It’s daylight when I step into the food court. It’s a dinky sort of place covered in grime and snow that’s fallen through the ceiling window. A few bandits stand near the kitchen, hassling some hostages. I creep across the court, taking cover behind a table. A couple of them are chatting. One of them is yelling at the scared hostages. I peek up over the top of the table. The man closest has his back turned to me. He’s wearing a hoodie over a baseball cap. There’s no armor on him. In his hand he clutches a pistol. Easy.
I unholster my rifle and take aim, putting his head in my crosshairs. I fire, expecting to remove one of them before becoming embroiled in a firefight. My target stumbles but doesn’t fall to the floor like a rag doll. He turns, a jumble of tiny numbers spraying out the side of his face in place of blood, like I’d just shot a paper ball at his head instead of a bullet. He yells, alerting his buddies to my position.
Whatever excitement I had for The Division instantly evaporated in that moment. For the first 20 minutes of the game I had wandered the city, examining the quarantine tents, the wrecked cars, and broken buildings, drawn into the chaotic world by the sheer amount of detail in the environment. And then all of that careful world building was just dashed to pieces in seconds. The Division is clearly being presented as a gritty third-person shooter/RPG hybrid alternative to Destiny, and it’s a shame their shared combat design ends up being the game’s most crippling flaw (so far anyway).
The Division is billed as part of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy game lineup. For the most part, Tom Clancy games like Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell force players to rely on tactics or stealth when engaging enemies and reinforce the need for that tactics-driven gameplay by making the player’s character fragile. Gunfights in these games aren’t long affairs, with a victor usually decided within the time it takes to unleash a single burst of gunfire or use a flashbang.
The Division’s combat is different from the Tom Clancy games mold in the most unremarkable way possible. You take cover behind corners, you peek out from behind them, and shoot dudes. The straightforward gunplay is unsatisfying because it’s just too clean and nonsensically cartoonish for the realistic setting. Shooting unarmored baddies in the head with a round from an assault rifle won’t kill them and firing a bullet in the arm or shoulder will give the same stagger animation if you shoot them in the foot. To make matters worse: in a number of encounters the enemies just keep on coming, one after another, blasting away or running toward you with a bat in their hands, two of them taking the place of the one you just shot so there’s not even a sense of progression. It’s violence that’s somehow frenzied and dull all at the same time. It also creates a major and distracting tone clash.
The problem with The Division isn’t that it takes the Tom Clancy franchise in a new direction (there’s nothing wrong with taking creative risks with established series, after all). Even if you were to remove the Clancy brand from the equation, these firefights would still be dull. The Division takes the gritty atmosphere considered part and parcel of those Tom Clancy games and uses them as a backdrop to the fantastical style of combat seen in the likes of Borderlands and Destiny, and those two elements mix about as well as oil and water. The bullet-sponge enemies work in those two series because neither of them are making any effort whatsoever to ground themselves in realism. Both titles are centered on you and your friends killing monsters to earn better guns to kill even bigger monsters. It’s okay for enemies to soak up round after round since they’re armored sci-fi creatures that can only be felled by jolly cooperation and ridiculously powerful weaponry.
In both Destiny and Borderlands you can acquire wacky, distinct weapons during your travels. These guns not only deal higher damage than common weapons, but they also have modifiers that make combat more exciting, allowing you to inflict extra fire or electric damage. This leads to a sense of satisfaction when you watch your damage stack on a foe during a boss battle. From what I’ve seen so far in The Division, the weapons you get are more or less the same weapons you find in every generic military shooter. Pistols. Assault rifles. Submachine guns. All accounted for without a lick of imagination or intriguing design. Firing them isn’t even that entertaining because they feel so underpowered. Where finally bringing down an enemy in other shooters might result in an enjoyable animation where a head disappears in an explosion of light or a body dissolves into green goo, in The Division enemies just slump to the ground, giving no immediate payoff to all the time I spent pumping rounds into them.
The Division has been pitched to the public by Ubisoft as an RPG first and a shooter second but more more than anything else, my time with the beta felt like I was playing a shoddy Gears of War clone set in New York. The world is filled to the brim with great details that makes exploration a joy and the foundation for an interesting story is certainly there. However, we’re not talking about a game where exploration is the central piece. With The Division you’ll likely spend most of your time shooting enemies, and the combat just isn’t strong enough to set itself apart from the sea of competent shooters already available.
With release a few months out, Ubisoft still has time to refine these mechanics so shooting isn’t such a slog, but I’m skeptical that there are viable major revisions that will keep the gunplay from being anything other than an immersion-breaking nuisance at best. Still, a few tweaks like somewhat realistic enemy stagger or even just blood splatter on clothes could go a long way toward making combat feel more like more than another dull virtual shooting gallery. The Division’s world is supposed to be a dark, ruthless one where the threat of violence doesn’t settle for lurking around every corner. It kicks and screams and dares you to join the fray, but for now it has more bark than bite.