9.5
Our overall verdict "gold"

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New York City has been ravaged by a nasty case of the sniffles. Wrapping up warm and inhaling Vapour Rub didn’t help and the pharmacies have run out of Night Nurse. The result is that the vast majority of the population have scalded their mouths on cheap generic Lemsip and have since expired. Enter you. You are part of The Division, a sleeper cell of agents on call to restore order to the world when everything else fails. Your job is to collect data on the killer virus that has nearly destroyed humanity and give a thorough spanking to those who threaten what’s left of the world. The Division is part cover shooter and part RPG. It’s single player and multiplayer. It’s a game most of us were a little suspicious of. The Division is also one of the finest games to hit PS4 in the last year.

Ubisoft are well known for creating enormous and immersive open worlds. Whether it’s the streets of Chicago, the cobbled and filthy alleys of 18th Century Paris or the swelling Caribbean oceans, there’s no doubt Ubi are the masters of open world architecture. The Division’s New York is no different. It’s huge, there’s massive attention to detail and it looks pretty realistic. Some buildings can be entered, some fire exits can be scurried up and some roof tops can be trampled over. While it doesn’t have the interactivity that Assassin’s Creed Unity’s Paris had, it is still a gorgeous playground to have an epidemic in.

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But having a beautiful city to romp in isn’t enough to make an excellent game. It needs some content. Well, it’s certainly got that. The RPG side of things ensures the game map is not only dotted with destinations, it is also absolutely smothered in side-quests, encounters and collectables. There’s certainly plenty to do in old contagion town. Once you unlock the safe house in an area, all the missions open up for your gaming pleasure and it’s up to you how and when you tackle them. Many of the side missions are useful for levelling up, awarding you with a nice little chunk of XP that can quickly build up. They’re particularly important if you’re looking to solo play the main missions and you want to go in over your level to make sure you don’t get crushed like a cute bunny under a coconut tree.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, The Division is an online game. That means you’re permanently on an online server. Although there is no offline mode and you’re subject to the whims of server downtime and maintenance, the game isn’t necessarily standard multiplayer fayre. If you are a solo player, the game is perfectly playable. As long as you keep your busy backside out of the Dark Zone, you never have to bump rifles with another player. All missions are playable solo, as is everything you unlock on the map. We’ll talk about the Dark Zone later, but if you’re not interested in PvP or co-op, you can pretend the Dark Zone doesn’t exist and it will not affect the campaign in any shape or form. In fact, many players avoid the Dark Zone until the End Game. More on that later, but multiplayer-phobes can sleep at night knowing that they can scamper the streets without the terrible fear of sighting another player. With the right privacy settings turned on, no random player or friend can join your game.

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However, playing with others is a game-changer. The Division works as a single player game, but multiplayer is infinitely more fun and it’s clear that Ubisoft want you to play it this way. There are Matchmaking options galore. You can search for other players to freeroam and hook up for an extended period, or each mission has its own separate Matchmaking options. It’s this that altered the entire game for me. Yeah, hands up, I’m a phobe. I don’t like multiplayer. Scrap that. I didn’t like multiplayer, but The Division doesn’t shove this way of playing in your face. It doesn’t force you to play with others. You don’t ever feel like you’ve picked up a multiplayer game and you have to opt out. Instead the Matchmaking and ease of inviting friends to your group feels like you’re opting in. It eases the pressure and it means that you don’t get stuck playing for hours on end with a stranger who doesn’t want to play your way. You can roam that map solo for as long as you want and when you’re ready for a big mission, you can get a team together in less than a minute and when the mission is done, you can drop out and continue on solo until the next time you want to team up.

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From a technical point of view, the Matchmaking is pretty good. If your level is fairly low for the mission, it will team you up with slightly higher players and vice versa. It means the mission will always feel balanced. Once you hit level 30 and you start taking on the Challenging difficulty mode, you may find that players will drop out of your team due to its difficulty. A Challenging mission may take an hour to complete or it might take four. My record in the Powerplant Challenging mission was eight players dropping out in three hours. However, as long as you have your group set to Open, eight new players will drop right back in. Of course this means that when you Matchmake for a mission there is a small chance that you might get dropped in right at the very end. If you do, congratulations on an easy win.

The only other problem I came across was being grouped with another random and two foreign-speaking players who definitely knew each other, talked without stopping for breath and so kindly booted me and the other player out before things even got going. A decent co-op experience is partially based on the behaviour of other players. Generally, though, even as someone who is usually terrified of other people, I had a great time in every mission, even the one where one player did nothing for ten minutes, the one where the other three players clearly thought they were in the Grand National, and the one where no one had heard of tactics or higher ground. Half the fun of co-op is dealing with the wiley ways of other players and it’s not unusual for no-one to speak for the entire mission. On one occasion, the only word I heard was an extremely helpful ‘Behind you’ which certainly saved my bacon. On the other hand, an embarrassing wrong turn by another player in the final mission led to a good laugh, some broken ice and for the two of us to wander off into the Dark Zone together like two level 30 virgins.

Yes, The Division can be played solo, but there’s no doubt that if you can give it a chance, it’s better with other people. Strapping on a mic and playing with friends is even better. Who knew a deadly virus and the near extinction of mankind could be so hilarious. I can’t tell you the fun I’ve had getting absolutely slaughtered because we’ve all hunkered down in exactly the wrong place, or the giggles we’ve experienced doing roly polys through the Dark Zone. Seriously, co-op, with the right people, changes everything, and Ubisoft have done a magnificent job of both containing the multiplayer and making it extremely accessible and enjoyable for those who want it.

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The Dark Zone is without a doubt an ingenious and incredibly fun part of The Division. You can go in at any time but you’re likely to die a quick death if you’re either alone or at a very low level. Don’t be in a hurry to get in there. For me, the Dark Zone is an End Game activity. Some people have said that the game only really begins when you hit the level 30 cap and I admit I was dubious about that statement. But I’ve been at the End Game for a couple of weeks now and am happy to report that as much as I loved the campaign and the (fairly sparse) story, I love the game a hundred times more now. At the time of writing this review End Game activities consist of Daily Challenges on Hard and Challenging mode to earn Phoenix Credits to obtain High End gear, and the Dark Zone. We’ve also had word that ultra hard End Game Incursions and both daily and weekly assignments are coming.

The Dark Zone has its own levelling-up system which can go up or down depending on how successful you are. This is the place where you’ll get all that really High End loot, but finding good gear and, more importantly, keeping it, is tougher than an overcooked octopus. You’ll have to fight your way through huge gangs of sub-boss level and boss-level NPCs, and even if you manage to pick up something decent from their dead carcasses, you’ve still got to get it out of the Dark Zone. Take it to an Extraction Zone, clear more high-level enemies, call the helicopter, wait the longest and most excruciating ninety seconds of your life, fight more NPCs and then hopefully attach your new gear to the helicopter without dying and dropping all that lovely loot on the cold hard ground. All that is hard enough, but when you have to deal with Rogue players, things become extremely interesting.

The Dark Zone is the only PvP zone in the game. Team up with three friends or randoms and go loot-hunting. Other players will be doing the same thing and will often mind their own business, get their own loot and if you’re lucky they might help you out in a fight and share your helicopter. Or they might shoot you in the face and steal your stuff. Crossing paths with other players is always a gamble when you’re carrying loot and it’s never more dangerous than at an Extraction Point. My entire team was taken down twenty seconds from extraction when a solo Rogue (a player will be marked as Rogue when they attack a neutral player) was clever enough to pick us off one by one while we fought off an enemy mob. The Dark Zone is a brutal place. It’s also occasionally a little bit empty. You can go hours and only see a couple of other players, when other times it’s teeming with people. There are currently no objectives or missions as such, but at the time of writing this review it was announced that supply drops were being added in the April update, giving Dark-Zoners something extra to do. I think it’s highly probably that the Dark Zone will continue to evolve as so far Ubisoft have done a fine job of tweaking, fine-tuning and, most importantly, listening.

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For a game that is basically a cover-shooter, the RPG elements are pretty great. Not only are you levelling up in the main game, you need to think about levelling up in the Dark Zone which is completely separate and also vital if you’re going to stick with the End Game because that’s where all the good gear comes from and oh boy are you going to need it. Your stats are critical to gameplay and how you gear up can change everything. At the beginning of the game you don’t get stuck picking one single class. Instead you develop your character using gear, weapons and mods. You can be the tank, you can be the group support and healer, you can be the long-distance sniper or you can choose a balance between all these things and change it whenever you please.

Being a solo player or a regular group member will to an extent determine how you gear-up. As you play through you’ll unlock talents, perks, abilities and ability modifications. You’ll eventually unlock two ability slots (not including your signature skill) where you’ll need to decide between skills such as healing stations, turrets, sticky bombs and shields, but how well these work will also depend on your Electronics stats. If you’ve chosen to stack Firearms and Stamina stats, for example, your skills will not be quite so important. It’s up to you to decide how to weight your character, but chances are all your stats will go up and down while you try to build up your Firearms and turn your innocent Vector SMG into a deadly monster. And of course no RPG is complete without a spot of crating. Buy and find blueprints to craft new weapons and gear plus a whole heap of mods that can completely change a weapon and re-weight your main stats.

In-game mechanics are good. The cover-to-cover system works well and I can’t say I miss having a crouch button. Being able to automatically run between cover spots over long distances is by far a more appealing option. Unfortunately movement does suffer a little from Ubisoft’s clumsy tendency to bump into door frames, and manoeuvring quickly in critical, close-call situations can be awkward and annoying, leading to a death that could have been avoided if movement was generally a little more streamlined. Still, at least you’re not accidentally running up trees and flagpoles.

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Shooting mechanics are spot-on and every gun type feels different. It’s likely that most players will become attached to particular types. I prefer an LMG for long to mid-range combat and I’ve crafted and found mods that have doubled the magazine size, made reloading much faster, greatly improved stability and dramatically increased the range. From a distance, I can take down multiple enemies without needing to reload. It’s a beast. The marksman rifles are also pretty nifty and feel heavy and substantial when fired. Again, mods have the ability to massively improve this weapon and if you’re going to go hunting in the Dark Zone, a double-hard marksman rifle with an improved range could take quite a few unsuspecting Rogues by surprise. There are plenty of weapons to choose from and it’s very likely that as Year One rolls on by, we’ll be seeing more.

I can honestly say that I’ve spent almost every moment of free gaming time on The Division. I’ve played solidly for a month and I’m not even close to being bored. Updates to the game are coming quickly and half the fun is hunting out the right gear in preparation for the new Incursions and whatever else is coming over the next year. Does the game begin at level 30? Yeah, it does, but probably only if you’re into the multiplayer. From the looks of things, single-player in the coming Incursions will be impossible for most players and I certainly can’t even solo the current Hard or Challenging Missions. Co-op is the future of The Division and I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

Conclusion

A great cover shooter with a huge open world and lots of RPG-style stats to tinker with. While the main game is single-player friendly, it does get tough towards the end if you’re solo. This game is made to be played with others and when you do it is enormous fun. Of course, this is just the beginning. Once you hit the level cap, there’s still plenty to do and plenty more coming in future updates. The Division is well worth the AAA price tag and has a longevity that looks to rival any other MMO-style experience. Possible Game of the Year.

S J Hollis Rating – 9.5/10

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S J Hollis

S J Hollis has been a keen gamer since the Atari 2600. She freely admits she thought E.T. was a good game but would like to stress her tastes have since dramatically improved. She is also an author, a morning person and thinks Elf ears are sexy. Follow her on twitter @SJHollis_