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.


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