Hit making is really, really hard. Pop stars like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber may very well have raw talent, but it's down to their respective record labels to extract that in order to turn them into superstars. And it takes a team of incredibly intelligent people – writers, stylists, producers, engineers, choreographers, marketers, and many more – to polish the final product that we see up on stage. This analogy may seem irrelevant, but it fits The Division like a rare leather glove, because this is a game that's clearly been assembled by a talented team working from the blueprints of a boardroom eager to happen upon the next big thing. And, as is the case with so many Ubisoft games, the end result is difficult to fault – even if it can feel a bit clinical at times.
In essence this is Destiny, Diablo, or Borderlands with a modern military spin. A deadly disease – distributed via dollar notes during the busy Black Friday shopping window – has brought New York to its knees, and you have been roped in during a particularly harsh winter to save the famous city from itself. While the plot's clearly only there to give context, it's actually an interesting premise – even if the consumerism angle is a little at odds with the French publisher's aggressive marketing campaign. Sadly, the characters encountered in the opening hours are standard Ubi fare: boring, in a word.
But, as alluded, this isn't a foray all that interested in fiction, and the best stories will come courtesy of your own personal experiences with friends and strangers alike. Much like Bungie's uber-blockbuster, this game's all about buddying up and heading into the urban battlefield with pals – even though single player is still a viable option. Matchmaking opportunities are plentiful, and the title's servers have held up admirably considering the record breaking sales. There's very little excuse for you not to be playing with others, then – and it's here where the game excels.
The hope is that all of these systems will culminate in an experience with legs – avoiding the pitfalls of vanilla Destiny along the way
Among the title's dizzying array of systems are skills, which operate on an MMO-esque cooldown timer. These range from the aggressive to the defensive, and picking tools which complement those of your team's tends to be encouraged. Loot is also divided up into types, either improving your firepower, health, or the potency of your aforementioned skills. The nice thing about this set-up, at least as it appears in the early exchanges, is that you're not really forced into a particular path – you're free to experiment and find what suits your playstyle best.
But all of this would perhaps be meaningless padding if the action at the heart of the experience was below par, but thankfully it matches the game's high production values. Combat is extremely crunchy, with assault rifles crackling into life each time that you pull the trigger. This is, ostensibly, a cover-based shooter, but it's a good one; you thump into cover each time that you tap the X button, and combat bowls are well thought out, enabling you to press your opponents back when you've got the upper-hand.
One thing worth mentioning, though, is that the artificial intelligence is pretty darn smart: it'll flank you if you stay in one spot for too long, or flush you out using grenades if you're being particularly stubborn and refusing to let your adversaries get a shot off. But there are concerns: the RPG underpinnings mean that hoodied antagonists can soak up more ammo than feels natural, and bullet sponge bosses seem particularly egregious even at this early stage. Without a fantasy underbelly, it remains to be seen whether the grounded city setting will fashion enough variety over the course of its campaign – and, indeed, the all-important post-game.
But the city does at least look gorgeous. There have been shots fired at the title's inevitable downgrade, but this is still without doubt one of the most environmentally impressive games on Sony's new-gen system. New York simply looks incredible, with the inclement weather and discarded Christmas decorations bringing some artistic interest to the built-up backdrop. It's the characters themselves that disappoint, then, with unlockable shoulder pads and beanie hats lacking the kind of loot envy that's so essential in a release all about obtaining the best bits of kit.
Also disappointing is the game's inability to unpack its spaghetti of systems. You'll spend your first few hours in Manhattan trying to wrap your head around all of the information that the title's trying to teach you, and with gear, currencies, perks, skills, crafting, and combat all vying for your attention, it can feel a bit noisy at first. These mechanics become clearer with time, but you'll need to forge your way through a headache-inducing opening as the release's general busy-ness can feel like an uphill battle at times.
The hope, of course, is that all of these systems will culminate in an experience with legs – avoiding the pitfalls of vanilla Destiny along the way. It's far too early for us to call that, but all of the parts appear to be in place. To complete the embryonic popster analogy, then, Ubisoft has slathered a little bit of everything that's popular on top of a strong shooter in the hope of creating a superstar. Initial sales suggest that it's been successful, but the title's tail will ultimately determine whether it has staying power – or ends up yet another one-hit wonder.
What are your thoughts on The Division so far? Are you warming to this post-pandemic shooter, or has it left you feeling as cold as Manhattan's snowy streets? Build a base of operations in the comments section below.
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