It was almost inevitable that The Division would not be able to live up to the expectations. Introduced years ago, with the sort-of gorgeous, somewhat over-promising trailers that whip the hype train into a runaway frenzy, players have been expecting something truly revolutionary from Ubisoft Massive's online-heavy shooter.
The Division is not revolutionary. A lot of the time it's not surprising, or even much fun beyond the base-level pings of enjoyment your brain spits out when you're rewarded with a new shiny thing. It is, at its core, a very basic cover shooter – most of the game is spent hiding behind small walls, desks, cars, whatever is in the region that you can crouch behind and shoot over or around.
The more interesting aspect comes in the shape of the Division's multiplayer aspirations - you could definitely call it an MMO and not be ejected from Genre School, though, like with many other elements in the game, it is a decidedly casual affair. Ditto the RPG elements, which while fun, aren't exactly the deepest of the deep. Basically, The Division is what anybody with a business-oriented mind would expect – a shooter that strays into some other territories, but never so far as to alienate the potential broad audience a real world militaristic shooty-bang game could bring in. Revolutionary never came into it. And yet, as you'll find at the foot of this review, we've given it four stars, and it takes up more time than anybody expects it to. More on that in due course.
First, what you'll encounter on jumping in to The Divsion: a typical Ubisoft game in a shiny new post-apocalyptic New York skin. While not as gorgeous as we were led to believe it would be a couple of years ago, The Division's Big Apple is still a delight – relatively accurate to the real thing, dripping with atmosphere and suitably oppressive, it's a fine facsimile of a the real world.
Soon enough you'll set into a steady rhythm, as with all other Ubi games of recent memory: explore the large, open world map; find missions to tackle; encounter random events as you go; discover safehouses; tick shiny things off a never-ending list of stuff to do. It's functional. It works. Ubisoft knows it works – but it's been done many times before, so there's little in the way of surprise.
Teaming up with other players, which is easy enough to do, does bring a bit more joy to the otherwise rather bland missions. Each has an objective, of course, but everything boils down to 'shoot the men until you get to the end', and shooting the men gets harder as you progress, to the point where Superman would have a hard time taking as many bullets as some of these no-name grunts do. But that's the RPG factor for you.
Play alongside others and you get two things: one, more enemies to absorb most of the bullets currently residing in North America, and two, some options on how to do things. This isn't deep and tactical in the way some might hope, but the simple ability to set up an ambush on unaware enemies with a few other people is great fun, and working together to overcome otherwise insurmountable challenges is just a good laugh.
Along the way you'll be levelling up, unlocking new skills and powers, finding new weapons and items, buffing yourself and others – oh, and finding new hats that offer nothing other than looking cool. You're able to re-spec your abilities on the fly, focusing on different elements of your power-tree and approaching fights in slightly different ways - be that healer, support or explodey-bugger. It is, again, not an area where there's a huge amount of depth, but it does provide some basic fun for all but the most jaded of players. Which is more than can be said for the utterly forgettable and totally unimportant story. You can avoid it most of the time, but some main missions try to make you care and... nah, it's just rubbish. Ignore it.
Generally, this top layer of the game is alright – it's good fun when it clicks with other players, though generally speaking it rarely gets beyond serviceable-but-banal. So why the four stars? Because of the Dark Zone.
This is a part of the game where you don't have to go if you don't want – an optional region of New York where the normal rules don't apply. Rewards are much greater, but the risk is also hugely increased over your rather coddled apocalypse in the non-Dark regions of the game. Basically, it's a place in which anybody can kill anybody – so not only are you facing off against computer-controlled enemies, there's the threat of other human players too. Teaming up still has benefits, but then, that loot would be better if it were all yours, right? So while that extraction chopper's coming, why not pop a few bullets into your teammates and take it all for yourself?
This is where the real fun comes in: you can do just that. But in doing so, you become a rogue agent – and thus fair game for any and all other players in the Dark Zone, who now can and will hunt you, suffering no penalty themselves if they take you out. Be successful in your treachery and the rewards are vast – fail and you lose everything. It's so very different to the main part of the Division; freed of banality and opened up as a more desperate version of the post-apocalyptic world, less sanitised and safe than the game you find yourself playing initially.
Right now, The Division is a mediocre game with an excellent additional section – which together offer more than enough to recommend. It will be very interesting to see where Ubisoft Massive takes The Division in coming months and years, but this is a promising, if ultimately vaguely uninspired start.
If The Division was without its Dark Zone, it would be an ignorable, banal experience - a soulless grind in a game created by committee. It's to the credit of the game that this one additional section elevates the experience from this, to something actively great. Contrary to advice The Division might give you, stay out of the Dark Zone at your peril.