Review: Tom Clancy’s The Division

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I love loot games, but I never stick with them. Even the big ones like Diablo and Borderlands failed to keep me hooked after I plowed through the story. The motivation just isn’t there for me, either because the drops are so hard to come by or there’s not enough to do that interests me. My reason for bringing this up is that The Division is the first time I’ve ever stuck it out to keep looting and trying new builds. It’s a weird feeling for me, to be so invested in a game like this, but I can’t stop myself from coming back again and again. And if you’re cool with the specific game style on offer here, neither will you.

A biological attack on Black Friday has turned Manhattan into… well, into itself in Escape From New York. The bridges are closed, the tunnels are blocked, the island is quarantined, and everyone who isn’t dead has gone Fallout raider batshit. This prompts the looming Tom Clancy government to activate The Division, a group of Tom Clancy sleeper cell super agents to get in there and Tom Clancy the place up. Of course, they get Tom Clancy’d on the way in and you’re one of the only agents that survive. That means you need to establish a base, pull together what’s left of the relief efforts, and un-Clancy New York as much as you can.

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In gameplay terms, The Division is an open-world third-person lootfest set in midtown Manhattan. The island is lovingly recreated in incredible detail, from the towering skyscrapers to the beer crates behind the corner liquor store. Every street and alley is traversable, a surprising number of buildings can be entered and explored, and there’s something to do every 50 feet. Gangs and militia are roaming the streets and civilians are still kicking around, and the forces you’re trying to help have a tremendous number of tasks laid out for you.

Your main concern while you cover-shoot your way to the level cap is getting your base up and running. The place has three wings that can be upgraded using resources from main missions, which take place in elaborately designed zones like Grand Central Station and the United Nations, and encounters which are smaller open-world events like securing supply drops and freeing civilians. Upgrading your base is key to character progression, because each wing unlocks active abilities to use, talents to equip that provide conditional bonuses, and perks which are permanent boons like more medkits or access to new resources. Your abilities are fun things like turrets and scanners and riot shields which can be modded to shoot flame instead of bullets or regenerate and so on.

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The abilities are important to surviving fights, but not as important as your gear. Loot is king in The Division, easily making the difference between one-shotting militiamen or filling their helmets with bullets before dropping them. This is probably going to be the most contentious part of the game, because your fun is directly proportional to how powerful you are, and that depends on the loot you get. During the journey to level 30, drops were not terribly plentiful and I got most of my upgrades from the gear vendors at safehouses dotted around the map. If you want to give this game a serious try you’ll probably need to go a bit out of your way to keep up with the enemies.

All of this changes once you hit the level cap, though. At level 30 you get access to world tiers, which raise the levels of all enemies in the game and grant access to more powerful loot. This is a huge shift from the very directed leveling experience of missions and scant upgrades, because in world tiers you can do literally anything you want and get tons of drops. Everything from bosses to random looters on the street can drop upgrades, and new endgame activities like search and destroy missions and daily tasks shower you in gear. Progression through tiers is based on the score of your gear, so getting to the tippy-top of the power curve can be incredibly fast at best, or take a few hours at worst.

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There are plenty of other things to do around Manhattan if you are so inclined. Story missions can be replayed on higher difficulties for better rewards, and you can attempt new endgame missions called incursions with friends for a real challenge. Open-world bosses are also roaming the streets if you can track them down. There’s also close to three hundred collectibles to find around the city that give little snippets of backstory and unlock new cosmetic items. Oh, and of course you can play dress-up, because you have six cosmetic slots just for sweet hats and jackets and scarves overtop your standard nine gear slots.

Then there’s the Dark Zone, probably one of The Division’s earliest selling points. Your adventures in New York are a solo affair unless you invite your pals or join a matchmaking group but the Dark Zone is a strip of open world no man’s land where other agents might be lurking about. This is open PvP territory, fueled by the fact that any of the more plentiful drops you find there have to be extracted via helicopter and can be picked from your corpse if some asshole kills you. There’s a definite thrill to sneaking around and taking on tough enemies with the threat of death at the hands of another human always hovering over you. However, it’s blunted by the facts that PvP tends to be 4-man gank squads rolling around murdering people with reckless abandon, and also that there are virtually no drops that you HAVE to enter the DZ for.

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I definitely wouldn’t sign on with The Division for PvP unless you really want to work at ruining someone’s day. I also wouldn’t necessarily come for the story, not because it’s bad (it’s actually quite good and well-presented) but because overall you’re not going to be spending much time with it. No, I would recommend this one for the plentiful loot and builds to assemble, and the amazing world it’s all found in. Simply moving around the city, with its bright lights and incredible details and dramatic weather, is an immersive and engaging experience. Coupled with the fast-paced combat (assuming you’re keeping up with the gear curve), I can’t really ask anything more from my loot game. The Division has its hooks in me good, bringing me back night after night to wrest guns and gloves from the city’s denizens, and if anything I love it more the further in I get.

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