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?


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