I had a chance to get my hands on Ubisoft’s latest entry in the long-running Tom Clancy universe over the weekend during a limited beta test. I went in with very low expectations, but by the time I emerged from the ruins of New York City, I found myself excited for The Division‘s imminent release.
Some of the best gaming experiences give you a sense of place. Whether it’s the startling level of movie recreation in a game as old as Aladdin, or a battle with malaria in the midst of diamond smugglers and warlords in the savannah a la Far Cry 2. A sense of immediacy can do a lot for a game, and it’s here that Tom Clancy’s The Division excels.
You’re quite literally dropped into New York City’s urban sprawl by helicopter, and from there quickly pass through an antiviral checkpoint. A weaponized pathogen has devastated the city on Black Friday, and the remnants of reckless Christmas abandon are everywhere. Beside a row of Christmas trees advertised for sale, a stray bullet has left a hole right in a wooden Santa’s forehead. Lights are strewn haphazardly on lamp posts, but the huddled masses are paying little attention.
Everyone wants out of NYC, and most seem to have managed. The remainder are scrounging for what little supplies are left, or hiding in their homes. Looters and thieves are everywhere. You are one of the few going into the mess, trying to make a difference.
By and large, The Division sticks to its MMO roots. You’ll take on missions with varying degrees of importance, collecting and upgrading your weapons and armor. You’ll happen across costume pieces as well, lacking statistical advantages but allowing you a further degree of appearance customization. The character creator didn’t exist in the beta, so I can’t be sure how much control you’ll have over your core persona. The limited randomization options don’t suggest much, but the apparel system is already very robust.
The city itself is one of the foremost members of The Division‘s cast. I don’t live in New York City, but I’ve visited numerous times. Ubisoft’s recreation of the metropolis feels almost eerily accurate, a depiction that easily rivals — if not surpasses — my time spent in the eponymous Liberty City immortalized in Grand Theft Auto. The level of detail is consistently impressive, from the interior of a hastily-abandoned apartment to the garbage piled in alleys.
Shivering survivors beg you for scraps as you pass, and many of them panic at the sight of an automatic weapon. You can’t help everyone, you’re on a mission. You can however, choose to forego some of the supplies you’ve found in order to allow a stranger to eat for a day, or perhaps bandage their wounds.
In the desperation of survival, giving one of your medkits to a civilian can mean the difference between success and failure. Sometimes they’ll offer you a rare item in exchange for your help, sometimes they won’t. It’s a thoughtful touch, and it adds to the sensation that you’re actually there. You’re the heroic union of a first responder and an action hero, and The Division sells the fantasy well.
Navigation through the city comes by way of holographic GPS, and you’re allowed fast travel to both hubs and other members of your party. Alongside the streamlined matchmaking — notably devoid of any technical hiccups that I could find — it means that you’ll spend a lot more time working with your allies to save the city than you’ll spend waiting to find people to help. Instanced story areas and open world exploration alike can be enjoyed with a party.
And it is enjoyable. Despite the narrow selection of skills and resources provided by the beta, combining abilities is gratifying and fun. Whether you’re heavily armored in order to take the brunt of the enemy’s attention, a coolly composed sniper crouched atop an abandoned minivan, or some sort of submachine gun toting Rambo, it all just works.
The weapons are many and varied, and you’ll always have at least three immediately at hand. I stuck with the assault rifle, then added a bolt-action marksman’s rifle for when I needed to pick off thugs at a distance. Those, along with my sidearm, proved flexible but not unduly so. SMGs and shotguns have their uses, and any choice can be developed with an array of mods both looted and purchased. Everything from scopes to underbarrel attachments and silencers is there, with varying degrees of quality and additional attributes. It doesn’t take long before you’ve made your character your own.
It also didn’t feel as if I could make a truly bad decision in outfitting my character. While most online games seem to fall into very specific roles and optimal equipment builds, The Division allows you to be creative, by allowing every single thing you choose to be a trade-off. The three main character stats are almost never reinforced by a single piece of equipment, so choosing what to equip means deciding between damage, health, and overall utility.
Regardless, you end up with an effective agent. That in itself is an accomplishment, and I’m anxious to see whether Ubisoft can carry over that freeing sense of balance and sacrifice into the full release.
A Hollywood-caliber soundscape completes the illusion, complimenting a stark depiction of the troubled metropolis that is occasionally managed to startle me with its grandeur. I could see the Empire State Building rising in the distance among familiar landmarks, and I frequently found myself pausing like a tourist to take screenshots of the sights.
The bottom line is this: If you’re looking for something a bit like Destiny, The Division scratches that MMO-lite itch with post-apocalyptic flair. If you’re in search of a strong shooter to while away the dregs of winter, you could do a whole lot worse. And if you want something to play alongside your friends, Tom Clancy’s The Division seems like it will be a no-brainer.
It’s so much more refined experience than Ubisoft’s other major Tom Clancy title and offers miles of content beyond the equally-priced Rainbow Six: Siege. If it can maintain the quality of its experience throughout a significantly expanded premier, The Division is going to set a pretty high standard for even Ubisoft’s other products to match.
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