I’m a little scared of Tom Clancy’s The Division. I’m already playing so many other time-consuming open-world games, and I’m not sure I can fit another one in my life. But after trying it at a recent preview event, I just have to try.
The Division (which hits March 8 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC) is from Sweden-based developer Ubisoft Massive. The open-world shooter takes place in a wintry New York City during the middle of a catastrophic societal collapse. The city is reeling from an outbreak of a mysterious but fatal disease. As the body count rises and food and water become increasingly scarce, the remaining survivors grow uneasy and resort to violence. Some of them form merciless gangs to take advantage of the anarchy.
In this near-future wild west, you play as a member of the Division, a special task force that’s activated only when the U.S. government can no longer protect its people. It’s up to these men and women — armed with a variety of guns and explosives — to defend civilians and to bring back some semblance of order. You can either play by yourself (read more about the solo experience here) or cooperatively with up to three other players.
The Division’s depth surprised me, with a ton of ways to customize your equipment and skills. It was impossible to see or learn everything in just a few hours. By the end, I realized that this is going to be one of those games that’ll eat up all of my free time. Specifically, it was the role-playing game systems, the massive city, and the delightfully unpredictable Dark Zone that drew me in.
A shooter that proudly waves its RPG flag
The Division isn’t a typical shooter. I learned that as soon as I looked at my inventory, where each gun has a damage-per-second (DPS) rating that indicates how powerful it is. This is a stat usually found in online role-playing games like World of Warcraft or action-RPGs like Diablo III. And like with many RPGs, you earn experience points and money in The Division’s combat.
When you attack enemies, you’ll see floating numbers that indicate how much pain you’re inflicting on them. Equipping better gear (in the form of items like hats and knee pads) increases your character’s defense. You can get more weapons and armor from enemies that drop randomized loot.
It’s easy to get lost in The Division’s huge array of customization options. But since I only had a limited amount of time to play, I forced myself to ignore the menus so I could see more of the world. At the event, I was part of a three-man team with another journalist and a developer. We spent a little over two hours tackling story missions near the beginning of the game, and we then fast-forwarded to a later mission with higher-level characters and better equipment.
The combat is a satisfying blend of tactics and cover-based shooting. Enemies were tough and absorbed a lot of bullets, so we had to stick to cover — behind broken cars or other detritus found in the streets — to survive.
Special skills like sticky bombs can help thin their numbers. At one point, all three of us had these equipped, so we detonated them near a group of bad guys, unleashing a series of small explosions. One of my teammates also had a useful ability called Pulse, which marked any incoming threats on our screens.
The Division allows you to equip up to three different skills, and you can change them at any time. When you’re playing with others, it’s important to have a well-rounded team. We constantly talked to each other about which skills we were bringing to battle. If you’re playing by yourself, you need to be more flexible about which ones you’re going to use.
A dangerous city I want to see more of
The Division’s version of New York City is an eerie collection of abandoned streets and buildings. Peaceful survivors wander around as you run across the snow-covered pavement to your next mission. Early on, your goal is to establish a central base of operations at the James A. Farley Post Office, one of the many real-world landmarks in the game. But the biggest obstacle you have to overcome are the enemy factions, the gangs that formed after the collapse.
We saw three of them during our playthrough. The Rioters are a brazen but unorganized crew. The Rikers are convicts who escaped from New York City’s primary prison complex on Rikers Island. And the Cleaners are deranged blue-collar workers whose solution to the epidemic is to burn everyone they see, even if they’re healthy.
You’ll fight them in story missions and in randomized events known as encounters. Some of these moments are simply gangs roaming around the city, but others can be more specific, like when my team fought against Rioters who were trying to steal precious supplies. It seemed like every street corner had some new danger to look out for, whether it was a sniper hiding in a parking lot or a group of punks who were crazy enough to charge in with their bats.
Surviving in the Dark Zone
My team spent the least amount of time (maybe 10 minutes or 15 minutes) in the Dark Zone, but that was enough to get a taste of The Division’s clever take on head-to-head multiplayer. The Dark Zone is in the center of the city, a no-man’s-land where the plague hit the hardest. It’s also a place where you can find the best loot in the game. But it has a catch: friendly fire is on. And if you die there, you’ll drop any loot you found, leaving it open for others to steal it.
Both computer-controlled enemies and online players populate the Dark Zone, and it’s up to you if you want to help or kill the other Division agents for their rare gear. It reminded me a lot of DayZ, an online survival game where you also aren’t sure if you can trust the players you meet.
After my team crossed the Dark Zone’s imposing quarantine gate, we immediately became involved in a fierce battle. Two other teams were shooting at each other, and we all died in the crossfire. When we respawned, we tried a slower, more deliberate approach, but we ended up getting separated.
I eventually saw a group of players summoning a helicopter. The only way to secure your loot is to use the chopper to extract your supplies. But once you use your flare gun to call it in, anybody who’s nearby can see where you are. You’ll have to fend off potential attackers for 90 seconds. I decided to cooperate with the other players (I used one of my character’s friendly emotes to try to get this point across), but a different group soon came in and killed us.
The Dark Zone was pure chaos. I wish we had another hour to explore it.