Beta impressions for The Division

March 2, 2016 by David Andrews

The 'Dark Zone'-- a lawless PVP area where players are free to create chaos-- is where this game really shines.

The Division entered my radar nearly two years ago, at E3 2013. There were lots of impressive titles on display that year – Titanfall, The Witcher 3, and Destiny to name just a few – but The Division really stuck out to me. The promise of the game was vague at that time, though it was clearly some sort of RPG shooter set in a post-apocalyptic New York City. Back then, that was enough to hold my interest. I finally got the chance to test it out during the Open Beta period in February.

Leading up to the beta, I wasn’t quite sure what The Division would end up being, but in the end it is pretty easily summarized. It is an open-world cover shooter RPG with some interesting co-op and PVP elements-- in other words, a bit of Borderlands, a smidgeon of Destiny, a pinch of that ole Tom Clancy feeling.

The crafting and the perk system were not available during the beta, but the basics were all present. The player takes on the role of an Agent of the Division and tasked with restoring order to a New York City ravaged by a pandemic and a disconcerting concentration of rioters. Apart from a brief glimpse of a handful of cutscenes relating to the establishment of your base of operations in NYC, the story remained unknown. Exactly why Agents are so special or the Division so important were left to the imagination.

The cover shooting is rock-solid and may end up proving to be the best selling point of the game. Each weapon feels and sounds unique, a situation complimented by the simple but robust modification system. In addition to modifying the actual functionality of a weapon (scopes in particular are a great customization option, with varying tastes on crosshairs, zoom, and accuracy), each modification carries with it certain bonuses: 2% reduction in horizontal recoil, 1% additional headshot XP, 5% reduction in reload time, and so on.

Naturally, the game wouldn’t be much of an RPG if it didn’t color-code the quality of loot in accordance with the Governing Council of Role-Playing Games Guideline 201.13.4, Paragraph 6, which states: “items shall be presented to the user with colors ranging from gray to orange (scaling from useless garbage to god tier loot quality).” Grays, greens, and blues abounded in the beta. Higher quality guns and armor carried perks like bonuses to XP gain or damage against particular types of enemies.

The missions were fairly standard as well, though many of the side missions felt like organic parts of the game – in fact, I’m still not sure whether the side missions scattered throughout the world were entirely scripted or procedurally generated. Much of the Division can be described as ‘solid’ in this way – loot looks familiar; the cover shooting is good, but not remarkable; the missions are standard ‘kill all the bad guys at this location’ and ‘find the key to the locked door’ affairs. The one departure from this formulaic presentation of content came in the form of ‘ECHOs’, which essentially amounted to digital reconstructions of past events scattered around the game world. The ECHOs brought the world to life in an interesting way, building depth for the character that appears to be your superior at the beginning of the game through a quest chain to discover the whereabouts of her sister, stranded in the city.

The one feature of The Division that promises to set it apart from similar titles both past and present is The Dark Zone. In the game, the Dark Zone represents areas of New York City that have not yet been reclaimed by civilization (the Division are the agents of civilization). In the Dark Zone, Agents can battle rioters and gangs for better than average gear – or, if it strikes their fancy, go ‘rogue’ and start taking out fellow Agents for the gear they’ve collected.

Gear picked up in the Dark Zone must be extracted for decontamination at static pick up points. The process goes something like: kill gang members for a sweet AK-47, run to the nearest pickup, fire off a flare (which alerts everyone in the zone that you have gear you care about), then wait for a helicopter to zoom in and drop a line. Once the helicopter shows up, one of two things inevitably happen: either you and your erstwhile colleagues all nervously gather at the rope and attach your gear before scattering to the four winds, or some jerk tosses out a grenade, and then mows down everyone with a spray of light machine gun fire (after which the jerk collects all the loot and hooks it up themselves to the extraction rope).

While the story components were serviceable, it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to screw over other players that the Division really sunk its hooks into me. Planning an ambush, either solo or with friends, without making it obvious what your intentions are to the other players around you, is nearly as exciting as any other PVP experience I’ve had in a game. The stakes feel high, since collecting nice gear in the Dark Zone requires a serious time investment. PVP, when it occurs, is well-balanced. As soon as a player goes rogue, they become free game for everyone else to shoot at for a period of time – meaning that even if a rogue is successful in their first attack, they must evade an angry mob of players seeking revenge.

This isn’t to say that I don’t have any reservations about The Division. The other multiplayer component of the game, the main story missions, appear a bit lackluster when compared with similar experiences available in Bungie’s Destiny, for instance.

In Destiny’s beta there was a single strike available – a strike that long-time Destiny players all hate and love in equal measure at this point. The strike consists of three boss encounters: the first is a wave-based affair, with multiple waves of Hive and Fallen to get through before a big beefy boss shows up. The second is one of the large scarab battle tanks, where players must shoot the leg plates until the core is exposed, then shoot the core. Finally comes the big floating ball boss that teleports around.

In comparison, the major co-op mission available in the beta of the Division just consists of dudes with guns and baseball bats that you have to keep shooting as you make your way through what used to be Madison Square Garden. At some point you end up on the roof, where a beefy boss engages in some Rambo-esque behavior, waving around a light machine gun. And that’s it! No shooting order required; no focus, preparation, or attention needed. It’s just shoot man, get loot, rinse and repeat.

The Dark Zone is a great feature, but whether it can be enough to satisfy players over the long term remains to be seen. The Division would appear to be in danger of sporting even less content at launch than Destiny 1.0, which would be unfortunate. Like Destiny, it will be what the developers do with the game post-launch that will determine the long term success of The Division.