Friday 27 April 2018

The Division Beta - this action RPG is looking good

The Division
The Division

Paul Mallon

Ubisoft has been serving up beta access for The Division and we finally have an idea of what the open world action title is about

The Division was first announced at E3 all the way back in 2013. Since then we’ve mostly had teases, with developers Ubisoft building up the idea of a future world brought low by a viral infection and some manner of multiplayer gameplay to be found.

In truth, the promotional activity for The Division has been glossy and widespread but it has missed out on one crucial detail – revealing exactly what the game is. That’s a bit of a problem when it comes to a title that’s launching in just five weeks. Thankfully, the beta is here to finally give us a taste of what’s to come.

Honestly it’s quite different to what I was expecting. The focus on multiplayer elements in the teasers made it seem like some kind of post-apocalyptic MMO with a persistent world. The reality is more interesting.

In The Division, you step into a shattered New York as a Division agent and try to make a difference. At bottom, that involves establishing your base of operations and gathering resources and personnel to get things back up and running.

You start with a shell with wings for Medical, Tech and Security and go from there. Each wing needs a ‘hero’ character to run it and you can find them out in the world. You’ll also find specific resources for these different categories out there, which can be spent in upgrading the facilities – earning you kudos and unlocking new skills and perks.

When you’re not stocking up or fixing things, you’ll be out on the streets of a snow blasted and almost deserted New York, taking on main missions, side tasks, collection runs and running across emergent action.

There’s plenty to do and it’s all handled smoothly and efficiently by Ubisoft’s tech. There’s a lot of gunplay which feels suitably meaty, with enemies that can take a good amount of punishment. Weapons start out feeling a bit underpowered but improve with time and loot drops, and there are skills assigned to the triggers which can help even the odds. I went with a healing pack (that can also be shared with allies) and a fun grenade launcher.

The main story mission required us to rescue a doctor to unlock the facility back at base but the side missions were actually more interesting. One which stood out was when we were asked to track down the sister of our taciturn commander.

This involved scouting out her last known position and rebuilding that timeline using local surveillance cameras. This painted the scene with a holographic representation which we could explore and investigate, moving from place to place and piecing clues together to track her down. It added a personal level to this future tragedy and showed off an interesting mechanic which felt a bit like the investigations in Assassin’s Creed, only more high tech.

That technology is apparent in every aspect of how you interact with The Division – from the slick and accessible menus to the glorious user interface in game. It’s based on an augmented reality like system which sees important stats float in your vision and the same system is used for the ECHO recreations and maps – so you’ll see an afterimage of a skyscraper for a moment as you close your menu.

It looks fantastic and is a sign of the design excellence which Ubisoft brings to their games, and is coupled with strong graphics. This near future world is filled with details and atmosphere, especially as a snowstorm blows in and you try to distinguish what is lurking out of the shadows.

The beta also gives players a quick look at the Dark Zone. These heavily contaminated areas are shut off from the rest of the world and players are encouraged to travel in there in search of better weapons and loot. The kicker is that it’s also the only area where other real life players can kill you.

It’s a little more complicated than that – all human players are initially non hostile and the idea is that you’ll all team up and be friendly to take out the high level AI enemies inside these zones. But Ubisoft decided to add a little wrinkle by letting any player murder you anytime, like when you picked up a shiny new weapon that they really want.

You can’t just get away with murder though, that action changes your status to rogue and sends out a ping making you visible to everyone else. You’ll soon be taken out, which means you should head for extraction asap.

Extractions are the only way to get contaminated weapons and items out of the Dark Zone. You head to one of these areas, send up a flare and have to wait 90 seconds for the chopper. Naturally this leaves you very exposed and while everyone can play nice and wait their turn for the pickup they can just as easily go on a killing spre at the last second and take everything for themselves. If they don’t kick the bucket too.

This mechanic does add a layer of tension to every exchange, and makes teaming up with trusted folks a necessity in these areas, but it can also feel a bit cheap and mean spirited. No matter how hard you’ve worked, you can still be robbed of all your goodies by a stray shot. And it’s pretty easy to accidentally shoot another player, kicking off chaos in a split second.

I found the Dark Zone less engaging for these reasons and also because there isn’t very much to do in there. You might find a decent weapon but there are plenty of those in the regular areas of the game. And experience points and currency earned doesn’t cross over, which seems like a poor design choice.

Overall my first impressions of The Division are positive. The main part of the game plays like an action RPG with some interesting story elements and decent mission variety. It’s also possible to play it on your own – which is something that hasn’t really been talked about. Multiplay is a fun way to experience these parts of the game, but the combat isn’t massively challenging.

The Dark Zone so far is more problematic both in terms of its mechanics and the lack of content. There’s no real reason to venture in there, so the full game will want to have some compelling story thread or the promise of truly game changing weaponry to make it work. You’ll also have to hope that you don’t get stuck with players who just want to kill you for giggles.

The Division launches on the 8th of March 2016.

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