They say that New York City never sleeps, and those who play Tom Clancy’s The Division may understand the feeling. The game, which is predominantly set in mid-Manhattan, feels touristy, with each new landmark a carefully designed single-player or co-op mission that’s intended to overwhelm a player’s senses. But Ubisoft has learned a thing or two from previous open-world efforts like Watch Dogs, so there’s more than just the cheap surface thrills that come from recognizing name-brand locations. The game wants your money, sure, but it it’s willing to earn it, with larger-than-life experiences that each feel unique, from a hostage rescue that brings players high into the scaffolding of Madison Square Garden to a massive siege along the elevated and fortified road around Grand Central Station.
As with most semi-MMO games, The Division is very grind-heavy, slowly and gradually doling out increasingly better gear for players who tackle all of the content spread across the city’s 16 districts, from Chelsea to Kips Bay. Thankfully, very little of this feels repetitive. Sure, there are some bland side missions that involve helping the Joint Task Force (JTF) fortify generic areas or defend supply drops against waves of foes. Players can also, Wild West-style, turn in Bounties on powerful enemies, learning in the process how the various thugs and gangs took advantage of the chaos to seize control of territory in the city. Quests refreshingly rooted in exploration do an even stronger job of demonstrating how the city has been ravaged as you parkour through these ruined neighborhoods. Time limits in quarantined zones keep the stakes high, as if the corpses lining Manhattan’s sewers and subways or the abandoned cars blockading the streets weren’t clear enough.
The Division also feels like the first game to earn the Tom Clancy moniker, more so than those in the Splinter Cell series, which lean on more cinematic storytelling methods. The biological attack against Manhattan seems terrifyingly plausible, with a new strain of smallpox being spread through infected dollar bills on Black Friday. Endless collectibles scattered throughout the twisty alleys and debris-strewn rooftops help to sell this fiction, offering eyewitness accounts of what happened to Manhattan between those initial weeks of contagion and the player’s eventual arrival. There are heartbreaking phone recordings of separated families and lovers; in a nod to Batman: Arkham Knight’s detective mode, players can playback hidden ECHOs (Evidence Correlation Holographic Overlays) to visualize what happened to some key citizens, or how organizations like the Rikers, Cleaners, and Last Man Battalion seized control of the city.
Even if you stripped all of these features out of The Division, the remaining 16 main missions would make for a more than adequate title. It doesn’t even matter if players recognize renamed landmarks like Macy’s or the massive ConEd power plant just off the F.D.R. Drive, as the game’s interiors have been cleverly designed to accommodate different attack patterns, depending on the difficulty setting, and each encounter scales based on the number of players, which keeps things challenging. That players infiltrate the Russian consulate or assault the United Nations is just icing on the cake; without any name recognition, the core mechanics would still make this title a stellar shooter. Throw in all the special skills, from enemy-seeking mines to reinforceable cover and mechanized healing stations, and The Division is a strong contender for game of the year.
That said, while The Division’s strength lies in the design of its missions and story, these assets turn against it in the player-versus-player combat found in the optional Dark Zone. In the heart of Manhattan, players can find the best salvage and turn on one another in an effort to extract it for themselves. In theory, the sight of player-led factions and gangs wrestling back districts and gear against other opponents is a good one, but it lacks the structure and clear rewards of Destiny’s multiplayer challenges. Worse, there are few surprises in the DZ, beyond exploring landmarks like Rockefeller Plaza or the ruins of Bryant Park—no real story or missions, just surprisingly civil parties of players taking down hordes of faceless enemies. It’s early in the game’s lifetime, but at the moment, this area feels both unnecessary and unrewarding—a way to pad content and give toxic players an outlet (and swift punishment, once they’re mercilessly hunted down) for their aggression.
Ultimately, it’s probably for the best that the novelty of the Dark Zone peters out, as does the game itself, once groups have mastered each of the missions on their hardest difficulties. If not, the Green Death and Dollar Bug might not be the only nicknames given to the capitalist-targeting virus. Given how merrily addictive it is in full swing, how it reduces once-healthy players to a state of vegetation (i.e., couch potatoism) and separates them from their free time, they might have just as easily called it The Division disease.