With the Beta for Ubisoft's hyped-to-the-nines RPG-shooter-slash-MMO The Division now behind us, it's time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of this new Tom Clancy-branded game. Did our preview fill us with hope, or did we witness teething problems enough to park our hopes for it being an essential multiplayer experience? Read on, obviously.
The Dark Zone
Let's kick things off on a positive note. The success of the game is hardly assured by the Dark Zone, but it's easily its single brightest idea and best chance of standing out in the online shooter crowd. The Dark Zone is essentially The Division's take on a classic player-versus-player area. You pass through a brief safe zone, replete with vendor and ammo chest for any last-minute load out switches, and you're straight into a scarier version of the game's world, where other human players can kill you before stealing your hard-earned kneepads.
There are PvE missions and AI enemies you can tackle in your squad of up to three other Division agents—you're part of the good guys, trying to restore order to New York City after a particularly virulent virus has cut down a healthy percentage of the population and basically turned the place to shit. You spread out or stick together, taking out rivals and rifling through their gear for whatever's useful—but you don't get to keep that loot unless you reach an extraction zone and attach your stash to a helicopter hoist. Sounds simple, but activating an extraction commences a countdown that anyone in the vicinity can hear. And if you attack another player character, you become a glowing rogue agent with a timed bounty on your head, too. It's an enticing risk-reward scenario that puts a tense and hardcore spin on PvP/E. —Danny Wadeson
New York's Not Exactly a Player-Friendly Setting
Look, I've been to Milton Keynes. A lot. You don't need to tell me that a grid-style road layout will induce even the most committed of insomniacs into blissful R.E.M. sleep. But as I walked around the small areas of New York available in the beta, the environment became incredibly tiresome. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but in a post-apocalyptic world, having to go down a long street to make two left turns to go down another long street seemed a bit silly. Why couldn't there have been some nice short cuts? Like a fire escape of a smashed-out ground floor of a shop, or an open apartment block that connects parallel avenues? Perhaps there will be greater game-world variety in the finished product—I expect there will be. But in the beta, it all felt a bit linear. —Sean Cleaver
The Seamless Transitions Between Areas Are a Joy
It's true that the American grid system leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to traversal variety, but the one thing The Division's beta map managed with aplomb was that it just kept on going. More specifically, the game was pretty much completely seamless—I only encountered a loading screen when fast traveling or dying, and you've got to say "fair enough" in both cases. While that might not sound like much to the modern gamer, consider that this is—and will become even more of—a complex, massively multiplayer online shooter and it's pretty impressive. If the full game can add a little more ever-present danger, this seamlessness will help make it a gripping, "always-on" experience. —DW
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Tunnel-Vision Combat Makes for Tired Encounters
Linear is a term that cropped up in my mind a lot while playing the beta, both solo and in a team. Go to point A, shoot things in the way, and pick up loot. This could be because of the layout issues, but there don't really seem to be many ways to approach a combat encounter other than to stroll up to a few hoodlums, duck behind cover, and proceed to light them up. The gunplay is great and challenging for a third-person cover shooter, but if you're used to Destiny's open areas, AI that actively flanks and dodges, and those all important X-factor abilities that add up to some truly grandstand moments, then The Division might fall short. I enjoyed the shooting and the grenade tossing, including the sticky bomb, but it did all feel rather rote. —SC
It Puts the "Rocket-Propelled Grenade" in "RPG"
I'm a Destiny fan, and certainly agree that the gunplay on offer in The Division is more functional than thrilling, but its class/squad system actually makes perfect sense in a way I've been missing from console games. The RPG-lite system—comprised of flexible perks, passive talents, and active skills—really lends itself to experimentation. In so many games, the RPG systems are self-fulfilling prophecies, but it really feels like success in The Division will necessitate a well-rounded team. A bit like Rainbow 6 Siege but without the twitchy tweens making a mockery of your (lack of) tactical nous. Hopefully. —DW
We Didn't Start the Fire
You don't really get a sense of the whole story from the beta, and I'm obviously not going to judge the game on that. What I am confused about, though, are hostages. Why are any hostages being taken? In a city being rapidly decimated by a viral outbreak, what purpose does it serve to take prisoners? Rob people? Sure. Kill, enslave, build a gang of followers, all of this is plausible. But these poor defenseless humans, waddling around this part of New York, are being captured for… what? I honestly can't tell you, because it makes no sense to me. Leverage? Leverage for what? Supplies? Medicine? There's a big ol' free space provided by whatever government is at work about half a kilometer down the way. I'm being flippant, of course, but while freeing hostages helps you get to grips with firefights in confined areas, it brings nothing to the overall experience, so far. —SC
'The Division,' Agent Journey Trailer
It Doesn't Actually Matter If the Story Sucks
Tom Clancy games have always been known for their totally accessible, gripping narratives, duh. I jest, of course. But The Division, even if its core plot line is a little hackneyed and its game world grayer than a wet weekend in Gears of War, could be saved by a wealth of emergent narratives, each personal to the player (or small sets of them). Even in our brief time together in the Dark Zone, we cooked up some minor-epic flash in the pans. From stalking a lone player and trolling him with near-miss sniper shots, to kicking off spiraling cycles of rogue-agent bloodbaths by the extraction zone, the water-cooler moments are going to be way more numerous, and important, to this game than any bullshit that's built into the "story proper." —DW
If I'm Playing a Role, I Want to Feel Connected to It, and I'm Not so Far
OK, I accept that. But just to jump back to the hostages—one of the reasons that it really grated on me is because I simply don't know what I'm doing in this universe. We mock Destiny for its shoddy opening moments—you're a reanimated guardian and, quelle surprise, also the only person who can save the universe (so long as you discount the other million or so reanimated guardians, controlled by players around the world)—at least it had a beginning. I know The Division's beta didn't include much in the way of story on purpose, but taking it as an RPG, which Ubisoft wants us to do, I didn't feel like I connected in any way to my on-screen character. It was an empty avatar, walking through New York, shooting guys who obviously looted every sporting goods store going in order to uniformly clothe themselves. I didn't feel any real agency. Just saying—it's a Tom Clancy game, full of clichéd action-movie motifs and dialogue, and getting on with it is too great of a pass to give this game. As an RPG, I didn't feel like I belonged in its world, in any way shape or form. But I hope that's just a side effect of the beta's limited access.
Then there's the UI. I don't mean the always-on-screen box displaying your remaining ammo, cool-down periods, perks, and so forth, which could easily be shrunk down—I'm talking about the main inventory. Initially it seems very well laid-out. But once you start modding guns, some clearer visuals regarding what gun it is you're fixing these new sights to would be useful. And isn't the text small? The text is small, isn't it? Just how close to our TVs do you expect us to sit, Ubisoft? —SC
The Division is released for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on March 8. More information at the game's official website.