The Division is Anxious, Chaotic, Simply Unpredictable

It’s been a while since I found myself invested this much in an Ubisoft game (albeit the beta to an Ubisoft game). And if recent history has taught us anything, opening the pre-Gold build out to the public hasn’t always worked in the studio’s favor. Yet, not since the likes of Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag have I felt the rulers of open-World AAA titles put together a release that is deserving of its level design and does justice to an otherwise injustice-run structure. And yes, I realize two-and-a-bit years doesn’t sound that long, but in the context of Ubisoft release calendars, that’s quite a lengthy period given the release schedule

If you haven’t figured it out, the injustice I’m referring to is of course online multiplayer — specifically online multiplayer involving guns…and bullets…and said guns firing said bullets into other avatars. Or in most cases, being fired from solid air as a player somehow manages to teleport behind you as if caught in a choppy 1920’s motion picture. There’s nothing inherently wrong with closed-off twitch-shooters a la Battlefield or Call of Duty, but Tom Clancy’s/Calancy’s The Division is neither a twitch nor enclosed shooter. It’s not a typical first-person shooter at all — it’s not even first-person, obviously. So while some will argue the conventional shooter mechanics combined with an RPG-focused number-crunching system marries together as well as chalk and cheese, I’d argue that Ubisoft have decided for a far more interesting variance on side-against-side gun combat.

It’s understandable for some to feel anxious or otherwise unpersuaded by Ubisoft’s premise; though I myself haven’t experienced it, I recognise many were left deflated by Destiny’s (as it’s referred to) vanilla-based outing and the amount of content it offered in the long-run. The Taken King may have helped alleviate some of those concerns, but this is Ubisoft’s first outing into this brand new series and I suspect most will feel rather shameful if they’re to be fooled for a second time. True, The Division – from what I played in the Beta – is a great example of a promising concept bogged down (potentially) by insufficient substance. A common trend in Ubisoft releases and one they, sadly, still can’t shrug off no matter how lofty the ambition. This, of course, despite the recurring instance of animation clipping, floating assets and the erratic nature of some character models. So nothing new there then.

The Division Beta Screenshot

So why then, as it’s clearly stated in the title, do I think The Division is a potential return to form, despite these anomalies? Well I’m glad you asked, because for someone who is very distrustful about the end delivery and very nature of competitive online, The Division genuinely feels like one of the more robust and, better still, fairer examples of how a multiplayer model should be built. And most of it can be traced to how The Division is not your typical bang-bang-shooty-shoot back-and-forth where the player with the quickest reaction (and better internet connection) will undoubtedly reign supreme.

The Dark Zone is the home of multiplayer and the fact it is a literal “home” of sorts — requiring you to actually travel there as opposed to selecting it from the menu screen; resulting in perhaps a lengthy wait to find a server/room — actually ties well into the game’s premise of an area that is unbounded by rules and regulations but has still been successfully quarantined so as to ring home the idea that its players who decide to make the transition…and not the other way around. Where anything can go down and no one can be trusted, thus for someone as distrustful as I am, this is both a painfully pleasurable and a pleasurably painful romp. The basic idea is that The Dark Zone is the best place to go to find higher-valued and even rare instances of loot. This is acquired in one of two ways: by taking it from defeated hostile NPC’s…or…by stealing it from other players.

Whether it’s a deliberate choice on the developers to limit the amount of confrontations with the former — I found the lack of AI-controlled opponents to feel a tad underwhelming given the potential scale — or not, there’s no denying the latter option is one that brings about equal parts exhilaration and anxiety. It’s here where (to my unapologetically snarky surprise) I found myself the most immersed and actively engrossed in online play for a long while. That, for all the desire to explore the Dark Zone and to uncover more as to the spectacle, that the situation — with its merry load of players like myself aimlessly wandering the city of New York — could be summed up like the accompaniment to a famous British war-time slogan: START PANICKING AND GO NUTS!!

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Not all of the Dark Zone’s gameplay is deliberately soloist and it’s nice to see that Ubisoft are not without helping minimise what may eventually contort into a flustercuck of desperate lone wolves (like myself) attempting to get their precious loot out. Simple work-around’s such as multiple users extracting from one player’s extraction call is a welcome and sensible decision against the rather insensible (though I realize that’s a subjective view) advantage some players will take in said situations. Another crucial point is that the switch from non-hostile player to Rogue isn’t as flimsily activated as that of an on-off switch. And given you will more than likely — if accidentally — fire into other players during a firefight, it’s good to know that it requires a fair few rounds for your status to switch.

Should you willingly want to become Rogue — which will net you a greater reward via managing to survive the time period you’re given to avoid being killed by other players — there’s rarely been as exciting and as thrilling a moment when you find yourself playing the mouse to the otherwise other players’ cat as you either run for your life and hide it out or try and defend yourself against budding agents out to claim the bounty now hanging over you. The very few seconds of actually becoming Rogue epitomise why The Division brings about, as Matt Whittaker points out, an interesting debate on the morality and consequence of player actions in an online environment.

Often there was a case, I’d found myself caught amidst, where a player would fire too many bullets into another unsuspecting user and would find their status switch, much to their bewilderment and optional cries via voice chat that it was accidental and/or they never meant for that to happen. Do you spare them the disadvantage, or do you yourself take advantage of the situation and possibly nab yourself an additional assortment of loot and XP? For someone like myself who is intrigued by the human psyche and emotive-led decision-making, it’s interesting to see these events play out. Likewise, in moments of extraction (which, surprisingly, are tenser than I initially expected; not helped by the anxiously-rhythmic music that plays during the countdown) where you’re surrounded by other players and your default thought is: “they’re going to try and steal my stuff, aren’t they?” On top of that, did you remember to consider players who may try and strike you from a distance with a sniper rifle or RPG as well?

The Division Beta Screenshot 2

I suspect many players will find the frustration of coming so close only to be f***ed over on the final hurdle will perhaps dampen the experience. For the record, I did find myself getting killed by those I initially assumed were merely passing through or helping me tackle a harder gang of enemy AI. Yet, surprisingly, never once did I feel betrayed or otherwise put at a disadvantage because, for a game primarily centred around survival and instinctive choice, there is never elements put in place to feel otherwise betrayed by in the first place. Everyone is out for themselves; it reflects the dire state of the World The Division is set in and the online component reflects this remarkably well.

Better still, the offensive-defensive structure of firefights only rallies this point home for the way it allows even the most unprepared individuals to, possibly, triumph over unfeasible odds. I am aware of reports of players reconfiguring parts of the game’s code so as to acquire feats such as infinite ammo/health etc. and while I will hold Ubisoft to their promise of fixing this issue upon final release, I still feel the core mechanics do enough to help make each fight a fair and balanced situation. As is the case with most RPG’s, successful “hits” don’t so much incur physical expression as they do deplete a health bar until said bar reaches zero and death is accomplished. This is as much true with The Division; bullet-fire and weapons as a whole are given numeric statistics (that can be improved upon with apparel, mods, or simply better gear in your arsenal) that incur little of the flinching we’ve come to expect in modern day shooters.

This is good for two reasons. One, it doesn’t automatically confine those with less-exuberant reaction times and gives them a moment’s notice to reconfigure their tactics. And two, it brings in other aspects such as instant healing and item use in order to bring to light the sudden, real-time madness that a lot of gunfights can fall victim to…for all the right reasons. The fact that literally every part of the Dark Zone has been designed to look and feel like a more-than-satisfactory combat arena allows a near-seamless transition between ordinary exploration and drastic cover-to-cover shooting. The healing system oddly reminds me of Bloodborne’s desire to keep players continually engaged in the action; the way it’s instantaneous and can be implemented even in the most frantic of chases adds even more to the adrenaline of either being the hunter or the hunted. Of course, such abilities as healing can become question to exploitation so it’ll be interesting to see if Ubisoft can prevent aspects such as perks from feeling too over-powered or otherwise overstocked.

Tom Clancy's The Division

Despite this, is my optimism still treading the cautious waters, despite my glowing intrigue? Absolutely; you’d be a fool not to spot the glaring pit holes and traps The Division has to successfully duck and weave its way around if it’s to turn into a long-term success story. As noted, there are some tweaks to be had to the animation and asset management side of things and while my personal experience with the Beta was spent on PC, I wouldn’t bet against the console versions inheriting a “slightly greater” challenge in keeping the visual side as good as it can be. But this is one of the more fascinating events I’ve taken part in and if Ubisoft play their cards right, they could very well pull out an unprecedented ace to counter what has been a fairly flaccid (but predictably so) showing as of late. And even with its retail release marked down for March 8, it’s the coming months that will truly put the longevity, or lack thereof, of Ubisoft’s next big open World experience under the microscope that is public opinion.