that people out there are taking to one of the world’s largest porn sites to find themed videos, but the sheer amount of them may shock you.

  19. hungrycookpot says:

    Wow… This just killed any interest I had for The Division. I was looking for a realistic rpg-shooter. I really can’t look past the ridiculous damage mechanics, I keep hearing it argued that “they said they were making an RPG, this is how RPGs are”

    This is how badly made RPGs are. There’s nothing about the abbreviation R-P-G that mandates that a blow to the head of a high level enemy must do only 1 damage point. There are so many other creative ways you could allow stats to influence gameplay. Maybe higher level enemies have better accuracy, and are more likely to kill you (this seems obvious as hell), maybe they have better reaction time and get behind cover faster, maybe their tactics are better and it’s hard to surprise them, etc etc.

    This is just lazy bullshit.

    • Jack Kerras says:

      It’s not nearly as bad as this says it is.

      Things feel bullet-spongey because almost everyone is picking fights with a low-quality item and not getting their spec and gear set up basically at all.

      The multiplayer enemies (see: elites, etc.) are bullet-spongey because they’re enormously heavily armored, although sadly this is not always called out in visuals as often as it should be. Once their armor is gone, they have the same (low, yikes) number of hit points as anything else.

      The random assholes in hoodies are essentially a close-range shotgun blast or a well-placed burst away.

      The guys lugging a dump truck full of shit around are much harder to kill, although headshots are incredibly effective, and much can be done to combat the ‘I’m an Elite so I have armor’ mechanic… including specializing towards dealing damage specifically to armor.

      It’s bullet spongey if you take ‘whatever gun, whatever spec’ up against a boss. If you spec out properly you can one-shot even elite mobs with guns in their element… that is, close-range shotguns, long-range DMRs. Automatic weapons all feel a bit pea-shootery until you start focusing on getting your spec right.

      The ‘beta’ has been huge fun and the Dark Zone is just a fantastic addition, I find. I haven’t fully worked out the armor mechanic (why is it so good for them and so useless for us?), but overall the game feels great, the TTK is right on with something like Diablo 3 (blow up little dudes with abilities or headshots, have to work on big mobs for a full rotation, etc.), and higher-level enemies are surmountable as long as you’re careful, cover-scurry often, and realize that your small numbers mean you have to play better, longer, to win.

      I’ve spent more rounds plinking at ‘big asshole in bomb suit’ enemies in ‘realistic’ games than I have on major bosses in The Division. I was very wary thanks to all the bullet-sponge reports, but after a solid twenty hours with the game this weekend, I’m not worried at all.

  20. Will the wtf says:

    I think for some people that 30 shots to kill 1 guy could be a sticking point, a real bad dissonance that otherwise it seems they are making strides to avoid. I think they need to keep the sense of progress from feeling like arbitrary maths stretching the game. Partly as someone already said in this comments section about the Stalker games, they are real brutal guns to start with but there are also feasible contemporary weapons you encounter later, naturally withthe plot, that are just leagues ahead of those. Another answer is I think the a.i. and hud technology, radar and high tech interface and all could improve rapidly at higher levels. That would give people an extra-sensory style ability that would set of a struggle of subterfuge, and a chance to prepare, making fights satisfyingly long but still brutal in terms of needing just one or two direct hits. To start with maybe the accuracy and range within the New York would just be so bad that you’d be hitting cover a lot in your exchanges. There’s room for ramping up numbers over the hours in body armour maybe, which could just have a a weight VS bullet stopping measurement to care about, with both improving at higher prices and later in the story. I hope with their fluid server technology you’ll still be able to find your friends.

  21. janner1952 says:

    Hi guys, I have been playing computer games since the early 90`s when you had to programme the damn game yourself lol. Now I have a top of the range pc and I love it.I played the Beta of The Division and it was great, the graphics were superb as was the control system. I tried both, the KB+ M and the xbox 360 controller and they were equally as good as each other. I think you guys forget its a game, not real life. Just play it and enjoy it, its great fun and dont take it so seriously, lighten up and treat it for what it is, a computer game and nothing else lol.