The Division
Hands-On Preview
"I'm keeping my expectations for the story cautiously low, but if the beta is any indication, the gameplay will be the real star, and that's already pretty solid."

I spent a lot of time with the The Division beta recently and got a taste of everything that was available to me. Overall, I'm looking forward to the full release, though I do have some concerns about the amount and variety of content.

First off, the game is looking pretty good in the visual department. They haven't recreated exact storefronts, but it all looks and feels like New York in winter, and the particle and weather effects are pretty impressive. I've seen everything from snow flurries to thick fog to near whiteout conditions, and smoke and steam react to the wind in believable ways. One of the most breathtaking moments I had was entering The Dark Zone (the PvP enabled area of the map) in the morning. I was facing east, so the sun was rising on the horizon, lighting everything in a realistic fashion. There was steam coming off manholes and snow blowing in the streets, and the realism of it (for a video game) was pretty striking.

Gameplay-wise, it's sort of like if Destiny, Borderlands, and Mass Effect had a child... in New York City. You explore the mostly abandoned city (either by yourself or with up to three friends), taking on missions, finding loot, and learning about the mega-virus that tore through so you can find a way to cure it and restore order to the city. Along the way, you encounter bad guys — looters, cops gone rogue, gangs trying to take advantage, etc. — and you have to take them down.

Like in Mass Effect, you spend a lot of your time in cover, popping up to take shots when the opportunity presents itself and using skills to damage your enemies, heal allies, or change the flow of the battle. I started out with a skill that let me pull up a riot shield so I could approach enemies out of cover and shoot them with my pistol; my beta buddy started with a pulse that scanned the nearby environment, highlighting any threats in the immediate vicinity. Only a few skills were available, but it seems like they'll complement each other well and encourage players to group up in order to share in the benefits. Skills can be modded to change or enhance their affects (my buddy's pulse, for example, could increase damage against scanned enemies), but this requires gathering supplies to upgrade the various wings at your base of operations, which is also how you get new skills as well as talents and perks.

All enemies have levels, take damage in hit points, and give experience when killed. Players level up, which affects what gear they can wear, how many skills they can equip, and possibly talents and perks too (the beta doesn't let you look at the specifics of these, so it's unclear if it's based solely on building your base or a combination of upgrades and character level). The different areas of the city have different level ranges, which presumably reflects the difficulty of the enemies and missions found within.

The weapon and armor system is really interesting because it interacts with your stats. Characters have three main stats: firearms, which affects your damage with weapons; stamina, which affects your health; and electronics, which affects the power of your skills. Every piece of armor you find has a value for these three stats in addition to a defensive rating, so depending on what you equip, your stats can increase or decrease. Not only does this affect your effectiveness and survivability in combat, but it also determines whether you can use talents that you'll find attached to some weapons. For example, I found a gun that would give me a small portion of my health back whenever I killed an enemy, but in order to use that talent, I had to have a certain rating in each of my stats. This encourages some experimentation with your equipment and gives a reason to think about gear other than that "it deflects bullets better." Even without taking weapon talents into consideration, this equipment system provides the potential to allow players to spec their characters along more traditional RPG lines; in other words, players wanting a DPS role would prefer equipment that ups their firearms stat, those who want to be more of a tank would prefer stamina, and those who like healing/support roles would probably choose to favor electronics.

Other things to note about gear is that weapons are rated based on their DPS, can be equipped with mods that do things like increase critical hit chance or reduce threat generation (AKA suppressors do not make you silent, they just reduce the chance of enemies hearing you fire), and there is a color-coded quality/rarity system a la Destiny and Borderlands. There will also be a crafting system in the full game; you can break down unwanted gear for materials or find them in the world and then use them to create new weapons and gear. Sadly, this wasn't available in the beta, so we don't know how robust the system is yet. Still, the amount of materials I either found or recovered from dismantled gear makes me think it will be a significant aspect of the game.

Missions and story are actually where I'm the most concerned about the game. There was only one main mission available in the beta (well, two if you count finding and setting up your base of operations, but that felt more like a tutorial), along with a bunch of side-missions you could discover as you moved through the city. The main mission was fine, and you could replay it with the difficulty increased for an added challenge and more experience, but there seems to be some uncertainty about how many missions like this will actually be in the game, which makes me worry that The Division may be as main story anemic as Destiny was at launch. The side missions seem like they'll be plentiful, but they're also a little repetitive: rescue a hostage, scan and upload virus data, help the JTF soldiers fend off attacks, etc. Some of them were unique, like a multi-quest chain that had me searching for a comrade's sister, so maybe the balance will be better in the full game. Then again, it wouldn't be a Ubisoft game without repetitive side content, and it doesn't look like they're breaking that mold anytime soon. Thankfully, the combat is super fun so I didn't mind it as much as I would in an Assassin's Creed game.

Speaking of Assassin's Creed, I didn't find any vantage points or radio towers I needed to climb to populate the map with activities. Rather, I looked at a map in my home base and voila, I knew where stuff was! Apparently, there are safe houses you can unlock throughout the city that will give you new missions, so I'm assuming there's a similar mechanic there, but at least it makes a little more sense than climbing to the top of a tower and suddenly you know where everything is with pinpoint accuracy. There are collectibles to find (because, again, it's Ubisoft), but it does feel like they've done a better job of tying them into the city and using them as world-building devices. For instance, you've got the now standard audio diaries to collect, but instead of them being inexplicable monologues (because really, who does that?), they're recordings of cell phone conversations between people at various different points in the disaster timeline. By far the coolest collectible I saw is something called an ECHO. When you activate it, stationary holograms pop up in the world and an audio recording plays of an event or a discussion between two or more people. If you walk up to these holograms, you can learn things about the people they represent, such as their names and occupations. It's a cool little way to build the world, and some of these ECHOs even tie into side quests.

Finally, there's the Dark Zone, which is the PvP-enabled section of the map. It's described as "PvP-enabled" because while you can engage and kill other players, you can also choose to work with them cooperatively against AI enemies or simply avoid them entirely. If you do start gunning down your fellow operatives, you go rogue, which paints a giant target on your back and allows other players to attack you without going rogue themselves. At the moment, the only thing you can really do in the DZ is run around killing enemies, picking up the loot they drop, and then extracting it at certain points on the map so you can use it in the PvE side of the game (the in-game reason for this is that DZ equipment must be decontaminated before you can use it). At any point in this cycle, other players can go rogue and attack you, and if they manage to kill you, they can take your loot and extract it themselves. This makes calling in an extraction a rather tense two-minute game of "who's going to try to shoot me in the back this time?" since at any given moment, the guy next to you could decide he wants your stuff and start firing.

While it's a cool idea, at the moment I have two major issues with the Dark Zone. First, there's pretty much nothing to do but run around looking for AI enemies to kill, hope they drop something good, and then hope you can extract it before some asshole decides to pump you full of lead. Compounding this is the fact that there simply aren't enough bad guys roaming the streets. I wasted plenty of time trying to find NPCs I could shoot, and while I eventually did run into someone, it does get old after a while. There need to be missions or group events to spice things up and give players something else to do. Second, it is really easy to accidentally go rogue. If someone steps into your line of fire and you react too slowly, boom! You've gone rogue, and if there are a bunch of other neutral players around you, you're probably dead. Add to that that dying means you not only lose your loot but also a portion of the DZ experience and funds you've earned (unless by some miracle no one picks them by the time you respawn and return to where you were), and it can be a little frustrating.

I'll describe one of my experiences as an example. I'm in a sporting goods store with a bunch of other neutral agents, taking down AI enemies, when another player fires at me. I think he's going rogue and shoot back in self-defense. Suddenly, I've gone rogue and he's still neutral, leaving him and everyone else free to kill me. And this tactic can be used intentionally to bait people into going rogue and making themselves public enemy number one. Of course, this is part of the risk of entering the DZ, but I still feel like the balance between neutral and rogue play should be adjusted, and maybe having other things to do besides "find random NPC/player, kill them, extract, profit" would help. Needless to say, I will be very interested to see what changes they make to the Dark Zone between now and the game's release on March 8th.

All in all, though, it was a fun experience and I'm looking forward to seeing more. The game is set squarely in midtown Manhattan, so if you were hoping to see other boroughs, you may have to wait to see if they get added as DLC/expansions. I'm keeping my expectations for the story cautiously low, but if the beta is any indication, the gameplay will be the real star, and that's already pretty solid. Also, if you're like me and have wanted to explore a virus-infested New York City ever since Parasite Eve came out, I'd say The Division is definitely worth checking out.


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