Remko Molenaar (Proxzor)
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little skeptical about this game. Like most of you, I was incredibly hyped when I first saw The Division’s announcement almost three years ago. Especially since back then, survival post-apocalyptic games were in full bloom, and DayZ brought that hype to a whole new level. While The Division might lack the zombie element, its atmosphere is targeting the same demographic of rabid gamers. Unfortunately for DayZ, it was pushed with mild support and mediocre success. Meanwhile The Division got what I would like to call the Star Citizen treatment, delayed until better days so that the game would have a shot at reaching the standards set by its anticipation, both from players and sales!
It’s no secret that Ubisoft has seen better days. I’m in the vocal majority when I say I don’t view them with much faith at this point. Just like Electronic Arts managed to do through the last decade, Ubisoft has run a golden ship aground, tainting their name with broken promises and failed execution again and again. The search for short term gains has come at the cost of their fanbase. Unfinished game after unfinished game, plagued with bugs, never to be patched or worked upon, because the dev team had already been pushed towards making the next sequel. It is amazing Assassin’s Creed doesn’t sell a franchise season pass at this point, with sequels hitting nearly twice a year.
And thus here we are, with the Division release only a few months away. Will it follow the footsteps of its unpolished brothers, or begin the slow pull to set Ubisoft afloat in a sea of cash once again? Having just playing the beta for the whole weekend, while only seeing a small part of the actual world, I couldn’t stop but to think back to the actual moment we saw the first gameplay trailer. Back then we only knew the facts: A virus during Black Friday caused the world to collapse and New York itself was in actual anarchy. Anyone who remembers those initial gameplay videos knows the game looked clearly better back than versus now. Strange since that was three years ago. Some would rationalize it as being fake gameplay footage, but after testing the game hands-on, the product lives up to what we expected. Just the survival components that were pushed to steal the spotlight from DayZ have been pushed to the wayside in exchange for more engaging and satisfying shooter gameplay.
It’s a sad sign of the industry when I say with glee that I was able to get into the game without issues just a few hours after the beta release. But this smoothness of initial beta testing was not the case with Ubisoft’s last few titles. I was brought into the story as a JTF Agent, trying to get a grip of control back over the shambles of New York following the ‘virus’ induced chaos. Before long I grouped up with the Division as they try to fight deeper into the city to set up a base of operations. This is certainly fighting the tide as the few remaining survivors are all struggling to get off the island of the dead. On that note, Brooklyn was nowhere to be found. Not wiped out from a meteor strike or some nonsense, just removed from the playable game world all together. This of course has post-launch DLC written all over it.
Once I arrived at the new base of operations, the clean-up job began. The starting goal of the game is to make the three wings of your base blossom once more. The Medical, Tech, and Security Wings are under your control but pretty empty rooms are meaningless. That leads you back into the streets to begin a sort of forced recruitment process. This was about as far as the main story quest offered in the beta goes. I set out to find a doctor who is currently being held hostage in a nearby location as the first step to establishing the Medical Wing. I’ll avoid spoiling the story details from here and instead focus on gameplay mechanics.
Throughout the world of the Division you can pick up missions from the mission board, story line missions included. But most of these missions can also be stumbled upon when roaming the world trying to help the citizens or hunting for a better gun. Once found, you can then proceed to enter and play out the current scenario, or team up with friends to tackle it. If you are someone like me who most of the time plays solo, you can still benefit from a party via the matchmaking function. Though if your social phobia is non-negotiable, you can tackle missions solo. Expect a real challenge, but most seem doable with enough skill and practice. Speaking of which, some of these missions can be played on different difficulty levels, be it either normal or hard. Loot is dropped and assigned personally to members in the party, so you won’t have to shoot each other in the back or have sprint races to snag your share. Thank goodness for that because the loot distribution in the black zone is what defines this game as brutal, but more on that later.
Once I cleared this particular mission for the doctor, she was brought to the Medical Wing and right away we see the medical wing blossom up into something more functional and clean. It’s given this is only the first step in a long progression tree, but you will reap new benefits nonetheless. What are they exactly? Well so far we’re mostly in the dark minus some rough explanations about a crafting system. Each wing has their own section of upgrades that you can unlock; these upgrades also provide actual upgrades to your character and their abilities, and thus you really have much to gain by clearing these missions and building up wings. Now that the base is more or less explained, it’s time to jump into the different zones of New York.
The Red Zone is what I would like to say is the PvE zone. The zone where you actually fight the environment and trying to make New York a better place, or so you think. But even though you are trying to save the civilians from their own destruction, it’s worth noting that they’ve all been through enough to be distrusting of any charity. While the premise is awesome, the reality is the Red Zone is a boring locale that just exists to progress the story and train novices to handle themselves. This place is instanced into your own private world, and no matter how far I delved into the dangers, the challenge never reached a point that intrigued me. But it’s a must visit zone to get your gear decent before you venture into the Dark Zone, where the real danger awaits.
The Dark Zone is where the fighting is constant, not just with the rebel factions but also other players. Through one of the many checkpoints you find, you can enter the Dark Zone, but for the beta only one was actually functional. Just inside is a special shop where you can spend your Dark Zone Points. These points are given by doing the usual PvE scenarios you stumble upon or just killing baddies. Packs of baddies await you not far beyond the shop, with a lot more unique and special armored characters that bring the real challenge. It’s worth noting this is still an instanced zone, but this is done just to cap the number of players allowed in a single shard to avoid breaking immersion. Given the beta’s cap, I wasn’t getting shot at by players to the point that taking a drink was certain death. But silence became an eerie thing as the sound of fire fights and explosions in the near distance was constant.
The Dark Zone is where the action is at; I didn’t want to go back once I got a taste of the adrenaline rush it brings. Without the story and seemingly mandatory base progression system, I don’t see why players would do anything else in the game once past the 5 hour mark. Weapons and other types of loot found in the Dark Zone are noticeably better than the ones you find in the Red Zone too, plus the special shop currency treats you pretty well even if RNG isn’t on your side. But none of it comes easy as the ultimate RNG is a stranger with a gun. The Dark Zone is brutally unforgiving, and its best played with an established group. Solo players like me get hunted down like dogs. Beyond the inherent numbers advantage, a single player can only loot six items in the Dark Zone. Since the weapons are contaminated, there is only one way to get them back into your stash, and that’s by using a chopper at one of the select extraction points. This isn’t a speedy process, and leaves you vulnerable to large groups of campers that will strike as soon as your chopper arrives. And sure I can understand that a game has to be difficult for one to complete, but when a game severely puts you in a disadvantage just for playing alone, a large group of FPS gamers are immediately alienated.
Camping is part of shooters, and I honestly don’t mind the fact that these extraction points are put into the game. But since you cannot extract your loot through other means, not even through the checkpoints you use to access the dark zone, it doesn’t seem very rewarding to be a solo player. But there are a few rules in check to allow people a bit of freedom as you may. When initiating on a ‘friendly’ player in the Dark Zone, you will get the status of a rogue. Once marked rogue you have a 90 second timer that goes up the more people you kill. When you are a rogue, everyone will be able to see you on the map radar. If they’re really close to you, your name will even appear through walls to show your exact location. During this time you can get shot by literally everyone without repercussions for the players shooting at you. So usually you hide and wait out the timer when you try to steal someone’s loot. But when you are playing in a group, there is more of you and most of the solo players that try and make a score are also killed in the process. This system has the serious flaw though of punishing the rogue for defending himself in situations he didn’t initiate. Their timer keeps going up and up as more vigilantes fall to your lead. The city is actually not as open world as you might think either, leaving you very few efficient hiding places. Only a select few buildings are really open, and most of the subway stations only offer one entrance/exit, stranding you like a trapped rat.
What was once shown to us as a massive world where everyone has to defend themselves and survive the wreckage of New York has devolved into a lesser looking shooter with RPG elements. The recreation of New York still remains its pinnacle of success, though it feels the developers are pushing too many elements at the game at once without an overarching goal of what they hope to achieve by launch. In most of these masterfully crafted environments no loot can be found, except for the occasional rebel looking type of NPC that is put into the game to bring forth the PvE element that we honestly grow tired off after the first three encounters in the game. The occasional chest can be found that is unlocked with keys found from encounters, but the best loot is still found at the merchants scattered around the world. What’s left is rather linear, but still quite a thrilling ride.
Forget everything you remember from the first gameplay trailer for The Division. That game is simply no more, replaced by the Dark Zone that still needs some serious tuning before launch. The high stakes nature we expected has been replaced with a zero loss game as being killed only costs you what you’ve acquired on that particular run. This leaves solo players acquiring points to get their goods from merchants, while groups twiddle their thumbs camping extraction points that most have become too smart to blindly visit. The Division is still a great game to play, and I’m probably still going to buy this at launch as it’s the most unique and entertaining shooter I’ve gotten my hands on lately. Though I long to see an introduction of more survival elements and less RPG elements overriding individual skill. More makeshift temporary upgrades like duct taping a silencer from the sewer to your pistol would add both improved gameplay and immersion. But for now progress marches on to a game of cat and mouse camping with little for either side to gain beyond the thrill of the chase.