My first vision of Manhattan is a street lined with body bags. They’re arranged in neat lines on each side of the street, as if ushering me into the city. Snow glistens on the concrete, cut by freshly melted tire treads. Somewhere in the distance, I hear the report of an assault rifle.
After spending a few hours with Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division, one thing I can say with certainty is that it has a powerful sense of drama. For a game based largely around shooting bad guys online with friends, it has a remarkable sense of pacing and mood. It’s dynamic, in the musical sense: loud, tense gunfights, separated by periods of exploring a ruined New York City in overwhelming silence.
In The Division, New York City has been ravaged by a plague and folded into anarchy. (Don’t stop us if you’ve heard this one before, lest we be left with no games at all.) The police, the National Guard, and the military have all failed to regain control in the city, which leaves a handful of renegade, top-secret government agents who answer to no one and play by no rules except their own. To truly highlight the lack of creativity on display here, this organization is literally just called “The Division.”
It’s what you do with the premise that counts, though, and that thin narrative hook serves as the set-up for a third-person action game set in a detailed, chaotic husk of Manhattan. It’s a game designed with the same rough framework as Bungie’s Destiny, which that game’s developers called a “shared world shooter”: you’re one of a seemingly infinite number of Division agents, each operating in pocket worlds that overlap in social areas and when inviting other players to do a mission with you.
Due to the game’s online functionality, Ubisoft decided to hold back on review copies until the day before release, so at the time of this writing I’ve only spent about four hours with it, and the servers are far from full capacity. I’ve yet to be able to explore the game’s player-versus-player areas, called the “Dark Zone,’ due to a level barrier I haven’t quite met.
My experience, then, is more of a rough sketch than a full portrayal. It’s the outline of a game with a more powerful grip on tension than climax, more skillful at building drama than delivering action-movie thrills.
Its rendering of New York City is dense and haunting, and the only way to travel is on foot. You’ll spend long periods of time simply creeping along abandoned streets. These might be the game’s most riveting moments so far; the setting has a subtle way of communicating menace. It’s in the way the light reflects off of the snow, the way rats and birds flee from your wake. In The Division, all of New York City has a way of looking the way the sky looks just before a tornado hits, poised and majestic. There’s an abiding sense that something threatening might happen around every corner.
Because The Division is an action game, those threats come, but when they do, things feel less inspired. The game handles a bit sluggishly, and like a lot of shooters where taking cover is a necessary option, there’s a messiness to the controls—a tendency to slip out of or into cover accidentally, likely at the worst possible time. There’s nothing exceptional or novel about the way guns handle here, or the way combat plays out: Shoot, hide, maneuver, and shoot again until everyone’s dead. Collect any loot left behind, then move on.
But even here, there’s tension that giving the scene more potency than it might have otherwise. In the last mission I play, I end up in a shootout outside the Lincoln Tunnel, which in Ubisoft’s Manhattan has become a graveyard for abandoned cars and general refuse. Working with another player, I lead a team of shooters slowly through the wreckage, ducking under sniper fire and picking off enemies.
As my partner moves up the middle, absorbing fire from all directions, I creep my way up the right. Explosions and automatic weapons chatter burst around me. My primary weapon is out of ammunition, so I use a small submachine gun, sneaking up close and cutting down distracted enemies. I make my way close to the enemy leader, a sniper on top of a turned-over truck, and wait for an opening. When it comes, I’ll unleash everything I have.
In this moment, The Division feels like more than a mediocre shooting game on a wireframe online structure. It feels like a communally crafted military thriller, fully in command of its presentation and style. What remains to be seen is whether or not that sense of drama can maintain itself over long hours of play, after all the missions run dry and players reach the top end of the level spectrum.
I can’t know that yet, but right now, with the fires of the Lincoln Tunnel behind me and adrenaline buzzing through my mind, I also can’t bring myself to care.