The Division is a flawed masterpiece: beautiful at times and frustrating at others.

Playing The Division is like owning a temperamental cat: at times, the experience is the pleasant and rewarding one you hoped it would be. At others, you’re left to wonder why you even bother since it decided to hiss at you and scratch your face when you only tried to love it.

The Division, a copy of which The Post received at no cost from publisher Ubisoft and will be donated to Operation Supply Drop, is a third-person shooter with a heavy emphasis on online multiplayer that takes place in post-apocalyptic Manhattan during the holiday season. After Black Friday shoppers come in contact with contaminated bills, a mysterious man-made virus spreads like the plague and engulfs the city, killing most in its path. It’s up to a special military unit called "The Division" to find a vaccine and take back the city from the looters and factions that have taken risen up in the aftermath.

The player fills the role of a Division agent tasked with cleaning up the mess and building a base of operations in Manhattan. The core gameplay is divided among main missions, side missions and encounters.

Main missions make up the bulk of the experience and advance the storyline. Those missions include taking out faction leaders and uncovering clues to develop a vaccine for the virus. Side missions are usually one-off mini-missions involving crime bosses and missing persons that only take a few minutes to complete.

Encounters are short as well, and dozens of them populate the map. They involve protecting supply drops, assisting military officers, rescuing hostages and more. Surprisingly, there is a fair amount of variance in the types of missions and side missions available in The Division. Although the player will end up going through the same basic motions (particularly in encounters) several times throughout the game, the missions are varied enough that the repetition usually isn’t stifling.

All of the above tasks earn the player XP and points that can be used to upgrade the main base. In return, each upgrade provides the player with some sort of bonus.

Those bonuses include new player perks, the ability to craft or recalibrate armor stats, stations for refilling materials and more. Unlike other games with central hubs, the one in The Division feels alive. Because the player can upgrade it much to his or her own desires, the benefits really fit each specific player’s wants and needs.

Then there is the Dark Zone in the center of the map. The Dark Zone is a heavily contaminated free-for-all area where friendly fire is activated. Players can try their luck against NPC foes and other player-controlled agents to get in, collect high-level gear, and extract it for decontamination before getting killed. The Dark Zone is an intense area, and its risk vs. reward nature makes it a fun place to explore (as long as overpowered bullies don’t gun the player down and steal the loot).

To cap off all that content, there are also hundreds of collectibles strewn across Manhattan that tell the stories of some of the people who have lived and died in the chaos. In all, The Division has a lot of content, and the story is surprisingly strong, especially for the Destiny-esque game it is.

Yet, in nearly every other aspect, The Division is a flawed masterpiece. The world, for example, is intricately designed with a level of detail unparalleled by any other game that comes to mind. Walking down the street, the player might see a husband arguing with his wife, thugs whining about how the government screwed them over and people succumbing to hunger or disease before his or her eyes. Even stray dogs bark at passing NPCs and snatch the occasional bird that comes too close. On that micro level, The Division is exquisitely fleshed out.

But on the macro level, the city feels generic and bland. Every street is a desolate, snowy mess littered with crashed cars and dead bodies. Aside from the occasional distinct marker (maybe a big wreath on the side of a building or a distinct statue in a park), it’s hard to tell one street corner from the next. For a map of it’s size, Manhattan offers little environmental variance. Fast travel is only enabled to locations the player has visited, and there are no modes of transportation aside from running (I understand the city is low on gasoline, but it’s odd I can’t just steal an abandoned bike or something). So getting from Point A to Point B for the first time is a long and boring journey broken up by the occasional firefight.

AI behavior is similarly polarizing. On one hand, the standard soldier AI trade shots with the player in surprisingly human ways. They work together to try to draw the player out of cover while also having the intelligence to keep themselves out of danger. Fighting a crew of standard NPC foes feels realistic and is quite satisfying.

But battles are dotted with elite units; usually snipers, high-ranking henchmen and faction bosses. Snipers have god-like accuracy and can take out players with a single shot. Shotguns in the hands of NPCs have ridiculous range and elites with assault rifles can take out a player in only a handful of bullets.

The AI skill issues are augmented by the fact that leveling in The Division is painfully slow. The player can either choose to slog through several side missions to obtain the recommended level for a given story mission, or he or she can jump in under-leveled instead. Most players opt for the latter since leveling properly brings the flow of the game to a grinding halt between missions; although the side missions are fun enough, there are only so many a player can complete in a row before getting burnt out.

As a result, the player lacks the appropriate armor and weaponry to be properly protected for missions (armor pieces also have level requirements) and dies repeatedly at the hands of the aforementioned NPCs.

The slow leveling system is a global problem in The Division that ends up affecting everyone because those who decide to play by the rules are still brought down by other random players during matchmaking who don’t. When a team of four goes into a given mission, it’s rare for even two of them to be appropriately leveled; most players are between one to three levels too low for a given mission. High-level players end up babysitting and chronically reviving under-leveled players all the way through the game.

Going solo through missions is an option, but it is just as frustrating since the attention of all enemies ends up directed at one player rather than at four. All of the leveling issues result in great frustration for the player that could easily be fixed through a patch to increase XP gained per mission. It’s not that I expect XP to be handed to me, rather the slow leveling affects the entire pacing of The Division in a negative way.

Most glaringly, The Division is buggy. I’ve been killed by a sniper who somehow shot through several walls when he couldn’t even see me. I’ve had encounters reset progress midway through completion or even stop functioning completely, rewarding me with no XP. I’ve had matchmaking attempts fail. I even had to redo an entire story mission because the game never marked it as complete the first time I finished it. The game is noticeably unstable.

But it hurts a bit to say all those negative things about The Division because it managed to provide some of the most organic, fun, memorable moments I’ve had in gaming this year. The game’s final boss is a great mix of difficulty and intensity. Venturing into the Dark Zone is a blast. Comparing armor and weapon specs and upgrading items to my own wishes ate far more of my time than I’d like to admit. The story has actually hooked me and has left me deep in philosophical thought since it wrapped up. Even the tactical, cover-based gameplay is an incredibly welcome change to the standard run-and-gun nature of most modern shooters.

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Looking at The Division as a whole, I see two sides. On one side, I see the kind of game that shakes up the genre just enough while providing an experience similar to, but more tactical and in-depth than, Destiny. On the other, I see a buggy, unfair, frustrating experience. When playing the game, the player unfortunately must deal with both sides, which is a shame, because at its core, The Division has what it needs to be a stellar game. But it lacks the balance and refinement necessary to quash the glaring issues.

Score: 3.5/5

The Division was released March 8 for PS4, Xbox One and PC.

@GS_Matt