In The Division it's amazing how quickly society goes to pieces. Admittedly, a genetically engineered super virus that manages to wipe out a large swathe of New York's population seems a reasonable catalyst, but you would have thought that it would have taken more than a few weeks for things to get as messed up as this. Anyhow, in order to get things back on track – presumably so that we can resume watching reality television and buying iPhones – a cadre of sleeper agents known as The Division have been tasked with restoring order by shooting as many bad guys as possible, while picking up all manner of snazzy winter wear along the way.
In this third-person action RPG, you'll be running your newly activated agent around a slice of Manhattan, putting things right one bullet at a time, and gathering up all manner of loot to help your character grow in strength for the mission ahead. Most of your interactions wandering its open world come via battles with four factions – all of whom rose to power in the vacuum created by the quarantine of New York City – and if you've played a cover-based shooter in the past, then you'll be immediately familiar with the combat.
Using cover is an absolute must if you don't want to get cut down quickly, and as result there's plenty of opportunity to approach encounters tactically and flank your enemies. Despite this mechanical familiarity, the combat manages to remain enjoyable throughout – even if barely changes in the 30 or so hours that it takes to hit the level cap.
Since The Division can be played entirely in co-op, the stratagems open to you increase significantly when in league with other players. Members of your squad can not only suppress enemies, but can also draw their attention away from you, so teaming up leads to some great opportunities to reposition in battle that just aren't possible when playing solo. It also helps that you can switch up skills on the fly, which ensures you can always get a nice mix of abilities in a squad should you decide to find a team through the matchmaking that's readily available in both story missions and the open world.
The loot side of The Division is satisfyingly varied and while the grounded, real world setting precludes any bonkers apparel – sorry, no flaming beanie hats here – there's plenty of variety still to be found. Not only are there weapons, mods, and gear that boost a variety of stats, but also cosmetic items that merely change the appearance of your agent.
These spoils of war flow at an abundant rate, and you'll be making frequent tough decisions over which sorts of weapons to use – as well as which gear to equip – as often a nice boost in one area will come at the cost of another. There's also the usual tiers of loot ranging from 'Worn' to the very desirable 'High End', which, coupled with the drop rate and range of items, will scratch the itch for any gamers who love a good loot system.
While your character stats will increase predominantly based upon the loot that you pick up, not all player upgrades are linked to your gear. By upgrading the various wings of your base of operations – Medical, Tech, and Security – you'll unlock skills, talents, and perks that will help propel your agent to new heights. While the talents and perks provide minor additions, it's the skills that have a bigger impact on how you play, with each wing of your base of operations offering a nice variety to choose from be it health kits, portable shields or automated turrets.
As is the norm for a Ubisoft open world game, when you open the map it looks like someone vomited icons all over it. Encounters, side missions, story missions, and the ever present collectibles litter Manhattan, and early on you'll have fun partaking in them all. By the halfway point, though, the repetitive nature of much of this content will see you starting to bypass as much as you can, while completing the absolute minimum in order to level up for the next story mission.
Thank God, then, for the campaign missions. These shining beacons in a sea of mediocrity act as dungeons for this modern day RPG, and can be played on a few different difficulty settings. Each take you to fascinating locations that flesh out more of what's been going on in the disaster stricken city, and while the overarching story isn't anything special, they're exciting enough to blow away any cobwebs that may have crept in playing the pedestrian side content – especially when running them in co-op.
PvP in The Division takes the form of the Dark Zone – a quarantine area within a quarantine area, where the really bad stuff happened. Unsurprisingly, this is not only home to some nicer – albeit virus contaminated – loot, but also tougher enemies who certainly don't make it easy to get your hands on their goodies. When entering the Dark Zone, you'll see other players running around the streets, and you can either go it alone or work together to grab some gear. Unfortunately, you can't just leave the Dark Zone with your swag, and in order to keep any equipment you find, you'll need to get it to an extraction point so a helicopter can swoop in and take it to your base of operations to be cleaned.
This sounds straight forward, but other players can kill you at the drop of a hat and take any loot that you've found. There are consequences for turning traitor, though, and they'll find themselves marked as 'rogue' on every other player's map, forcing them to try and evade any potential manhunt until their 'rogue' status expires. As a result, everyone in the Dark Zone is a potential threat and your experience will swing frequently between utter exhilaration and complete frustration at a moment's notice – especially if you're wandering around on your own, marking you as prime prey for groups of less scrupulous players.
With all its ups and downs, the Dark Zone proves to be a really fascinating addition, and a smart way to work PvP into a game that actually fits in setting, as opposed to chucking in a version of deathmatch and calling it a day. Whether it's making it to the extraction with seconds to spare, fighting off a group of rogue players using superior tactics, or pre-emptively going rogue when you realise that you're about to get screwed, the Dark Zone has you on an exhilarating knife edge every minute that you dare to spend within its walls.
Dark Zone aside, the biggest strength The Division has to offer though is – somewhat surprisingly – its open world. A concern going in was that without the fantastical and the unreal to lean on, the environments would merely be cookie cutter streets that all felt the same. Fortunately, this hasn't come to pass and a lot of time has been spent making each district visually distinct, while ensuring that they all still feel like part of the same big city. This sense of place is also ably assisted by the stellar graphics on display. Now, it doesn't look quite as good as the now infamous E3 reveal, but this rendering of desolate city coming apart at the seams is beautifully crafted, and when day turns to night or bright sunlight gives way to a snow storm, you'll find yourself completely immersed in the icy hell that this plague ridden city has spawned.
Any enjoyment to be found in The Division could easily have been smothered by its tremendously dull side content. Fortunately, it's saved from some all too familiar open world bloat by not only the high stake thrills of the Dark Zone but its top notch story missions. When added to a wealth of other positives – like its loot system and detailed open world – this entertaining action RPG manages to muster more than enough antibodies to overcome what thankfully turns out to be a mild case of the Ubisofts.