Tom Clancy’s The Division A Look At The BETA

New York City throws up on itself, everyone leaves, and you get to shoot people
New York City throws up on itself, everyone dies, and now you get to shoot people.

If you’ve never been to New York City, then let me just say there’s one thing there’s never a shortage of there: people. The population explosion can be overwhelming for some. Keeping 8.4 million residents relatively safe, with full city services, and governmental infrastructure is a hefty task, taken for granted. In the upcoming title The Division, Ubisoft’s latest game bearing Tom Clancy’s name, those safeguards are lost, plummeting the entire city of New York into anarchy and chaos. A new strain of small pox wipes out millions of people, before the CDC can fully react — it’s origins unknown. The city is isolated hastily by the military as news of other cities falling to the virus arrives. Inside, those who survive are faced with anarchy and barbarism as once ordinary citizens splinter off into violent looting gangs. That is, until the President activates the Strategic Homeland Division (just the Division for short), a group of operatives in plainclothes who resided within the regular populace until called upon. With one broad ranging role: regaining control by any means necessary, and restoring law and order in the event of an utter catastrophe.

There’s a full thirty minute theatrical introduction to the game’s agent origins on Amazon (or Steam), that provides a live action theatrical presentation on the events leading into storyline. There is no doubt the video is far superior to the Beta’s intro as far welcoming you into the game’s universe. Once you’ve chosen your new characters look, you are immediately tasked with regaining order at the primary Division base further into the city. This safe area doubles as an online lobby, new players arrive here, to receive their initial weapon loadouts, before heading out into the now mostly abandoned streets and buildings of the city that is now asleep.

Due to the devastating biological attack, New York City is devoid of bustling traffic and crowds of pedestrians. A barking dog scavenges the desolate streets, and the occasional but distinctive pops of gunfire of miles away echo through hundreds of abandoned buildings and alleys. A NYPD patrol car, doors open and lights on, its glowing blue and red silently flashing away. What emergency did these officers face before never returning? Barricades line the streets. A man opens his window and shouts angry ravings before slamming it back shut and drawing the blinds. You catch a glimpse of a green jacketed man who is physically harassing a woman — both turn and run as you approach brandishing your M4 assault rifle. Hundreds of Christmas lights blissfully decorate one side of a once residential street, while waiting on the other side hundreds of body bags with CDC quarantine symbols. The streets of New York are extensively detailed, and their look alone narrates the reality of the horrors that befell.

promisingEA

Recently I took part in Alpha test both on Xbox One and Beta Access on the PC/XB1. Between these two testing stages, I was able to notice improvements throughout the game. The Beta on PC was far more enjoyable and vivid than I expected from my initial Alpha experiences. Multiplayer code and server reliability was far improved in the recent Beta. Gameplay and mission design hold compelling promise for the full retail release. The Beta seemingly did a better job of funneling players into the action faster, with more variety of enemies to face, and more dialog lines added to NPCs to prevent nauseating repetition (although it still wears rather thin after a while). While there was rampant coverage of online cheating in the PC version (and documented on YouTube), it was something I personally never witnessed during my days of Beta testing; so cheating may not be as rampant as some have reported, and hopefully something Ubisoft fixes before retail. Further the precision gun play begs keyboard and mouse controls, along with top tier graphics potential, and better level streaming with more memory, thus making the PC the platform of choice for playing the game.

The Division is analogous to the console exclusive Destiny, single player missions and online multiplayer areas are blended together through in-game locations. The single player and coop missions to get involved with in the standard city areas offer a mix of objectives. These missions are generated at random and go along with the storyline of restoring control in the city. You will be tasked from retrieving medical supplies from entrenched gangs. Rescue hostages from buildings overrun with hostile forces. Activate scanning equipment in contaminated zones to help uncover more information pertaining to the outbreak. For the most part they can be handled solo without a problem, but you can also jump into a squad of friends and cooperatively work to complete assignments.

Most of the information relayed to players comes in the form of augmented reality , the map is a holographic layout whisks your perspective to an overhead look at the streets, as well as lines and markers highlighting the best path to any location. Memories of what transpired earlier are at times laid out on the screen in holographic outline form at certain points, adding detail to the events that transpired at that location. This method is both snazzy and intuitive, and makes getting to the action much easier through the mazed and sprawling city locations.

Getting to your next mission is as easy following a line.
Getting to your next mission is as easy following a line.

One of my first missions after establishing contact with the main base was to liberate a water pumping station from a outlaw group attempting to monopolize its access. As I made my way underground, I noticed several electronic tags denoting other players had died on their way in, or out of this mission. In light of that solemn evidence, I grew tense. The water pump station was guarded by a few rogues still dressed in reflective yellow city worker apparel. One of my skills is a remote detonation device, which I immediately deployed at the group huddled around the controls to even the odds. As I restored functionality of each pump, more enemies would flood in to regain control of the room. Enemies with shotguns, flamethrowers, and assault rifles flooded into the room from varying entrances. The cover based shooting is fluid, and enemies do a good job of flanking your position. They can throw smoke, flash, and other grenades to disorient  you, while repositioning themselves to take you down. Regardless you augmented vision can give you an advantage, outlining their exact body positions, allowing you to head-shot a crouched enemy through two car windows, or lobbing a grenade behind his cover and betwixt his nethers. Not only are these missions challenging, they’re often intriguing and thrilling as well.

After each encounter, there’s a chance to pickup new items and monetary rewards. Money can be used to buy new mods, weapons, or armor at base locations. There’s a wide range of items to choose from, better kneepads, backpacks, gloves, and jackets that influence your defensive statistics. Weapon mods can increase stability, damage, or accuracy in your weapons. You start off with a versatile M4 that will be very useful for the first opening levels. You also have a shorter range SMG type weapon, and a pistol. There are also contamination filters that allow you to enter contaminated areas of varying lethal levels. The right filter level will be required to enter more contaminated zones; it acts as a level filter for harder areas. There is plenty to tinker with and upgrade in this game, as well as new skills to acquire when you level up, adding a simple RPG layer to the experience.

Cover based mechanics are fluid are smooth, with plenty of low walls, barricades, cars, and objects to duck behind
Cover based mechanics are fluid are smooth, with plenty of low walls, barricades, cars, and objects to duck behind

Within The Division segregated player-versus-everything areas are outlined as Dark Zones. These zones are areas hardest hit from the outbreak, requiring all items retrieved to undergo heavy sterilization and thus a special helicopter extraction is required for all scavenged items. As you enter, communication with your organization will be lost. Even SHD agents have the possibility to go rogue and kill one another in these lawless locations. By far, this is the most interesting and intense experience The Division has to offer.

The best weapons and items in the game are in the Dark Zones. Some players may not be fans of PVP online games, but the way DZ gameplay is laid out may still yet appeal to those gamers. Within the DZ there are NPC enemies, which are more dangerous than anything on the other side. Infiltrating and eliminating these difficult gangs, or surviving their ambushes is far better endured with human comrades. Fellow PC players were eager to form ad hoc teams. Speech is integrated into the game so just speaking out will put you into contact with nearby players in the area. Most had no problems with banding together to face the tougher challenges.

The spark that makes the dark zone so enticing is the extraction necessary for all the captured materials. In order to keep what you have scavenged you must call in a military chopper and tie your loot to a hanging rope. Firing off a flare signals to all those in the DZ there will be goodies at that location in a few minutes. NPC enemies will show up, striking along with those dastardly enough attempting to kill and steal from other players. Players can attack other players, and in doing so will mark themselves as rogue agents, the caveat is they can steal your newly acquired items. A valuable bounty is placed on their heads, meaning non-rogue players can kill them without incurring the same penalty. The risk at times can outweigh the rogue bounty, since Dark Zone currency and items are some of the best the game has to offer.

Thus extractions turn into utter pandemonium. Dark Zone maps are more intricate than the standard areas. There are more tunnels, more buildings to enter, more fire escapes to climb; in other words, more places to hide should someone go rogue. While billed as an area of pure lawlessness, there always seemed to be a core group of players with some kind of honor and integrity. These apologized for friendly fire, and actively helped stop those hellbent on thievery and mass digital murder. When a group of players went too far with rogue killings, impromptu hunting parties would form and eventually collect the bounty. Not quite the unintelligible deathmath-esque disarray I was expecting.

FixThisEA

These more advanced dark zone weapons and mods definitely pack a noticeable punch. They can at times feel a bit too powerful compared to new players entering the zones with standard issue weaponry. The temptation is there to take advantage of those weaker players getting ready to stack up hoards of goodies onto the extraction chopper. Still, there’s a degree of sheer ridiculousness with Dark Zone and NPC enemies, and it can lead to some frustration for players. For example, as chaos usually breaks out when the blaring helicopter approaches. Enemy NPCs and rogue players will try to ambush those awaiting pickup. Those defending the location have few recourses to avoid accidental friendly kills. Toss a grenade at an NPC and another player runs towards that grenade at just the wrong time; that’s too bad … you’re now rogue with a bounty on your head. Now you can get shot in the face by your disposable friends, with no penalty to them, and say goodbye to your loot.

There were other gripes, pertaining to the voice acting it seemed all NPCs are voiced by a trio of white skinned canucks, not at all matching the racial variety on display with the enemies you’ll see. They also tend to say the same corny lines over and over again, trying to sound hood’ but more coming off more John Hughes suburban wannabe tough guys instead. It’s awkward, and sticks out too much to ignore at times.

Difficulty differences are not visually shown in anyway. A low level purple hoodie wearing thug, will go down in a headshot or a few well placed body shots. A higher level hoodie wearing enemy can mysteriously withstand 6 headshots. How? Is he wearing more armor? Kevlar? Alien super powers? Unknown, but he looks and sounds exactly like his lower level counterpart except for the exceptionally huge health bar over him.

... and this is the cleaned up side of town.
… and this is the cleaned up side of town.

Level design can at times be baffling, in particular the single/coop areas. This is New York City, there are alleys everywhere, shouldn’t take you 20 minutes to get up one block. It’s counterintuitive to the slick map system and objective assisting overlays, and leads to tiresome walking simulation overloads. I understand the need for establishing harder zones, and controlling the challenges players face, but these jarring artificial difficulties and out of place voice acting washes away the high level of detail poured into other aspects of The Division.

Next month this game will see a full retail release, hopefully with some of its PC cheating issues under control. Can this game rival the popularity of Destiny? I dare say yes, I preferred the more hopeless and anarchistic New York setting, it is more plausible a theme and it’s PVE scenarios are very addicting. It’s a great looking game with good item building mechanics. In the days since the Beta was taken offline I can honestly say I have been craving a return to the Dark Zones. After the Alpha test, Ubisoft sent out questionnaires for players, and it appears they took plenty of the criticism to heart. There is clearly a lot of content purposely made unavailable in the early tests, so the finished product should be much more appealing that what was already demonstrated. Online shooter fans definitely need to mark this game on their radar, and follow up as the retail draws closer. Even if Ubisoft’s reputation for open world games has taken several hits, the delays to The Division has clearly gone towards making this experience more intuitive for new players, and more exciting for tactical shooter veterans. What will truly determine its attach rate, and longevity, is Ubisoft’s determination to continue to listen to its player base. They would probably have to work overtime to shed the reputation of low innovation mainstream appeal games.