If you’ve not heard of Tom Clancy’s The Division by now you’re either not into video games or you’re dead (which makes me wonder why you’re reading this in the first place!). The marketing machine surrounding Ubisoft’s new IP has been running at full capacity for quite some time now, and the chosen few (that is, if you’ve managed to score a beta code or if you’ve preordered the game) have now gained access to the game set in a post-calamity Manhattan. Xbox One players gained access to the closed beta yesterday, and today the PS4 and the PC platforms can also get their first look at The Division. My chosen platform was the PS4, and these are my first impressions.
First off, the game throws you in the deep end rather quickly. The beta doesn’t allow you to customize your agent apart from ramming the randomize button until you’re happy, and within minutes you’re walking around in the open world.
One thing that immediately springs to mind is that the presentation is really slick. The minimalistic menus, the short little synth bleeps and blops you hear when you scroll through menus, the way the snow sweeps through the destroyed streets of what was once a sprawling metropolis full of life. It’s a world that is begging to be explored. Now I know there has been a noticeable graphical downgrade, but since I personally don’t really care about changes to a game development I’m going to skip over them apart from saying this: yes, it’s a big downgrade from the reveal 3 years ago but from what I’ve seen of the PS4 and the PC it’s still a pretty great looking game.
The game has a singleplayer component that tells you the story of how the agents of the illustrious Division gain a foothold in New York after a smallpox outbreak decimates the city’s population. The outbreak caused chaos among the survivors and pitted the few people remaining in the city against each other as they vie for control of Manhattan. You play as a sleeper agent from the Strategic Homeland Division, a shadow government organization that have special orders to secure the city at any cost. While you (and your friends) work together to accomplish this goal, you’ll be fending off gangs of looters and build a stronghold where survivors can be brought to safety.
Your stronghold functions as a home base where you can go after every mission to regain your strength, sell off your junk, buy more gear and weapons and check in on the ever-changing situation in New York. The stronghold has several wings you can improve, and each wing gives you access to more goodies to use when you’re out and about. The whole thing feels a lot like the Tower in Destiny, with The Division’s base of operations feeling a lot more involved. While some things feel reminiscent of Bungie’s FPSMMO, The Division doesn’t feel derivative at all. Hell, The Division‘s front-end seems to work a lot better due to the seamlessness between areas. You won’t be looking at too many loading screens and the ones you do see are reasonably long (or short, depending on your outlook on life).
One thing that surprised me about The Division is that it feels way more like an RPG than anything else. Firefights are intense, but slow. They require situational awareness and reward tactical positioning. If you’re too greedy, you’ll die more often than is necessary. If you’re looking for a fast-paced power fantasy, then The Division is definitely not for you. The shooting, while satisfying, is also pretty finicky. Because of the RPG nature of the game, you start with unimproved and unbalanced weapons that have low accuracy and low damage. The handling is as terrible as you would expect and I found that I managed to consistently hit my target due to pure happenstance as opposed to skill. While all these things can of course be upgraded with gear responding to the classic MMO color schemes (white for common, green for uncommon, blue for rare, etc.) it doesn’t make the buildup to the point where you’ll have the right weapon for the situation less frustrating. Me still getting used to the way the weapons handling could very well have something to do with it as well, but I usually pick up on these things pretty fast because I love to be competitive.
Because of the game’s setting the RPG mechanics can feel a bit grating and out of place. It’s kind of hard to suspend your disbelief when a dude in a hoody can take a full clip to the face before going down. The gear and mods you acquire for your character and your weapons are a great way to give players options to fit their playstyles, but it has the classic minuscule stat increases that improve your weapons with 3% horizontal accuracy. It’s not really a complaint on my end, but it does feel a bit weird to have these things in a game that tries to incorporate known quantities from real life into the game world, especially since none of them behave like in real life. It’s a similar kind of bullet-sponge that you can find in games like Borderlands or Destiny, but due to the game’s setting it just feels dissonant.
A situation where that disbelief comes into play are the elite enemies which, you guessed it, have high armor and a huge pool of hitpoints that take pretty long to take down. If you’ve played any MMO in your life, you are familiar with these types of enemies. They are high risk/reward situations that usually get you an upgrade or at the very least give you something you can break down for crafting materials. These fights can get pretty tense because these people do a high amount of damage and are always surrounded by normal enemies who would very much like to make a spaghetti strainer out of your intestines.
I think that the way the game presents its PvP segment, called the “Dark Zone,” is probably the coolest thing I’ve seen during my time with the beta. The Dark Zone is an isolated part of Manhattan that was deemed a total loss by the armed forced setting up camp outside of the zone. Outside communications are impossible while you’re there, and everyone you can encounter can be hostile. You can team up with other players to take down rogue agents (players who killed other players) or secure goods to be picked up by helicopters at extraction points. The Dark Zone playable in the beta is but a small part of the full Dark Zone, which is supposedly 1/3rd of Manhattan. I’m not sure how I feel about it. On one hand it’s a cool idea. You’re in a hostile area surrounding by potential threats and because those threats are actual humans their movements become unpredictable. On the other hand, it’s just a large PvP map with shooting mechanics that don’t feel all that great. This may change once the game releases and you can acquire better gear and weapons, but so far I’ve enjoyed the singleplayer component a whole lot more than the multiplayer PvP.
All in all, The Division shows great promise. The setting is really cool and the prospect of Ubisoft adding the other boroughs to the city, essentially giving you a life-sized version of New York to play with, is a good one. The artstyle and the menu design are also wicked cool and feel like a more aesthetically pleasing version of Watch_Dogs with some new elements thrown in for good measure, and the game’s sound design is nothing but great. But that promise needs to be fulfilled in order to stay interesting. Ubisoft seems to want to support the game for a decent chunk of time post-release, and if they listen to their audience (something they don’t often really do) they have a basis here to make something truly special. This will most likely not be a day one buy for me but I will most definitely keep this game on my radar for the foreseeable future.