Games are, first and foremost, supposed to be good fun. While Tom Clancy’s The Division might not be sweeping the board at the Game of the Year Awards this year, it has that sense of fun hidden in it that is so often lost in modern games, particularly those from Ubisoft.
The experience of actually playing the game (once you’re past a tutorial area, which is straightforward enough to ease in novice players, and quick enough not to be too much of a hindrance to players who pick it up more quickly, for whatever reason) is fairly well thought out. While your character won’t be as unique as an in-depth RPG like World of Warcraft, there’s enough customisation, and abilities and perks to unlock, to make your character feel like your own - though if you spent hours agonising over creating your character in Fallout 4 or even GTA5 then prepare for disappointment.
...focusing on what you do get, rather than what you don’t, will lead you to a game which is good fun and with more depth than you might expect
In many ways, The Division seems to want the best of both worlds - arguing that the game can be enjoyed just as much in single player as with others in your group of up to four players. This is debatable, as really it depends on how you play, and how invested you are in the world you have created. On the sliding scale of detailed, rich environment to fleshed-out engaging and unexpected story, Ubisoft have definitely banked on the former, offering countless audio logs and other collectables which will deliver tiny pieces of the overall jigsaw (and, in fact, there’s even a tie-in featurette which says more about how the outbreak began, if you really want to delve deep). Whether that approach works for you is really down to personal choice, but in playing the game itself it’s fairly easy to soak up as little or as much of it as you like.
What really makes the game worth playing is the challenge of working as a team. Although characters aren’t defined as archetypes like Tank, Support or Ranger, by carefully reading the explanations for the various skills (which you use once in battle, then recharge over time), talents (which give special abilities to weapons and armour) or perks (passive bonuses like an additional medkit slot or a boost to EXP), can lead you to customise your character to suit your playstyle. Plus, you can always go back and redistribute skill points, meaning that the learning curve is relatively flat. Obviously this does mean that the characters themselves aren’t that varied to each other, but if you play together with other players who specialise in specific types of weapons or styles of play, natural roles begin to form. From this point of view at least, the game succeeds in being more accessible than its comparators, most commonly Destiny, but in many ways the Borderlands series might be more accurate.
The game shares some DNA with Destiny, not to mention numerous bumps in the road of development, but in essence The Division is designed as a realistic, grounded experience. Even the most outlandish of enemies (whose AI could use a leaf out of Bungie’s book now and again) are relatively easy to figure out, following all the usual conventions you’d expect.
Later in the game, once you get through the story missions on offer, which do offer a fair chunk of playtime, but perhaps could do with some more ideas about how to present you with some baddies to kill, perhaps making more of the criminally underused ECHO surveillance projections for a start. Scouring The Dark Zone can prove to be a rewarding task, but also a frustrating one, as the thrill of finding a fantastic weapon can be spoiled by other players turning on you as you try to extract it.
It’s here too that the comparisons with both Destiny and Borderlands feel strongest, as you are left wrought with indecision about whether to sell or deconstruct weapons, craft or just buy new gear, and since the loot is all based in reality, it mostly behaves as you would expect, meaning there’s not as much excitement to picking up an unusual new weapon, as it will almost always be similar to what you already own.
Mechanically the game functions, and despite forcing you to click a stick to go back into sights every time you reload, the general gameplay is fluid and easy to pick up and play. Herein lies where The Division will really divide people (no pun intended....), in that trying to appeal to all audiences can often leave people feeling short-changed - just as they did with Star Wars Battlefront, and no amount of additional content or future areas which may become unlocked will change that.
In the end The Division ticks a number of boxes which players may have been waiting for, but doesn’t quite realise the full potential of what we saw when the game was originally revealed. It’s not quite over-promising and undelivering, but putting that aside and focusing on what you do get, rather than what you don’t, will lead you to a game which is good fun and with more depth than you might expect. In a choice between style and substance, the game in the end falls on the side of substance, but there just might not be as much variety on offer to satisfy what people are looking for.