The Division’s opening minutes aren’t its best ones. From the moment you disembark from a helicopter bringing you right into the thick of things in Manhattan, a ton of information is thrown at you. An absurd number of tutorial boxes, waypoint indicators and voice-overs try to distil what you’re doing here, how you’re meant to get around and just what the hell The Division is all about. It doesn’t work all too well.
Thankfully that’s only really true for the first few moments, and in my close to six hours with The Division Beta I’ve come to understand the game and its many, many systems a lot better. There are still a few things that fail to explain themselves (there’s this number underneath the ammo count that for the life of me I can’t figure out), but for the most part it’s what MMO players have come to expect. There’s a lot of general stuff to keep track of in The Division, and that’s without the beta really opening everything up.
So the first few minutes I spent running around in the snow-covered streets of New York were frustrating ones. The beta’s first, and only, story mission was my first stop after liberating the Post Office which becomes your go to home base, tasking me with freeing some hostages so that I could open up my Medical Wing. This Wing is just one of three, with Tech and Security rounding out your three tiers of focus in The Division’s world. Only Medical is open right now, but engaging with either of them will eventually earn you talents and traits that can be used in the field, as well as access to special abilities. So things you need to take note of.
Back to the mission then. Upon entering the abandoned hospital my squad and I were tasked with making our way up while shooting anything that moved really, which is at the core what The Division is all about. The engagements themselves are rather exhilarating though, with enemy AI far too clever to allow you to just sit and wait. They swarm and flank when possible making tactical play a must in most situations. Numbers fly off enemies as you assault them with bullets, reminding you that this is still very much an RPG over straight up shooter.
The mission as a whole was fun, but not all that surprising in the end. It concludes with a rooftop fight which introduces you to the more boss-like enemies of the game, a few bags of loot and the establishment of your Medical Wing. From there the beta ends, with dynamic but repetitive side-activities popping up around the city. These reward you with experience, resources for a particular upgrade wing and loot, but mostly boil down to running to a point and shooting things up. Contaminated building twist things a bit and make these encounters a little longer, but they’re all par for the course right now.
And for a few hours, that’s all I did. I ventured around New York alone, exploring new areas and finding more missions to undertake. That in itself was a little treat too, with Ubisoft really pushing some fantastic environmental storytelling here. The pre-scripted Echoes sequences aside (that rendered an augmented reality playback of a past event), it’s the many open buildings that really tell more stories. Abandoned apartment blocks with backpacks all over the floor, supplies running out of the half-opened zips. Things went bad fast in The Division, and taking a little time to look around opens you up to some of the tragic stories that took place here. It’s incredibly engrossing.
It’s a shame that the open-world PvE elements it’s paired with seem so mundane in comparison (again, these are all just small side missions – and this is still only a beta) but thankfully that’s all kicked up to eleven once you enter The Dark Zone. These zones, of which two are open in the beta, are where you’ll spend a lot of your time hunting for loot. Hop over a fence, travel through a checkpoint, and you’re seamlessly connected to the world of other players and PvP. It’s a world of hostility as no one can really be trusted, littered with high level NPCs to draw loot from and sometimes use to get away from potential attackers.
Once you’re in the Dark Zone you’re put on the same playing field as everyone else. These zones have their own currency and level progression, and it’s all used to differentiate between player focuses in the game itself. It’s not just a distraction either. Most of the best loot I currently have in the beta is a result of my travels in Dark Zones. The trick here is that all loot is irradiated, and hence must be extracted via helicopter to be cleaned, prepped and stored in your stash. And that’s where the real magic starts happening.
Unlike NPC loot (which is assigned to players by the game itself), loot dropped by players is shared to the world. That means anyone close will be able to see it, and more importantly pick it up. It leads to some tense standoffs especially if you see a rogue straggler running past you and your team of up to three friends with a loot bag attached to his rucksack. The temptation to go Rogue and steal his loot is strong, even if the game cleverly doesn’t tell you what it contains. Conversely you’re free to just ignore the player and let him extract alone (or sometimes with you), and this surprisingly happened more often than not.
Back at E3 last year I had some reservations about how such a system would work, and pretty much admitted to myself that everyone would just end up going rogue all of the time. Around 50% of my time last night disproved that though, with large group of players gathering at extraction points and…well just being civil. Because no one knows who is aligned with who (and what loot everyone else has) the desire to start an eight man team fight is pretty small.
Most of the time we all just tensely looked at each other while waiting for extraction, analysing every move, weapon swap and motion down to a tee. The tension is thick at all times, and it’s what makes the Dark Zone so enjoyable. The unpredictability of human nature is on show here, and it just works so well
Of course there are those times where players just love to grief, but The Division has satisfying systems for that too. When you decide to start murdering other players you’re put into Rogue status, with a little skull and counter appearing above your head to denote this. In this state all other players see you as an enemy, and won’t go into Rogue themselves for engaging you. If they manage to take you down in that time, they earn themselves a nice cash and experience reward, while you lose a chunk of your own. If you manage to survive the counter, however, you’re put out of Rogue status and rewarded for that too – with the amount dependant on how long you were in Rogue for.
It’s creates these really dynamic setpieces where I often found myself actively hunting rogue agents after crossing paths with them, all in the pursuit of reward. It’s made even more exciting when the player in question has done so much bad that a global bounty has been put on his or her head, increasing the reward exponentially but also alerting any nearby players to their presence. What ensued most of the time was a collective hunt by friends and strangers alike, which in itself drives the world in The Dark Zone. It’s even better if you’re the one running away – which I personally managed to pull off after I left Gavin and a stranger we met online for dead in my wake. Hey, this is war.
The Dark Zone alone has sold me on The Division, and I see myself spending a lot more time in it than the standard PvE zones. Of course the game demands balance – some of the best merchants require high levels of both core and Dark Zone progression, for example- and I definitely see Ubisoft pushing for you to experience both in equal measure. In that regard I still have some apprehension, because there’s so much about PvE that I don’t like. The roads feel empty at times with not enough to do, the constant sprint between objectives boil to a chore and the side missions on offer in this (again limited) beta weren’t that captivating – even if the world was the exact opposite.
There’s also still some issues with the way The Division presents itself, especially when it comes to the UI. It took me around three hours to figure out that there were more consumables than just medpacks, for example, or the fact that I could tag enemies for my teammates. These are small but important parts to team play that aren’t explained well enough because of the game’s expectation of you to just get on with it, and I foresee a few issues. Crafting and more complex skill management isn’t even present in the beta and I’m still confused about certain equipment attributes, which doesn’t paint a great picture for the first few hours of play.
But if Ubisoft can somehow address that and engage with the testing done here thoughtfully, The Division has enough go for it to become a staple addiction. One more so than Destiny ever managed to be for me. Now excuse me, I’m heading back into the Dark Zone.
Last Updated: January 29, 2016