The corner of 8th and 34th didn’t quite look right. And for a moment, I couldn’t figure out why.
It was last week, and I was driving through Manhattan, past an area I know so well. I saw the grand old post office on the left side, and Madison Square Garden on the right, and that big Duane Reade, but something was missing.
And then it hit me: It was the absence of the military-esque entrance at the post office. And the lack of snow. And all that traffic.
This is what happens when you play too much of Ubisoft’s The Division. I’ve spent far too many hours in the Manhattan of this open-world video game, so many that the real Manhattan doesn’t feel quite like the post-apocalyptic disaster area I expect it to be.
It’s that easy to get lost in The Division’s version of the Big Apple, in this squad-based romp through an abandoned, wrecked New York. It’s one of the finest of the open-world, always-online shooters that seem to be gaining steam in the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 era, and it’s a game that’s at its best if you can get a crew of two or three friends with you.
In many ways, The Division is the game that Destiny pushed to be two years ago. With Destiny, Bungie pushed to blend characteristics of MMORPGs and single-player shooters, building a unique always-online experience that was meant to evolve.
Ubisoft does many of the same things in The Division although it does so with more polish. One month after the game’s release, there are still occasional bugs, but, by and large, The Division delivers a fluid world, one with a strong narrative and plenty to do in its version of New York City.
The premise itself is an intriguing one, part of a decent story: A smallpox virus, transmitted via physical money, has decimated the United States, New York City in particular. That leads to the deployment of the Strategic Homeland Division, and you’re dropped into New York, start building a base in the post office, then traverse the city undertaking all manner of missions.
Manhattan, of course, is absolutely beautiful, with plenty of iconic areas instantly recognizable. But it’s a beautiful nightmare, filled with criminals and rioters, dominated by those who would take advantage of the crisis for themselves.
The story is both fleshed out in explaining the presence of the enemies, and it’s not. Ubisoft delivers unique details to these enemies, often clad in old FDNY equipment and equipped with flamethrowers, and the baddies provide a stiff challenge. But it’s not always clear why you’re fighting them; the only thing you know is that you must do so.
You’ll never mind battling, though, because The Division’s third-person cover-shooter mechanics are clean and streamlined, and the game is always giving you reason to play on. Leveling up unlocks new skills and perks and abilities, and there are a wealth of weapons in the game. Stats for weapons are conveyed easily; the menus can feel overwhelming at first, but it doesn’t take long before it’s second nature for you to understand the stats on which you must focus.
And the variety of the weapons is more Diablo than Destiny, giving you plenty of reason to keep battling, even if you do find yourself repeating missions and grinding a little here and there.
The missions themselves are your standard fare, requiring you to clear this area or defend that one or recover this item. But the locations are always fantastic; from a subway here to a mall there, Ubisoft takes special care to craft NYC-centric details into these spots, and to bring them to gritty life.
These missions are supposed to permit solo play, but they’re at their best when you have a squad. Getting a set of teammates together is easy on the PlayStation 4, and there’s nothing more fun than flanking your opponents, or strategizing on the fly with your mates to take down a big, flamethrowing baddie.
Strategy is often required, too, because your enemies react with relative smarts, looking to flank and using grenades to flush you out. This isn’t a game in which you can simply find one spot and pick off enemies in a shooting gallery.
Strategy reaches another level when you enter the Dark Zone, The Division’s PVP area. Essentially located around Central Park, it’s filled with both A.I. enemies and real baddies.
You’ll venture here for the loot, of course, because the finest weapons are found in the Dark Zone. But those weapons are coveted by others, too, so when your backpack fills with loot and you aim to “extract” it from the area, you must always be wary of other players trying to take you down and scavenge your wares.
This is the fun of the Dark Zone, and it’s terrifically addictive. At the right time, you’ll see massive groups of gamers walking together, protecting each other against other bands of characters. You could take them down. Or you could try to join them. Or you could run away.
The Dark Zone, of course, is also at its best with friends. To venture in alone is to try to search for friends. And sure, that can be fun, but really, you want to go in with your own group, walking around with confidence and trust in your mates. Enjoyment of the Dark Zone fades when the novelty wears off, but the PVP encounters are terrific, a unique juggling act between assisting each other and wanting to attack other parties for more loot.
It all adds up to a quality game, in spite of several little flaws. Following deaths in missions, load times can be annoying, and there are numerous little bugs here and there. One bug, seemingly only in the Dark Zone, can cause your chat to drop out, completely ruining an excellent multiplayer session.
Still, these don’t remove too much luster from The Division. It’s a game that’s easy to recommend, as long as you have a bunch of friends to team up with, too.
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