Ubisoft's RPG/shooter hybrid has been on our "most-wanted' list for quite some time now.
Stuff's Tom Parsons went hands-on with the game at E3 last year, and we've recently finished racking up more hours than we care to admit in the beta.
Combining a gritty, near-future settting with Destiny-like leveling and looting sounds like a recipe for gaming perfection but, having been a bit underwhelmed by the E3 demo, we approached the beta with a fair amount of trepidation.
The good news is that the beta suggests The Division is back on track, although a few niggles remain.
Popping to the shops for some loo roll is not as easy as it once was
While our E3 demo was very much guided, the beta gave free-rein to explore right from the start. It even gave a glimpse at the character customisation feature. Admittedly the only option was to randomise the limited number of included options until you happened to land on a mug that appealed, but full customisation of hair, facial hair and face type appears to be included in the full game.
And then your customised face appears in a full-blown cutscene. You awake from unconsciousness in a chopper, with a bandaged fellow soldier (later revealed to be your comrade, Elaine Lau). Clearly the two of you have been in some sort of battle, and a burning tower block in the distance seems the likely venue for said battle. The dialogue suggests that it's provided a suitable distraction for you to land at the Hudson Pier and make your way into the snowy, disheveled, battle-torn New York that is the setting for the game. My guess is that this tower block conflict will form a sort of preface to the main game. A theory borne out by the fact that in the beta you landed with your character already having ranked-up to level 4.
At this point you're able to wander through what appears to be the army's forward base. Here you can get situation reports, check the notice board for missions, restock your ammo and buy new weapons, armour and mods from the vendors.
Leave the base and you're in New York proper, which is your first opportunity to familiarise yourself with the controls and loadout. You carry three weapons: a primary, secondary and sidearm. The primaries and secondaries are interchangeable, so you can carry any combination of assault rifle, submachine gun, light machine gun, sniper rifle, shotgun, etc.
There's awesome physicality to each weapon and the visual and audio effects as you let loose a volley are pretty spectacular. You blow holes in windows and signs and take chunks out of masonry. Cars shudder as you riddle them with bullets, doors are dislodged from their frames, tyres explode, brake lights shatter. I’ve never fired guns at cars in real life (not much call for that in tech journalism) but this seems pretty realistic to me, not to mention visceral and satisfying. The only issue as far as I'm concerned is the inability to blow up vehicles and buildings with explosives, but perhaps that's just too much for an open world to handle.
On top of your firearms you can carry multiple grenade types (frag, flash, smoke, etc), and each operative is able to have two abilities assigned at any time, each of which operates on a cooldown basis (infinite 'ammo' but with a timer between uses). Only a few were available during the beta (sticky grenades, healing etc), but there appear to be many more in the main game and I suspect that ensuring there's a good balance of skills in your four-man squad will be key to success in the game's most challenging areas.
The Division’s weapon upgrade feature offers far more freedom than the one found in Destiny.
Destiny gives you very limited ability to customise your weapons, and your modification options are limited to locked-in presets.
The Division on the other hand, offers far more freedom, allowing you to change scopes, grips, and add gun barrel customisations, while letting you see just how much they’ll improve weapon performance in cold, hard numbers.
One scope in Destiny for example, will state that it “improves target acquisition” (thanks for the in-depth info guys), while swapping to a scope in The Division shows that it’ll increase critical damage deal by 17% - far more useful, I think you’ll agree.
Oh, and you can spray paint your gun really horrible, garish colours too, which is nice if you’re into that sort of thing.
New New York is not as nice as old New York
So just what the heck has happened to New York and why are you there? The inspiration for The Division is Dark Winter, a real-life US government simulation that tested the impact a smallpox outbreak in Atlanta would have. Its terrifying conclusion was that the entire country would be in meltdown within five days as food, water and electricity ran out and everyone started shooting each other for tins of beans. Given how quickly things break down in the UK every time there's a light dusting of snow, that sounds pretty accurate.
You're a sleeper agent of The Division, intended to operate autonomously in the event of a government-crippling disaster. In the beta, the overarching goal appeared to be getting a new base of operations up and running by completing missions and collecting parts in the ruins of the city. It seems as though that will take a while - only two of around 30 upgrades were available in the beta and unlocking those took long enough. There are suggestions that the story will go much deeper than that, with conspiracies being specifically mentioned by Ubisoft.
You don't have to face the destruction alone, though: you're encouraged to form a squad of up to four players, sharing the burden (and experience points). In the main areas of the game it's your squad versus the city: the enemies are AI controlled and you'll be ticking off side missions and progressing the story without being interrupted by other players.
The cover mechanics in The Division are some of the best I’ve ever encountered. Dropping into cover is as simple as tapping a single button, and you can plan your route in advance by finding your next destination and running there automatically.
It’s intuitive, and thankfully not clunky. If you’re used to running and gunning aliens in Destiny however, then it will take some time getting used to the slower-paced gameplay.
In Bungie’s space shooter, I have zero qualms about running straight up to an enemy and slapping/stabbing/shooting them right in their face. Try the same thing in The Division however, and you’ll be crow feed in no time.
Having said that, I do have a problem with how long it takes to kill NPC characters. Often, I found myself pumping multiple assault rifle clips or magnum rounds into a hoody-wearing hoodlum, without them dying.
When a bog-standard street thug manages to shrug off bullets like the Hulk, rushes up to you, and kills you in three hits with a baseball bat, I have a problem.
I’m not entirely sure what the best solution for this is. Destiny, for example, has a fairly large time to kill (TTK) for enemies and players alike, but this can be explained by things like space magic and elemental shields.
The Division - a game set more or less in gritty reality - hasn’t got magic to explain away the fact that a thug in a bandana is a massive bullet sponge.
The Division Preview
The pandemic began just before Christmas, so there are disheveled decorations all over the place
This is the forward base you were charged with recapturing and upgrading as part of the beta
Most of us have probably spent more time roaming virtual post-apocalyptic New York than we have the real place, but The Division offers more than a chance to visit run-down recreations of the Big Apple’s tourist hotspots. The map is set to be huge, taking in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newark and Staten Island. But it doesn’t stop there.
Play Magazine reports that the action will also take place in the forests and beaches on the edge of the city. Although full details of the map and how fully it will recreate the five boroughs haven’t been revealed and only a small section was available in the beta, but the possibility of battling on Rockaway Beach, the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond is an exciting prospect.
As well as being able to explore the streets and rooftops, The Division will also let players skulk about in the tunnels beneath the city. One mission in the beta took you into the sewers on the trail of a missing agent, while the subway was also explorable and atmospheric, but also unpopulated in this early test. There's no doubt this area will be more heavily utilised in the main game. Could it even serve as a fast-travel system?
One thing The Division absolutely nails is the setting. Having been to New York a few times, I really did get a sense that I was back walking around the streets of the big Apple - albeit an abandoned, disheveled version.
I often found myself stopping to drink in my surroundings and the impressive level of detail on offer. From upturned plastic chairs in overgrown gardens to abandoned cars, litter and the occasional stray dog, Ubisoft has managed to create a world populated with the echoes of normal civilisation, while retaining a chilling feeling of hollow emptiness.
Walking around on your own can feel eerie at times, and spotting people in the distance can be quite tense, as you have no way of knowing if they’re hostile or friendly until you get closer.
My skittishness amplified to extreme levels when I ventured into the Dark Zone for the first time. Here, I was on my own, with the knowledge that rogue players would happily spray me with bullets to rob me blind.
Coupled with the dynamic weather which can transform the city into a Silent Hill-like nightmare, The Division manages to keep you on edge, crawling around from cover to cover and peeking around corners like a meerkat - a state of nervousness achieved simply by the immersive, atmospheric world.
Ride into the Dark Zone
The Dark Zones are where things get really exciting and stressful, but the rewards are hefty. These are walled areas of the city that were once at the centre of the US government’s attempts to research and combat the New York pandemic. When these zones became untenable the military and governmental staff evacuated suddenly, leaving behind weapons and equipment that you’ll likely find extremely useful.
But simply popping into one is something that needs to be carefully considered. Firstly, these are very highly radiated areas, and you need a gas mask in order to enter (presumably the ability to equip masks is unlocked at a specific level - they were available from the off in the beta). Secondly, the promise of legendary gear means you’re not the only one interested in taking a look around - you’ll find both nasty NPCs and other players in the Dark Zones.
Cleverly, while these are walled-off areas, there’s no loading screen between them and the rest of the open world. In fact, you can peer into some of them through fences.
Going NPC-hunting in the Dark Zones is pretty tough and pretty rewarding. These are higher level enemies than you'll encounter in the normal areas of the city, but the weapons, armour and mods that they drop are also much better. Unfortunately, because said equipment has been sitting in the irradiated Dark Zone for ages it’s more contaminated than Springfield’s three-eyed fish. That means not only can you not immediately equip it, you also can't simply walk it out of the zone - the solution is to find an extraction point and request a chopper to come and collect the weapon.
But here's the thing; every other player in the Dark Zone also knows where the extraction points are, and the moment you send up that chopper-coaxing flare, they also know that you're there, laden with lovely loot. This makes for a really interesting dynamic, as everyone waits for the chopper to arrive in vulnerable terror. Some players will simply attempt to harmlessly use your chopper to extract their own loot, but they'll be nervous of you and you of them, as you each know that at any moment you could be shot in the back and your loot stolen.
But some players are much worse than that. Rather than explore the Dark Zone and collect their own loot, they simply camp out near the extraction points, waiting for other players to arrive with loot that they can mercilessly steal. The punishment for attacking another player without provocation is to be marked as a rogue agent so that every other player in the Dark Zone can see you on the map and is encouraged to hunt you down. It's a dangerous game to play, then, but if timed right it's possible to steal another player's loot, get it extracted and do a runner before anyone can catch you.
This whole feature worked really badly in the E3 demo, but in the beta was far more successful. There's a nervousness that accompanies every meeting with another player, and when everyone teams up to take down the consistent rogues it becomes a thrilling multi-team hunt. The Dark Zone certainly isn't a welcoming place for solo players, though, as Esat found during the beta.
My personal experience of the Dark Zone has not been a pleasant one. During the six or seven hours I spent with the beta, I never managed to join the Dark Zone with a group, and it didn’t take me long to discover that going it alone is suicidal.
Not only did I get ganged up on by rogue agents almost every single time, but the one occasion I did manage to fight my way out of a corner, pick up some loot, and call in an extraction, I was eliminated by another group and lost everything almost instantly.
Partying up with random (silent) strangers was no better, with pretty much the same outcome guaranteed each and every time. When playing solo, the Dark Zone should be avoided altogether, and that will be a shame for players without a group of mates with which they can regularly team up.
COMPANION APP AND DLC
Parts of the subway were explorable in the beta, but it sounds as though it's also the subject of the first DLC
Bad news: the originally announced companion app, which would allow tablet-toting players to operate a drone in support of console players, has been canned. That's a shame, as it sounded like a lot of fun.
But there will, of course, be DLC. Three packs of it to be precise. These are called Underground, which "opens up a new area to players as they explore the uncharted underworld of New York City with up to 3 friends for intense co-op action", Survival, which sounds very much like a horde mode, and Last Stand, which hasn't yet been detailed at all. You can get all three bits of DLC, plus a unique sawed-off shotgun and some exclusive clothing and armour, as part of a season pass.
Tom Clancy's The Division review
It's been a long time coming - it was originally unveiled at E3 2013 - but The Division finally launches on all formats on 8th March. And having been left very doubtful about the game after the E3 demo, the beta now has us decidedly excited for the full game.
There are three editions: Standard, Gold (which bundles in the season pass and some exclusive in-game gear) and Collector's (which adds a poster, artbook, armband and actual watch).