Saturday, January 30, 2016

Five Hours With The Division: Beta Impressions  


So The Division originally appeared at E3 back in 2013, but at the time it wasn't exactly clear what it was. 

An MMO? A co-op shooter? An open-world game with online portions? Something else entirely?

Ubisoft wasn't forthcoming with details at the time, and the heavily-scripted trailers featuring players squawking into their headsets were tough to suss out. However, a game can only remain shrouded in mystery (or confusion?) for so long. With an expected street date of March 8th, access to a beta version was given to those who pre-ordered the game. 

Being quite curious about it for all this time, I ponied up a fiver. Here's what I saw.  

(And just FYI, you can click on the images to enlarge them.)

The beta version offers only a portion of the features that will be available in the full product. There were a number of things (perks, crafting, and more) that were greyed-out or otherwise unavailable.

It's also worth mentioning that unlike other so-called 'betas', this one seems like it fits the proper definition -- there were a number of bugs that cropped up, several areas were inaccessible, and all sorts of weirdness was on display. I was dropped from the game a number of times, the game began with Spanish as the default language, sometimes my gun floated five feet in the air above me, and in general, it felt like it was not in a finished, polished state.  

Not a complaint, just an observation. 

At the time I began, I was only able to choose between male/female for my character. The customization options were not enabled and the race was chosen either at random, or perhaps based on the language selected? 

The normal view when a player calls up the map via an AR overlay. 

A zoomed-out view showing the surrounding area. 

From there, things kicked off with an opening cutscene describing a city descending int chaos after a virus was released, and the game quickly rolled me into tutorials. There's a lot going on in The Divison and there are loads of systems. It was overwhelming at first, but things quickly became clear. Well, mostly clear.  

The Division is an open-world, third-person shooter based inside a huge city. 

The core campaign is single-player. 

This may come as a surprise to many since the trailers were so heavily oriented on co-op, but it does seem entirely possible to play as a lone wolf. However, there are at least two flavors of co-op available -- Apparently players can go through the story campaign with one or more partners, working together to restore the city.  

I played the beta partnered up with my wife, but I also ran into a few friends randomly exploring the world. Grouping up with them was as simple as walking up to them, and away we went. No painful hoops to jump through, although there are options for forming more formal parties.  

The other type of co-op was based in a special area of the game's world called The Dark Zone.  In this area, groups of players enter and the game becomes PVP. Squads of friends can stick together and cover each other's backs, but when other groups or real players are encountered, it can get hairy. 

If nobody fires a shot, they can co-exist peacefully while gunning down AI characters carrying loot. But if one group decides to open fire on another, then all hell breaks loose and squads try to take each other down while collecting spoils from the fallen.

This screen shows the different types of gear the player can equip for tactical purposes, and below is the screen for skills. There are also menus for equippable perks, cosmetic appearance, and more.  

Weapons can all be modded in several ways (seen above) adding various effects and qualities.

The open world is quite beautiful and highly detailed, with areas featuring interiors, exteriors, and varied elevations. The weather and lighting are of special note -- the environment regularly cycled through blizzard conditions, sunshine, light and dark with very convincing levels of quality.

In the campaign area, random missions pop up, and completing these give various rewards that can often be put towards restoring the city. 

This poor guy was locked up by looters, so rescuing him (and others like him) was one typical mission.

Miscreants will often terrorize the streets, so something like this is a straightforward cleanup mission.

Several buildings in the world are contaminated with a virus. In these, certain machines must be activated, and then the data uploaded to HQ. A clock counts down for added pressure, and of course, the street toughs try to foul things up as you go. 

When all missions are cleared in the area, reporting back to the 'job board' respawns more events in different areas. Different parts of the city present different threat levels, as seen below. (Small print, you can see it below 'Chelsea') 

There's more to the game that we didn't see in the beta, but this seems to be the general flow of the singleplayer portion. Customizing loadouts, gear and appearance seems to be a big hook, and the co-op was seamless and smooth. It's unclear how long the campaign is, and the value of the Dark Zone's PVP will be of varying worth depending on player preferences, although it's worth noting that the best swag is to be found there.

Looking towards the future, Ubisoft has already announced three expansions to the game available via season pass. 

From Ubisoft PR:

The development team has a complete post-launch plan to keep the experience fresh for all players, including several free updates, new features and functionality, as well as 3 major expansions to provide a renewed gameplay experience after launch.

The free updates to be released for all players will add new game modes such as challenging group-oriented operations to test players’ abilities in co-op mode and win unique rewards.

The 3 paid expansions are included in the Season Pass and will be released over the course of the year. Each expansion builds on The Division, continuing your agent’s journey and progress with new content, gear and gameplay as you fight to take back New York:

•       Expansion I: Underground
This first major expansion opens up a new area to players as they explore the uncharted underworld of New York City with up to 4 friends for intense co-op action

•       Expansion II: Survival
In this expansion, players will have to survive as long as possible in a very hostile environment that will challenge even the most talented agents.

•       Expansion III: Last Stand
Stay tuned for more information.

At launch, Season Pass owners will also unlock the exclusive Sawed-off Shotgun, a unique sidearm customized for short-range destruction. Season Pass owners also receive a set of exclusive outfits and weapon skins, as well as access to special monthly benefits including exclusive content drops and special events.

This is a pretty good summary of the time I spent with the beta and of what we know, but many questions remain. Regarding cross-platform play, there's been no definite answer. My guess is no. 

In terms of the expected lifespan of the game (yes, there's a Destiny-sized elephant in the room) it's hard to say. If the parts of the game that weren't in the beta are as rich as what was, that's pretty promising. Of course, The Division's long-term health will live or die based on the additions and expansions, but it seems to me that the hooks are in place to keep things rolling. New areas seem quite possible, new modes and missions could be slotted, new gear is a no-brainer... I'd say there's a lot of potential here. 

After three years of being a huge question mark, it seems like The Division is coming together quite nicely. I'm planning to jump in on PS4... How about you?


Friday, January 22, 2016

PSN Flash Sale - Ends 1/25  


PSN is having a big Flash Sale right now until January 25th. There's a lot of stuff on the cheap, but with so much to choose from, what are the best picks? Tastes vary, of course, but here's what caught my eye.   

I'm curious about... 
Actual Sunlight
Eiyuu Senki
Steins; Gate

And these are guaranteed good times...
Hand of Fate
Hotline Miami
Race The Sun
Rogue Legacy
Stick It To The man
Tokyo Jungle

If you have a couple of bucks to spare and need to beef up your PS4/PS3/Vita backlogs, now's the time!


Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Second Look At: Dead Space 3, 2013  


Since we’re still in that wonderfully empty-ish zone of downtime after the end of fourth-quarter madness but before the start of the 2016 releases, I'm still happily plinking away at my backlog.

If you follow me on Twitter, then you probably already know that my most recent selection was Dead Space 3 from Visceral Games. Although I’ve played and completed all the other Dead Space titles, I can't say that I really enjoyed them… It's kind of funny because I think they all have a lot of potential that they don't live up to, but I keep coming back to them… Because?

Anyway, I had heard nothing but bad things about Dead Space 3, but I knew that it had a heavy multiplayer focus, and I'm always looking for games to play in co-op with the wife. Making the prospect even more attractive, I got two copies for about three dollars each, and that's a pretty hard price to beat – if it turned out awful, we weren’t out much cash.

At this point I'm about 10 hours in, and getting pretty close to the homestretch, which is just fine. The gameplay is pretty much what I expected… Typical Dead Space shooting, with a hell of a lot of monster closets and surprise attacks. You could basically call this "Watch Out Behind You, Because It’s Always Behind You: The Game” and it would be accurate.

In fact, the gameplay is so dull that I can easily see why a lot of solo players abandoned ship on it and never came back. If I was playing by myself, it would be far too one-note to trudge through, but it really takes on new life with a second player, and not just because you have a buddy to chew the fat with -- the devs have made some really smart decisions that make it shine in cooperative. (And to be clear, this is co-op between two separate 360s. The game offers no splitscreen or couch co-op.)

Sidenote: For whatever reason, the “story-oriented, intentionally co-op” genre has never really taken off on console. Things like Army of Two, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, and others like them are quite a bit of fun in their intended co-op modes and significantly less so alone. I wonder what it would take for this style of game to flourish on consoles, but that's a question for another day.

The free-flying space sections are pretty great.

So anyway, what does Dead Space 3 do right?

One: The graphics are pretty awesome. Although I’ve been spending a lot of time on PS4 admiring all of the bells and whistles, I was really impressed by how sharp DS3 looks on 360. Of course, it's not really all that old, but even so, it shows just how much life was still left in the old machine. It looks fantastic.

Two: The gun modding. Basically, each gun has eight or ten component parts that can all be interchanged. There's no penalty for experimenting, and a player can do it as often as they wish, which was a really smart move to encourage use of the system. Players will come across different parts as they go through the game, and how they’re assembled can modify how they work.
For example, the player starts off with a basic assault rifle, but adding a different tip turns it into a fully automatic gun, while another one will turn it into a shotgun. It's a little confusing at first, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it. Once a few more components are collected, it becomes incredibly fun to experiment with different configurations. A fully auto rifle with a flamethrower underslung? Sure. A sawblade shooter with an electric rivet repeater attached? Go for it. Plasma blades with grenades and a blast shield? You bet!

This modding is a strong component of the game, and it’s made better with special co-op focused attachments which share life-ups, ammo, or other effects between players.

Three: So about that co-op. Obviously, the game can be played through in solo mode, and it sports the usual story-oriented campaign with cutscenes and NPC characters. However, the brilliant thing here is that in addition to series star Isaac Clarke, the devs have included a second character called Carver.

Badasses. I love Visceral's armor design.

I'm not sure how often he pops up in the solo campaign, but in the co-op, Carver is always tagging along. In each of the cutscenes, Clarke takes center stage in order to carry the campaign along BUT Carver is always prominently featured behind him, or to the side, or in some other way so it looks like he's present even though he's not actually participating in the story.

Furthermore, the game shows cutscenes from different perspectives. While I expected one section to look identical for both my wife and myself, I was surprised to find out that each of our screens was showing something different. At one point my wife (playing Clarke) was inside the cab of the vehicle that was sliding down a cliff. My character (Carver) was outside the vehicle trying to get her out. She couldn't see me on her screen, but I could see her on mine. That’s just one example, but there are many.  

In other instances, there are weird psychological effects that crop up. At one point, a level we were in was covered in party streamers, presents and birthday cake. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever, but my wife couldn't see any of it, nor could she hear the voices that were playing on my TV. This attempt at approximating Carver having a moment of insanity was really cool, and created a few moments of confusion between the two of us in real life as we were trying to figure out what the hell was going on and why we weren’t seeing the same things.

There aren’t nearly enough of these moments and I think that's a shame considering how strong they are, but even the little bits that we get are pretty brilliant. I can't say that I've seen anything else quite like them in other games.

So where does Dead Space 3 go wrong?

You again? And again? And again?

Well, I think the biggest thing is what I already mentioned -- the action is flatly one-note. Most of the game is walking through hallways of various lengths and taking out monsters which pop out at you from all directions. In ten hours, I think we’ve come across… one boss? Maybe two? It's not especially compelling, and the game is certainly long enough for boredom with this content to set in.

Seriously, ignore this MF'ing thing. 

Otherwise, the story just isn't good. Although I’ve played through all of the Dead Space games, I have a hard time keeping the plot straight in my head… I know there's something about an alien “marker” that turns people into monsters, but then it was really man-made, but then it was actually alien. And, for whatever reason, people keep joining the cult that popped up around the worship of this marker because… I don't know why. I mean, who wants to turn themselves into a corpselike grabby-monster? Dead Space 3 furthers all this somehow, although I couldn’t explain what the point of it is, honestly. Clarke goes after another marker and it’s all hazy after that.

Husband and wife, blasting happily in tandem. 

So, while the downsides are significant and I don’t recommend this game to lone wolves, the interesting, fresh take on co-op and the gun modding in Dead Space 3 are actually both quite good and very creative. I could easily see some of these same mechanics making a big splash in different games that might use them to better effect. In the meantime, if you have $6 for two copies and a buddy willing to commit 15 hours, I’d say Clarke’s final journey is a worthwhile investment.