Thanks to my somewhat recent action-y shooter kick, Tom Clancy’s The Division was pretty much square in my sights. Although it’s been kicking around development Hell for some time, the release date of March 2016 pinned it down well enough for me to start taking a look at it with a more serious eye, and what I saw I liked, and what I liked caused me to pre-order for the XB1*. I chose the XB1 because my previous experiment with a semi-static group in Destiny on the XB1 lead me to believe that The Division** could serve in much the same way. The jury has actually gone to recess on that one as of late, but at least my pre-order has allowed me instant access to this past weekend’s beta test.
You take on the roll of a member of the eponymous “Division”, which is some kind of rapid-deployment yet covert (it’s a Tom Clancy property, after all) emergency response team. There are always going to be medical and managerial personnel who pop out of the woodwork in these extreme crisis situations, but what we don’t really think about are those who will be charged with restoring order. Since the military are always portrayed as inept or heavy-handed, and since the “every man for himself” crowd of “preppers” are about as useful to humanity as toilet paper in a hailstorm, it’s up to The Division to do what’s needed to remind people that we didn’t spent thousands of years marching towards a more civilized society just to cowardly piss it away when the shit hits the fan. Speaking of shit hitting the fan, this disaster took the form of a smallpox plague transmitted via paper money exchanging hands on Black Friday of some unspecified (i.e. “the near future”) year. As people became sick en masse and society started to break down in New York City, everything goes to hell.
I’ve heard The Division being talked about in terms of Destiny, Defiance, and even Gears of War, all of which I consider to be complimentary, but none of which provide a complete “ah ha!” shorthand to how The Division plays. Like GoW, you get that third-person over-the-shoulder point of view, with no options for first person. You get three weapons: a primary and secondary, and a sidearm. You have both gear — which provides stats for DPS, armor, and health — and appearance items — which play absolutely no part in your stats. Also like GoW, there’s a cover system which works wonderfully: almost any flat surface can serve as cover which you can sneak around or vault over should you need to, and aiming the reticle at another flat surface and holding down the “A” button will allow you to roady-run to that alternate location so you never have to wide-expose yourself to incoming fire.
So with that overview, let’s talk about specifics in paragraph form so I can make sure I get everything mentioned that I think needs to be mentioned.
New York City – Patient Zero
If the visuals for The Division do not make you say “whoa…” at least once, you should probably seek medical attention because you’re minutes away from death. I don’t really know how accurate the representation of NYC is that we’re dealing with (probably somewhere between “spot on” and “not even close”), but regardless of the name on the borough, this is one hell of a world design. Apocalyptic trash is so en vogue right now, what with The Walking Dead and such, and The Division can easily hold it’s own in that regard. You can tell where in the city the emergency response was started, and where it started to peter out as you spiral away from your base of operation. Mounds of trash are everywhere and abandoned vehicles abound, but there’s also a level of “gotcha” that would accompanied a rapid onset plague, which is something you don’t see in service of “let’s trash this place to convey the level of seriousness” we usually get from post-apoc media. A lot of regular life is still kind of intact, with cars lined up neatly on either side of a street, Christmas lights strung up and still working, and even apartments that you can wander through which show that not everyone is a rampaging looter, dead, or gone.
Half the fun of the game is just ignoring the map objectives to wander the city streets marveling at the level of detail that Massive has put into the game. There are day and night cycles, and they’re subtle; I didn’t realize the sun was setting until the zone got really dusky at one point, which brought the dynamics home. Because we’re talking about some time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there’s snow on the ground, and occasional snow falling along a spectrum of “flurries” to “holy shit when did we end up on Mt Everest?!” Seriously: at one point my party wandered into a snow squall that blotted out visibility to the point where I almost lost sight of my team members for a few seconds, even though they were a few paces ahead of me. That’s going to be a vignette that I’ll be bringing up for years to come.
One interesting diversion from the usual post-apoc settings is that this is not an Escape from New York scenario here. There are civilians still wandering the streets looking for food and medicine, and you’ll run into aid workers and soldiers in various areas trying to get a handle on things. I think the “absolute and utter anarchy” scenario we usually get in post-apoc media is a bit over the top, so it’s a welcome change from the usual presentation to see that the world didn’t just shrug and bug out to leave the city to it’s own collapse.
As a member of the Division, you’re job is to…well, respond to situations around the city. You’re not powerful enough to cordon off entire blocks, so you’re more of a Special Forces soldier who is called upon to rescue hostages, assist aid workers, and do the kinds of things one to four skilled soldiers would be asked to do in an RPG context. Yes, that involves fetch quests, and you had better believe that those quests will almost always involve shooting people.
In the Beta, there’s a few missions you can do. There’s the main mission, which is to set up your base. This leads you to your first major firefight, complete with named boss, outside the Post Office. There’s a really excellent side mission which involves Echo Recorders, which we’ll talk about in a bit. There’s one-off point missions which can be found on your holographic map. Finally, there’s random encounters that just spring up here and there. And the Dark Zone, which we won’t talk about because I didn’t do it except to complete the mission that wanted me to go there just so it could tell me where I could find it.
When shooting from the hip, you get a circular reticle that for me was sometimes hard to find on the screen. Like most shooters, I tend to spend most of my shootin’ time zoomed in, and depending on the weapon and the mod you have attached, can vary from steel-sight zoom to a multi-level zoom.
A lot has been made of the “bullet sponge” nature of the game, and initially I didn’t see it, but after playing for some time, especially doing the main mission on Hard mode, I have to agree. Taking a military issue AR to a thug wearing a hoodie, and having to empty an entire clip into him to get him to stop shooting back becomes very painful in a real-world sense after a short amount of time. Crank an instance up to Hard mode, and suddenly it’s a multi-clip take-down. Add in a named boss, and you’d better make sure all three weapons are stocked up on ammo, or you’ll be trying to melee these jerks into submission.
Overall, though, it’s quick to get the hang of. I failed the first main mission attempt (Madison Square Garden) when I tried it solo. I then went in twice more with two friends and it was a lot easier. I went through three times with other friends on Hard mode, and thanks to the discovery of some…shall we say creative positioning that negated their ability to use grenades against us, we were able to complete the mission without too much of a sweat. It just took noticeably longer than running it on standard, thanks to the increased soak of the enemies.
Again, there’s three weapons, and you also get a host of grenade options that you can switch to on the fly. In addition, you’ll unlock two slots for special abilities. In the beta, these were limited to actions like being able to ping the surrounding area for enemies, launching a sticky grenade that can be manually detonated, a riot shield, and a group/directed remote heal for you and your team members. You can switch these on the fly as well, meaning you really don’t need to create an alt to experience a specific build (at least according to what was available in beta).
Building an HQ
One of the late-discovered features for me concerns your base of operations and how you’ll be setting it up. Now, this isn’t Fallout 4 level base building. Instead, you’ll be going out to rescue named NPCs to stock the tank with, and will then bring back resources that you can spend in one of three wings — medical, technical, and military — to upgrade their offerings. In the beta, you could only rescue a doctor from the Garden, and could only upgrade two medical zones in the HQ. Doing so unlocks different facilities in the building, and also unlocks new abilities or mods you can equip. You gain wing resources just by doing point of interest missions, completing main story or side missions, or by ransacking buildings that provide those resources. For example, a thinly veiled Apple Store analogue provided tech resources that could be used to upgrade the tech wing (had it been unlocked).
The HQ is also where you can resupply for free, and where you can buy and sell goods. As a friend put it, “even though their world has collapsed, people are still trying to make a buck off you”. You can sell excess gear to vendors in the HQ, and each wing (I assume) has their own specialized vendors that you’ll end up unlocking. You get the weapons, armor, and mod vendors in the entrance way for free, so I expect the other unlockable areas to provide more rarefied materials.
One thing that wasn’t in the beta was crafting, although you could mark inventory items as trash and deconstruct them for parts.
The HQ is not a social area. As stated in the media, when you and your party enter the HQ, you’ll split up and go into your own instances, but will rejoin one another once you all return to the street.
As stated, there’s a main mission, a side mission, point of interest missions, and random encounters. There’s also items to locate around the city like cell phones and laptops, and other achievement-bait that will invariably end up in an online guide the day after launch.
The main mission starts with you landing at a command post on the Hudson River. From there you’ll be sent to establish your HQ, which you’ll need to run to, but not before you run into your first big firefight. After the requisite base tutorial, you’ll be sent into Madison Square Garden (which is conveniently right across the street) to rescue a doctor to help run the medical wing of the HQ. That’s about as far as you get in the beta for “official story”.
The side mission was more interesting. You’re asked by a wounded team member to locate her sister, if she’s still around, and bring her back to the Hudson camp. You start out right outside the Hudson camp, so it’s easy to blow past it chasing the main mission to the other side of town. Outside of the camp you’ll find an echo, which is how The Division presents the back-story to you. Activating the echo displays pixel-dust “memories” of events in that immediate area. Here, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a refugee-like registration process, and find the sister sitting nearby playing her guitar. By examining different aspects of this echo, you’ll be directed to the woman’s apartment after overhearing that she wanted to return there to retrieve something. You’ll need to complete this first step to find out where the second step takes place, and once you get there you’ll find yourself searching the inside of an apartment building for the woman. I really liked this mechanic because it added a bit of investigation into the otherwise “run and gun” nature of most of the missions, and it brought me into an interior location that wasn’t a two room shop front.
Most of the point of interest missions will be “defend the aid workers” or “retrieve the files” kind of things, and are one-and-done affairs. Although it was just the beta which should be expected to be content-lite, the concern I have is that because these kinds of missions were limited to one-shots, once the story has been complete and the point of interest missions have been completed…what then?
You and Your Persona
All information in the game is holographic, which has a term that I can’t remember at this time. You always have a floating HUD next to your character which lists your health, your ammo, grenades, and health packs, and your equipped abilities. All other menus are floating to the right of your character (or the left if you switch to southpaw mode), and the main map lays itself all over the floor like a five year old’s LEGO collection. This all bothered me at first, because it was a radical departure from a lot of other menu systems, but over time it’s grown on me once I learned to read it properly.
Your gear is an appearance-less set of goods that promote or demote your three stats of DPS, health, and skill power, and the values of each are shown on a new piece of gear in relation to what you’ve currently got equipped. If something is better, it’ll have an up-arrow for that stat; if it’s worse, then it’s a down-arrow. The magnitude of the arrows shown tells you if it’s a “meh” upgrade, or a “hell yes!” upgrade.
If you help out civilians in need, you’ll usually get appearance item drops. These are clothing that that you can switch into and which is independent of your gear. You get this from day one, so helping civilians has become kind of like Pokemon when they drop appearance items: gotta claim them (appearance items) all.
Weapons and eventually abilities can be modded. For weapons, there’s five slots: skin, scope, magazine, grip, and suppressor. Some of these come in different sizes, so a large scope won’t fit on a weapon which calls for a small scope, and won’t even be available for use when looking at that weapon’s mods.
And for those of you who like pointing out things of this ilk, your character doesn’t speak during cut-scenes. I was kind of disappointed by this because I feel like this is the kind of scenario that would benefit from some give-and-take conversations.
What Needs Work
I’m not going to address any of the bugs because A) I didn’t personally run into any showstopping bugs myself, and B) there’s time between now and the March launch for them to tackle them, so pointing them out would be pedantic at this time.
The most obvious thing that needs explaining, and hopefully not a wholesale reworking, is that potential lack of content. This is where alignments to Destiny fall down. One of the selling points of Destiny was the open world that you could drop into and experience beacon missions or participate in region events. Hopefully The Division will have dynamic world events, or at the very least beacon-like missions that you can pick up here and there. I’m really hoping that this isn’t just Call of Duty writ large, and that once the main content is complete the only left to do is farm the Dark Zone in anticipation of the first wave of DLC. In all honesty, I didn’t tackle the DZ this weekend, although to it’s credit I’ve heard both surprising (people actually working together and not always against one another) and typical (people not working together and ganking anyone and everyone they see). I’m sure I’ll end up in there someday, but it wasn’t on my agenda for this weekend.
The one real kicker is that, also unlike Destiny, the world is not shared with other players. The only way to see other people in the city is to group with them, or to visit the social hubs (the Hudson camp is the only PvE social area, and the Dark Zone is…well…social, but not social, if you get my meaning). On one hand this works into the atmosphere exceedingly well. The city and everything in it are yours and yours alone, for better or worse. There’ll be no xXDarkKnite76Xx dry-humping you as you’re examining your map, which to me is a blessing. But it also starts to feel kind of lonely and could lead to frustration if you run into a mission you can’t do on your own. Thankfully, instanced missions DO have a group finder menu, but open world stuff is you alone, or you and people from your friends list.
I think The Division was worth the wait. I’m not a die hard shooter aficionado like some folks, but the shooting aspect felt good to me after some trial and error. The “physical” presence of being in a to-scale simulacrum of NYC is just mind-blowing, and it didn’t get old. I think being a modern game set in a model of a real place (that I have actually visited for once) makes more of an impact than the historically modeled locales that we saw in Assassin’s Creed or the gonzo paradise settings for FarCry. Also, being a modern day setting acting under the assertion that this could maybe be a real thing, maybe? while avoiding the usual balls-out, hammer-to-the-head “look at how apocalyptic we can make this!!” presentation gives the feeling of just enough hope on top of a heap of hopelessness that allows you feel like your actions aren’t all in vain. You’re not fighting against something; you’re fighting for it.
The gameplay has been really solid, so I think this is one part advertising, one part “sorry for delaying for so long, pre-orderers!”, and one part final bug hunt. That the main missions are essentially “dungeons” that can be soloed with varying degrees of success based on your familiarity and skill level, or taken on in a group, is both fun and frustrating. If you’re having trouble and can’t or won’t find a group, you’ll be S.O.L. because you won’t progress. So persistence or just jumping into a PUG or waiting until you get some friends online is going to be key. It’s just sad that you won’t just bump into folks and organically complete the content in the course of your normal gameplay.
The base building feature is cool, and it’s nice that it’s actually required and not an optional thing, but isn’t designed in a way that maximizes tedium. It’s tied to the main missions, which creates a dynamic of both active (mission) and passive (collecting resources for base building) activities that tie together nicely.
My main and therefore up-front concern is longevity for primarily PvE players like myself. The season pass has already been announced, and each of the four installments have been talked about at some length so we know that there’ll be additional for-pay content that will keep us out of the Dark Zone. However, there’s no official word (that I know of) that states how the game will deal with the expendable content of main missions and point of interest missions. If we can complete all of that and are left with nothing but achievement hunting, the Dark Zone, and random encounters, then I can see myself shelving the game between the point I complete the PvE content and when the first DLC arrives.
However, after discussing this on Twitter last night, @Sigtric talked about it less in terms of a shooter, and more in terms of an MMO. What we saw in beta was a slice of the complete game, and there was a decent amount of content there, but I suspect that there’s going to be content left out of the beta that will show up in this area come launch time. Add to that additional real-estate in the areas we weren’t allowed into, and that adds up to more content. If we think about it in MMO terms, the main instance missions are dungeons, and the point of interest missions are your traditional MMO quests. In that case, there’s equity: once you complete the quest, you can’t go back and do it again…once it’s done, it’s done. So that makes me feel a lot better about it, thinking of it less in terms of Destiny and it’s perpetual walkabout mode, and more in terms of games I’m intimately familiar with.
But I am exceedingly pleased with the beta experience of The Division. It’s been a long time coming, but I think the wait has been worth it. It’s a fun shooter with a lot of great mechanics, and although the longevity of the base game is currently up in the air, I’m very excited for it’s launch in March.
* A friend said he might get it for both XB1 and PC because we have friends who might like the game but who don’t have consoles. I like the game well enough that I also will probably do this.
** It’s technically called Tom Clancy’s The Division, but let’s face it: the percentage of people these days who know about Tom Clancy beyond the kinds of video games that carry his name are probably a lot smaller than what warrants appending his name to anything in the future. No offense, Mr. Clancy. Please don’t haunt me.