After several popular E3 showings and more than one delay, Ubisoft's newest IP, The Division
, still has some people scratching their heads with what it is exactly
. Is it a shooter? An RPG? An MMO? What could I expect heading into the closed beta period? Plenty have compared The Division
to Bungie's Destiny
because of their shared focus on small team co-operative play across a multitude of mission types. I think some comparisons are valid, but The Division
is also trying to stand on its own merits.
The earliest and, perhaps, the most jarring observation regarding The Division
came as I arrived in the city. The game's story universe feels right at home with Ubisoft's line of other titles. You enter New York City following a smallpox pandemic that occurred on Black Friday, no less. The snowy streets and blocks of shops are still decorated for a Christmas that won't be coming. The developers at Massive Entertainment really painted a stark image of the city with its stillness. There are no rows of honking cabs or sidewalks overrun with tourists and selfie sticks. Instead, some NPCs walk the streets looking for food, brawling over their limited resources and running from danger. What the actual "Division" references is an elite team of stay-behind soldiers that are trained to operate when all other systems have collapsed. You play a soldier in this Strategic Homeland Division who is investigating the source of the outbreak. You can customize your own character's appearance, although for this beta players could choose only among a handful of preset characters. All of this, so far, feels very Ubisoftian.
In so many of their games you are a skilled hero with gritty looks and borderline omnipotence. This is where The Division
begins to stand out from not just their other games, but most other games as a whole. You still manage an inventory of three firearms, some grenades, and whatever utilities you have assigned to yourself through unlocks, but enemies won't respond like typical enemy NPCs and you are far from powerful at the start. They soak up bullets like sponges in a way reminiscent of Borderlands
or, yes, Destiny
. Even headshots aren't likely to neutralize combatants with a single round.
The RPG elements don't stop there either. Your entire setup of guns and gear is buffed by the game's loot system. Finding more valuable and effective loot is the key component to gameplay, whether you're playing alone or with friends. Heading into areas or missions meant for players possessing skills far beyond yours is a death wish. Pairing up with two friends, we tried to take on one of the beta's understandably few story missions on hard difficulty. Because we had some very basic equipment, we never really stood a chance against a wave of enemies piling into Madison Square Garden. In the full game, you'll be able to explore more of the land and find more valuable loot rather than bite off more than you can chew.
That's not to say the game didn't offer some worthwhile gear in the beta. Using the traditional color coded system, I initially had nothing but the white (basic) level of gear. By the time the beta had ended, I had all second and third level (green and blue) items across my entire arsenal of gun mods and attire. It was possible to find a lot of higher quality gear in the single player and co-op areas of the game, but the most valued of all loot was to be seen and retrieved in the Dark Zone.
If you've been following the pre-release coverage of The Division
so far, you already know about the PVP component that the Dark Zone adds to the game. You can head in alone or with your connected group of friends; in either event you'll be at the mercy of the other players online who might intend on robbing you of your resources or, as was often the case, simply trolling you. Going rogue like this puts you on the game's mini-map for others to hunt you down and earn big rewards for putting down a turncoat agent. The more often you go rogue, the longer you'll stay on the map for others to see too. Moments in the Dark Zone were my most memorable and were sometimes hilarious. Using a voice chat system that lets you hear other persons or parties simply by being nearby, it was funny to listen in on others' paranoia regarding my presence, especially at the extraction points.
When you collect Dark Zone loot, it must first be decontaminated before you can use it in the main map. To do this, you signal for extraction, an action that alerts all others nearby. Thus begins a tense few minutes while you wait for the helicopter to arrive and drop a rope to which you tie the loot. Then the chopper takes it away, later adding it to your inventory. Waiting at these extractions was always tense. Some players would hide in cover even if no one was apparently nearby, just in case a soon-to-be-rogue agent was waiting. When those choppers finally arrive, and you have to approach the rope to get your loot out safely, it's like being a kid and peeking behind the shower curtain for monsters. You don't know who is waiting to take what was nearly yours.
The Dark Zone will surely be where a lot of players spend a great deal of time and the co-operative play is a huge selling point, but the game is set up to allow for you to play it completely solo if you prefer. I spent much of my time running through the open-for-beta areas completing solo encounters and trying to get a grip on the game's many complex systems. It's simple to add people to your group if you change your mind too. Those from your friends list appear on your map and you can see them if you happen to be nearby, but unless you join each other's games you'll be nothing more than two ships passing at sea.
You can replay missions on different difficulties to earn better rewards or to play them with new friends. You can work on your hub of operations to improve your resources and you can always venture out and just encounter any number of quick NPC gunfights or the many side missions. The number of multiplayer focused games with a great story can be counted on one hand. Because this game's main selling points are the co-op, PVP, and the replayability of missions, my greatest concerns at this time are two-fold:
1. How interesting will the story be?
2. Will this require the grinding that plagued so many's experiences with Destiny
For me, if a game is telling a story, I want it to be worthwhile. To my second point, it was the necessity within Destiny
to constantly replay certain missions over and over to reap the rewards that players sought and that exhausted many people's desires to continue with the game.
Rumors have run rampant in the days since the beta ended by pointing to an open beta that may be just a week or two away itself. We don't run unverified rumors like that here, but I feel it's worth mentioning that many more people may soon have a chance to figure out the game's intent before its March 8th release date. I still have a lot to learn of the game, and a second beta would do many players just as well as it will do for the game's creators. Hopefully, those rumors are true.
For now, I can say that my hopes are high for the game. Despite playing very little multiplayer, The Division
has the potential to make my short list of exceptions because the world it takes place in is interesting and the systems it works with seem to run deep. The Division
is undeniably ambitious. If -- and it's a big "if" -- The Division
can overcome the issues that hindered Destiny
for many people, I could see it not just standing on its own merits, but surpassing its oft-linked predecessor as the best multiplayer RPG-shooter hybrid out there in a genre that is sure to continue growing.