Saturday, March 26, 2016

Being harassed in The Division's Dark Zone  

So tonight, I "finished" The Division.

Altogether, I spent about 60 hours (more or less) and usually played in a team of three. We completed every main and side mission, and also maxed out the headquarters. I’m not going to collect all the random pickup doodads, but I will come back for the DLC after giving it a little rest.  

Over the course of playing the game, we dipped into the game’s online quasi-PVP called “The Dark Zone” a few times -- nothing too frequent, but we had some good runs. Sometimes we’d get some good loot, sometimes we’d lose it to other players, but overall I felt like it was a great idea and a neat twist on the usual PVP offerings.

We went back in today and had what is, hands-down, the worst experience I've had in The Division, and probably one of the worst online experiences I've ever had.

When we first entered the DZ, we were approached by another player. We were having headset difficulties at the time and none of us could hear each other very well, so we didn't think too much of it. After the connection improved, we started catching bits and pieces of this guy talking, and it was along the lines of "Let me join your group or I'll kill you".

Obviously, this is not the proper way to approach other players if you want to work together, and since he seemed like he had a screw loose, we moved on and ignored him.

The thing is, he did not ignore us.

He started following behind us silently, and I thought he'd eventually get bored and buzz off. However, he persisted. Once my team started taking down AI characters and accumulating some loot, he opened fire on us from behind and took all three of us out before we could do anything.
We immediately respawned and ran back to the scene of the crime, and he was still there.

I figured that the three of us would open up on him and get our stuff back, but even with three of us firing at him in unison and giving him everything we had, we barely scratched him.  He took the whole team down a couple more times without breaking a sweat. While he was doing it, he kept saying "You should have let me join your group." and "I thought we could be friends."

After repeatedly getting killed by this guy, we decided to bounce and go to a different zone, but he kept following us wouldn't leave us alone. Even after we completely left the DZ and came back, he still found us and wouldn’t stop tailing our group. The whole time it was the same M.O. -- he'd follow us and not do anything until we collected some loot, and then he'd kill us in a matter of seconds and take our stuff.

Don’t’ get me wrong here -- the problem is not that somebody in the Dark Zone killed and robbed us (it’s been clearly stated since before The Division‘s launch that this was part of the online) but the problem is that it’s absurd for one player to be able to steamroll a team of three with impunity, and then keep on doing it, effectively preventing us from doing anything in the DZ.

In The Souls series (another game with unusual online PVP) things are different. After getting beaten by someone, that person returns to their world and it's just luck of the draw if you ever see them again. Unless the servers are deserted, you probably won’t. I certainly don't mind getting beaten by someone who's better than me or who has better gear, but being beaten by someone and going your separate ways is not the same as being killed by someone and then having them follow you during every minute of your playtime to kill you over and over and over again.

Another difference is that there’s no talking in Souls. No matter how cheesy or awful someone might be, the devs don’t make you listen to their taunting or verbal abuse. In The Division, we went to PSN party chat to avoid hearing randos talk in the DZ, but we could still hear this guy talking (environmentally) when he was close to us.  Thankfully there are options in the menu which prevent verbal communication with other players, so as soon as we stopped playing, I shut all that stuff off. It's going to stay off. 

This experience was incredibly frustrating and discouraging, and is by far the worst time we’ve had with the game overall. Ubisoft definitely needs to address a few things in order to improve things here because there are always going to be people who want to be the biggest fish in a small pond, and if someone like that can be an active barrier to the gameplay of others, then action needs to be taken.

For starters, let’s talk about the balance. Prior to becoming level 30, the DZ is sectioned off to players in certain segments. Levels 1-5 play in one zone, levels 5-10 play in another, and so forth. My team were all level 30. The guy harassing us was also level 30. In The Division it’s possible to find or craft gear that improves individual stats regardless of level, and I’m guessing this is how he was crushing us – on paper we seemed like equals, but in practice this was clearly not the case. It seems like assigning point values to players based on their gear might prevent the sort of one-sided domination we saw here. People who grind for days to get the best gear should be matched against people who are doing the same.

Going further, despite the everybody-for-themselves nature of the DZ, I’d say this guy’s behavior was straight-up harassment. It's one thing to take a headshot in PVP or lose a match here and there, but it's something else altogether to have someone watching over your shoulder the entire time you're playing, arbitrarily stopping your progress and verbally taunting you.

In situations like this, I’d like to see some sort of system to let me avoid being instanced with an abusive person – if I tag them as being a harasser, let the servers put us in different games. There's a similar system in the phenomenal Helldivers. You can down-vote a player who's a jerk, and the game will then take steps to avoid bringing you two together, which is brilliant. If Ubisoft can't do that, then at the very least there should be some sort of reporting system. I know it might be hard to implement since anyone who gets their stuff stolen might want to ‘report’ the thief as a knee-jerk reaction, but I felt like this went way beyond gameplay and became full-on harassment.

If Ubisoft wants The Division to have a robust player base and become a persistent online platform, they’re going to have to take steps to stop people like the guy we met tonight from dominating the online component. If there’s nobody in the DZ except nigh-invulnerable creepers who get off on actively interfering with others, then they can kiss any dreams of long-term success goodbye despite everything The Division gets right, and it gets a lot right. Seeing all of that hard work go down the drain thanks to people abusing the system would be a real shame, but I’ve gotta be honest – after a session like tonight, I’m pretty reluctant to ever go back into the Dark Zone again.   


Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Division - Early Impressions  


So, The Division.

First off, I want to say that although it was really inconvenient for review purposes, I do think it was a good idea for Ubisoft to hold all review copies back until launch day.

The Division is not playable without an online connection, and either there was no way to turn on the servers early for critics, or perhaps someone at Ubi didn't think that early access would give an accurate impression without the expected number of users online. Either way, I think they made the right call in this instance.

Personally, I'm a big believer in not reviewing a game with significant online components until it's open to the public… Sometimes games can look or feel very different when there are only 100 writers playing, as opposed to 100,000 people who paid $60. (Let’s not forget about day-one patches as well.)

I know a lot of writers are still locked into the “have to be first, have to publish on day one” mentality but I think that's becoming less of an option these days. If nothing else, reviewers owe it to their readers to give the most accurate and thorough impressions possible, and that's just not a thing we can even do without access to the full game in an environment that matches what paying customers will get.

So, what about the game itself? I'm about nine hours in at this point, and I have to say, I really, really like it.

The Division is a third person, real-time cover-based shooter with heavy multiplayer integration and progression elements, but it's entirely possible to go through the game by yourself -- although that's not the ideal way to do it.

Basically, you create a character and jump into a New York that’s been devastated by a virus. Lawless gangs have taken over, and you are one of the few people trying to keep order. Although there are named characters and NPCs, this is not a story-heavy experience… Basically the plot is "take back New York" and I haven’t yet seen much more than that. If you're looking for a very story-rich, character-driven experience, The Division is not that.

After starting, it's pretty overwhelming at first… There are a lot of menus and a lot of stuff going on, and although the tutorials do a fairly decent job of explaining things, there are inevitably a lot of questions that will only become clear after experimentation. That said, I figured things out pretty quickly, and it seems like a good system.

The player’s home base is a hub that has three areas: Tech, Medical, and Security. Each one has their own questline, and completing these quests unlocks upgrades and abilities for your character. Resources are also needed to earn some of these upgrades, and missions out in the world will award these necessary things.

New York is a totally open world and the player is free to go wherever they wish, although the map clearly shows that some zones are recommended for certain levels. The zone around home base is for players level 0-4, the next zone is for levels 5-8, and the furthest parts of the map are for levels 18 and up, and so on. You can go in there if you like, but you're probably going to get your ass shot off in short order.

Getting back to the quests for a moment, they're roughly divided into three sizes -- the story quests are the biggest, there are side missions which are kind of middle-size, and then there are encounters, which are small-scale. Players can look at these and decide what kind of experience they want for the time that they have, and self-regulate.

So far, the multiplayer has been excellent. It's really easy to find friends and to join them, or to invite them to join you. It's also easy to meet randoms and join up. I haven't done any of the PVP stuff yet, but it’s important to note that PVP is limited to The Dark Zone, a very clearly marked and separate location on the map. Players who don’t want to participate in PVP 100% don’t have to. It is purely optional.

However, I have done a lot of co-op, and it’s great. The thing I'm most impressed with is the difficulty scaling -- I did one specific mission by myself and it was a cakewalk, I did it with one other player and I noticed a ramp-up (but wasn't too hard) and then I played the same mission again with four people and it was quite a bit tougher, this time requiring team tactics, supporting each other, and making sure we all had each other’s back. Although it was the same mission all three times, it felt very different playing it with different numbers of people, and so far it feels like the difficulty scaling is right on.

As far as the gear goes, enemies will drop stuff as a player makes their way through the world… There are a whole slew of armor pieces, some cosmetic pieces, and of course, weapons.

Although it's not entirely based on reality, The Division certainly skews towards realism, and in that respect (so far anyway) I haven't found any gear that seems really crazy or anything that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the world. Apparently the best stuff is kept in the PVP zone, but the quality of drops ramp up as the player goes on, and I'm constantly finding new things to use while not being overwhelmed with stuff to trash or sell back at base. I feel like the loot drop rate is quite nice, although I will say that I certainly wouldn't mind a few more exotic things. However, I'm pretty early in the game and there is a lot left to see… 

Considering that the player has access to some science-fiction equipment (a portable healing zone generator, a spider drone with a gun, etc.) I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some more fantastical stuff show up later on.

I've said this before but the best way of summing up what The Division feels like is to say that it gives me the experience that I wanted from Destiny, before I knew what Destiny was actually like.

It's great to be out in the world and feels like you're really a part of something, and the missions are quite varied… I'm not doing the same strike over and over, and New York is far bigger than one small hub. There are large chunks I haven't even seen yet, and I like that there are little surprises in each mission that keep the play feeling fresh.

I'm not an MMO guy in general, but this game has enough action to keep me in, and the ability to solo anytime is really appealing to me, plus the feeling of being in this world and fighting with purpose is a great spin. The Division is definitely in the same general ballpark as Destiny is (as far as I’m concerned) but it's hitting different notes and it has a very different feel. It’s clicking for me.

There is a lot of The Division left to see and although I'm not sure I will be able to complete it before I turn in a review, I feel like I need to put at least another 10 or 15 hours in before I’ll have a good measure of what's going on. That said, I really like what the devs have created here and I'm playing every chance I get, which isn't something I can say about every review assignment.

So far it's an unequivocal thumbs up, but look for my full review in the future.