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 Volume Ltd 2018