Tom Clancy’s The Division: A Not-So-Divisive Review
Almost a month has passed since the release of Tom Clancy’s The Division. A month of leveling, modding, destroying, laughing, and even some shouting. There have been somber moments juxtaposed with adrenaline-fueled action. All without any immersion-breaking load screens. So what is it about The Division that sets it apart from the rest of this year’s releases?
The foremost item on my list that puts this game ahead of its peers is the engine. There is an almost exhaustive list of minute-yet-meaningful details this engine is capable of. I won’t bore you with my entire list, but some must be discussed.
One some may not have noticed: guns smoke after being fired; now, I consider myself somewhat of a hoplophiliac (one who loves guns) and this detail is extremely important to me. While yes, the smoke is more Hollywood than reality, the team at Ubisoft took the time to research which smoke more, or less. The team also took wind and lighting into account. For example, my lovely Covert SRS DMR smokes more without the suppressor than it does equipped. I will only see my M1911 smoke if the wind is blowing just right, or if lighting is prime. Minute details, folks.
The second of note, just as important to me as its predecessor, is this game’s dynamic weather systems. It is absolutely amazing. I could be trekking along Broadway, the sun glinting off the high-rises and skyscrapers of Midtown when, suddenly, the clouds begin rolling in and I am engulfed in a full-blown snowstorm. And these storms are not to be contested. Some of these storms, I was unable to even see the stoop of an apartment from the street. The day/night cycle is just as wondrous, the differences in lighting are both visceral and beautiful.
Unfortunately, these are not my own screenshots. I have been too wrapped up in the game and forgot to upload my own.
The day/night cycle is just as visceral and the lighting is absolutely pristine.
Once again, the devil is in the details. From the smallest textures and dynamic lighting, to the largest of snowstorms, the Snowdrop engine is possibly the best engine to make its way in this market. Yes, even better than Unreal 4.
At its core, the entirety of The Division is about details. Environment immersion is nothing if the narrative does not carry it through. Likewise, the narrative feels disjointed if gameplay is naught but lackluster. All of these must interplay as if they were children at a daycare. If Tommy doesn’t share his blocks with Tiffany, she gets upset. When Tiffany is upset, Brian gets hit with a Barbie doll. Odd metaphors aside, each attribute must fit like puzzle pieces to form a complete image and usually, that image unifies each piece. In The Division, that image is detail.
Let me dig a little deeper. We already discussed the minutia of environment and immersion, but how does that fit in with narrative? The answer lies not within cutscenes, or dialogue. Nay, the answer is a trifecta. A Cerberus of detail that–if viewed separately–seems meaningless. The answer is within (insert sound of shock here) the open world activities. “But, Tony,” I hear you interject, “you said it was a trifecta! Where are the last two parts?!” Worry not, my friend.
The open world activities give way to something extremely important to the game’s (while quite linear) heart-wrenching and all-the-while thrilling narrative. All the Echoes, all the phone recordings…all the incident reports…they, quite obviously–are narrative devices, literally telling the player a story. It’s not much to do with the main line, no, but it is–in fact–something more. These Echoes and recordings take the player to a different part of Manhattan. Places where one may not have traveled on their own. Places where either something heinous and grisly occurred, or something heartfelt and, more often than not, heart-wrenching as well.
It is here where the true narrative is exposed. It’s not about your player character. It’s not about the virus. It never was. It was about New York City. It was about her inhabitants, and the legacies–whether good, or bad–they left behind: One survival guide took me into a particularly destroyed apartment block where I found an Echo as well; trash is literally a story high, piling into the street. Cars have overturned and tractor trailers jackknifed. This particular unit had been pillaged more than likely at the start of the pandemonium. But this Echo…showed me what it was before. It showed me the life of an unsuspecting family. A man was lamenting to his wife about his career, how he was sick of being stepped on. She, unknowingly with child, began to comfort her husband, telling him they would find a way out; little to her knowledge then, what that way out would be. Some time passes within the Echo, though it is not obviously noted. It was long enough however, for their baby to have been welcomed into this world. Screams and gunfire could be heard in the streets, over the din of a crying child. Mother and father frantically packing bags. Shouting about the best things to take, to try and escape. An unfamiliar voice echoes from an unseen shadow. Two gunshots emanate and the shouting ceases. Yet, the crying baby carries on.
I lead my character into another room, where I would find possibly the most saddening scene in any game in the past few years: the unmistakable ivory bones of a baby, left orphaned before he/she was old enough to call them Mommy or Daddy. Life snuffed before it even began. It was likely this child suffered. Without a caretaker, he/she would have starved and ultimately passed from dehydration.
It is this kind of minute narrative that holds The Division together. And the game is littered with them. Most, not nearly as heart-wrenching as the scene we just relived, but all important in their own way. So, now you see the Cerberus rearing its ugly, drooling heads. The open world activities lead to scenes from the outbreak and without the environment immersion those scenes would lose a lot of heart. While not varied in design, these activities fill the gap between cutscene and gameplay.
Whew! Now that narrative is out of the way, let me (hopefully briefly) discuss end-game content. It IS an MMO after all and The Division does not disappoint. Let me raise a caveat before continuing: The Division DOES take a page from Destiny in that your character level caps at 30, and, depending on your gear, you will level further. It also brings back the use of daily missions as well as loot from the Dark Zone (The Division’s PVP section, taking most of Midtown). That is where the comparison ends.
All of the gear you see in the shot above (again, not my character) is in preparation to the paid (and unpaid) expansions due to release over the course of the game’s shelf life. While I obviously cannot comment on how that translates to us in the future, I can tell you that my time with Destiny was not nearly as fun as my time with The Division, even after capping at 30. I became excited when trying to outfit my character with the best gold gear. And that–coupled with something of a cliffhanger (the main campaign WILL carry on in future expansions) is the motivation to reach past the end and breach into the unknown.
I give Tom Clancy’s The Division a