Ubisoft promised us they’d be honing in on the last three letters of “MMORPG” in their new and ambitious release Tom Clancy’s The Division, and stat-nerds would be hard-pressed to argue that they haven’t nailed that part. At any point, your customizable sleeper agent can take a break from flitting through the often ghostly and deserted streets of a post-pandemic New York to call up detailed, opaque menus that chart the stats and damage rates of every weapon, pair of gloves and tech skill under what feels like a slowly dying sun. If tweaking your sets within an inch of their lives is your cup of Red Bull, well then, guzzle up, ’cause there’s a lot to mess with here.
There’s so, so much detail to admire, beginning with the weather effects, which wouldn’t seem to be the first point of praise in a post-apocalyptic third-person shooter, but hey, those snowflakes falling on the decimated streets of Brooklyn are enough to make you stop and notice everything else, from the goofy nods to other pop culture properties (an Adventure Time mural?) to the spray-painted “stay strong” messages that seem like exactly the sort of thing spooked survivors would tag on the side of a burned-out van. Turns out those folks are both needy as hell — what do I look like, a vending machine? — and endless repositories of great strategic clothing upgrades.
It’s interesting that the game’s early levels almost seem easier to navigate solo than with a group — the levels of the enemies in the scripted encounters scale up with the size of your party. But once you’ve passed level 10, the real draw becomes the anything-goes Dark Zone, where those scripted instances that go off like thrill rides at a dystopian Disneyland give way to a wild-west PVP party that’s as thrilling as it is deadly dangerous. Sure, you’re going to be on the receiving end of a ton of headshots here, but if you’re willing to risk talking before emptying your M1A cartridge into everything that moves, you might actually find a few allies, and the high-quality loot you could score by doing that makes the risk more than worth the gamble.
The Division takes a lot for granted, including key things like the player instinctively knowing that rolling away from enemy fire by double-tapping the cover button and moving the right stick is a good way to avoid getting trapped in a respawn-a-thon when the firefights get a little too intense. (Let’s just say that your AI enemies are magna cum laude graduates of the School of Flanking.) Or that breaking down subpar weaponry into parts that can be used to craft better, higher-level guns — shades of Dead Space, baby! — is a far more effective path to highly coveted hardware than getting taken to the cleaners by the various vendors.
As you’d expect, there’ve been growing pains in this smallpox apocalypse. Some early collision-detection issues cropped up, resulting in hilarious instances in which other players’ avatars ended up blocking your access to key mission points and the trusty safe-house hubs, creating even more of a waiting-for-the-amusement park ride feel than Ubisoft ever intended. Thankfully, these have been hammered out.
Given the immense intellectual and financial investment Ubisoft has sunk into making massive open-world games that mix single-player and co-op their Next Big Thing, it looks like Manhattan will be the shooting ground of choice for some time to come...and may even be the bullet that finally finishes off Activision’s declining Destiny franchise.
Tom Clancy’s The Division (rated M) is available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC for $59.99.