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I spent a good portion of my weekend enjoying a beta build of Ubisoft’s newest endeavor: Tom Clancy’s: The Division, and as I sit to write this I have to admit it was hard not to start out with some harrowing description of my time spent in the dark zone (a PVP environment with generally better loot). But the more I thought about that experience, and the more I perused other online resources, the more I realized that my narrow escapes or my tense but welcome alliances with strangers was par for the course in The Division. There’s beauty in this games ability to take moments of betrayal and honor amongst strangers that you might tell your buddies stories about, and make them daily occurrences. Between the game’s stylish menus (think Dead Space) and subtle world building, I must admit I found myself wanting to buy what The Division was selling, and two years ago I might have; had the events of Bungie’s Desinty not played out the way they did after that game’s beta.
As I began my trek from the initial base camp to my soon-to-be base of operations, I ran into little bits of world building like finding collectibles in the form of left behind phones, recordings, ECHOES, and even an open window from an apartment overhead where a couple was arguing about bringing a baby into this new world. Though this conversation was poignant, and some of the phone conversations of life in NY before disaster struck were amusing, the ECHOES are by far the most interesting scenic event I saw that the game has to offer. One I found was near an empty food truck, and when I scanned it still figures of people outlined in orange dots popped up as audio played. Between these two, I was told a story of people trying to deliver food to the survivors of this disaster until they are attacked by a group of raiders. At first I found these ECHOES to a unique way of seamless storytelling, but eventually I would find a sidequest that actually made use of them to help me find a survivor and some nice loot.
Loot in The Division is broken into a multitude of categories, from weapons and armor, to grenade types and crafting supplies. I won’t talk much about crafting or grenades because the former wasn’t available for use in the beta and the later is pretty standard stuff with flash bangs, incendiary, and fragmentation. All the guns I found were real world guns and were the usual thoroughfare of assault rifles, SMGs, shotguns, and rifles. What really interested me in the weapons were the modifications that could be applied. Suppressors could be applied to reduce enmity from enemies, scopes could applied to increase headshot damage, and other modifications can be applied to not only give your gun some personal flair but to make it enhance you and your teammates play style. Armor on the other hand affects three things: defense, damage, health, and the effectiveness of abilities. I found a backpack (“armor” in The Division isn’t exactly traditional) that had weaker defense that my current one, but would increase my DPS (damage per second) by a great degree. I enjoyed the simplicity of the armor stats, and can see the possibility for letting players have easy and quick access to changing from a DPS role to a tank role with a quick swapping of backpacks and kneepads. The only other bit of loot worth mentioning was your characters general appearance, which is actually unmarried from your armor choices. While exploring New York I raided closets for new coats and saved innocents in exchange for trendy new shoes. These items had no affect on my stats but gave me choices on my character’s appearance like a more traditional MMO’s wardrobe or glamour system.
Upon completing the one story mission the beta provided me with, I was allowed to open the medical wing at my home base. This base building is actually one aspect of The Division I’m most excited for, as I think it gives the game another sense of progress and success to couple with character progressions. Your home base is made up of a medical, security, and technology wing; with each one affecting one of the three skill trees as they are upgraded. Though the beta only allowed the medical wing to be opened, a quick glance at the possible upgrades allowed for some easy inferences to be made about what upgrading the other wings might lead to. Resources for upgrading these wings can be earned from completing sidequests and events in the streets of New York, and the inevitable upgrades will allow you to enhance skills and alter how they function, as well as aid in how you build your character; but that specific function wasn’t available in the beta.
Gameplay feels solid, with shooting being responsive and snappy. I didn’t feel any exceptional drift or sway like some 3rd person shooters might have, though targeting seemed to snap pretty directly to enemies without an exceptional amount of aiming. The main thing about The Division’s combat I want to draw attention to, however, is the cover mechanics. Though at first it felt like the usual fare of pressing a button to snap to cover, it quickly became my favorite iteration of the mechanic I think I’ve ever used. Different pieces of cover to move to can be targeted, and by holding the cover button, your character will quickly and smartly move as directed. I was genuinely impressed at one point as my agent darted from behind a car, over two barricades, and into a doorway; all while keeping damage taken to a minimum with the simple press of a button. My hope is that the simple shooting mixed with impressive cover will result in firefights being more reliant on position, intelligent use of cover, and tactics, than the raw ability to point and shoot in both PvP and PvE.
Which brings me to the most unique aspect of The Division: a PvE and PvP environment known as the dark zone. After my one story mission and a handful of side missions, I was encouraged to try the dark zone to find higher quality loot. The in-story justification for this area is that it is still heavily contaminated with whatever virus wiped out New York, and therefor proper communication isn’t set up, making this area a lawless slum where even fellow agents can open fire and steal what should be yours. I have to admit, my first hour or so felt tense: seeing another player in the distance made me duck behind a car and watch them carefully. I panicked when I saw a rogue agent (players who have opted to kill other players and take their loot) appear on my map, and cowered behind a pillar until he passed as I was scouting an empty subway tunnel littered with bodies. I felt heroic when I rescued another player from someone trying to take his loot, enjoyed the silence and atmosphere of the dark zone’s shadowed streets, and even found amusement in teaming up with strangers trying to take out the more difficult NPC’s for loot. Yes, the dark zone is a place of ambiguity, with everything you do there netting you a different set of experience points for a “dark zone level” separate from your character’s level. I say a place of ambiguity because there’s no real way of knowing why someone might have such a high dark zone level. Do they delight in the killing and plundering of other players? Or are they a well-seasoned veteran just passing by to extract their own spoils?
Certain places in the dark zone are noted on the map, which I believe are more meticulously constructed areas by Ubisoft to encourage clashes and fights. One are called “Korea town” was a long narrow street littered with more cars and scenery to climb and hide behind than the neighboring streets. While these places are fun to trek through, I saw little combat occurring in them and didn’t earn any extra experience points for discovering them like I did for discovering new areas outside the dark zone. Actually, I didn’t see much PvP happening anywhere outside of helicopter extraction spots. These hotspots are where players can fire off a flare to call an extraction for the contaminated (and often superior) loot they discover in this treacherous space. Upon sending up your signal, you must wait for about a minute and a half for the chopper to arrive, then another few seconds for your character to load their findings. These precious few moments certainly feel intense, as I swung the camera around to make sure I wasn’t about to be attacked I breathed a sigh of relief upon successful extraction. While firefights in these spots are still enjoyable, I couldn’t help but wish there was more distance fighting in the streets rather than people trying to pop out of corners with shotguns in the tight spaces of the helicopter zones.
I enjoyed my time with The Divisions’s beta, there is no doubt about that. But as much as I wanted to avoid comparisons to Destiny, because I believe the two games can coexist in harmony and encourage healthy competition for one another, I couldn’t help but have the nagging thought of “is this all there is?” some people had back with Bungie’s FPS-MMO hybrid. I admit, I was not one of those people. I was sure Bungie was just giving us a taste and was going to pull back the curtain on so much more when the game launched. And while I enjoy Destiny and don’t regret the hundred something hours I have poured into it, I understand the struggle others might have with finding something to keep them coming back. Each side quest and extra task I completed in The Division involved going somewhere, shooting all the thugs, and letting a prisoner out of captivity. The dressing on all of this is delightful, and I can see myself losing hours to this game too, but I can’t help but wonder if The Divison will be less of an answer to the prayers of those who didn’t like Destiny but wanted to, and more of something else for people who already like the shoot-and-loot style of gameplay to sink their teeth into. If people were upset about Bungie’s decisions to add things like the currency of “Silver” and find ways to charge people extra here and there, I can already see where the hooks for paid content could be in The Division. Sure, it’s neat that I can find coats and hats and pants and wear whatever I want without affecting my armor ratings, but would I pay a dollar for Sam Fischer’s iconic 3-green-dots headgear? Or Ezio’s assassin coat? Sure, it might look silly within the context of the rest of The Division’s world, but someone would buy that for the right price. And while the slice of New York I was allowed to explore was appropriately depressing at first, I found myself wondering if I would grow tired of slogging through the same streets in the weeks and months after the game’s release. Sure, I can fast travel to a few bases, but will The Division only feel large because it takes forever to get anywhere? These are all questions I do not currently have answers for, but ones that I think it’s important we consider in a post-Destiny world. I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming The Division for the errors of those that came before, I just mean to convey that the challenge this game now has is undeniably colored by expectations of those kinds of games. I’m glad I got to play, and I feel confident that I’ll be buying the game upon its release, but until I see more I can’t tell if it’s scratching the shooter/RPG itch people with similar tastes to myself have, or if it’s actually a quality product a wide audience should enjoy.