When you set The Division's missions to hard you completely change the way it plays. It transforms from a third-person shooter into an excellent tactical shooter, up there with the Rainbow Six: Vegas games.
I love the Rainbow Six games, from the original, more tactical entries to the two Vegas games that take the action in a more arcade-y direction. Rainbow Six: Siege is great too, but if you were hankering for the single player campaign of Vegas, which sees you fighting through sprawling levels clearing each floor of a building of enemies, you would have been disappointed. Siege is largely a multiplayer game about two teams fighting over a small space–it's fun, but different.
The main change that hard mode makes to The Division is that it more than triples the enemies' health. Now, one of the most oft-repeated criticisms I've read of The Division is that the enemies are bullet sponges: that's sort of the case on normal difficulty, where enemies can take half a clip, but it's really true on hard, where most enemies will see you emptying a clip, reloading, emptying another clip and then crying over your headset for your teammate to take down the bullet-riddled man with an axe running towards your position.
The brilliance of the bullet sponge, though, is that it means tactical play isn't an option but a necessity. The AI, which Keza and I both found to be pretty lacking in our early impressions, really comes into its own when it can survive long enough to display its tactics. Last night, I was playing through a mission that sees you clearing a department store of flamethrower-wielding gang members. These guys were extremely tough and built for close quarters fighting.
The first two times my friend and I pushed into the building, we were torn apart. The heavily-armoured gang would play to its strength, sprinting across the shop floor to close the distance between their spawn and the counters we were using as cover. The flamers would then torch our cover, forcing us to move into the open where other enemies in cover could shoot at us. If ever we pulled back there would be chaps throwing molotov cocktails at us, forcing us out of cover again. All this fire was relatively easy to dodge but it kept us from firing back, and it distracted us from the real enemy: guys with fire axes and shields who could carve you up in seconds.
We spent hours working through that level, and we only ever progressed when we came up with a plan. We'd synchronise firing our grenade launches so that we tore down the armour of the same enemies. We would use cover and suppressing fire so that while one of us held the attention of the enemy the other could flank and get shots on them from another angle. Each space had to be navigated smartly, making use of the cover, the choke points, and what we and the enemies could see.
By the final boss we'd fought hard to take every foot of that building.
Taking down a 6ft guy covered in thick armour - and swinging round a flamethrower that could spray lit fuel a good 20ft - was the biggest challenge of the night. We had to split up, one of us drawing the slow-moving boss out of the centre of the room where he could set fire to cover all around him into a corner where he was less effective, while the other would try to take out the enemies coming down the escalators. It took us more than an hour to kill him and it involved one of us climbing up to the next floor up to fire down on the boss from above and behind, while the other had the unenviable task of circling him and drawing his fire.
When we finally took him down and got the mission complete message, the extra XP and better item wasn't important, the mission had left us exhausted. It had made us exploit every one of The Division's systems to gain an advantage. I thoroughly recommend playing missions on hard mode - but only if you're playing with a friend or two.