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Tom Clancy's The Division review: the full immersive, thrilling, and frustrating experience

The Division is a lot to take in. It's more than just a third-person shooter — it's melded with a huge and connected in-game world featuring unprecedented detail and depth.

In the post-Destiny world of the MMO-lite, Tom Clancy's The Division represents a massive ambition to combine a modern third-person tactical shooter with RPG mechanics in a huge and connected world. Ubisoft's industry leading open-world design takes center stage, painstakingly reconstructing New York City wrapped in a near-apocalyptic vision of social breakdown.

I've spent almost 100 hours stalking The Division's alleyways, abandoned buildings, and contaminated sewers. It'd be a lie to say that Ubisoft Massive's connected shooter isn't a huge achievement.

Millions of players have fully engaged. They've spent days grinding out gear, trying to perfect character builds and taking on the game's most daunting challenges. At this point, I've seen everything The Division has to offer. I want to answer the question 'is it all worth it?' This is the full experience of The Division.

Virulent Vistas

Story, Setting and Design

The Division is based on a real-world simulation that shows how rapidly society would break down in the event of a biblical-scale viral outbreak. Taking place in a meticulously detailed reconstruction of New York City, a secret U.S. military organization known as the Strategic Homeland Division, or simply 'The Division,' is activated to respond to the catastrophe, which has brought the United States to its knees and chaos to the streets.

You play as a voiceless Division agent, whom you can customize visually to a limited degree. Your agent is deployed to investigate the cause of the outbreak, help the terrified survivors, and combat the city's opportunistic criminal elements.

MMO-lites and their derivatives aren't particularly renowned for their stories, and The Division doesn't go to great lengths to buck this trend. While the premise is exciting, the story's delivery could've been a little more ambitious. There are very few cut-scenes, and they typically take place in the safety of your home base during debriefing conversations. There are no cinematic set-pieces, no major plot twists, and in typical Ubisoft-style, the opportunity to develop the game's limited array of villains is sorely missed.

The Division

Taking on a real-world setting for this type of game has clearly been a challenge. There are no zombies, fantasy creatures or aliens to give the world flavor, so to under-develop the narrative surrounding the game's enemy factions comes across as unusually stark. Why did hundreds of city sanitation workers become insane, murderous pyromaniacs? How was one person able to rally scores of prison inmates into an organized militia? There are answers to some of these questions, but Ubisoft makes you dig for them. Much of the game's narrative and character development is hidden away in collectable CCTV footage, mobile phone recordings or 'Echo' events, which show you scenes from a prior event in augmented reality.

The vast amount of narrative items does help to give the game's world some believability. There's an immersive Watch Dogs-like voyeurism about going through a discarded cell phone or abandoned CCTV clip, seeing glimpses of The Division's virtual inhabitant's lives. There are hundreds of them too, giving completionists a lot to think about.

I can appreciate that Ubisoft probably felt that going heavy on the cinematics and narrative in a primarily multiplayer game could've been wasteful, but its weak presence dampens the roleplaying investment you might typically look for in an RPG, and reminisces of similar failings found in their other AAA franchises. At the very least, it not only makes any attempt at playing The Division solo a pretty soulless affair, it feels like a missed opportunity to elevate expectations of what a massively multiplayer game can and should achieve on the narrative front.

The Division

Where immersion through story might be lacking, the same cannot be said for The Division's graphics. The visuals are one instance where Ubisoft shrugged off the typical MMO design conventions of reduced graphical quality to favor sheer volume – The Division is one of the most beautiful titles available on the Xbox One today. From its dynamic weather systems, densely detailed locations, and lavish special effects, The Division is the triumphant culmination of Ubisoft's industry-leading open world design.

The Division grasps at the periphery of an engaging story with its optional narrative footage, but it's a far cry from the lore-stuffed cinematic missions that feature in other open world RPGs. The result paints The Division as a visually exciting, but ultimately static diorama.

Ubisoft Massive's take on the RPG shooter genre more than makes up for its brief story treatment with some incredible core gameplay, the foundation of which could prove to be a winning formula that ensures The Division's survival for years to come – but it isn't without problems.

Loot Fever

Gameplay

As noted, The Division is a connected RPG cover shooter, set in the third person. The game has heavy co-operative elements, and purports to encourage class-based, strategic co-operative play – a prospect that should prove particularly rewarding in some of the game's harder activities.

The Division draws parallels with the likes of Diablo III and Destiny, undergoing a gameplay shift between the levelling experience and its post-story endgame content. The initial Level 1-to-30 experience is one of discovery, skill unlocks and plot progression while Level 30+ becomes a loot hunt, providing increasingly difficult challenges for increasingly powerful items.

The Division

Level 1 to 30

As I begun playing The Division for the first time, I felt a twinge of excitement I hadn't felt since the early days of World of Warcraft. Exploring the game's abandoned buildings, quarantined labyrinths and haunting makeshift mortuaries proved a sobering experience, given the fact it's set in near-modern times, and based on events that could theoretically occur.

While the locations are varied, detailed and gorgeous, the mission objectives you're required to undertake while levelling are woefully unambitious. Accompanied by very sparse context, they almost always amount to the following. "Go to this waypoint, stand here, kill a bunch of gun-toting dudes, get experience points, move on to the next."

Despite the game's incredible atmosphere and brilliantly executed enemy A.I., the copy-and-pasted mission objectives make for a crushingly simplistic solo experience. Perhaps that's fair enough, though; The Division isn't designed to be played alone.

The Division - Fire mage?

Similarly to Diablo 3 and Borderlands, squads of up to four players can jump into each other's game world, complete missions, explore and obtain loot together. Enemies scale dynamically to account for the additional damage your squad will be dealing – and this is where The Division is the most enjoyable.

The core objectives outlined above are far more engaging when tackled in a squad. In the earlier stages of The Division, the game feels well tuned to reward players who want to commit their skills to a healer role, a damage role or a defensive tanking role in equal measure. At this point, it's nowhere near as restrictive as a typical MMO, where you simply can't progress in a mission without a particular skill utility or class function.

Beyond strategic play, The Division rewards players with piles of color-coded loot items. As I was levelling up, every boss kill and every hidden cache scattered throughout the game's winding and vertical open world provided heaps of gratifying upgrades.

The Division

The Division's varied weapon types also feel great to use, particularly when combined with the diverse modding and gear talent system which adds layers and layers of customization and ways to progress your character.

As I was levelling, The Division felt as though it had nailed all the magical elements of a strategic shooter RPG, with meaningful upgrades, class skills, and intelligent enemy CPU behaviour. Indeed, as a shared experience, The Division very effectively provides dozens of hours of co-operative RPG shooter fun for groups of friends – making it a worthy proposition in its right.

However, if you want to dive deep into The Division's endgame, a lot of the systems that appear robust at face value begin to unravel.

Level 30 Endgame

After slugging through The Division's open world levelling content, you'll start peeling away at layers of increasingly loose design decisions that hinder the Level 30 endgame. Only four of the game's dungeon-like missions are available to be set as a Level 30 challenge mode, edging the post-story gear grind into repetitive territory. While The Division's much-touted Dark Zone area provides a wealth of variety as a result of player-driven emergent PvP play, even these areas of the game are marred by flaws in some of the game's underlying systems.

The vast majority of The Division's abilities simply aren't valuable enough in the highest Level 30 PvE or PvP content. While it felt as though The Division had playstyle diversity levelling up, it's simply not an option to play as an aggro-stealing tank or a pure DPS role in The Division's endgame – despite having gear stats that hint at the contrary. The most optimal builds in both PvE and PvP are defensive healer hybrids to ensure personal survival, minimizing the need for co-operative and strategic play, and maximising the need to coordinate the spam of the game's most powerful defensive abilities on cooldown while ignoring the game's robust cover system, strafing and dodge rolling instead. Other playstyles struggle to make the grade.

The Division - Dark Zone

On the PvP side of things, if you don't want to suffer endlessly repeating the game's four challenge mode missions, as mentioned, you can step into the Dark Zone – which features NPC bosses, hidden caches of wildly powerful gear and other players. And yes, they can kill you. In fact, they often will. Until you've successfully extracted gear obtained in the Dark Zone, you will drop items you're carrying when killed. Extractions can only be triggered in certain areas, they alert nearby players to your presence, and take over a minute to complete – making for harrowingly tense situations. My first forays into the Dark Zone were exhilarating, even when you disregard the sluggish server infrastructure.

Successfully extracting the awesome loot you've obtained in the Dark Zone always feels so good.

Gear has a far more pronounced effect in the Dark Zone than it does in comparable shooters. A player who has maxed out all the endgame content on offer can very easily destroy a player who is stepping into the highest Dark Zone level bracket for the first time, making PvP encounters pretty meaningless on a competitive basis. It contributes to the exciting sense of danger and vulnerability you'll feel in the Dark Zone, as most of the time you'll be unable to determine how powerful a potential enemy player is just by staring at them.

Will they kill me? Do they simply want to utilize the loot extraction chopper as well? Will they attack as soon as my back is turned? Those paranoid questions make for exciting experiences, as squads of players will often meet in Mexican standoffs, testing each other's nerves – and of course, successfully extracting the awesome loot you've obtained in the Dark Zone always feels so good.

As noted, far too many of the game's skills and talents are weak in player vs. player combat. Encounters devolve into opposing squads chain-spamming the game's most powerful abilities, ignoring the advertised cover system to strafe and roll while hip firing sub-machine guns. Despite the sadistic gratification of insta-killing under-geared players, the Dark Zone's chaotic implementation results in limited satisfaction for anyone looking for serious player vs. player action. It wouldn't be a major problem if The Division featured truly balanced PvP gameplay modes or a robust PvE progression path without the Dark Zone, but the lack of Level 30 activities makes participation unavoidable.

The imbalanced ability tuning extends into The Division's highest-level PvE endgame content too — the incursion 'Falcon Lost' – which is a brief, wave-based boss fight taking place in a single arena.

It's laudable that Ubisoft is providing endgame players new challenges in free updates, but Falcon Lost exemplifies some of the game's most deep-seated issues. The sheer amount of area of effect attacks, combined with swarming drones that fly above cover, and The Division's weak crowd control abilities once again render various skills, class roles, and even the cover system suboptimal.

The most popular strategy for overcoming 'Falcon Lost' involves hiding in a coverless trench to negate the stationary boss, with all four squad members chaining the overpowered Survivor Link ability and area of effect healing skills to mitigate incoming damage. Of course, it's the player's choice to commit to this sort of cheesy strategy, but when it's the easiest path to victory it just feels inefficient not to utilize it. Being forced to play this way feels unsatisfying, and makes me wonder whether future Incursions will be similarly short-lived.

The Division - Skills

Perhaps a greater diversity of playstyles would emerge if the loot system wasn't so unbearably random.

Perhaps a greater diversity of playstyles would emerge if the loot system wasn't so unbearably random. Each piece of endgame loot features the usual stats that improve damage, survivability, tech skills and so on, but they also feature a vast array of nuanced sub-stats that strengthen specific abilities, such as improved turret health, damage resistance against elite enemies, and much, much more. Obtaining those stat boosts is based on pure randomness, and while you can spend credits (a LOT of credits) to re-roll them, far too often you won't actually get the stats you're gunning for.

For all the dissatisfaction, The Division is still more than enjoyable to jump on with friends to complete the daily challenge mode missions, suffer together in the anarchy of the Dark Zone, and grabbing powerful loot always feels great. The way the studio has designed play for Level 30+ reveals flaws in the game's design that may even call for an overhaul of some of its systems. Ubisoft says its listening to feedback, but whether or not players will receive the updates they need is, of course, uncertain.

Post-Apocalypse

Conclusion

Tom Clancy's The Division has been a frustrating game to review – not because it's a bad game, far, far from it – but because it comes so close to being something truly amazing.

While the elements of something incredible are certainly present, from the industry-leading world design, sobering atmospherics, detailed environments, creative skills, and the conceptually exciting Dark Zone – the implementation has been far from ideal, even when you disregard annoyances like disappearing daily missions and insufferable Dark Zone lag.

Pros:

  • Industry leading visual design
  • Polished combat mechanics
  • Unlimited potential

Cons:

  • Story delivery is weak
  • PvE content is thin
  • RPG skills and systems need attention

If you haven't jumped into The Division yet, it's a fantastic title for groups of friends seeking a straight-forward, Diablo-like experience wrapped in a robust and polished RPG cover shooter. If you're looking for endgame content that's a little more MMO-like with its depth and diversity, I'd recommend waiting to find out how the free upcoming Patch 1.2 alters the state of play. Ubisoft has hinted that it plans to improve weaker skills and develop the game's PvE offering, but whether or not they deliver remains to be seen.

Ubisoft hasn't built a title like this before, and the inexperience clearly shows – The Division seems to be a victim of its ambitions. The good news is that now, games can be updated, and the flaws in the system aren't so thick that they're beyond repair. With proper attention, Ubisoft could easily pivot the game towards the vision it represents. We can only hope that The Division's long-term story is just beginning.

This review was conducted on Xbox One using a copy purchased by the writer.

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

40 Comments
  • Hi, Really into this game, been cutting my YouTube Teeth on this game. Great review, if you are ever online I'd love to play with you (GT McSherlocks) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8HlKhbXDEc    
  • One game I'm really looking forward to playing and still haven't had the opportunity to buy a copy.
  • It's a really great game, by the time you hit cap they might've fixed all the issues currently plaguing the endgame content (hopefully) - but even without that, you'll have a blast.
  • Can't wait Jez but I thought the devs said issues with endgame content can't be fixed....or I heard wrong? BioResearch & Games.
  • I never heard that, they've hinted they're planning to change a lot of the game.
  • Yea I quit playing the game after all the cheaters one shotting, getting infinite credits, and leveling up in dz so fast from glitching gear. They didn't fix the cheaters so bye bye it was fun while it lasted.
  • I know a ton of people got banned from the PC version recently, I've never encountered any cheaters on Xbox One at least.
  • You couldve waited for the 1.2 patch and trust me the review would be much different. So many bug fixes and changes that frustrates users are coming. (including drops, re-balancing weapons etc.)
  • Review was already past due, even waiting for 1.1 felt a bit gratuitous, but I was hoping for similar fixes back then too. I'll be sure to write about the improvements when they land, of course.
  • Yeah but instead they really fuc*ed up with 1.1 and they even admitted it. Thats why they dont announce release date for 1.2 now because they want it to be rock solid. They learned from their mistakes, lets give them another chance. My stance is that I am not currently playing anymore and will give it a chance when 1.2 lands. I watched the last "State of the game" and they promised really good changes so, heres hoping !
  • Same boat here, I'm still playing for now. Hoping 1.2 helps it reach max potential.
  • I can see reaching it MAX potential in 1 year when all DLCs will come out :P
  • haha, well I'll still be around to find out no doubt :)
  • Me too. :)
  • Btw, unofficial Division companion app released !! https://www.microsoft.com/sk-sk/store/apps/divisiondps/9nblggh4nw8t
  • Another chance?? UBI ran out of second chances on Ghost Recon Advanced Warrior years ago
  • I think it's unrealistic to expect a dev of Ubi's size/output to never make mistakes...
  • 1.2 killed my game play with a ton more bugs.
  • You mean 1.1? 1.2 havent landed yet.
  • I'm grinding it out right now too, mostly to build up phoenix points to buy gear set blueprints. I've done Falcon Lost twice and it's challenging but yeah, we just stick in the trench and pray until all the waves pass.  I love the dark zone but the loot drop is getting really sucky.  You work for 5-10 minutes on an NPC group for what ends up being two blue drops.  BAH. I love the game but it is very much like Diablo 3 with the grinding-for-loot aspect.  It will eventually get too redundant and boring unless Ubisoft starts hitting us with good content. With that said, I've read there is a glitch with the Path of the Nomad gear set.  Many people are reporting not getting any additional scavaging or the 20% health on kill.  That's too bad because I wanted to rock the Sentry's Call with it.
  • Yeah, I actually clipped some of the bugs with stats out of the review cus it was getting too long... so many little issues kinda ruining the full package - but WoW was exactly the same in its first year, and went on to be massive. Final Fantasy XIV too, gme was a total mess, then Realm Reborn turned it around and it became huge... but both of these were subscription bsaed businesses, remains to be seen whether Ubisoft think supporting the game properly is a worthwhile investment.
  • About the first time that I have commented before reading the whole article. Bugs aside, I'm looking forward to going deep into this. Bagged a lend of Quantum Break for two weeks, so gonna rinse that. Guy at work bought The Division based on my recommendation, he lives it.
  • Not sure why the trench strat is cheesy, it really is the most effective strat and it is still very hard to accomplish.  You can play through on the upper right after jumping down from there as well and complete it, but this strat ist he most effective.     The issue of the incursion isn't because the strat is cheesy, people will use any strat that is the most effective.  The issue is the mode is limited and just a classic horde mode which is boring and throw in that it is very hard, people will get turned off.    
  • I think that by making the most effective strategy the most boring one is a major mis-step at Ubi HQ. Blizzard have fixed WoW bosses for similar reasons in the past, I can't imagine why they decided the strategy for the first Incursion should be one that ignores cover and class synergy. :(
  • One of the things that drives me crazy about Destiny (Day 1 player) is that I had an absolute blast hitting max level, then everything after that is grinding the same few runs ad nauseum just to hope for a piece of gear that's marginally better than what I have. Is Division the same way, or is the end game more robust?
  • never played destiny so not sure how to compare.     Just my experience, the grind was easier prior before they nerfed crafting.  Just a few hours run you can collect enough materials to craft things multiple times to get a proper roll on your stats.  they nerfed that now it is harder, they wanted people to focus on getting gear by doing the mission, incursions and DZ.  They will be emphasizing this even more with the new update later this month or early next month as they will improve drops.   You can still get enough currency to buy blueprints pretty easily and craft your own, doing the incursion will guarantee you a high score gear set.  The thing is, the incursion is very hard.   In the DZ, focusing on DZ to get your best gear can be frustrating because people can kill you and take your stuff.  I focus on doing the missions and some DZ.  
  • My first week of playing The Division really gave me the feeling I hadn't experienced from gaming in a long time. The whole thing felt so immersive, the real-world setting and scenario is compelling, the level of detail combined with the more plausible civilian-styled nature of the agents, the EDC nods, the gear etc really drew me in. I would methodically work through the districts, getting distracted finding the rich intel and drawn off-route on the way to a side mission. I was off work ill at the time, the weather was awful, and when I left my apartment there was an eerie transition where I felt like I was in-game (saw others on Reddit saying the same). I think the Canine Unit upgrade started to strip some of the setting covering the mechanics away. Now I could see all the intel on the map and it became a matter of just going on a collectathon while ploughing through the missions. The initial levelling-up to 30 was great but the endgamejust feels like a job, and a boring one at that. The problems with PvP you mention are very real, I thought I'd dip into the Dark Zone for the first time in a while to find players who had set their gear to be just below the threshold for the lower zones just cruising round in squads massacring noobs and infrequent players like myself. Massive need to sort it otherwise I can't see any longevity for those waiting on their season pass content.
  • Yeah, they either need to tighten the brackets or remove gear from PvP like WoW is doing. It's not fun to oneshot/be one shotted.
  •   I played the beta, and really put about 10-15 hours into the beta. I got the game. I agree with the review. It's a nice looking game, lots of detail and lots of places to explore. I'm finding it to be an open world almost GTA style game time to time. What I mean is, finish a mission, your on level 12, You need to serach the map for a "level 12 level", go, play that mission, get to level 13 and repeat.  On the way you get some odd ball fights on the way but, you need to be carefull, If you pick a fight with a level 20 person, and your ONLY a level 12, one shot your dead type of thing and it takes a lot more shots from your gun to get anywhere.  So a level 10 hitting a level 20, is VERY hard or almost impossable, unless the level 20 is a NooB... Not a bad game over all, I would agree, Visuals, about a 4.6 out of 5, Story, 3.0 out of 5, Game play it self (gun, battles, etc) 4.8 out of 5.
  • My mate really wants me to get this, I should get around to it.
  • Now's the time, Patch 1.2 is expected by the end of the month!
  • I got The Division for free with my new video card purchase about a month ago... pretty cool game. Looks amazing on the PC!
  • Fun game when it works, too bad this is one of the MOST unstable games ever released! There are forums with hundreds of pages of people suffering random crashes from this stupid title. Wish I had held off on buying it! Oh well another Ubisoft rush job.....
  • I really enjoyed the levelling process. Doing the same daily missions gets boring. I am yet to complete Falcon Lost because usually as soon as I join a group the group leader kicks me. This is my biggest problem with the game. I'm not the world's greatest player, but to be kicked straight after joining gets tiring. And no, my gear level is 170+. Posted from Windows Central for Windows 10
  • The Division drew me in unlike many games have recently.  Very engaging, and the store is stronger than the review here suggests.  Especially if you spend time on the little things as you play up to level 30.  It could have been better no doubt, but like many AAA titles these days, they seem rushed to market so they stop spending on dev time, and start making money. I find the levels of guns very unbalanced.  Where I can get a gun that fires at a rate far below another gun, yet it ranks higher (allowing me more access to end-game stuff.)  That's just wrong in so many ways.  That and the buggyness of the game really takes the edge off it's otherwise good gameplay.  I've spent hours trying to re-play an area only to get kicked, or bugged or something that made me put it away for a while before going back to try again. Though, even with it's problems, I'd recommend this as a must have game for 2016.
  • Love this game. One thing needs mentioning, dont buy a POS console version of this game. It will run, play, and look much better on a PC.
  • I’m level 30@188 + level 45 in DZ. I’ve played all missions and side missions except Falcon Lost and find the game pretty boring atm. I’ve been stuck without any development for about a week. I can do all (except FL) missions easily at the hardest possible setting but I am too bad/weak for DZ. I do constantly get killed by Roge players and when I manage to get any lot out of darkszone it is not better than what I had before. I.e. grinding DZ is pretty frustrating without being rewarding. Grinding missions is no challenge (except FL). Add to this that people running around as Roges are generally verbally very “mean” and unpleasant to meet. I’ve tried the new Falcon Lost mission more than five times but we (randomly automatched players) have never been able to beat the mission. I guess that I’ve mostly been the weak part. Add to this that the game is massively let down by bugs. There are bugs everywhere! Missions will not start (or will not end), you will sometimes just fall through the floor, you might get stuck (in cars etc etc), your player might freeze, there is a severe lag in Dark Zone (run 10m freeze, run 10m freeze… even though I’m on 1GB/1GB fiber). There are also a lot of people cheating in dark zone. The best thing with the game is that the story is OK compared to many other modern games (much better how this review sounds) AND you play in New York!
  • Wow I have never encountered any of these bugs you listed. What platform do you play on?  
  • Xbox one, but I think its pretty comon on all platforms
  • AND: I played Falcon Lost for 2h yesterday (without success). During one attempt (wave 7 of 15) one of the team members just got stuck in the wall and was then transferred to the nearest “Safe house” while the rest of the team died in the pit…? Nice bug! Hope to beat FL tonight and then I will sell the game.