With The Division’s beta test running over the weekend and now having been extended until tomorrow morning, Ubisoft have given the general public their first real opportunity to get to grips with what the game is like. After two and a half years of hype and anticipation, suspicions will have been confirmed for some, delight found for others, but if there’s one thing to take from the beta, it’s the importance of recognising its limitations and tempering any newfound expectations.
Put simply, with the game racing toward release in March, this has been designed to stress the servers and infrastructure for the developers at Ubisoft, with the test extended until tomorrow morning to let them apply even more strain. Sure, it’s given people a sneak peak of the story and the world, but it’s a small window into what will be a much larger experience.
There are just two real story driven missions to play – securing the JTF base and rescuing a doctor from Madison Square Garden – a side mission that showed off the distinctive echoes, a bunch of smaller encounters, and a small patch of the Dark Zone. That’s part of what makes the plot that you do see feel all the more over the top in its clichéd bravado, but all we see in terms of antagonists are street gangs and a few guys with flamethrowers, instead of the real forces behind this vast and global bioterrorist attack.
So it’s better to focus on the nuts and bolts of how the game works, and here it falls into the same overarching ‘shooter looter’ structure as Destiny. The comparisons are inevitable, from the churn of picking up gear dropped by enemies and comparing stats, right down to the coloured tiers of rarity and potency that they have. However, the contrast comes from the setting and the feel of the combat.
The slice of Manhattan Island on show has the potential to be quite gorgeous in its decrepit state, and while it doesn’t match up to the original E3 2013 unveiling on console – you need a seriously powerful PC to draw the best out of the Snowdrop engine – it still looks great for a large-scale open world game. The changing weather can be particularly effective, with snow falling or the fog smothering the streets and making it difficult to see in the distance, or simply the fairy lights wrapped around trees for what would have been a festive time of year.
The combat is solid and grounded, as a third person cover-based shooter, and there’s the game’s generally more considered pace which comes from being on foot the entire time. You’ll be hunkering down behind cars in the snow swept streets, with the bullets that hit your cover blowing out tyres, smashing windows and knocking doors off their hinges. When you pop out to take a few shots of your own, it’s with an array of contemporary weapons, from M4s to AK-47s, M44 carbines, and so on.
The problem is that, this early on in the game, these guns can feel unwieldy and inaccurate. Several people that I played with were quick to espouse the virtues of the pistol, instead of the wild recoil of the M4, but it can quickly change as you earn better weapons and gear. I took to a burst fire FAL and marksman rifles to stay on target, or simply tempered my fully automatic weapons with short pulses of fire when at range.
Better weapons can be bought or found, and their stats can be altered with attachments, just as I could equip better backpacks or body armour, to improve my character’s armour, damage, health and ability stats. However, we’ve also been limited to the earliest and least interesting of the special abilities that can be assigned to the shoulder buttons.
The main disappointment comes with the early enemies. The stereotypical street gangs require little tactical awareness, as they charge at you with bats and bouncily sidestep round corners, and the same can be said of the flamethrower wielding enemies in hazmat suits, even though it’s undeniably amusing to ping their gas tanks and see them explode a few seconds later. What makes them potentially difficult is their level and if they have purple or yellow health bars, which can turn them into bullet sponges in the typical fashion of an action RPG. Hopefully more militaristic and organised enemies deeper into the game provide a more satisfying challenge.
Where The Division’s beta excels is in the Dark Zone, the game’s PvP area, with “friendly” fire very much an option. The landmarks that are dotted around the area are regularly remanned with fairly high level AI enemies, and these drop higher level and more interesting loot than those outside of the Dark Zone. The catch is that everything in the area is contaminated and has to be extracted by helicopter before you can pick it up back at the JTF base, and sending the flare into the sky lets everyone know where you are.
Other players often come crawling out of the woodwork at this point and a tense Mexican standoff ensues, as players try to reassure one another that they mean no harm with the game’s handful of emotes. By and large, it seems as though people are more interested in extracting their own loot, but there’s also a small percentage who are more than willing to go rogue and turn on fellow agents to try and steal their rewards and a cut of any Dark Zone cash they’ve built up.
That tension, the endless mistrust and paranoia over what other players are going to do is what makes this so special. Going into the Dark Zone in a party of friends makes sure that someone’s got your back – at least you can’t shoot people in your party – and you can often work alongside other groups to take out AI enemies, but you can never truly trust them when it comes to air lifting your kit out of there, even if they are doing jumping jacks to reassure you.
As soon as someone goes rogue, it leads to a fierce chase and hunt, as the limits of propriety are removed. Suddenly they’re fair game, icons are beamed to the augmented reality HUDs of nearby players, and the worst offenders are even more actively marked for a manhunt, as they try to evade clean agents and wait for the timer above their heads to cool down. Unfortunately, going rogue can seem quite haphazard, with a minor indiscretion or crossing of paths during combat flipping that switch, and occasionally seeming to glitch and trigger, even when shooting a marked rogue.
In the beta at least, the Dark Zone is the place to go to get the best gear. Not only do drops have better stats and higher rarity, but by earning a separate Dark Zone currency and spending this with a different set of vendors. However, there are also locked boxes with a chance of higher end gear, and a vendor in the safe house has been selling two of the top tier “High-End” guns.
Ultimately, The Division’s beta allows you to peak through the letterbox and into a much larger game. There’s certainly some areas which disappoint within this limited context, but there are also hints at the same kind of enticing and compulsive gameplay that we’ve seen elsewhere. There’s the potential for this to be another game that stays in your game’s disc drive for months on end.
Doubtless many of you have your own opinions to share about The Division and your time in the beta. Come back a little later this morning for a video roundtable with a handful of our writers, but we’re also bringing WeView out of retirement at 1PM to give you an opportunity to voice your opinions.