Ever since its impressive reveal back at E3 2013, my enthusiasm for The Division waned to the point where I wasn’t interested at all. A lack of gameplay and lost faith in Ubisoft’s products (having been disappointed by Unity and The Crew) meant I didn’t want to get my hopes up. However, after really enjoying Assassin’s Creed Syndicate I felt like a second chance was in order, and so I made sure I gave the Closed Beta for The Division a fair chance. Despite there being only a small vertical slice of gameplay in the Closed Beta, I managed to get a sense of exactly what The Division is aiming to be, and more importantly decide if I should be adding it to my list of anticipated games this year.
For those who don’t know, The Division is a third person cover shooter with RPG elements and MMO-like persistent progression. Taking place after a bio-weapon is unleashed in New York during Black Friday, players are sent in as Agents to retake the city from dangerous elements who hunkered down during the chaos. That’s pretty much all the story that was included in the beta (with only two main missions available) but it’s quite clear that there will be strong narrative aspect present in the full game.
While the character customisation options were locked for the test, the randomisation highlighted that there should be enough options available to keep players happy, especially as it appears the main route to personalisation will be through clothing and armour (more on that later.) Once I had found a combination I was happy with, I jumped into the first portion of the game – an in-game cutscene featuring my (mute) character.
When I finally gained control I was seriously impressed by the level of detail injected into the game world. Not just from a visual standpoint, but from the way the world tells its own story as much as the NPCs and audio logs. For example, the capsized aid ship in the Hudson River suggests sabotage and conspiracy, and the memorial wall with messages to loved ones killed or missing amplifies the despair of the in-game world. Even going past a store with dozens upon dozens of unsold Christmas trees sets the scene that this is a city that didn’t have a clue what was going to happen, and is all the more immersive for it.
Oh, and yes – there are pooping dogs, which meant I was watching every step I made. Damn realism.
Of course, what you’re probably more interested in is if the gameplay is any good and, more importantly, fun. Comparisons to Destiny are fair ones to make – both are loot-based shooters with persistent online progression, after all – but I’d go as far as stating that initially there is more in common with Defiance than there is with Bungie’s online shooter. From the way weapons and their modifications work, to the three kinds of weapon slots, to the way both open world and instanced missions are handled – there’s a lot that is familiar with Trion’s F2P title. However, unlike Defiance, everything seems much cleaner and slicker in execution. Having AAA-studio resources clearly has its advantages, and the end result is a more enjoyable experience.
Familiarity with cover-based shooters (and other Tom Clancy games, more to the point) meant I slipped into the action with ease. For example, mechanics like spotting enemies and grenade-throwing markers are there, but while using cover as you’d expect there was one aspect I really liked. Being able to target another position to run to by holding down the cover button provides great ways to flank enemies, as well as trying to escape incoming danger. Meanwhile, being able to climb the environment provides verticality you don’t normally found in similar online titles. Sure, it’s not entirely ground-breaking stuff, but it comes together really well.
In regards to the AI, I found it got better as I experienced higher level content, but it could still be wildly inconsistent. For every time I found myself being swarmed and flanked, there was another where I would be picking them off in a row. Again, when playing the Rescue Mission on hard I found the AI upped its game, especially the boss at the end who laid down suppressing fire as his lackeys flanked me, but certainly in the open-world parts I explored the combat could be trivial.
Or, at least they seemed trivial when I was racking up all the satisfying headshots. /flex.
The map encourages exploration with lore items to find and side missions to complete, but it would have been nice if Ubisoft had pointed players towards the situation boards (which activate them) before sending them off to the Post Office (which acts as the main base for the player.) I ended up missing a bunch of side missions until I had realised my mistake much later, and had felt like the map was lacking content as a result. Again, I appreciate it’s just a small sample of the game, but it had me needlessly worried.
Speaking of missions, they’re the usual sort of thing you’d expect from the genre. Fetch this, kill that, defend this box until friendly NPCs stand around it cheering. While it appears the main story missions will follow a similar formula, there were several aspects about them they I did like. For instance, I was able to repeat the Madison Field Hospital level as many times as I liked, as well as increase the difficulty for better rewards. I also applaud how the difficulty was raised even higher depending on how many players I was grouped with (thanks to the easy-to-use matchmaking system.) Rewards seemed to scale as well, meaning I was always getting potential upgrades.
This conveniently leads me to discuss the progression systems, and how its flexibility impressed me during the Closed Beta. Much of it ties to the Post Office base that becomes the player’s home, as completing missions grants upgrade points for the three departments there – Medical, Tech, and Security. By completing missions you can upgrade them, which in turn unlocks new abilities for your character to use. You’ll definitely want to upgrade them too, as options are limited to just a radar with a damage buff, a sticky bomb, and a riot shield initially, but I really liked how you could swap between them as needed. The same goes for the modifications you unlock later on, and while you can only have two active at a time, I feel there’s plenty of variation depending on your playstyle.
Equipment also plays an important part in unlocking new abilities, and in turn creates a loot grinder feel that is on par with titles like Diablo. Weapons can be upgraded with mods for better accuracy or faster reload, but rarer weapons feature passive Talents that can boost other skills or give a chance to do AoE damage. The thing is, they can only be used if the player has the right Firearms, Stamina, and Electronics rating – all of which are affected by armour pieces. I found myself often deciding between better protection or keeping a high stat rating so I could keep my Talents. I personally love those kind of decisions, but your milage may vary.
Making the right call with that is even more crucial when you head into the Dark Zone. The much-publicised lawless zone of The Division is as tense as you might imagine, as the risks are real while the rewards potentially greater. Having to extract gear before it can be used creates mini-events in themselves, as rogue agents (or, as I like to call them, murderous swines) can loot your items before you can airlift them. Losing XP and money is also annoying, but not so much as saying goodbye to that sweet new armour you just picked up. But hey, you know what they say about New York minutes…
The Dark Zone certainly isn’t as hardcore as DayZ or H1Z1, but the threats are just as real, and the accessibility makes it all the more enjoyable. It’s also optional – you could spend your entire time just doing missions in the safer areas, but if you can find some friends to team up with you’d be missing out on some intense gameplay. I do have one criticism, though, in that there was one point where I was running around trying to find enemies, loot, or events for ages, and found nothing. Perhaps I was just unlucky and other players were getting there before me, but it was pretty annoying.
From a performance standpoint, I was highly impressed by the smoothness of the gameplay on my aging PC rig. Ranging between 30-40 FPS depending on how much gunfire was happening, I never felt like I needed to lower my graphics settings. That said, I was confused by how the game initialised with 2715×1527 resolution when my monitor and OS settings are maxed at 1920×1080. It certainly made figuring out how to work the menu a challenge as the prompts were all off-screen. Another technical gripe was with pathfinding to interactions. There were a number of instances where my character would be stutter trying to open a door or turn something on. I certainly hope both issues are resolved before the next (rumoured) beta, let alone the release in March.
However, the important question is if The Division Closed Beta has done enough to raise my anticipation – the answer to which is a resounding yes. The loot grind is addictive and fun, the combat satisfying and capable of a challenge, and the customisation looks deep and flexible. Of course, this was just a vertical slice of what is supposedly on offer, so as long as there are plenty more missions and events in both the Dark Zone and its ‘safer’ counterpart, and there is plenty of post-release support so it doesn’t stagnate like Destiny has (twice), Ubisoft could be onto a winner here.
In short, if what I saw in The Division Closed Beta is representative of the full game, I can honestly see myself spending many hours wandering around Ubisoft’s New-York-themed hellscape.
Tom Clancy’s The Division releases on March 8th for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.