The Division, Ubisoft’s new third-person apocalypse shooter/MMORPG, is almost upon us as its March 8 release date approaches. However, the game’s beta test went live a few days ago and I’ve finally had the chance to sit down and have some proper hands on time with it. So while my editorial compadre Charlie Braithwaite will be reviewing the game when it launches, here are some more fleshed out impressions following my initial experience at PAX Australia in October.
The gameplay is tight
I touched on how I struggled with the cover mechanics in my hands-on preview from PAX, but now that I have had them better explained through the beta’s tutorial I can safely say I am a fan. What the PAX demo failed to mention was the difference between tapping to the cover button and holding it down, as the former locks you in cover but the latter allows you to slide around corners/sprint from one spot to another. This made tactical positioning in a fire fight so much easier.
Other than that, the combat gameplay is pretty good, presenting a fairly standard third person shooter control scheme. There are a couple of special abilities to unlock, such as group healing, area scanning and a bullet shield; various grenade types and fully customisable weapons. Nothing about it really stood out to me over other games of a similar type, but nothing was obviously a huge drawback either.
The atmosphere is stunning
Seriously, the setting of The Division is gorgeous. Sure, the graphics might not be the absolute best I’ve ever seen (even though I was running it on PC at “high” settings and 60fps) but the constant clutter, decrepit nature and just overall bleakness of this disease ravaged interpretation of New York City certainly leaves an impression.
This is especially the case once you enter the area known as “The Dark Zone”, a section of the city where the contamination has not been contained and hides all the best loot. Upon entering the Dark Zone, I was hit by massive fog and strong winds, heavily reducing visibility and my ability to hear any enemies around me. Buildings I entered were riddled with debris and many fallen lights illuminated my shadow in ways that would frighten me if I spotted it unexpectedly. You know, like when you enter a room and you see the silhouette of someone standing behind you, only to discover it’s your own shadow.
…or is that just something I do?
Anyway, the Dark Zone made a fairly standard third person shooter feel almost like a survival horror type game. Peaking around corners and dodging between cars in the dimly lit streets was very tense, particularly when other players could be vaguely seen doing the same, their level of hostility not-shown unless scanned using a certain special ability.
Wandering around that place was entertainingly terrifying, which I suppose is good because…
There’s a lot of wandering around having no idea what to do
For a good part of my time spent playing The Divison beta I had no idea what I was really supposed to be doing. There is one main quest that can be done before the game tells you that’s all and you should go off and experience random encounters and explore The Dark Zone.
Even during that mission, sometimes the on-screen objectives were unclear. When asking you to just go to a place or interact with a person they were fine, but at one point myself and a random player were asked to “secure a rooftop”, and despite clearing the entire thing of bad guys and standing on the marker placed on the ground, nothing was happening. Both of us were very confused (at least I assume the other guy was, he had no microphone), until I discovered we were supposed to fast travel back out of the building and on to the street before we were given the “Mission Cleared” signal.
This confusion was also evident in the behaviour of other players I encountered on my wanderings in the Dark Zone. After exploring a few hidey-holes, collecting some loot and just plain wondering what I ought to be doing, I ran into a bunch of higher level players who sent me an alert asking me to join their squad. I clicked accept, excited to finally have some direction. None of them seemed to have microphones (or the beta test was possibly having voice chat problems), but I knew I could at least follow their lead.
Instead, this happened:
Granted, two of those guys were clearly looking at their inventory screens, but the awkward-twitch-we-have-no-idea-what-to-do running continued for a solid few minutes before people just started going their separate ways. There seemed to be no drive to work together as there was nothing to really achieve, no incentive to kill each other since there wasn’t really anything to gain, so we just did, well, nothing.
Obviously having more of a campaign to play through will fill up the game with objectives to achieve, but hopefully there will be more variety in the random encounters and side quests in the full release. So far they just seem to mainly consist of encountering gangs, shooting them and then moving on. All the DayZ things we’ve been looking forward to such as the tension of running into another player, shaky alliances with strangers, the need to be ruthless in order to gain the best gear etc, just don’t seem to be there in the beta.
But what is there is a solid third person shooter that, with a good campaign and some better motivation for risky dealings with other players, could be the proper online apocalypse survival game we’ve been waiting for since the DayZ mod launched in 2012.