(Full game) Release Date: March 8th, 2016
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
Beta Platform: Xbox One
Over the weekend, Ubisoft released the beta for their long overdue, but highly anticipated shooter. By my estimation, I played 15-20 hours of the beta, some of which were solo, and some of which were with up to three friends. To be honest, the game has surpassed my expectations thus far and I had a great deal more fun with it than I’d expected. However, the more I’ve reflected on it, the more my reservations and concerns have grown.
First, let’s clear the air. I realize that betas are not necessarily an accurate representation of a game. They contain bugs, glitches and hitches. Gameplay can be, and should be, tweaked extensively between a beta test period and the launch date. Most importantly, betas only portray a fraction of the total content a given title will offer. Despite the facts, these test periods can be a great method by which potential buyers can vet a product, to see if they’re interested, to see if it’s worth some hard-earned cash.
One of the buddies I teamed up with over the weekend has a young son and has his first daughter on the way as well. He’d been exploring for about an hour by the time we joined up and the first thing he said was, “this game is going to be a problem.” He didn’t mean that the game itself was bad—quite the opposite, in fact. He meant it was going to become a problem within the household, tearing him away from his fatherly and husbandly duties with the promise of more guns and gear from the Dark Zone. I don’t have any kids, but if I did, I might have said something very similar at the time.
I have seen lots of comments on social media sites and read various articles that debate whether The Division is an RPG with shooter elements, or a shooter with RPG elements. Personally, I’d characterize it somewhere in between those two ideas. The same buddy I mentioned earlier described it as a combination of Destiny, Mass Effect and World of Warcraft. I don’t agree with that either. What I will say, is that The Division has excellent third-person shooter mechanics, in a style similar to Gears of War, that have been well adapted to minor use of RPG abilities and dynamics.
In a nutshell, the play was smooth, the cover and movement system worked very well and the loot was adequate.
Firefights are the mainstay of The Division, they provide thrilling sequences and entertainment, as well as a reason to team up with others—this is a must, in my opinion. Most of the story missions contained top notch action, punctuated by fast-paced random encounters when traveling to and fro. The PvP was nerve-racking as hell, intense and unpredictable.
Never having been New York City myself, where The Division is set, I’m not in a good position to evaluate how well Ubisoft did with recreating it. That said, The Division matched my imagination of a major metropolitan area in the aftermath of a deadly catastrophe. It had abandoned cars aplenty, piles of trash and junk, stray dogs, downtrodden survivors and like. All the audio—background noise, survivor conversations or drunken ramblings, birds and dogs—was superb, adding to the experience. It felt real and believable.
Let me start by saying how much I hate Uplay, Ubisoft’s proprietary game portal. It’s awful. No one likes it, no one wants it. That’s too bad, if you want to play The Division, you’ll have to download it and create an account (if you don’t already have one). Please, Ubisoft, do the world a favor and dump that ridiculous pile of steaming garbage.
Now that’s out of the way, on to other things.
I haven’t mentioned the plot of The Division yet. That’s because Ubisoft did a poor job of explaining it.
A virus was intentionally released in New York City (no word on whether the virus spread elsewhere) on Black Friday, quickly spreading and killing large numbers of the city’s population. New York City is now decimated, in a state of anarchy and chaos. Survivors are starving, criminals are thriving and weird guys called “cleaners,” armed with napalm tanks and flamethrowers, that work for I-don’t-know-who, are going around torching contaminated areas and bodies thinking that they’re helping somehow. So, the government calls in the JTF (Joint Task Force?) and a handful of sleeper agents known only as “The Division” to take back The Big Apple. Frankly, the plot is both silly and poorly explained through missions and interactions.
An MMO this is not. Outside of certain social hubs and bases, the only place players will even see other agents not in their own group is in the Dark Zone. The Dark Zone is a separate, fully contaminated area that is populated by the toughest AI foes, the best loot and lots of other players and yet mysteriously lacking direction or explanation of where to go and what to do. Outside of the Dark Zone, The Division is nothing more than any other cooperative shooter with RPG elements (or vice versa), perhaps besides its distinct setting. To make matters worse, playing solo gets boring quickly, much in the same way that Borderlands just didn’t feel like itself without at least one partner.
Another issue I have with the Dark Zone, is that I fear it could suffer from what I am going to call “Day Z Syndrome.” This is a dynamic often created by games such as Day Z where players are allowed to engage each other without warning, and where the victor leaves with his or her pick of the fallen agent(s) equipment. Naturally, this encourages hostile play. PvP is great, but it often needs limitations. Left unchecked, it paves the way for the more disruptive and coldblooded players to do nothing but prey on, harass and kill other players. This is especially true when, like The Division, every player who has acquired loot must exit the Dark Zone in a particular manner if they wish to keep that loot. In The Division, this is done by traveling to an extraction zone, calling a helicopter, waiting the required 90 seconds, then boarding the chopper and flying away. Ubisoft could not possibly have made it easier to troll, camp and harass. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happened to me in the beta when I tried to extract. Repeatedly. It got old. Clearly, Ubisoft will need to be extremely vigilant about cheating and hacking as well, which was already a well-documented problem in the closed beta.
Another thing that struck me while in my umpteenth firefight was the amount of damage regular mobs could soak up. At level 4, when I started, it seemed fairly balanced, but as I progressed to a higher level it seemed as though the mobs were gaining armor and hit points much faster than I was, and faster than my weapons were improving. Myself and three buddies played a medical facility mission on hard after beating it twice on normal. It went from normal to damn near impossible. Needless to say, this did not seem like the measured increase in difficulty we were looking for, nor did the loot improve noticeably.
My final gripe is simple. There needs to be a greater variety of mission types and objectives. Rescuing a hostage, fixing a facility of some type or eliminating a target only goes so far. It felt like there was a world of possibilities left unexplored in this department. Replay value, replay value, replay value. Need I say more?
I know this was only a beta. I know that some, or many, of my complaints could be fixed, or simply not exist, in the full game. I sincerely hope Ubisoft uses the open and closed betas to fix, improve and add to The Division—it needs it. Although I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I don’t have a great deal of confidence for this game moving forward. The beta was only a small sample, but I think The Division may hamper its own popularity by underperforming, or not doing enough, in a few key areas. After unforgivably massive delays, gamers all deserve for me to be proved wrong.
Oh, and get rid of Uplay, Ubisoft.