A couple of weekends back, I — like many other players — took part in the beta weekend for Ubisoft’s upcoming MMO shooter, The Division. I also — unlike many other players — was actually able to gain access at the start of the weekend, and over the next few days I spent the vast majority of my free time exploring the game’s recreation of post-apocalyptic Manhattan and trying to see everything there was to see before the test came to a close.
As it turned out, that wasn’t too much of a challenge, all things considered, because the amount of content accessible to players was somewhat restricted. Despite the limited scope of the test, however, almost all of the game’s core systems were available in some form or fashion, and there was still plenty to see and do over the course of the weekend. But when the test came to a close and servers went down, I realized that, despite having spent a significant portion of my weekend in the game and having experienced everything that was available to me (as far as I’m aware, at least), I still wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the game. Even now, I’m still rather undecided, but perhaps putting it all down on paper will help me to sort out my obviously conflicted feelings. At the very least, I hope it will provide an informative preview of what we can expect when The Division goes lives next month.
Character creation and starting out
Let’s start, as I always do, from the beginning: character creation. There’s really not much to say here, honestly, because the game’s full character customization system was not yet implemented in the beta. Instead, there was only a randomize button, so I had to just click the button until it came up with a face (created from a limited pool of hairstyles, facial features, skin colors, etc.) that I found adequate. Certainly not a big deal by any stretch — I wasn’t going to be stuck with this character for long, and I’d be looking at the back of his head most of the time, anyway — but it still would have been nice to get a peek at even a limited version of the character creation system that we’ll be using in the final game.
But I wasn’t there to look good, so after mashing the randomize button a few times and saying, “Eh, good enough,” I eagerly jumped into the game itself. The game began with an introductory cutscene that introduced me to a few of my fellow Division officers, including my handler, Faye Lau. One thing I noticed right off is that the voice-acting in the game is actually rather good — and in some cases flat-out great — which is a huge relief. I feel like voice acting is one of those things that, although a seemingly incidental feature, can easily tarnish an otherwise solid game if it’s not done well.
Shortly after touching down in Manhattan and making all the necessary introductions, I was given my first assignment. Before I could go about my job of quelling the chaos plaguing New York City and preventing the utter collapse of society, the first order of business was to establish a base of operations, and Faye knew just the place: a decontamination checkpoint established by the Joint Task Force (or JTF), an organization of former police officers, firefighters, and the like that was formed to help maintain some semblance of order in the city. Unfortunately, the JTF checkpoint was currently under attack from a gang of rioters who had apparently decided that it was time to graduate from amateur rioting, like smashing store windows and stealing TVs, and go professional. So it was my job to make my way to the JTF troops, help them clear out the rioters, and set up shop at the checkpoint.But before I could take the base back, I had to get there, and that involved a hell of a lot of running.
Normally, I’d complain about being forced to spend my first five minutes in the game going for a jog, but in this case, I was quite frankly almost grateful for it. It gave me time to really absorb the amount of painstaking work that has clearly been put into the game’s intricately detailed recreation of New York City. Mind you, I’ve never been to NYC myself (unless you count the time I took a wrong exit and ended up taking an unplanned detour through the Bronx while en route to Connecticut), so I can’t say exactly how true-to-life The Division’s incarnation of The Big Apple actually is, but that doesn’t change the fact that the devs have done an outstanding job at making the city feel at once alive and utterly desolate. While technology still hasn’t reached a point where it’s feasible to create a truly lifelike city with completely explorable buildings and the like, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not all of the decimated storefronts and skyscrapers are simply set-dressing; a not-insignificant number of the buildings in the game can be entered, and there are often loot crates and other goodies hidden within, making it well worthwhile to scratch that urban-exploration itch.
Eventually, my lengthy jog through the silent, derelict streets was interrupted by the clamor of shouting and gunfire, signalling that I had reached my destination. The JTF troops were huddled behind burnt-out cars and makeshift barricades, taking pot-shots at the rioters who had stationed themselves in front of the decontamination checkpoint, and as bullets started flying in my direction, I realized I should probably follow suit. Make no mistake: While there may be times where you can get away with some reckless run-and-gun action, The Division is a cover-based shooter at heart, and unless you like your internal organs thoroughly perforated, it’s a good idea to make good use of the game’s cover system.
Fortunately, the cover mechanic is intuitive enough that ducking behind barriers, hurdling over obstacles, and moving between cover is fluid and hassle-free. I never found myself yelling at the screen because my character didn’t take cover where I wanted him to thanks to a finnicky cover system, which is more than I can say for a number of other games in the genre. Gunplay, likewise, is smooth and responsive. It’s not breaking molds or shifting paradigms — there are really only so many ways to improve upon the basic concept of “bullets go where you point the gun,” after all — but given how many games I’ve played that somehow manage to botch that simple formula, whether by way of overly touchy aiming or poorly calibrated hitboxes, it seemed worth mentioning.
For what it’s worth, though, I don’t tend to be a big fan of third-person shooters. For some reason that I can never quite pinpoint, something about the aiming in them often feels a little off the mark, the shooting just not quite on target. It’s like there’s just some kind of disconnect somewhere between the camera, the position of my character, my gun, and my reticle. Whatever it is, though, The Division manages to avoid it, and I had no such issues with the core mechanics of filling bad guys with bullets.
Character progression and skill trees
And of course, as one might expect from an MMO shooter, one of The Division’s primary means of character progression is, of course, guns. All of the firearms in the game are divided into six categories — pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, marksman rifles, and light machine guns — and at any given time, players can equip one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, and a sidearm. The primary and secondary weapons can be any types of weapons, but your sidearm is always a pistol, unless there’s a way to get non-pistol sidearms later in the game. The weapons in each of these categories operate about as you’d probably expect them to, at least if you’ve played a military shooter in the past five years or so: Shotguns deal massive damage at close range but are ineffective at long range, marksman rifles are slow but strong and accurate, light machine guns eschew any semblance of accuracy in favor of sheer number of bullets per cubic inch, and so on.
But since this is an RPG, each gun has varying statistics that slightly alter the way it performs. None of the stats I saw on the weapons in the beta were particularly gamechanging (mostly things like extra XP for headshot kills, slightly increased effective range, less bullet spread, etc.), but I imagine the stats on rarer and higher-level weapons are fairly substantial. But the real customization comes in the form of modifications, which are accessories that can be attached to guns to provide some very useful bonuses. Mods include scopes and sights, which come in a variety of styles and magnification levels; magazines, which can increase ammo capacity and rate of fire; underbarrel accessories like grips and laser pointers, which can increase stability and accuracy; and muzzle mods, such as suppressors, for those who don’t want to make too much of a racket with their wanton gunfire. Mods, like weapons, come in different rarities and levels, and high-quality mods can make a good weapon great and a great weapon incredible.
On top of customizing their guns, players can also outfit themselves in a variety of armor and equipment which provide additional bonuses and defensive enhancements. The various types of gear available include specialized gear such as backpacks, which increase inventory space, and gas masks, which are essential for exploring the contaminated zones of Manhattan, plus standard stat-boosting equipment like body armor, gloves, knee pads, and holsters. This equipment is one of the primary ways of increasing your character’s three main stats: Firearms, which increases weapon damage; Stamina, which increases health; and Electronics, which increases the efficacy of skills. Unlike guns, armor and gear cannot be modded, at least not to my knowledge.
In addition to its extensive arsenal of firearms, The Division also allows players to customize their playstyles by providing them with an array of skills, talents, and perks. There are 12 skills total, divided into three different trees — Tech, Medical, and Security — comprised of four skills each, although only four skills (two from the Medical tree and one each from the Tech and Security trees) were actually usable during the beta. Each tree has its own distinct focus. Medical skills, astonishingly enough, focus on healing and support; Tech skills are centered around using gadgets like sticky bombs and turrets to dish out damage; and Security skills provide defensive utilities such as riot shields and deployable cover. Players can have two skills plus one “signature skill” equipped at any given time, though during the beta I wasn’t able to reach a high enough level to equip a third skill, so I’m not sure exactly what a “signature skill” entails.
While four skills per tree may not seem like much, each skill has three mods (plus one “master” mod) that can be unlocked via the base of operations — more on that in a bit — which modify the way the skill works. A given skill can have one basic mod and one master mod active at any given time. Take, for instance, the Pulse ability in the Medical tree. The base skill simply sends out a radar pulse that highlights any enemies within range on your HUD. Although that’s plenty useful on its own (it saved my ass more times than I can count), its modifications add additional functionality to the ability. One increases the ability’s range and marks loot crates as well as enemies, the second makes Pulse protect the user from hostile Pulse scans while active, and the third makes enemies marked by Pulse take additional damage. The master mod, which wasn’t unlockable during the beta, “gives an early warning of nearby hostiles and identifies if the user has been scanned by a hostile pulse,” though I’m not exactly sure how that works. Still, that should give you an idea of the kinds of effects mods can have in modifying your character’s abilities.
Character builds can be further customized by way of talents and perks. I don’t think any of those were available during the beta, and if they were I failed to unlock them, but here’s a basic rundown of how those will work: Talents provide players with additional buffs and bonuses when certain conditions are met. The Medical talent Triage, for example, makes it so that allies healed by a character with the talent active will have their skill cooldowns reduced, while the Battle Buddy talent, which is activated when a player with the talent revives a downed ally, causes both players to take half damage for a short time afterward. Perks, on the other hand, are flat passive skills that are always active and require no action to activate. Some Perks include increasing the number of medkits a character can carry at once, increasing inventory space, increasing XP gain, and so on. Players can have four talents active at any one time, though I couldn’t find any details on what the limitations are on active perks, if there are any limitations at all.
Anyway, back to my mission: Once the rioters had been cleared out and the JTF checkpoint secured, my first mission was complete. Now it was time to establish my base of operations, which I feel is one of the most potentially interesting features of the game. Although its functionality was somewhat limited during the test weekend, there was enough on display to give me a taste of what it will be like at launch. Your base of operations is a personal instance, which means that every player has their own unique headquarters. It comes outfitted with a number of useful facilities, including vendors, a crafting station, item storage, and a grenade-and-ammo resupply station. Most important of all, however, are the three major wings of the base of operations: Tech, Medical, and Security. Each of these wings is associated with one of the three skill trees, and each has a number of upgrades that, when purchased, grant the player new skills, talents, and perks in that wing’s corresponding tree.
In the beta, the only available wing was the Medical wing, but before I could make use of its services, I had to complete a campaign mission to unlock it. The mission charged me with the task of rescuing a virologist who was being held hostage in a hospital which, conveniently enough, was located almost directly across the street from my base of operations. If nothing else, at least the rioters were considerate enough not to make me go too far out of my way to ruthlessly gun them all down.
Grouping and instancing
In the process of this mission, I took the opportunity to test out the game’s group functionality by partying up with a good friend of mine who had also gotten into the beta. Overall, grouping up is painless and straightforward, and the in-game voice chat is adequate enough that players shouldn’t have to resort to relying on Ventrilo or similar out-of-game voice applications to communicate effectively with their groups.
The only minor issue he and I faced was figuring out how to actually add each other as friends so that we could group up to begin with. After sifting through the game menus for a bit, I was able to find my friends list, but there was no apparent way to add a friend. Then, since we were both playing through Steam, we tried inviting each other by way of Steam’s friends list, but no dice there, either. In the end, we discovered that we had to add each other as friends on Uplay, Ubisoft’s own launcher/distribution platform, which I frankly found to be more than a little inconvenient, not to mention unintuitive. It could be that there was, in fact, a quicker way to add each other through the in-game menu and it just wasn’t obvious enough for either of us to find it, or perhaps that’s one of the features that wasn’t implemented during the beta. Either way, I hope that doesn’t carry over into launch. It’s not that it’s a monumental inconvenience to have to open the Uplay overlay to add friends, but it strikes me as the sort of thing that would get cumulatively more annoying over the course of time.
On a related note, it’s worth mentioning for those who may not be aware that when you’re in the city proper, the gameworld is instanced such that you won’t encounter any players who aren’t in your group (though you will see other players in the social hub areas scattered throughout the world), effectively making The Division playable as either a single-player or multiplayer game according players’ whims. This is probably the foremost aspect of the game on which my opinion is so thoroughly divided. On the one hand, I can certainly see some merits to the system: For one, I have to admit that the eerie, lonesome, and downright oppressive atmosphere of disease- and violence-ravaged Manhattan wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the otherwise empty streets were constantly swarming with other players. And if I’m being honest, sure, there’s a part of me that welcomes the ability to simply explore the city and complete my missions without having to contend with other players for mob spawns and the like.
But on the other hand, there’s a reason that I gravitate toward the massively multiplayer genre more than any other, and that’s, believe it or not, because of other players. I love the social aspect of MMOs, and out of all the friends I’ve made during my time in MMOGs (many of whom I maintain contact with to this day), I met most of them through chance encounters — we just happened to be doing the same quest in the same place at the same time — and part of me really resents having to hang around in a social hub just to have the chance at meeting people. Even then, it’s not like most players will have any real reason to strike up conversation with one another unless they’re actively looking for groups for specific activities, unlike those aforementioned chance meetings where we were spurred to team up thanks to having shared immediate goals.
Honestly, it conjures echoes of Destiny, and although I loved many facets of that game, one of my biggest complaints was — and is to this very day — that I almost never encountered other players outside of the hub zones, and when I did, there was rarely any reason for us to communicate or group up (even if the game had provided the appropriate tools to do so easily, but that’s another rant entirely). I’d hate to see The Division tread that same path, but there’s virtually no chance whatsoever that things will change before (or after) launch, so all I can do is hope that the game provides other avenues for making connections with other players.
Missions, encounters, and crafting
At any rate, long story short, my friend and I successfully stormed the occupied hospital and liberated the kidnapped virologist, who promptly scurried back to my base of operations to set up shop. Now that the Medical wing was properly unlocked, I just had to gather up the resources to upgrade it. In order to purchase an upgrade in one of the base of operations wings, players have to spend supplies of the corresponding type (Tech, Medical, or Security), which are acquired by completing missions and encounters.
Missions and encounters make up the bulk of The Division’s PvE gameplay, at least in the beta. Missions are your standard, NPC-given quests, such as the virologist rescue mission mentioned above. These missions tend to be longer and more involved than Encounters, and completing Missions is how players progress through the game’s campaign. They often provide more substantial rewards than Encounters, as well, including unlocking new features (like the three base of operations wings) and new guns and equipment.
Encounters, by contrast, are shorter and less-involved than missions, and they don’t need to be formally accepted from a mission NPC. Instead, as the name would imply, players will simply encounter them as they explore the city. You may come across a squad of JTF troops under attack, and you’ll be tasked with defending them and escorting them to safety, or you may find a gang of rioters looting a store and be asked to put a stop to it. Generally speaking, Encounters don’t reward much in the way of gear, but they are one of the better ways of gathering the Tech, Medical, and Security supplies required for base of operation upgrades as well as crafting materials.
Speaking of which, crafting is the one feature that I didn’t really touch during my time in beta, but from my cursory glance at the crafting workbench in my base of operations, crafting seems to be pretty straightforward. To craft an item, you just need to have the blueprint for the item you want to craft — which, from what I experienced, are primarily acquired through random drops and loot crates in the world — and the required materials. Then you just take those things to your crafting station, press the button, and voila, crafting complete. Unfortunately, however, that’s really all the information I have on the game’s crafting system at present, but hopefully I’ll have the chance to shed some more light on it during the game’s open beta later this month.
After I had exhausted all of the missions and encounters I was able to discover, which was within the first day and a half or so of the test, I headed into the beta weekend’s “endgame,” so to speak: The Division’s PvPvE area known as the Dark Zone. The basic premise of the Dark Zone is that it’s a section of the city that has been sealed off and quarantined to prevent further spread of the disease that has ravaged Manhattan. Here, players can go exploring in search of powerful enemies who drop valuable loot, but the catch is that, since the Dark Zone is quarantined, any loot that is found must be extracted by helicopter so it isn’t confiscated in the checkpoints that lead back into the city proper. In order to extract their valuable Dark Zone gear, players must reach a designated extraction point and signal for a chopper which, after a short time, will arrive to courier your precious loot to safety.
The catch, however, is that when you call for an extraction, all other players in the area will be notified, and the more unsavory sorts will almost certainly make an attempt to kill you and steal all your valuable booty for themselves, so it’s up to you (and your group, if you have one) to defend yourselves from any hostile agents who may appear. Any agents who attack other, non-hostile agents without provocation will become a Rogue Agent. Rogue Agents are marked on the zone map for all players to see, and killing a Rogue Agent rewards a bounty to the player or players who put them down.
The more players a Rogue Agent kills, the higher his Rogue Level will become. If a Rogue Agent manages to reach Rogue Level 5 (the maximum) without being killed, then all nearby players will receive a Manhunt mission that tasks them with hunting down and assassinating the Rogue Agent in question. Should the Rogue Agent manage to survive the attempts on his life for five minutes, they will be handsomely rewarded (though with what, exactly, I don’t know). Killing enemies, whether they’re players or NPCs, also rewards Dark Zone points, which can be used to purchase high-quality equipment. Dying in the Dark Zone, however, results in the loss of some of those points, so sometimes it’s important to know when to make a tactical retreat.
While I find the concept of the Dark Zone to be really interesting, my experience with it during the beta was honestly somewhat mediocre. I don’t know if it was just a matter of low population, my general unwillingness to kill other players unprovoked, or just my own incompetence, but the majority of my time in the Dark Zone was spent just running around trying to find something to shoot. The density and respawn rate of NPC enemies seemed to be abysmally low, and while I frequently heard gunfire echoing off in the distance, I was rarely able to find its source before the excitement was over. I played solo, for the most part, which is certainly not ideal, but most of my attempts to find a group fell flat. The only action I was able to find with any reliability was at the aforementioned extraction points, where it was almost a certainty that some Rogue Agents would show up to crash the party.
I am, however, something of a carebear. It’s not that I don’t like PvP; it’s just that I don’t like to be that guy who goes around callously gunning other players down for no real reason. Instead, I’d usually try to find other players who were trying to take on the strongholds of NPC enemies and give them a hand. The problem there, however, is that — unless I was able to send them a group invite in the midst of the firefight, which was virtually impossible if I wanted to avoid an agonizing death — then even a single stray bullet hitting the other player resulted in my being marked as a Rogue Agent.
Needless to say, a sole Rogue Agent is a much more tantalizing target than an entire building full of elite NPCs, so my lifespan after that point was invariably very brief. I feel like the Dark Zone could be oodles of fun for players who are able to round up a group to take on the NPC enemies, or for those who have no qualms with going on a sociopathic rampage against other players, but if you’re a solo player with an inexplicably guilty conscience about initiating hostilities (like myself), then the Dark Zone probably doesn’t have much that you want.
All-in-all, I actually really enjoyed my time in the game; I firmly believe that the MMO genre needs more shooters, and I think The Division has the potential to be a worthwhile contender in the field. That being said, however, the scope of the weekend beta was far too limited for me to come to any kind of decisive judgment. While the various elements of the game that were on display were, for the most part, enjoyable in and of themselves, I’m interested to see how they all tie together as a cohesive whole when the game launches next month. But if you’re a fan of MMOs and cover-based third person shooters, I think you owe it to yourself to at least take it for a spin. Wander the streets of post-apocalyptic Manhattan for a while and you may just find yourself feeling right at home.