First look: The Division preview: Ubisoft’s surprisingly deep RPG has an air of Destiny about it

The end of days

There’s so much going on in Ubisoft’s The Division that it’s difficult to know where to begin, so let’s start with the premise: the end of days.

In 2001 the US government did a simulation of a viral outbreak on American soil. The results showed that the country’s infrastructure could not deal with such a situation should it arise, and that revelation forms the foundation of The Division.

If you’ve been following the story of the game – and let’s face it, it’s been so long coming that you’ve probably seen something – then you’ll know that Ubisoft’s new Tom Clancy title takes place in a mid-crisis New York. A devastating pandemic has swept through the country, bringing the USA to its knees, but we’ve not quite hit Fallout point – there’s still hope to save humanity.

And that’s where you come in. You are part of a classified team called ‘The Division’ sent in to New York to neutralise threats born out of the anarchy, which include rioters, escaped prisoners, and some particularly tough foes known as ‘Cleaners’ who don’t tend to distinguish between healthy and sick humans when it comes to sinking bullets in heads.

So it’s end times, and New York is your snowy playground. It’s a big one, too. The game’s Associate Creative Director Dr. Julian Geighty told us that it’s “one of the most accurate recreations” of the city ever done in a game, almost 1:1. While we’ve by no means been able to verify that claim, we can confirm that it does indeed feel massive.

The Division was revealed all the way back at E3 2013, back when the PS4 and Xbox One were still toddlers, and has pretty much turned into an E3 mini-series. Since first being shown the game has been held back by two big delays, a delay to the beta, and the cancellation of the companion app. It’s been a tough journey to launch but we’re almost there – The Division will arrive on March 8. Question is, was all of this worth the long wait?

How did we get here?

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What might surprise you about The Division is just how much depth it has as an RPG. To date it’s been disguised as a tactical shooter backed up with RPG elements – but this is a far more significant part of the game than I expected.

First off, your character has abilities, split into three categories: medical, tech, security. Skills open up as you level up, and each can be upgraded. You also have perks – these are smaller talents that do things such as increase your protection against the virus, reveal more information on the map, or increase your medical kit inventory by a slot. Once perks are unlocked, you have them forever.

These aren’t classes, however. It was a conscious decision to not include this, explained Geighty, to avoid “locking in” the player early in the game. It differentiates itself from a game like Fallout 4 in that you don’t assign stats at the start, only your character’s physical features.

As for weapons, you can carry a primary, a secondary, and a sidearm. Each of these can be modded with upgrades found or bought along the way – better scopes, larger magazines etc. You’ll often find these items on the bodies of fallen enemies, and the game avoids a Four Swords hoarding problem by ensuring every player gets to grab some loot after the gunfight.

But while the ability to customise your weapon is great, firing them isn’t always so satisfying. Enemies in The Division are bullet sponges, and you’ll often find be bored of blasting an SMG at some ruffian’s head by the time their health bar depletes and they finally hit the floor.

Still, the combat remains quite tactical, especially when playing with others. Skills can be synergised with friends for a better offensive, and that’s also why Ubisoft killed the idea of having a class sytem; The Division tries to reward you for strategic thinking, something that would be limited by classes.

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The Division is an open-world game, and Ubisoft keeps it as open as possible by letting you explore the entire map from the start. The plot is unravelled through three separate story strands based around medical, security and tech (I’ll come back to those) which you can tackle in whichever order you wish. And while The Division can be played alone, I feel like this is a game that will be best experienced with friends.

I’ve already mentioned the types of enemies you’ll be up against, but there are also friendly NPCs who will ask for food, water and other items, rewarding you with other items in turn.

It’s an oft-wrought criticism of Ubisoft that many of its games rest on the same tropes. The Division has some familiar hints – the Ghost Recon-esque cover system, a HUD that recalls Watch Dogs – but with its multiplayer dynamic and heavy RPG features, it feels like a very different beast to what we’ve seen from the publisher before.

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It also looks good. The New York setting, decorated with snow and Christmas lights (the pandemic starts on Black Friday), is wonderfully detailed in places.

For our hands on, we played on an Xbox One version. Performance was mostly good, although there was the occasional lag when entering a new area, and some frame rate drops when combat got heated – but the latter was less noticeable.

The developers told us this wasn’t a final version and that it would feature some bugs that won’t show in the final build. We certainly came across a few, including a soldier who hilariously glided across a road like a ghost instead of walking, a vanishing folder during a cutscene, and some NPCs that morphed into one another.

BOO, Dark Zone and more

Let’s talk about BOO

Even when you’re playing with other people, your homebase is always personal to you. It’s called the Base of Operations (or BOO, if you like) and is one of the primary focuses of the game. Ubisoft even thinks of it as a second character.

At the start of the game we were dropped into Chelsea Piers (renamed Hudson Piers here) where our first mission was to set up the Base.

Once established, your foothold is where you’ll keep returning to, gradually developing it to move the game forward. It’s also where you can buy new kit and ammo, sell unwanted items, and even break down item components to craft things. Yes, The Division has its own crafting system – see what I mean about those RPG elements now?

The BOO contains three different wings – medical, tech and security – that are offline at the start of the game, and you’ll need to complete missions in order to get them back up and fully running again.

For example, a successful hostage mission liberated a doctor who then came to help out in our BOO’s medical wing. And as your base expands, you’ll also earn new perks.

Perfect Dark

How do I describe the Dark Zone? If the rest of the game is controlled anarchy, the Dark Zone is just anarchy. In here you will encounter other random players, wild NPCs that are tough as nails, special loot, and a unique ranking system.

In the Dark Zone, anything goes. It’s an online pvp-enabled space filled with other players, which you can enter without any matchmaking. You can be accompanied by friends, but be warned: they can turn on you at any moment – and you on them.

Social interaction inside the Dark Zone become more interesting as the motivations of players become ambiguous. Here, your emotes might particularly come in handy.

When you die you’ll drop your items which another player can then pick up for themselves. It’s all a bit Day-Z, which is probably why it’s also my favourite part of the game.

It’s elements like the Dark Zone which feel like there is potential for The Division to live long into the future. Gieghty confirmed that the game will be fed with new content, including free updates and additions, along with paid DLC down the line.

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You’ll be able to jump into the Division’s beta at the end of this month. It’s live January 28 – 31 on Xbox One, and January 29 – 31 for PS4 players.

And just over a month later it will be here in its full and final form. Will there be a division in reception? I think it will depend on what players are expecting here. As an open-world RPG it has me quite impressed, even though I really only had a taste during my four hours with the game.

Elements such as the Dark Zone promising potential for longevity, but it feels like one you’ll want to play with other people to get the best experience.

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