Gunshots make a very particular sound in a desolate city. The noise ricochetes off buildings, echos down alleyways, seems to come from every direction at once. It means danger could come from anywhere at any time, but it also means there's more work to do. So when I step out of a safehouse and steel my nerves, I also grin, just a little. This is the world of The Division, an online, loot-driven RPG cleverly disguised as a third-person shooter, set in the grim aftermath of a biological attack on New York City.
While the story primarily sticks to tried-and-true survival tropes, the narrative is solidly executed. Key moments receive full cutscenes, and in between, you constantly hear radio banter that explains exactly how your next objective contributes to your broader mission to save New York from vicious opportunists. You always know exactly what you're doing and why; that alone goes a long way towards making your actions feel meaningful. You're also never painted as a superhero. The Division admirably commits to its bleak, grounded vision of a medically-induced apocalypse, and it works. Some ideas needed a bit more development--especially an important enemy later on--but overall, I felt invested and immersed in the world.
This immersion was further cultivated by the setting itself. The Division's haunting recreation of midtown Manhattan might be the most impressive urban world map outside of a Rockstar game. Its dense, detailed environments feel painstakingly assembled rather than cut-and-pasted into place. Every neighborhood has its own distinct style, and no matter where you roam, you're bound to stumble into a breathtaking structure or a heartbreaking disaster site, even if you end up hearing a few repeated lines of NPC dialogue along the way. The variety and authenticity of the world invite exploration just like the deserts of Red Dead Redemption and the mountains of Skyrim. My only real complaint: I killed the same guys on the same corner near my HQ at least half a dozen times during the game's early hours. Had The Division randomized these encounters or in some way allowed unexpected interactions to occur, the world might have felt more alive.
Enemy AI is consistent to the point of being predictable as well, and all four enemy factions have identical unit types--every group has a runner, a sniper, a bomber, and so on. No matter who you're up against, you know exactly how each easily identifiable enemy is going to come at you, which can make certain lower-stakes gun fights feel like a chore. Some of the basic gameplay mechanics are slightly sloppy as well. The core aiming and shooting are totally serviceable, but you can't crouch, jump, or go prone--which means the only way to move stealthily is to duck into cover, then hold A to rush directly to the next object. I also occasionally had to contend with clumsy cover issues. Come on, Agent, you can't raise your gun barrel two inches to avoid a poorly placed railing? Worst of all, various actions--including pulling away from cover--cause your character to stand straight up, even in the middle of combat. It's annoying and occasionally lethal.
The Division's haunting recreation of midtown Manhattan might be the most impressive urban world outside of a Rockstar game.
Though some of The Division's mechanics stumble, others work extremely well. The segmented health bar--which regenerates up to one of three points depending on how much health you lost--proves just forgiving enough to give you a fighting chance without undermining the game's challenging nature. I also enjoyed being able to equip any unlocked special ability and ambient stat buff on the fly. The Division's robust upgrade system affords you all kinds of skills; allowing players to respec at any time without penalty turns these perks into flexible tactical options rather than permanent decisions you have to live with. The active abilities in particular--which include seeker mines, moveable cover, and a portable health station--add a distinctive signature to the moment-to-moment shooting.
The gameplay also includes a number of small but impressive details that can lead to some serious surprise and delight. You can shoot adversaries through windshields when they're crouched behind cars, send flamethrower-wielding foes into a panic by shooting their fuel tanks, or blow up enemies by sniping their grenades. When your bullets strike an explosive and you see a little yellow indicator blink above an enemy right before their frag unexpectedly detonates in their hand, the delight that washes over you helps ameliorate the stress and tension that typically characterize every firefight. In general, The Division's gameplay is fun and engaging in spite of the enemy AI. Sure, they're predictable, but when they're rushing you and sniping you and trying to blow you up all at once, you still have to dodge, aim, heal, and get back into cover regardless. The action is always frantic and challenging, and while that can make the experience exhausting, it can also (and frequently does) trigger real adrenaline.
Unfortunately, the adrenaline rush occasionally slows to a drip, at least for a time. Most side missions are recycled throughout the game. While the larger campaign missions deliver an impressive variety of thrilling scenarios and carefully crafted environments, side missions come in just five or six repeated forms that pop up in various locations around the open world. The differing locations add some variation and nuance to these encounters, but they can still feel repetitive, especially since you're forced to grind through them as you attempt to level up your character before accessing the next story mission (all of which have strongly suggested minimum levels).
Thankfully, the stellar story missions compensate for the less inventive side content. Impressively, you can walk right into these missions from the hub world with zero loading, and when you do, you never quite know what you'll find. One mission sent me down a long, deadly transit tunnel, another into a ritzy embassy, and another dropped me in front of Grand Central Station for a prolonged shootout. The diversity is impressive, and across all these missions, I experienced a healthy number of memorable gameplay moments and intense boss battles.
It's almost a shame you're forced to break between missions to level your character; after all, the campaign missions are easily the game's strongest content. Still, the structural pattern that emerges isn't unpleasant: beat a story mission, complete three or four side quests, equip any new gear you've acquired, and head off to the next major mission. While those three or four side missions definitely feel a bit like grinding in an MMO, they force you to engage with The Division as a multifaceted open world game rather than just a shooter. The game is deliberately paced in every sense of the word. And to be clear, The Division doesn't just feel artificially long because of its grinding--it actually is a content-heavy game. The campaign alone takes nearly 30 hours to complete, so when you throw in leveling, loot management, collectibles, random exploration, and more, it all adds up to a thorough and substantial experience.
Grinding through side missions forces you to engage The Division as a multifaceted open world game rather than just a shooter.
And then, of course, there's the "end game" content, which basically boils down to grinding against high level enemies in daily missions in order to earn new and better loot. Disappointingly, I have not yet found any weaponry that's functionally distinct like, for example, Destiny's exotics, which makes this portion of the game feel slightly pointless at the moment. Still, if you make it to the end game and decide you're done, you will have enjoyed a complete, compelling shooter for dozens of hours. The experience is sprawling yet remarkably cohesive.
Adding yet another dimension, The Division offers four player co-op throughout, but importantly, it remains fun even when you're flying solo. While the difficulty scaling can seem slightly unpredictable (I found the game much easier with one other player yet much harder in a trio), you're never punished for playing alone. However, if you can pull together a full four-person team, the gameplay blossoms in expected ways. When you're able to revive downed teammates, cover multiple sightlines, set up flanks, and utilize a wider set of character perks, you realize both the level design and enemy AI actually function better during the massive firefights that ensue. Not only does the gameplay become far more strategic, you finally feel unstoppable. The game makes it easy to matchmake prior to a mission and quietly disband afterwards, so even if you enjoy exploring on your own, you can still team up for the game's biggest, most demanding moments. And so far, all online functionality has run smoothly.
If you're feeling a little less cooperative, you can also visit the Dark Zone--a massive, unstructured PvP area in the middle of the city. The Dark Zone is, if nothing else, a really cool experiment. You'll find both enemy AI and other human players inside. The AI guard loot, while the other players...well, who knows. They might help you conquer the AI or they might backstab you and steal all the gear and weapons you've already collected. The tension of not knowing how an interaction will play out is unlike anything else you'll find in a modern shooter, and the significance of loot back in the main game makes the stakes in the Dark Zone feel incredibly real. The Division is mostly a genre-abiding open world, cover-based shooter, but the Dark Zone--and the way it's seamlessly integrated into the world map with only a moment of extremely well-concealed loading when you enter--deserves special recognition for being truly new.
As the Dark Zone proves, The Division's loot system is integral to the experience. But it's not just there for show. Rather, your stats--which are heavily dictated by the gear you equip--mean the difference between slaughter and triumph, so be prepared to spend plenty of time in menus comparing the numerical attributes of knee pads, pistol holsters, and tactical backpacks. There's a mind boggling number of variables that ultimately impact your chances of survival. While not everyone will have the patience necessary to fully embrace the intricacies of the loot system, The Division at least makes life easier by providing plenty of elegant, thoughtful tools. You can mark old items as junk and simply hit "Sell All" when you get to a vendor. You can easily compare two items side by side. The game will even show you how an item will affect your overall stats before you equip it. It may sound trivial, but this careful attention to detail makes the loot meta-game nearly painless.
In action, loot compelled me to keep playing more than any other aspect. The Division is relentless, making you earn every kill and battle through every moment. So when you stumble upon or earn enough currency to buy a new piece of loot that drastically increases your stats, you feel a sudden surge of elation because you know you might finally have an edge over your damage-soaking enemies. You can actually see your foes crumple sooner and your health bar stand strong in the face of damage, and for a split-second, you can indulge in a little cockiness. Of course, the process starts all over again as soon as you venture into new, tougher areas, but by then, the loot lust has you in its teeth.
No matter how hard I worked to level up my character, though, I almost always felt slightly underpowered. Put simply, The Division is stingy when it comes to gear and XP. My backpack was never more than a third full, and I didn't see a "high-end" weapon until I'd essentially beaten the game. Even at max level, your stats may not be high enough to activate your weapons' built-in talents, which sort of epitomizes the game's draconian design. The Division still manages to feel plenty rewarding as you progress, but a slightly kinder XP system and an extra level of gear rarity would have gone a long way to alleviate the frustration and fatigue I experienced.
Still, no matter how frustrated I grew with the game's semi-indestructible enemies or its repetitive leveling structure, I absolutely could not stop playing. The world was too engrossing, the loot was too enticing, and the campaign was too gripping for me to simply walk away. I stopped caring about the game's flaws after the first few hours and proceeded to lose myself in obsessive stat optimization and cooperative gun battles. The problems (and frustration) never disappeared, but I was more than happy to play through the pain.