I’m going to get it out of the way up top that The Division is a mess of bugs. Many, many bugs. Enough that I could fill my word count just listing them off in shorthand. From the sticky cover occasionally taking on a mind of its own, characters getting locked into running in one direction or the other, getting stuck in or falling through terrain, all the way up to major, game-breaking stuff like totally bugged talents and abilities and downright atrocious server stability with all the dropped packets, ping spikes, and delayed hit-reg you can handle. Yup, Tom Clancy’s The Division is a mess. And that’s not even touching on the literal days I spent in the uPlay forums and support queues to even get the game active on my account after it failed to authenticate when I installed it. Hell, if it weren’t for user DonCamillo.at #Teamsearch on the Steam forums offering up a magical workaround, I’d still be locked out. God speed, you Austrian Internet wizard. God speed.
And you know what? Even with all those issues, I’m not even bothered.
…Okay, I’m super salty about Ubisoft’s disgraceful support, but that’s nothing new.
Here’s the thing: much of The Division is broken. The balance issues, gameplay bugs, and general nuisances can really spoil immersion in the experience, but I think of it a bit like owning a classic car. Sure, it has its quirks. And sure, there are probably more reliable things to spend your time with. But for those times—however infrequent—when everything is working the way it should, it’s magical.
And it truly is magical. Whoever is on the team that worked on the level design for the game’s version of Manhattan is not making enough money. Fact. I’ve never experienced anything like the world design and immersion that The Division presents. It truly does feel like a city, forsaken by its country, left to tear itself apart in the wake of a biological terror attack. Everything is hand-placed and meticulously detailed, right down to the graffiti, which is downright incredible. As is the overwhelming wealth of faux products and ads that were created for the game. They come off as real and genuine, without straying into parody the way they do in GTA or Saints Row. Everything you encounter, regardless of scale, tells part of a story, and I’ve caught myself wandering around for hours staring at bits of posters, billboards, or graffiti on multiple occasions. Paired with the stellar ambient music, it all comes together to create a hauntingly immersive experience.
Not only that, but the way that most of the game’s history and the unfolding of its events prior to your activation in the Second Wave of Division agents is told through collectibles like recorded cell phone conversations and disaster reports is awesome. Some of it is a bit over-the-top, but most of it feels very genuine and human. For example, a recorded call from a young woman trapped in the city to her mother as she fears her impending demise at the hands of a doomsday virus where she comes out as gay was particularly powerful. Many of the recordings are the sort of thing I’d imagine myself calling about in that situation: telling my family I loved them; downplaying the scope of things; just wanting to hear someone’s voice. There’s a real weight to it all, and they really sell the experience.
Of particular interest is just how alive the game feels. Particularly in the Dark Zone—the most heavily quarantined area of the game that also serves as its PvP area. The different factions will engage in pitched battles whenever they bump into one another, sometimes ignoring players altogether. Many games don’t seem to grasp the concept of object permanence—the knowledge that the world is still there when you shut your eyes. Too many times I play an open-world game that feels like it doesn’t exist when I’m not there to watch it (there’s definitely a Schrödinger joke in there somewhere). The Division constantly has gunfights echoing from blocks away that I’ll show up to just to watch play out and take the time to appreciate a game that doesn’t always require my input.
While in the Dark Zone, it’s best to walk softly and carry a big stick. NPCs are a particular challenge, and PvP is both fierce and unpredictable. Turning rogue by attacking non-hostile players flags you for everyone in the zone to see, but slain agents drop their contaminated loot (anything in the Dark Zone must be extracted by helicopter in an event that notifies the whole zone of its arrival, drawing players both friendly and greedy to your location). Dying in the Dark zone causes a loss of DZ Credits (the game’s PvP currency) and DZ experience from your PvP rank. Be warned, dying as a rogue is substantially more costly, so choose your battles wisely. It’s a great system to discourage open PvP, but it also means that at any time, the agent you just crossed paths with may be plotting to ambush you and make a break with your shinies. It’s all very tense, and I absolutely love it.
For those not interested in PvP, there are PvE “dungeons” on offer, but they’re clearly not the focus of the game at the moment—at least not the end-game. Some of them do have a third “Challenging” difficulty on offer, in addition to the usual Normal and Hard, and they can be pretty tough without high-level gear and a coordinated party. But shy of doing them for the dailies to earn Phoenix Credits (the game’s top-tier currency), there’s not much reason to run them. The first free update due to drop in a couple weeks will bring the first raid-style mission requiring multiple parties, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my anticipation for that.
Look, I know there are a lot of people out there (myself included) that were or are very skeptical about The Division. Ubisoft has dropped the ball on plenty of releases as of late, and they’re no stranger to hyping games up at E3 with spectacular videos and “in-game” graphics that never see release. The Division doesn’t look quite as sharp as it did a couple years ago, but what it lost in graphical fidelity it gained in unprecedented world design and immersion. It may be a bit less of a pure shooter than many of us had expected, but it is one of the best damn ARPGs around, all wrapped up in a very, VERY satisfying third-person shooter with incredible build diversity and a very clever PvP system. If it weren’t for the wealth of bugs that mar the experience, The Division could be north of a 9 out of 10.
Bugs and technical issues will come and go, and undoubtedly the ones plaguing The Division will be patched out over time. What doesn’t change with time is the fundamental underlying experience—that’s something that’s baked in. And with The Division, that experience is thoroughly enjoyable. After 79 hours played of the last 96, having hit both character and PvP level cap, decked myself out in gear, and rolled around the Dark Zone, the game shows no signs of growing stale. I want to play it for the same reasons I want to play Diablo 3 or Path of Exile—I love playing around with character builds and farming for incrementally better loot. And once that’s done, it’s still an incredibly satisfying and enjoyable cover shooter to play with and against friends—something that other lootgrind games and MMOs have trouble matching.