- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2016

A biological weapon infects the citizens of New York City and only one covert government organization can save the Big Apple from devolving into a state of anarchy in Tom Clancy’s The Division (Ubisoft, reviewed on Xbox One, Rated Mature, $59.99).

In this addictive third-person shooter, an intriguing premise explores what happens when an unsuspecting population collapses from a mutated version of the smallpox virus called Green Poison, which is launched through paper money on Black Friday.

Just to put the ridiculous appeal of this game in perspective, I have now been recruited to “The Division” as part of my daily routine for the past couple of weeks, with over 30 hours in, and have barely scratched the surface of this immersive, open-world adventure.

Specifically, each night I spend a couple of hours controlling my customized agent who looks like a cross between Bono and Dolph Lundgren.

Agents patrols the streets of Manhattan to find main and side missions such as killing hooligans, protecting food and medical supply drops, rescuing civilian hostages, assassinating bosses, collecting and uploading data on the virus to computers and backing up remaining law enforcement and government personnel who are trying to restore order.

Diving into firefights against always heavily armed opponents is often a death wish. Besides the recoil on the guns making it hard to effectively target an enemy, the bad guys have a tolerance for absorbing many bullets before crumpling to the ground.

That often led to a massive gnashing of teeth as even walking down a seemingly quiet alleyway could turn into a gun battle that I would lose quickly.

Between gun battles, the action liberally mixes upgrading weapons, armor and clothing, crafting items and enhancing skill sets.

That plethora of upgrade options is one of the key appeals to the game and will cause a well-resourced agent to continuously fiddle with his supplies.

Vendors also tempt at every base and safe house, offering a steady stream of parts, weapons and bonus gear.

Better yet, most of the stuff can be broken down for parts to allow new crafting options or to be sold for cash to buy weapon modification, grenades and more items.

I could methodically take hours to get that right scope and suppressor on my P416 or grip and magazine for my Scar-H assault rifles.

Once I reached level six with my character (the current level cap is 30), life became slightly easier, but missions opened up that were even more challenging requiring me to save key personnel and accumulate supplies to operate tech, medical and security wings of a base of operations in the old Penn Station building.

However, the primary objective is still killing and taking cover while killing.

While in the hostile field, that cover system is pretty smooth for the player. Not as responsive as “Gears of War,” but an agent can easily move from barrier to barrier by his holding a controller button.

Of course, that did little good when most of the pocket of enemies I ran into kept throwing a near-unending supply of stifling tear gas grenades or, worse, incendiary devices leading to, you guessed it, more deaths.

Despite my disgust with constantly dying, what kept me going was wandering around a winter wonderland of Manhattan, ready for the holiday season, but with little to celebrate.

I have never seen such a detailed array of garbage bags and junk piled up in the streets while enjoying weather conditions deteriorating before one’s eyes into a snowy mess or appreciating the gentle falling of flakes upon corpses.

The agent truly exists in a marvelous recreation of New York City, moving from neighborhoods such as Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen to famed locales such as Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden.

He is able to enter ransacked electronic stores, pass closed pizza joints, admire a deserted hotdog stand and stroll by an abandoned Christmas tree lot, with trees still wrapped in plastic mesh and a cardboard Santa standing and waving.

It’s worth noting amidst the urban splendor, death feels all too real.

I’m fine with terminating zombies and mutated humans and even invaders to our country in other video games over the years, but not as thrilled indiscriminately killing misinformed citizens that believe the U.S. is ripe for a takeover while chaos rules.

These dangerous clowns come in a variety of shapes and aggressive levels. For example, thugs wearing hoodies travel in packs, or crazed bands of cleaners wearing containment suits wield flamethrowers.

As far as the story, anyone just thinking this is just a massive shooting range will snap back to a sobering realty of the situation with something called ECHO (Evidence Correlation Holographic Overlay) markers.

Walk over an icon and see a virtual and monochromatic re-creation of crimes against humanity play out on the streets, such as the panic in a food line or those cleaners lighting up a vehicle with two innocents still inside.

Those who wish to not go it alone in this deeply dark universe, can band together with up to three other agents, meeting up in safe houses and headquarters to cooperatively take back New York City. Matchmaking to quickly hook up with a friend or new agents are both seamless processes.

Also, to further the action, players eventually unlock the Dark Zone, a massive multiplayer arena where agents work together or fight one other and hordes of bad guys.

An agent has the option of going rogue, killing a fellow warrior, and other agents must go after him and eliminate the threat.

A whole new set of gear can be acquired here, but there’s a catch. An agent must get the new goodies to an extraction zone for decontamination, send a signal flare and must now wait for a helicopter to show up. You can bet it’s going to be a constant firefight to keep that new bounty.

When I give out my last energy bar to a thankful citizen, “The Division” became an addictive way of life and akin to a much more somber and oppressive version of the sci-fi shooter “Destiny.”

Suffice to report, I’ve never been so agitated playing a video game but so consumed by its minutia and thrilled by even the smallest of successes.

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