by Dave Thier via Forbes

In many ways, The Division feels like the game Ubisoft has been practicing to make for years. Everything that we’ve seen in other games is here: the open world side mission structure, crafting, a story mission that weaves its way through exploration and progression — etc. It’s the sort of thing that lends itself well to the MMO format that the developer is now testing out, but not everything necessarily translates. After a few days with The Division I’ve plunged my way into a New York shattered by a smallpox epidemic, I’ve mowed down hordes of countless enemies and a bunch of other people I’m pretty sure were bad, and I’ve begun upgrading my weapons and creating what feels like a customized agent. I’ve also got some skinny jeans. There are plusses and minuses to the whole thing.

The Good: The Division feels grounded. The 1:1 recreation of Manhattan is one of the best I’v ever seen in a video game, and that’s only enhanced by the way your character moves through it. Your agent slams into cover with a sense of weight, climbs up onto ledges with the feeling that he or she is actually doing a pull up, and dashes from the back of a car to a traffic barrier with urgency and grace. It’s a pretty game, and it offers up its nightmare versions of familiar landscapes little by little, unfolding more and more of the story as it goes. On top of that, the squad mechanics and environments are fantastic. This is a deeply tactical game, and it only gets more so the more skills you and your group members acquire. Every area I’ve been in has multiple avenues of attack, multiple ways of approaching the same group of enemies, and excellent opportunities for cooperation when it comes to taking down high-level enemies. There’s a real sense of satisfaction that comes with a successful flanking maneuver or a well-placed turret, and that speaks to how well some of these encounters are designed.

It all comes to a head in The Dark Zone, Ubisoft’s blended PvE, PvP environment that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the game. There’s a real sense of danger in there from NPCs, other agents, and even your own teammates. And the fact that you have to call in a helicopter to extract any loot found in there lends a superb sense of structure to a jaunt to the Dark Zone. It’s a striking transition when you cross over that wall: all of a sudden you sit forward, your fingers arch, and you activate in a way that the rest of the game doesn’t quite ask you to do. My only complain is that I can’t spend all my time in there.

The Bad: So far, things are a bit of a grind. In some ways, it’s a similar situation as with the earlier parts of Bungie’s Destiny, but without those ultra-satisfying shooter mechanics to keep you on an endless dopamine loop. I found myself grinding out some fairly repetitive side missions just a few hours in: that may have been fine for an MMO ten years ago, but neither myself nor the market at large has as much patience for grinding as we once did. The gameplay works, but the shooting lacks that tactility that makes navigation such a joy. Even low level enemies have a way of absorbing a whole mess of bullets before going down, and you never quite get the feeling that your shots are making much of an impact. Armored enemies are even worse. More than one engagement I’ve found myself in has resulted in finding a safe spot and just slowly picking off small moments of health before retreating, healing, and waiting. That’s not a good place to be in.

The story is fine, but not remarkable enough to fall into either a good or a bad category: it’s there, with one faction of interesting enemies, a few passable characters, and more deep New York accents than you can shake a stick at. There’s a real troubling moral ambiguity about what you’re doing: trying to fix the world by shooting anyone and everyone, and that wears on you after a little bit. All in all, I just don’t always feel that drive to move forward that I get even from other Ubisoft games. There’s a plod here, which slows you down.

The Bleak: Things have been better for New York. while the worlds in which we gamers clomp around killing computer controlled enemies are never exactly friendly, there’s something particularly depressing about this one. Part of it is the weather: so far, New York is caught in a perpetual winter, with the streets covered in snow and rarely more than that a slightly brighter version of overcast to mark the daytime. Things are cold, people are desperate, and it’s starting to wear on me. That feeling is exacerbated by the relatively constrained environments. We’re in Manhattan, and only a small part of it at that. Unlike other RPGs, there are no verdant forests or parched desserts to be discovered. Instead, we’re trapped in a relatively sameish environment, shooting the same enemies with upgraded versions of the same guns. That’s my main worry about the game so far: that Ubisoft is going to be able to give me that sense of wonder and excitement that needs to come with MMO expansion content. Part of that will be well solved by just melting the snow and moving on to winter. Or maybe we’ll just be able to go to Grand Central and hop on Metro North.

And that’s where we are now: a solid beginning, but one that worries me about its ability to keep me interested in the face of higher-energy games. Those are my initial impressions, and I’ve put enough time into the game to get a sense of what it is. Still, I’ll keep playing, and the changing nature of an MMO means that there’s bound to be plenty more to see, so check back.

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