Hands on with Tom Clancy’s The Division

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Ubisoft’s revolutionary new video game blends the third-person shooter, RPG and squad-based multiplayer genres into a perfect mix.

What is Tom Clancy’s The Division?

For a certain generation, Tom Clancy is better known for his video games than his books. Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, EndWar and H.A.W.X all don his name on the cover, and provide players with a chance to live on the frontline of a fictional World War III. A near future filled with mercenary groups, rogue nations and terrorism outfits where specialist highly trained operatives use the next generation of technology to fight back. The Division is a new entry in the Tom Clancy canon, with a new style of play.

The main difference here is that you are not fighting to prevent some terrible catastrophe. It’s already happened. An unknown entity has released a virus in New York and the resulting pandemic has caused such widespread terror that society has collapsed.

Now a quarantine zone exists, taking up the entire Midtown area of the iconic city, and within a mix of civilians and gangs try and survive with limited resources and no infrastructure. You play an operative of The Division, a group of ex-civilians who, due to the expertise of their past careers, have been recruited to help bring order back to the chaos. Where government no longer exists, it’s you who must create a feeling of structure and rebuild a sense of society.

Is the Division a Shooter or an RPG?

Despite its Clancy name and apparent similarities to Rainbow Six (and even Ghost Recon) this game actually shares more in common with games such as Borderlands or Destiny. It’s a fully functional squad-based shooter, but it unfolds in an open sandbox recreation of Midtown New York. You move through the world with or without friends, using cover, clambering over and up structures, and unleashing bullets and advanced gadgets as required. So while the process of play is classic Clancy, the experience is more RPG-esque.

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As such, you need to create a character and enter this world as a rookie, with the aim of levelling up into a veteran warrior. You start with simple weapons and equipment, and a shell of a home base. You need to recruit party members with special skills to open up the full functionality of your base and complete quests to get deeper into the campaign. Out exploring the world you will find randomly generated loot caches and felled enemies will drop all kinds of great stuff. Everything can be returned to your base, where items can be sold off or broken down for parts and resources. The latter can then be used to customise and modify the items and weapons you keep.

Play styles and character roles are open ended, so you customise your inventory to match the way you want to play, or to fit a position within your team that strengthens the four of you as a unit. As you might in an Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect game, you will be looking for loot that offer specific attack or defence bonuses that can improve your character’s stats. Other abilities also unlock as you gain experience, opening skill trees to head down as you see fit.

As you can no doubt tell this is very much a role-playing game. It just also happens to be a finely crafted squad-based shooter, where heated street battles can break out ad hoc, or as a result of a carefully planned out attack.

What is The Division’s campaign like?

Whether alone or with friends via drop-in, drop-out co-op, The Division plays like an open-world RPG. As you overcome one obstacle another presents itself, opening up instances within the world – effectively like dungeons – where you must battle through an AI (artificial intelligence) stronghold and kill the boss at the end to get some epic loot and further the story. You have an augmented reality style 3D map you can bring up to set waypoints to specific locations, too. The story is under wraps, but we’ve been promised a big pay off at the end of the campaign, and given the apparent hopelessness of the situation during the opening hours I played, there are many potential paths the narrative could take.

Of course being open-world, you don’t actually have to head down the main story path. Exploring the dilapidated Manhattan is a thrill. With basic infrastructure dead, no electricity and a snowstorm in full swing, it’s an eerie place to be. Civilian survivors nervously appear out of the fog and will run in fear at the slightest sign of hostility on your behalf. Dogs nose through the trash. The city’s legendary street artists have taken to some of its most iconic locations. In fact, the visually spectacular graffiti was actually produced by real New York street artists specifically for the game. Cars and makeshift military outposts sit vacant across the rubbish filled landscape. A day/night cycle marks the passage of time.

There are roving gangs to watch out for as they can swarm on you in an instant. However, they can also be a target if you want to seize the opportunity of a chance encounter to get their loot. Working as a team to flank their positions before engaging in a firefight is wise. Ensuring you all have a good mix of abilities including attacking gadgets and defence buffs will get you the cleanest results. You can heal fallen teammates, but die and you respawn after a short delay in a different location, leaving everyone vulnerable.

Without much in the way of story to go on at this stage, I can only say that I thoroughly enjoyed the shooting gameplay. I played with three other humans as a squad on the hard difficulty, which created a stiff enough challenge to demand we stayed vocal and varied our loadouts to create maximum attacking and defensive options. Heading into the menus between encounters to swap around equipment and weapons, assign new loot and get into the modding and crafting components is also well-implemented and addictive. I was provided with the chance to jump to the level cap of 20 with everything unlocked, too, and can assure you there are some fantastic weapons to access as you near the endgame.

What is the Dark Zone?

Right in the heart of Midtown is the Dark Zone. It's the worst affected area of the quarantined component of Manhattan where all semblance of society has been lost. It is here where Ubisoft is truly evolving the genres on which it is founded. While outside of this zone, you are in a player versus environment experience (as in you versus computer controlled enemies) that can be enjoyed solo or in co-op. If you move into the Dark Zone, however, the game seamlessly segues into a player vs. player zone (you against other human players), where you and your team can come under threat from other human Division members from around the world.

There is no need to exit the game, go into a lobby or match-make to enter the Dark Zone, which is really impressive. For all intents and purposes it feels like the same world. There are still AI gangs wandering around and you can, should you desire, sneak through this area without ever seeing another human player. However, it’s in the Dark Zone that can find the best loot, and that puts a target on your back. Conversely, if the best loot happens to be on another player, you can opt to take it by force. As soon as you go hostile, the gloves come off and the two teams stop being neutral, with epic heated street-based combat ensuing.

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I’m in love with the Dark Zone. The kind of emergent gameplay that unfolds there when two (or more) teams of humans decide to get into a running battle – usually with the AI somewhere in-between - is just epic. You’ll be sneaking through the snow with your squad when, from down the street, you will hear the tell-tale echoes of a firefight. You will sneak closer, see a team taking on an enemy gang and decide; what will you do? They are weakened and you can catch them in the crossfire and take all the loot for yourself. You can just move by and leave it alone. Perhaps you can even help them by taking down a few AI for yourself.

The problem is, once you have the loot, there is only one way to extract it to your base. You have to call in a helicopter at one of the extraction zones. As soon as you fire that flare, a tense two minute wait occurs and you know other players can hear the approaching helicopters. They know you are loaded with loot and they know where you are – and so does the AI. It’s seriously fun, and my team and I constantly found ourselves in cat and mouse battles with various teams – on the attack to fill our bags with loot, then on the defence, backing away and trying to get it all to safety.

The deeper you go into the zone the more challenging the AI gets as well. The player-versus-player experience has its own levelling system and endgame to enjoy, which is separate to that of the main campaign. You can lose levels if you get killed too often, adding another layer of strategy to how you play this mode. Ubisoft doesn’t know where the audience for The Division will end up at this point, but from my time with the game, I am sure that the Dark Zone will be a hugely popular destination. I think it is a mode in which the developer will quickly have to iterate and grow the experience to keep up with the demands of fans.

Is The Division immersive?

The attention to detail in The Division is incredibly compelling. Not only can you enjoy accurately reproduced locales from New York’s midtown area, even if they’ve been cruelled by a social crisis, but you can enter a number of the buildings. Dynamic weather events can blow through the city at any point, too, affecting visibility and impacting the way you play. You’ll feel frozen simply walking about these streets. The day/night cycle also plays into AI behaviour, so we hope to see some areas and quests vary in experience as the in-game days roll around.

The AI is incredibly aggressive and quick to flank your position; a hostile reaction you would expect from people in their situation. I only got a good look at the early level foes, but there was pleasing variety and I like how some enemy units have weak points you can target to dispatch them quickly. Don’t expect anything close to real-life here, however. As an RPG, this game is about whittling down enemy hit points with the best combination of weapons and abilities you can muster, so tougher opponents will happily take a number of shots to the head without going down. If I have a concern, it is in the variety in the appearance of the enemies in the final game, as I sure spent a lot of time shooting the same looking, hooded dude in the back.

A special mention must go to the soundscape; I played using a pair of headphones and was encapsulated by the sense of isolation you feel in these desolate streets. You get a real sense of it being a large empty space, but there is so much debris strewn about that you never feel safe. Far off combat sounds just right, while nearby explosions are thunderous. The various toys in your bag of technological tricks also had flair to the battles. Tom Clancy games have long been synonymous with immersive, atmospheric gaming, and with The Division it is no different.

Why is there no splitscreen?

For our full article on splitscreen in The Division, read our interview with the creative director, Magnus Jansén.

Should you buy The Division?

Tom Clancy’s The Division has promised a lot since it was first revealed in 2013, and two lengthy delays haven’t done a lot to help this new series earn positive momentum, but the wait will be worth it. Ubisoft has created a believable near-future world here that you can truly immerse yourself in, and while it does walk along a road already travelled by Borderlands, Destiny and even Fallout, its Clancy spin and identifiable location ensures it feels fresh and exciting. Plus, in the Dark Zone, it has a unique multiplayer experience that I believe will be warmly received by fans and could even become a mainstay of future Ubisoft titles.

Tom Clancy's The Division is due out in Australia for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC on March 8. Ubisoft is also committed to at least 12-months of additional content for both the campaign and the Dark Zone.

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