Tom Clancy’s The Division is exceptionally well-designed. Every aspect of the title feels thoughtfully crafted, from the subtle ambient details of birds and rats fighting in the streets, to the more overt loot specs that are easy to judge at a glance yet hold huge potential for you to develop your character with its additional traits. Indeed The Division is a labour of finely honed MMO gunplay wrapped in quality and care, resulting in an experience that immerses and entertains for hours on end.

The snow and sleet filled streets of New York hold promise and danger around every block, with loot and collectables generously scattered around the city, guarded by the wonderfully reactive and savvy AI enemies that take cover effectively, aggressively push up and attempt to flank, and overall show a military-esque determination and skillset that challenges you to think tactically and match it. Meanwhile, the Dark Zone replaces the AI with an even more cunning and deadly enemy: fellow players, who stalk you relentlessly to steal your loot, or worst still, travel with you as an ally before turning on you. And despite stiff challenge from named AI enemies, large groups and higher level foes – or of course your fellow man – the quest for loot and the immersion of intense gun fights keeps you hooked.

The same can’t be said about the narrative unfortunately, it’s a clichéd viral outbreak, complete with conspiracies, military and intelligence agency heroism, and societal breakdown in the tried and tested Tom Clancy style. You are a highly trained sleeper agent that is only to be activated if society completely breaks down. You are a force of order and justice tasked with restoring the status quo. After a viral outbreak you and your fellow agents are activated in New York and must aid local authorities in securing the city and freeing it of looters, armed gangs, and general reprobates, and restoring order. As you go about finding resources, restoring power, saving individuals and gunning down those thriving on the chaos, you gradually uncover more threads to the overall plot through video and audio recordings. It’s a fractured storytelling technique that can leave you unsatisfied with what precisely is going on but is just about intriguing enough to keep you searching for more clues. Fortunately the story very much plays second fiddle to the objective of restoring order, which surprisingly is more than enough of a driving force to keep you engaged.

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This engagement is aided greatly by how well practically every aspect of the game is implemented. You’re HUD floats next to your character, denoting ammo count, ability cooldown, health and consumable count, yet its streamline design and semi-translucent effect prevents it from being intrusive. In fact its centre screen positioning just makes it easier to view and manage. Meanwhile, full menus sport a similar design with a clear intuitive layout that shows you precisely what you need to see to manage your inventory and compare loot stats, as well as modify weapons and attribute abilities to button slots. The map is where things get a little more complicated, with the holographic city-scape and multi-coloured mission markers, collectibles and player icons making it look cluttered and busy. However, a mission list is accessible with a click of the shoulder button, that clears that up immediately and makes mission selection simple. Either way, selecting missions on the map or list results in an information box that states level recommendation and offers fast travel if you’ve visited the area before.

Missions largely revolve around taking cover and participating in gunfights with groups of enemies, but The Division throws some nice variety and intractability into these combat scenarios. The locations range from the snow covered city streets with a day and night cycle and weather effects mixing things up for each mission and even mid-mission. Meanwhile, sewers and building interiors provide a selection of close quarter encounters as well as mid-ranged combat in cluttered, highly detailed subway stations, shops and stadium encounters. And with the AI’s aggressive and clever movement and combat strategy, your awareness is frequently tested as enemies try to flank you and the frontline of these small skirmishes shifts back and forth. It’s a truly intense and highly satisfying cover-based combat system that feel visceral and different.

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As you work your way through the missions you’ll accumulate loot in the form of wearable equipment, weapons and weapon mods, and in true MMO style you’re have to swap out equipment depending on play-style and stats. However, it’s not as simple as equipping clothing with increased armour or weapons with increased damage, each piece of equipment has different modifiers that can affect your overall accuracy, health, experience point accumulation, etc. as well as being aligned to one of the three wings of your home base of operations: medical, technology and security. This adds additional traits to equipment relevant to the wing, such as increased damage from sticky explosives or increased health recovery from med packs. It’s a system that’s full of depth and variety yet one that’s still intuitive, allowing you to craft a unique character specific to your play-style.

Indeed collecting all this loot and determining which pieces of equipment best suit your character is a time consuming and compelling task, and forms the main crux of the experience once the missions are completed. Venturing into the Dark Zone yields the best drops, if you can stay alive long enough to extract what you find. The Dark Zone is a weapons-free area where players are just as likely to kill you and steal your loot as help you. But once that loot’s collected it can’t be permanently claimed until it’s extracted by helicopter. With other players also trying to extract their precious loot it gets terrifically intense as you weigh up the risk of extracting at a busy extraction point or pushing on to extract elsewhere or after players dissipate a little. Moreover, the temptation to kill your fellow players and steal their loot is often overpowering. It’s all too easy for a group of friends to jump into the Dark Zone with intensions of collecting loot and extracting fairly only to terrorise everyone you come across like a wandering gang. It’s fantastic.

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You’re free to take on missions solo but The Division really comes to life when you tackle them with friends. A matchmaking system is in place to play with the wider community as well – which can prove just as entertaining as it does with friends – but in my experience the community were largely fickle and disconnected mid-mission. As such playing with friends is certainly the best option, especially with solo play proving frustratingly difficult in later missions and when alone in the Dark Zone. However, proximity voice chat does make for some excellent moments, particularly in the Dark Zone where yours, or another player’s silver tongue can lead to situations of betrayal or heroism.

Indeed The Division provides a terrific action MMO with a focus on small squads to conquer the challenges rather than the genre’s traditional large parties, and as such provides intense cover shooting fun for solo players and groups alike. And whilst the collection of more and more powerful loot is the main draw here, the gun fighting is an absolute blast that makes replaying the missions at higher difficulties a wonderfully compelling task to test out what you’ve equipped. You’ll need a few friends to get the most out of the experience, and the lack of any sort of scaling to accommodate significant level discrepancies between friends is a shame, but otherwise The Division is superb.

We bought our own copy of the game to bring you this review