Truth be told, The Division has never grabbed me by the collar as it's clearly wanted to. Perhaps it was the 'MMO-lite' structure set in a 'realistic' setting that never caught my imagination, or perhaps the crushingly glib trailers, which have focused nearly exclusively on human misery that shut me off. It's hard to say for sure, but I wasn't as excited as I'm sure Ubisoft would have wanted me to be going in here.
However, now having spent 25 hours in The Division's world, I have to say, there is definitely 'something' to it that help it shine. There is a genuine sense of quality and really adventurous ideas that elevate it above the drab trappings I thought it would be confined by.
…However, that doesn't mean I found it eradicated my concerns after the fact.
The premise is thus: you are a Division agent, part of a sort of secret government service, who are activated in case of a catastrophic disaster. Such a catastrophic disaster has taken place with an epidemic called the Green Virus, a super-strand of Smallpox that has decimated a huge portion of life in New York. During the holidays no less. Monsters. Manhattan is now quarantined from the rest of the world, leaving it to all kinds of groups trying to vie for power. Your time in the game, spent going through the main story missions will be locking horns with these various groups in an effort to 'try and take back the city'. That is basically the extent at which the story progresses too, as there isn't much in the way of dramatic character arcs. You are in charge of an Agent who noticeably never speaks, and you're not going on these adventures with evolving characters. While actual mission structure can be well done, the narrative reasons are rarely much past, "Go here, kill a bunch of people or the leader of one of the groups after power", making the missions feel like short stories of skirmishes Division agents go on rather than a cohesive whole. It's not a fatal flaw, but it's a shame there isn't too much point exploring to narrative of the game past some context of who you are fighting and leveling up to the cap (level 30).
While the reasons for running around New York are never all that compelling, the act of actually walking around the city are though. One of the really quite excellent things inThe Division is the reconstruction of New York Ubisoft Massive have but together. It's gorgeous, and remarkably faithful to the real place. The lighting, the snow, the authenticity all come together to make walking around this ravaged New York feel harrowing. There is some really good environmental storytelling going on that tells us a lot about what has happened here, making up ground on the lax story. At times, it can feel a little 'design-y', feeling like a theme park designer constructed this to feel like an abandoned New York, but it never truly detracts from how well put together the map feels.
..And now we get to the online structure of the game. For frame of reference, The Division is structured quite a bit like Destiny. It's all online, with social hubs where you can see lots of other players running around. Where it does differ from Destiny though is that, at least when you are in the streets of the PvE areas, you will not see other players. It makes this what might be the loneliest persistent worlds ever created, but that does feel like the point. You're just one agent against all kinds of ugly facets of humankind.
All of your goals will more or less be led by a want for better loot. You get these from completing your tasks, missions, side-missions and encounters in the PvE. You can also co-op these areas as part of a squad, but that requires matchmaking or inviting friends in. You'll chase currency and resources so you can craft and buy better gear, and so on and so forth. The breadth of guns here aren't huge, but most of them do have genuinely distinct feels which is nice. A machine gun could have dangerously just been another machine gun, but the developers have done good work to make each weapon feel viable and unique to itself. Where The Division does stumble though is in the core shooting of the game. There is nothing 'wrong' with it, The Division plays like a good third person shooter. However, when you're asking players to log in once a day over a long period of time and interact with it like an MMO, I'm just not sure that it is quite strong enough. Destiny has some of the best shooting mechanics out there, and it never gets boring to pop something in the head (at least in my opinion). The third person shooting here just doesn't feel as strong to keep me consistently coming back months down the line. (I will say, there is still a lot we don't know about how the end game will evolve, past the daily missions now available, so this could turn into something worth all your time in the future.)
Where The Division does come together, in its most pure form though, is in the Dark Zone. This is the multiplayer component of the game. If you've ever played online survival games in PvP, it will feel familiar. You'll find loot for yourself, alongside other players foraging for their loot. The question here becomes, will you work with strangers, or kill them for the goods on their back? There is a real tension to how this all plays out, as people try to size each other up, figuring out if anyone will betray each other for their loot. This is particularly tense once you have to extract your goods and you call in a Helicopter to get it out. You'll have to wait around for a while and inevitably players will show up. Not knowing if people will allow everyone to peacefully attach all their good to a chopper, or turn rogue and murder everyone for their stuff gives the game a feeling of living on a knife edge. It's wonderfully designed, and one of the best things is that these aren't multiplayer matches. You can just hop over a fence and get in on the action anytime you want. It's like that DayZ tension condescended and re-branded for an audience who wants it all to play out faster, and really, it's wonderfully executed. If I come back to The Division before extra content is added, it will be to explore the Dark Zone more.
The Division is a game full to the brim with excellent ideas and some really beautiful design. From a New York that is wonderfully executed, to a game that has an interesting persistently online feeling even when it isn't, this universe feels big and desperate, just as the concept wants it to. The Dark Zone is a very tensely executed multiplayer mode that really stands out as something unique and worth spending time in. However, despite how well the execution can be, and how many genuinely interesting things The Division does, there is something about it that isn't entirely compelling. At no time during my 25 hours of play did I feel hooked and like I 'needed' to play more. The gameplay loop is not as well put together as, say, Destiny (which it is closely mimicking), and the harrowing tone of the universe makes it a hard game to want to visit every day to chase loot. It's hard to deny quality when it's there and The Division is full of quality in terms of execution. It's hard not to love large parts of it, but it also lacked the hooks to keep me coming back, or for me to want to spend a ton of time in its beautifully torn asunder New York chasing purple and gold gear. This title could have a lot that changes my opinion with more content, but right now, it's only in the 'like' column, rather than 'love'.
Buy it if: You want to go spend time in a war torn New York, with a squad of buddies chasing loot and better guns, and if the idea of Dark Zone really grabs you.
Avoid it if: You need a sense of levity in your games, a strong character driven narrative and you really don't want to interact with the online portions of the game.