(18th to 21st February Xbox One Open Beta)
With a closed beta under its belt and an 8th of March release date fast approaching, over the weekend Tom Clancy’s The Division was opened up to the general gaming public for one last time before the big day. For such a widely anticipated game, I was really interested to see what it had to say for itself. Having ploughed through all of the single player content and much of the multiplayer offerings, I have to say that this is a game with great potential.
You’re dropped into a ravaged New York City at a point in the story that’s presumably an hour or two into the game- you start at character level 4. A deadly virus has led to the fall of civilised infrastructure in the place, with rioters infesting the lawless streets. You’re dropped off at a safe zone via helicopter and sent off to establish a base of operations. The two main missions available in the beta revolve around retrieving key people to lead the medical and technical wings of your base, while a slew of smaller “encounters” litter the streets. These encounters essentially task you with killing a bunch of dudes in the name of different tasks- save the hostages, defend the military good guys, secure the useful supplies.
In terms of gameplay, The Division is solid. Weapons handle well (with the possible exception of the pistols which felt weak and inaccurate), and cover and movement systems feel fluid. Moving between available cover is as simple as looking at where you want to go and holding down “A” while your character runs and, in some cases, mantles over obstacles to reach it. An ability is tied to each bumper button; in the beta, you can choose between a scan that highlights enemies around you (even through walls), a sticky bomb, a healing burst that can also be fired to heal allies, and a sentry turret. These abilities are tied into your wing progression, for instance building a clinic in your medical wing unlocks the healing ability. Developing wings also unlocks perks, but those weren’t available to play around with in the beta.
Jumping into combat unveils a system that feels like a mixture between classic Tom Clancy Tactical Games and progression-driven shooters like Destiny and Borderlands. Enemies tend towards the bullet sponge variety, especially when you enter the Dark Zone. Numbers even pop out of enemies as you put bullets into them. This might build up in the late game to erode the classically snappy, tactical feel to the Tom Clancy Game combat in favour of a more MMO-esque DPS grind.
I was very impressed with the level of verticality in the environments which is afforded by your character’s ability to climb up to most ledges that can be feasibly reached. Early on I decided to reach a waypoint making use of the rooftops rather than following the roads like the game wanted me to, and was delighted to learn that it was an entirely feasible route. This vertical design, paired a decent amount of buildings with explorable interiors, made The Division’s New York feel like a more fleshed-out and believable city than most games manage.
The game’s sound core mechanics of play are accompanied by a slick HUD. A small box appears beside your character with all of the information you need about your health, ammo and available abilities. Waypoints can be easily navigated to with the help of simple yellow line to follow that, unlike similar navigational mechanics in other games (cough Fable 2, cough Witcher 3) didn’t seem prone to confusion in my game.
Mission-wise there’s enough variation in tasks and enemy layouts that things kept interesting for the time it took to complete the available objectives. I feel that the hostage rescue missions would have benefitted from an actual threat to the captives in question, rather than simply having you kill everything and grab an obvious key next to the locked door they’re behind.
The Division’s real draw, at least in the beta, is when you gain access to the Dark Zone, a heavily contaminated area an area that blends PVE and PVP elements. Your goal is to hunt down group of enemies for loot, especially their named leaders which are more likely to drop better stuff. You also earn Dark Zone XP, which contributes to your Dark Zone level (higher Dark Zone levels allow you access to better Dark Zone loot, which is better than PVE loot). In order to use said loot, however, you need to call in a helicopter and extract it for decontamination. If you die before you can do this, your body can be looted for any precious stuff you’re carrying. And this is where the PVP elements come in.
A Dark Zone instance can hold quite a few players at once- at once point I was in the same place as about 12 other people. If a player attacks another player, the aggressor (and anyone else in their group) become marked as rogue agents for a time. Other players can see the location and timer on any rogue agents in the vicinity, and the rewards for killing a rogue player are more lucrative the higher their rogue level (which increases as they attack and kill more players). A rogue player can’t leave the dark zone until their rogue timer runs out or they’re killed. Dying in the Dark Zone causes you to lose Dark Zone XP and currency, and you lose even more if you’re killed while you’re rogue.
This whole business can lead to grudge matches that run for ages. A companion and I locked horns with a couple of adversaries for the better part of an hour before we conceded defeat and made off with what loot we were able to extract. There are some issues with players getting lucky drops and out-DPSing other players by a considerable margin, but that’s sometimes what you get in a loot-driven PVP scenario. I’m interested in what lengths Ubisoft Massive will go to in stopping high level players coming to low level Dark Zone areas and mopping the floor with the poorly equipped early gamers for fun.
It’s in the Dark Zone where The Division really came alive. Playing in a small group goes some way to relieving the stress of potentially losing a good half an hour’s worth of progress to other players, and the exhilaration of putting that hard work on the line made for some really memorable moments. I will say that the Dark Zone could do with some more structure, though. I had great fun for the duration that I played the game, but I can see endlessly searching and waiting on random enemy spawns could get monotonous.
With a group of friends, The Division stands to be a really good game that’s sure to result in some thrilling times. If you don’t know anyone getting the game though, and don’t feel like throwing yourself at the mercy of matchmaking with strangers, then I feel like the value of the game drastically goes down. We’ll know in a couple of weeks whether the game’s single player options have enough legs to justify a purchase for solo gamers.