The Division

Winter arrives in March, with The Division.

Initially revealed at E3 2013, and slated for release just a year later, it’s safe to say Tom Clancy’s The Division has had it’s problems. When it was announced in 2014 that it would be at least another year before release the sigh could be heard from everyone – while the initial hype was strong (aren’t all of Ubisoft’s “and just one more thing” E3 announcements?), information started to dry up in the unintended gaps left by development setbacks, and by Christmas 2015, for a game that was 3 months away, late-stage information was scarce.

We didn’t need to worry – it seems that Ubisoft’s marketing team was just in hibernation and has woken up in January, hungry and ready to feed on your interest. From trailers and live action shorts, an open (ish) beta – more on that in a second – and info on a year’s worth of DLC, there’s more than enough evidence that Ubisoft’s Sweden studio, Massive, hasn’t been sitting on its hands.

With hype on the rise, what better way to top off the month, than with a weekend beta from the 28th to the 31st January (just pre-order for your code) – the scramble of players everywhere to get their homework done on a Friday could not have been louder. Could The Division be the answer to the droves of Destiny players looking for something new to shoot in the face? Maybe.

The new Snowdrop engine that Massive have in place for The Division and the effect it has on mood and atmosphere in the game is stunning. Even on the relatively lowly powered PS4 (those original ultra-quality trailers were obviously running on PCs that cost more than my car) the types of setting conjured up in snowy New York can have a dramatic effect on how you approach the game.

Firstly, the day/night cycle, coupled with non-existent enemy HUD highlights (until you spot them, or use your tech to detect them, and even then it’s temporary) means that just running around the city you can’t immediately tell what’s an NPC asking for a handout, or what’s an enemy with a grenade and a thirst for your head. Add to that the fantastic weather cycle, which moves from crisp and clear winter wonderland scenes, to foggy, snowy conditions and back again, and the visibility together with how you move around the city can shift quite dramatically within the span of a mission. Coupled with the fairly empty city (this isn’t Watch_Dogs or GTA where 50 people are spawned around the corner at all times, at least not in the beta), and you have to be more careful than normal – running in to 2 or 3 grunts can be lethal.

Regardless of the final game, the engine powering it all is remarkable.

The city itself is strangely moreish. It’s not an idealised version of anything, it’s not shiny and well constructed, it’s New York, post-apocalypse; burnt out cars litter the streets, disused military equipment blocks pathways, rubbish piles up everywhere, and the slush of 3 day old snow slurps and cracks under your feet. There’s so much detail in places that I’m sure there are Massive employees who have spent days just placing rubbish like they were painting with it. We’ve seen cities before that we’re meant to wonder at because of their construction – The Division’s city asks us to marvel at it because of its desolation. Regardless of the final game, the engine powering it all is remarkable.

Gameplay wise, The Division’s cover-based, third person, action RPG (CBTPARPG?) is a mix of Gears of War, Mass Effect, and Destiny; move from cover to cover else be mowed down, weapon damage is definitely RPG flavoured, clear a mob of enemies or investigate some thingamajig. Having spent more than a year with Destiny, the slightly slower pace is a welcome release.

Ubisoft’s patented Map Full of Icons™ is not quite in full force here (at least not in the beta), but there’s more than enough location to fill with encounters come the final release – the one thing we’ve not seen so far is any kind of boss fight. Let’s hope that they’re not all bullet sponges, and some inventiveness can prolong any repeat encounters in the name of better loot.

And that brings us on to the Dark Zone, a mixture of PVP and PVE combat where the better loot can be found and where game rules fly out the window, and human instincts take over. Within the DZ there are 3 types of combatants; enemy AI, non-hostile players, and rogue players, deemed so for attacking other players. Enemy AI, stronger than those you find outside the walls hold better loot – guns, armour, knee pads, stuff – but it can’t just be ferried back to your main base, it’s ‘infected’ and must be extracted via specific points on the map that other players can see. Those other non-hostile players can hook on to your extractions too, sending their loot back to their base. However, triggering an extraction is seen by everyone, rogue agents included, and that meeting place can become very tense as the urge to gun down and take that hard-earned loot from other players, just in time to extract it before you yourself are killed for going rogue, is palpable.

…is that person you half see running across a foggy street going to help, or gank you and take your loot?

Running around the DZ, at first you’ll shoot everything in sight, wonder why you’ve done something wrong and then get gunned down by a mob of other players. When you realise that co-operation with complete strangers (who might turn around and gun you down when you’ve helped them) is the name of the game, it becomes wonderfully tense – is that person you half see running across a foggy street going to help, or gank you and take your loot? Should you follow, or run and hide? I’ve not had this kind of experience in a console game before (PC master race gamers are screaming DAYZ! DAYZ! at me right now), and right now, I’m hooked.

It’s not without a few bugs and odd choices as it stands though; joining friends in the DZ is hit and miss as they play on other instances, the city, regardless of its status, seems very empty in places (though you could argue that’s a conscious choice, to enhance a feeling of isolation), and the menu system is almost overly complex in places. The DZ mechanics need some tweaking too – there’s far too much temptation to just gun down other players, grab their loot and run away like Benny Hill until your rouge status wears off. If the DZ is The Division’s end game content, more AI encounters, harsher punishments, and fancier loot (my trapper hat is great, but hardly squeel worthy) needs adressing.

But, even given all that, the world alone is worth marveling at, and the PVP mechanics, coupled with an interesting story (let’s hope they don’t Destiny-it) make The Division something you should definitely keep an eye on when it comes out in March.