"Tom Clancy's The Division," released March 8, could be the answer Ubisoft has been looking for after the recent faltering of "Assassin's Creed." Set in a New York City on the brink of chaos after a smallpox plague, "The Division" is a hybrid RPG/tactical shooter experience that will instantly appeal to players looking for a deep gaming experience. The initial phase of "The Division" is a success, but the true test will take place next year as Ubisoft tries to keep fans returning to the seamlessly integrated mulitplayer area of Manhattan known as the Dark Zone.
"The Division" takes place after a smallpox outbreak on the Black Friday shopping holiday. Someone has intentionally spread the deadly disease through paper currency. Manhattan is quarantined and later transformed from a cosmopolitan city into a graveyard. Enemy factions have taken over large areas of the city while normal citizens struggle to survive amid the lawlessness. In this difficult time, players control a highly trained agent of a special government division attempting to restore order to Gotham.
Players can customize their agent, but the model options are quite limited. It's a stumble considering the amount of character customization found in games such as "Fallout 4." After creating your character, players begin their training in Brooklyn. All the basics are covered before heading to Manhattan. In the city, the Joint Task Force — the coalition of police officers, firefighters, government agents and medical personnel fighting for control of the city — has been losing ground to the many enemy factions in the city.
The Base of Operations located in the James Farley Post Office across from Madison Square Garden needs to be upgraded and defended. Players can establish the Tech, Medical and Security wings by rescuing JTF officials. Once these wings are open, players can complete main missions, side missions or collect hidden items throughout the city. Phone recordings, missing person files, and pages of a girl's survival guide all add experience points, cash and points to spend on respective upgrades to one of the three wings. Wing upgrades unlock new abilities, perks and talents that can be equipped by the player.
All of that adds up to a pretty robust campaign mode that may be unexpected from a shooter. Ubisoft Massive has gone to great lengths to provide a lot of small details to make Manhattan a truly vibrant and lived-in city in "The Division." The most effective way of communicating its history is the use of Evidence Correlation Holographic Overlay, or ECHO. Each ECHO is a holographic representation of a moment captured from gathered data. It adds a visual flair to the storytelling process without removing the player from the action.
But there are some downsides. The side missions can feel redundant over the course of play as they fall into categories such as a hostage rescue, protecting a supply drop or conducting a virus scan. That's alleviated by playing with friends and the joy of scoring valuable loot that could make the next missions easier.
All of this wouldn't be worth diving into if the gameplay was not up to par. A "Tom Clancy" shooter has to live up to the expectations of a smart, tactical game that borders on the realistic. "The Division" trades in some reality for fun, but retains many of the tactical elements. Players move from cover-to-cover to flank enemies, gain a positional advantage or some time while their skills cool down and can be used again. Shooting is fluid with each weapon with having its own strengths and weaknesses. These weapons can be improved by mods to increase their range, accuracy or stability. Group play is definitely recommended to develop strategies that will let players take down even the most difficult challenges.
The skills offer aid, additional cover or more firepower. The Sticky Bomb is an incredibly useful remote explosive gained early on in "The Division." Radar lets players scan for enemies with later upgrades boosting the chance for critical damage or finding loot in the area. Loot is incredibly important, ranging from Worn to Specialized to Superior to the powerful and rare High-End. Better items can be found and used as players level up, which helps maintain balance within "The Division."
Impressively, Ubisoft has managed to handle all the technical challenges accompanying a major game launch with the added hurdle of solving server issues for an online-only title. There were a few glitches involving an enemy spawning without notice and getting stuck in a corner, but none of these experiences hindered the gameplay. The servers have also held up quite well with only one lost connection during the review period.
At the heart of "The Division" lies the Dark Zone, the massive multiplayer area where players can band together to complete missions, take down harder bosses and earn high-powered loot. It's also a place where players can go Rogue and attack other players. Players control the dark Zone in a true Wild West approach. Getting to use any item outside of the Dark Zone requires an extraction. Players call in a helicopter to lift out the items, but during this time they are completely susceptible to an attack from non-player enemies and players alike.
The Dark Zone is Ubisoft's endgame for "The Division." With this area, "The Division" can have players returning to the game for years and Ubisoft can profit with paid expansions in addition to free events or updates. "The Division" had the biggest week ever for a new franchise, pulling in over $330 million in its first five days of availability. That means "The Division" topped "Destiny," a game it's been compared to quite frequently by critics and gamers.
Ubisoft needs "The Division" to succeed after two weak performances by the once dependable "Assassin's Creed," the time traveling action-adventure franchise. Until recently, "Assassin's Creed" was an annual property that was a highly anticipated event guaranteed to deliver big sales. After the bug-filled launch of "Assassin's Creed Unity" in 2014, sales for "Assassin's Creed Syndicate" in 2015 were sluggish. Ubisoft later announced "Assassin's Creed" would no longer be an annual event.
The company still has "Far Cry," "Just Dance," "South Park" and "Rainbow Six," but "The Division" could be its future much like Bungie's proposed decade-long plan for "Destiny."
"The Division' is the latest example yet of our unique ability to deliver immersive gaming playgrounds that keep players engaged, and that they eagerly share with their friends and community," said Yves Guillemot, CEO and co-founder of Ubisoft, in a statement.
Ubisoft laid out its year one plan for free content and paid expansions, but the real test for the long-term success of "The Division" will be the content released in the second year. As players adapt to the Dark Zone, Ubisoft will need to respond by providing updates, events and challenges. There could be a sense of ennui if there's not enough content to keep players engaged. Luckily, Ubisoft has laid the groundwork for success in "The Division" with great mechanics and immersive experience.
The game is available for Sony PS4, Microsoft Xbox One and Windows PC. "The Divison" was reviewed using a retail version for the PS4 provided by the developer.