Second Look: Tom Clancy's The Division - Return to the Dark Zone
Editor's Note - This article is based on my time with the PC version of The Division. Given that Second Look features do not cover visual or input issues that would vary based on version, we do not believe any differences inherent in the various platforms apply here. Nevertheless, it is our duty to inform you, for the sake of full disclosure, that we did not re-test this game on PS4 hardware. All screenshots included in this article were taken using uncompressed Uplay screen capture technology, with game settings on High (Core i7-77ooHQ, GTX 1050Ti 4GB, 16GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB SSD). PS4 visual performance may vary.
Welcome back to Second Look, our new semi-regular feature where we take a peek at ongoing games to see how they’re faring after initial release. Our goal with this feature is to assess whether these games, primarily those which fall into the category of “Games as a Service,” have made any significant progress over the years since their initial release. Second Looks are not scored like regular reviews, and therefore should not be treated as such. Consider them more of a friendly discussion about what you need to know should you want to dive back in. Today we’re looking at Tom Clancy's The Division. For this Second Look, I took along contributor Pedro Rodriguez as we trekked through the game all the way to World Tier V. Let's dive on in!
Way back in 1996, a little-known developer Blizzard released a game called Diablo. Featuring four player online co-operative play and a fairly unique (for its time) loot cycle, Diablo turned heads and gained lots of well-deserved praise. For some reason, though, the game’s mechanics were not widely copied until almost two decades later. Sure, you could play games like Halo 3 and Gears of War with four player co-op back in the mid-2000s, but few if any games combined that style of co-op play with the kind of loot grind that Diablo has largely defined. That is, at least not until Bungie launched their “shared shooter” (please don’t call it an MMO) Destiny in 2014.
One of the biggest launches in history, with over 500 million dollars in pre-launch revenue alone, Destiny instantly created a new trend, and one that every major publisher wanted in on. Tom Clancy’s The Division was Ubisoft’s answer to Destiny, and they had similar success pre-launch. According to Ubisoft, The Division is their fastest selling game in history. However, a rough launch full of problems and lack of endgame content led to The Division shedding over 90% of its player base in just a few months after release. Things looked bleak, indeed, for Ubisoft’s new flagship game. Today, the game’s player base has almost fully recovered, with a robust base and satisfying endgame. Why is that? Come with me into the Dark Zone and find out.
MARTIAL LAW IN EFFECT
For those unfamiliar, The Division is set in a near-future New York City, shortly after a terrorist group of unknown origins has unleashed a brutal biological attack on the populace; mutated smallpox, nicknamed “green poison”, has devastated the population. Chaos reigns in the five boroughs, forcing the president of the United States to enact Directive 51, activating a black ops group known only as “the Division” to secure ‘continuity of government’. You, the player, are part of the second wave of Division agents sent into the Hot Zone, tasked with restoring order and assisting local efforts to isolate the disease and discover a cure.
To this end you will engage in a variety of covert, and often overt, operations aimed at stemming the wave of violence plaguing the city, as New York's most depraved criminals have taken over in the absence of law enforcement. To put it simply – you are the city’s last line of defense, and only you stand between the honest citizens of New York and those who left humanity behind. Ultimately, what makes The Division so fascinating is that it excellently highlights an indisputable truth - humans are the most dangerous predators of all.
JOIN THE RESISTANCE
So, what’s new in The Division? What brought the players back? The answer is partly that Ubisoft has done an excellent job supporting the game over the last two years with downloadable content, much of which is free.
Some of the most recent additions include the West Side Pier, which features Piers North and South. To access these areas you must clear the game’s main story missions and then travel to Camp Clinton. The Piers are brutal, suitable only for high level players. Within this area you can find revolving, random objectives that involve search and destroy missions, assassinations, courier jobs, and the new game mode Resistance.
Resistance functions much like Gears of War’s Horde Mode, or Halo’s Firefight. You fight an endless wave of enemies, which increase in skill and difficulty with each corresponding wave. In addition to enemies growing stronger, you’ll face increasing challenges such as defending breach points or activating beacons. As you defeat enemies, they drop SHD Tech, which can be used to unlock new areas, replenish supplies, activate pulse beacons to highlight enemy positions and more. The further you progress in Resistance, the better the loot drops are; this makes Resistance at once more strategic and more consequential than your typical wave mode.
OUTLAST, OUTLIVE, SURVIVE
One of the first pieces of major content for The Division was Survival, which pits 24 players in a match to see who can survive in a super blizzard that sweeps the play area. Your goal is to stay alive, reach the center of Manhattan, acquire some antiviral drugs and then extract. If you can stay alive long enough to reach the center and extract, you win, but you’ll have to manage hunger, thirst, and a dozen other variables, not to mention endless waves of foes. The blizzard that envelopes the city also makes it very difficult to spot your enemies, and even harder to effectively dispatch them.
The last bit of major DLC is the Underground. You and your team take to the subways of NYC in an attempt to stop a major viral threat from the nastiest factions within the city, in procedurally generated dungeon-like mazes that constantly keep you on your toes. Underground requires a good deal of forward-thinking strategy to survive, as you'll often find yourself kiting one enemy group into the other in the hopes that they'll kill each other.
JOURNEY INTO THE DARK ZONE
What truly makes The Division worth a Second Look, however, is the Dark Zone, as there is nothing quite like it in games today. While there are many MMO-lite games like The Division, very few have an endgame that is truly worth your time, and while the Dark Zone didn’t quite fulfill its promise at launch, Ubisoft has done an admirable job of building it out and creating an experience unlike any other.
What separates the Dark Zone from other games in the genre is that there are actual stakes, and genuine consequences to your actions. A hybrid of PvE and PvP play, the Dark Zones are the wildest of wild frontiers, offering the best loot but also featuring the harshest challenges. You’ll face the toughest AI enemies in the game, here, as you scrounge for loot, but they’re not your real adversaries. No, your real foes are other live players, who can engage you in combat only within the confines of the DZ. By default, other players are set to friendly status, but they can go rogue and attack you at any time. If they manage to kill you, they can hijack any gear you picked up in the Dark Zone and extract it themselves.
There are nine contiguous Dark Zones in The Division, each with their own unique challenges and benefits. Some are easier for solo play, while others will tax your skills unless you’re in a group. When I first ventured into the Dark Zone last year, I was immediately and consistently pasted by high level enemies the moment I set foot in their unhallowed territory. But I knew from the start that I wanted to conquer this area, even if I didn’t yet have the skills.
To survive in the DZ by yourself, you’ll rely on your wits more often than your tech skills, though the gear you take and the talents you equip still play a huge role. There’s a real sense of vulnerability when roaming the DZ by yourself, as you can stumble into enemy ambushes at any moment; death is always potentially right around the corner, and death means losing (at least temporarily) all the loot you have not yet extracted.
Most MMO-lite titles have endgames that amount to little more than fetch quest chores; daily missions that require you to collect various non-essential items in the hopes that you can trade them in for potentially slightly better gear. Destiny 2, for instance, has a great 20-hour campaign that quickly falls to pieces in the subsequent hours because the endgame devolves into mundane chores of collecting scraps in the hopes that you can incrementally upgrade your items. Also, there's the whole XP scaling scandal that has left players wary.
The Division works very differently, though. Dark Zones offer the chance of fantastic, powerful gear, items that can dramatically increase your chances of survival. To earn them, however, you must brave the wild, untamed and frankly barbaric urban wilderness. While plenty of people inhabit the DZ, there is nothing left of humanity.
Simply put, The Division’s Dark Zone is the most inspired game design we’ve seen from this genre yet, and is the best idea Ubisoft has ever had. When roaming the DZ by yourself, there is a genuine sense of desolation, despair and fear; fear of enemy NPCs, fear of other player agents. When roaming together in a team, the stakes are even higher as anyone in your party can go rogue at any moment, stab you in the back and jack your gear. These stakes put The Division on an entirely new level relative to its peers in the genre. This is the kind of endgame material that other games sorely lack.
Is The Division worth another chance? The answer to that question, on any front, is “absolutely”. Whether you’re going it alone or teaming up with friends, the festering frontiers of NYC are ripe for exploration and full of danger. With hundreds of little secrets scattered about, and plenty of free and paid DLC, there’s never been a better time to dive back into the apocalypse.