This weekend, I made a return to the PS4 version of The Division to check out exactly how much the game's substantial 1.4 content patch has changed up Ubisoft's open-world MMO shooter.
I invested a fair chunk of time into The Division when it was launched in March of this year, and at the time thought it might well become a long-term obsession. Sadly, it was not to be: The endgame PvE content turned out to be a rather repetitive grind through a limited set of Missions that soon became old, and the PvP-oriented Dark Zone just wasn't rewarding or varied enough to maintain my interest over the long-term. Sure, it could certainly deliver an exciting adrenaline rush when you got into firefights with other players, but those moments were rare, and for the most part I found myself patrolling the streets repeatedly shooting at the same NPC enemy gangs in the same locations.
A major contributing factor to the endgame feeling laborious was the grind to garner loot so that you could tackle the higher-end, challenging dungeons. Firstly, loot was fairly hard to come by, and secondly, there seemed to be a gap between the lower-tier dungeons and the challenging ones that was difficult for many players to bridge. The loot that dropped in the former just wasn't quite sufficient enough to buff players to tackle the latter without the need for a very well-coordinated group, and as a consequence, it took a very dedicated player to be able to cross that divide. The Division's 1.4 content update attempts to fix that by adding four selectable world tiers to the endgame – 30, 31, 32, and 33. These essentially set the level of enemy challenge, and the loot that they drop to create a smoother transition through the endgame content.
It's a more logical system that lets players take the game at their own pace. Once your character hits, or at least comes close to the clearly articulated maximum gear level of a tier, you can bump it up to the next one and face off against tougher enemies and earn higher-level rewards. What really helps is that the amount of loot that drops from enemies has been significantly increased, so that your all-important gear level constantly feels like it's improving. It's much more progressive than the older game structure.
My first experience of this system happened the moment I logged into the game. I was in a safe house, and on the bulletin board, there was a single "Supply Drop" mission tasking me to venture forth into the world to secure a nearby cache that was being guarded by a posse of Rikers. I set the world tier to 32 – my current item level is at the threshold between 31 and 32 – and set forth into the snowy streets of New York, ready for battle.
The enemies guarding the supply drop were a combination of purple and yellow elites, and the ensuing firefight was quite a challenge in the wide-open intersection where the cache was located. I'd forgotten just how mobile you have to be while playing The Division. Enemies certainly aren’t afraid of advancing when they're strong in number, and I was forced to slowly work my way backwards as they used cover to close in on my position. What I did notice is that despite being high-end enemies, they were a little easier to eliminate than they were prior to the new content update. A lot of rounds were still required to wear down their health bars, but they weren't quite the unstoppable bullet sponges of yore.
However, while the enemies were easier to take down, I seemed to be taking more damage in the process. I'm not sure if enemy accuracy has been buffed, or whether it's simply a feature of the world tier I was playing at, but it seemed that the moment I broke cover, I was hit by multiple shots. This put me into a position where I had to play very conservatively, lure the enemy out of cover one at a time, and only fire off shots briefly before I ducked out of sight again. It made the action quite tense and gripping, and reminded me of exactly why I was so excited about the game when I reviewed it back in March.
By the time I'd taken down the Rikers, I'd been rewarded with one purple and two gold pieces of loot, along with a green set item. But the rewards didn't finish there. The Supply Drop I liberated also contained three additional pieces of loot, including another green set piece. That certainly made the considerable effort of securing the cache worthwhile, especially since most of the gear was useful to me.
After heading back to a nearby safe house, I spent a bit of time messing around with my gear and looking at my stats. There have been some fairly large-scale changes to the way itemization works, and gear now features all three major stats – firearms, stamina, and electronics – one of which is significantly higher than the other two. You can recalibrate a piece of gear as before, and this enables you to build out your character to more effectively suit your playstyle. For example, focusing on stamina gear will create a more tank-like character with high resilience, but lower relative damage. Likewise, you could wear more firearms gear for a high-damage character that's a little more fragile. Or you could go for a balanced approach with moderate skills in all three categories.
This is similar to the way it worked before, but there are more tradeoffs, resulting in characters whose secondary and tertiary stats are slightly more rounded, but less effective than they were previously. In other words, you can no longer create characters that are extremely strong in two different areas like you could prior to 1.4. I think this is a good change overall, creating far more meaningful decision-making over what stats you need for your character to best match your style of play.
Another major change that The Division's latest content update delivers is weapons rebalancing. This is something that I noticed immediately after I logged into the game – the DPS of my once best-in-slot SMG had dropped quite considerably, and my backup assault rifle is now a slightly better proposition. My secondary sniper rifle's damage has also been boosted, and that proved to be a lot of help when I was securing the Supply Drop. Overall, weapons damage has been tweaked to level the playing field, and thus make the choice of weapons one of personal preference and playstyle, rather than one purely driven by numbers.
Some weapons stats have also been simplified, and the importance of stability and accuracy has been increased. Using weapons mods enables you to tweak the performance of your gun, but, like the stats of your character, there are now benefits and drawbacks. Maxxing out the damage of your gun will result in a weapon that has more recoil and less stability, whereas taking the opposite approach will deliver a precision shooter that does less damage. Again, it makes for a more interesting game; one that lets you take your own approach to building weapons, rather than it being solely about DPS.
What I haven't had the chance to properly test out yet are the signature skills. As someone who tends to play healers and medics, I'm going to stick with my current build that's centered on personal and group health regeneration via recovery link. That has actually been buffed a little for 1.4 to make it more appealing, so I see no reason to change it. The vast majority of the player base currently takes survivor link, which has been nerfed to make it less essential. Tactical link has been buffed to deliver a 12-second "shooting frenzy mode" which sounds pretty useful in clutch situations, making it a potentially interesting pick over survivor link.
A new feature to the game is "Field Proficiency." This is a progression bar that appears once you hit 30. As you kill enemies, you earn experience that fills the bar, and once complete, you earn a Sealed Cache that contains gear and phoenix credits, and the bar resets so you can start over again. It's a nice idea that helps create a new avenue to garner loot alongside missions, incursions, challenges, and high value targets – and the Dark Zone, of course.
Plenty of other quality-of-life changes have been made to the game, and they're covered in the latest patch notes. For me, the standout tweak is that the loot table for pretty much every activity has been improved, dovetailing with the changes to the rest of the game to assist players with progression. Now, no matter what you do, you'll receive relevant and appropriate gear for your character.
For me, that's certainly enough to rekindle my interest in the game. Probably not for long – but I'll definitely be playing again to boost my item level so that I can try some of the more challenging missions that I didn't get the chance to complete earlier this year. Previously, they just felt out of reach for a person who only plays with pick-up groups, but now I know I can earn better gear and be a more desirable addition to a high-end group, it makes the effort of playing a little more rewarding and worthwhile.
Of course, patch 1.4 doesn't fix The Division's biggest issue – and that's the fact that its endgame still feels a little light on content. But at least it's made its highest-end challenges more accessible to players, and the grind to get there more interesting, smoother, and quicker. The Division is definitely a better game for these changes. What it really needs, though, is a new expansion pack to build on what is a great baseline experience.