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The Division review

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A week after the release of The Division, maybe we’re finally in a position to pin down exactly what this big budget genre hybrid is. Maybe not, though. In the run-up to the launch of this ambitious online open world action RPG, countless comparisons have been made to Destiny, Bungie’s own MMO-tinged shooter, though that only goes a very small part of the way towards understanding what Ubisoft Massive has conjured up here. Given that The Division is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of Ubisoft’s maximalist design philosophy, it might be simpler going through what it isn’t.

The Division is an open world game for starters, taking in a broad and authentic recreation of a Manhattan abandoned in the wake of a virus outbreak. It’s a beautiful, eerie backdrop for an ever-growing checklist of objectives. The veins of the map are lifted from every other Ubisoft open world game, so you’ll likely be familiar with the underlying pulse: head to an unexplored area, unlock a safe-house, and your to-do list will bloom with side-missions, collectables and mini-encounters. Tick them off and then watch the XP trickle in as you work towards the level cap.

It’s a cover-based third person shooter, too, and a pretty effective one at that. Hunker down behind concrete pillars, car fenders or office desks as you work your way through mobs of enemies, peering out into the crossfire to nail a headshot. The gunplay isn’t a major step forward; its impact is muted by enemies who swallow up whole clips of ammunition, and nor is it overly refined, but encounters are lent a dynamism by a smart cover system that applies itself well across the map, and combat gains the brilliant kick of panic that marks out the best of its type as you scurry between objects under duress of fire.

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Look beyond the horrendous UI and The Division can be a stunning looking game, where snow storms and changing conditions paint the city in all sorts of beautiful light.

It’s an action RPG as well, with an appetite for loot, loadouts, perks and abilities that pushes you towards the constant optimisation of your character. The Division’s the kind of game that will deafen you with noisy gunfights but where you’ll find the real excitement hidden within its messy nest of menus, after realising you’ve got a new pair of gloves to equip that will push your DPS ever higher.

Finally it’s an online game, where you can partner up with a squad to take on The Division’s many challenges, to mop up its extra-curricular activities or see through its main missions. Even if an online connection is always required, it’s possible to play through The Division entirely solo – and it’s viable to walk away after some 35 hours once the final story mission has been conquered and be reasonably satisfied with an atmospheric, well executed open world shooter.

There’s more to it than that, though, and while The Division is a hybrid of familiar components it has a personality all of its own. A certain clumsiness defines much of it – witness the baffling horror when ten years of vogueish game design come crashing together in one UI – yet more often than not it finds harmony in its disparate parts, becoming one of those rare games that lives up to its original premise. When all those cogs are whirring together, it’s perhaps the finest game to emerge from the Ubisoft machine in years.

Part of The Division’s personality is a little obnoxious, admittedly – this is a Tom Clancy game after all, that believable real-life setting and delectable premise coming with a side order of a questionable worldview and a story that would be objectionable if it weren’t so forgettable and fumbled in its delivery.

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Enemy AI’s one of the stumbling blocks, and if you despaired at Destiny’s cheese you probably hate the platter that The Division tends to serve up.

You’re never quite sure if The Division’s self-aware enough to acknowledge the irony of having you go after looters in your pursuit of your sweet, sweet loot, or of the nastiness of you waging war on the disenfranchised working class left in the city by your privileged enclave of career professionals. It’s a game that’s quick to appropriate the imagery of 9/11, the snow-frosted streets recalling the ashen aftermath while makeshift memorials to the recently dead sit on street corners, but it that wears the veneer of tragedy too lightly, and too awkwardly.

The Tom Clancy name brings something else, thankfully, and in the tactical gunplay that comes alive towards the endgame, there’s a callback to the strategy within series such as Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, and a reminder of those games at their very best. The Division is smart to place an emphasis on its RPG elements, and smarter still to utilise a fluid class system that lets you dip in and out of its many toys and tools on a whim.

It encourages you to experiment, and allows you to tinker with squads until you’ve come up with the perfect alchemy of fantasy tech: flame-throwing turrets at one end and medpacks that can be tossed into the fray to revive downed allies, all sparking off each other while you sync up buffs that double your chance of hitting a crit. The lexicon of the modern day shooter quickly loses its aggressive sheen and becomes something far nerdier, and it’s all the better for it.