Since its E3 reveal back in 2013, I have been overly cautious of Ubisoft’s The Division, and with good reason too! Who doesn’t remember the Watch Dogs fiasco? The open-world hacker’s paradise debuted in a splendour of pomp and oh-so-lovely graphical circumstance, dazzling audiences and providing a tantalising early glimpse of the potential of next-gen. What we got instead, two years down the line, was an uninspired GTA clone, which looked about as glamorous as a winter’s day in Grimsby. So you can understand my reluctance at embracing Ubisoft’s latest big budget, open-world project with a warm loving bear hug.
Last weekend’s open beta provided me with the golden opportunity to try out The Division before launch, and avoid the soul-wrenching disappointment I had to forcibly endure with Watch Dogs. Though, it has to be said that this was, for all intents and purposes, a demo rather than a ‘beta’. I’m profoundly baffled on why developers and publishers treat the concept of demo as that weird country uncle no one in the family wishes to acknowledge. We all can see through this thinly veiled façade.
As someone who was categorically on the sceptical side of the fence, I have to admit that I was absolutely blown away over the course of my five-plus hours with the game. From the moment the game relinquished its control I was hooked. The world of The Division is one of most outstanding, chaotic, mesmerising beauty. The post-disaster New York setting is a much-rehashed concept at this point, yet somehow The Division had me with its stunning rendition of the great city. Skyscrapers shine in the dying winter sun. Snow silently falls through the deserted streets. Puddles glisten in the pale morning light.
However a gorgeous cityscape is nothing (in gaming at least) without solid street-level mechanics, and it’s safe to say that The Division far exceeds the solid criteria when it comes to the core shooting and gameplay. Navigating the richly detailed environments is a breeze, with your character handling with all the poise and ease of an Olympic athlete. This is especially helpful when things start to get hectic. Enemies can soon overwhelm you, so the fluid movement and camera system keeps encounters tense yet manageable.
The guns are also first in class, perfectly nailing that all-important blend of deadliness and versatility. The range of weapons is nothing new, with the usual armoury of shotguns, SMGs and assault rifles making an appearance. However each category of weapons feels fantastic to fire, allowing you to easily pick and choose a play style to suit you, without having to sacrifice your favourite gun class due to mechanical imbalances. And like the environment, the weapons allow for an almost mind-boggling level of customisation. Sights, grips, extended magazines, laser pointers, camo; the detail is top-notch, if a little uninspired, and conveys The Division’s RPG ambitions perfectly.
My personal standout gun of choice was the sniper-rifle. In most instances the claustrophobic alleys prevent its deployment, yet with an ounce of strategic preparation it can manifest as deadly force of American justice. I used it alongside an assault-rifle and pistol (The Division allows you three weapon slots) to produce a great all-rounder who was capable of seeing off any threat the Big Apple could throw at me.
These threats come in the form of the human detritus still kicking after the outbreak. Throughout the beta I only encountered an assortment of hooded thugs and criminals, though I did once run into the Cleaners, a bunch of marshmallow enthusiasts who clearly love playing the Pyro in TF2. Since this is an RPG even the gangliest of goons takes half a clip of lead to dispatch. This might annoy traditional third-person shooter fanatics, however for RPG lovers the bullet sponges should feel second nature. In fact, it adds a new level of organisation and problem solving which is often absent from the third-person shooter, providing the kick up the backside the genre desperately needed.
You’ll frequently run into these rats, as The Division sends you on a variety a quests across the world. The story missions in the beta were limited, though their scope and challenge was something to behold. Taking back Madison Square Garden from criminal occupation is an ingenious reworking of the RPG genre into the modern real-world setting. If the game can sustain this level of grandeur and originality, then the full release should be a sight to feast your eyes upon. Unfortunately I’m worried this won’t be the case. While The Division does allow for players to engage in single player only, the core foundations of the game have evidently been designed around multiplayer. This carries the risk of the story content merely acting as a watered-down filler for the co-op content. Hopefully this will not be the case, and if the missions I played were anything to go by, the narrative will be substantial, if unremarkable.
Other than the main missions, The Division provides a deluge of side and ambient quests, though these quickly descend into the typical ‘pest control’ and fetch quests that clog up the progression pipeline of many an MMO and RPG. It was a beta however, and there is a chance that the variety will improve come March. A slim one, but a chance all the same.
I did not get much time to assimilate myself into the game’s PvP, which is appropriately located in ‘The Dark Zone’. This is the one area of New York where players can kill one another, all the while trying to secure and extract the best gear in the game. With a close-knit group of buddies the experience is one of tense cooperation, as you work as a single elegant organism to try and outsmart the other denizens of ‘The Dark Zone’. But it you decide to go it alone or with randoms then beware. This is the internet after all, and nicking a fellow player’s hard earned gear, usually just for causal spite and giggles, is all too common. I’m not saying it isn’t fun. I couldn’t resist gunning down my expendable internet allies for a quick cheap laugh. Yet despite this I can already see trolling of apocalyptically atrocious levels occurring, especially during launch week.
The Division has the potential to achieve Destiny levels of success come March, particularly on consoles. The core gameplay is fundamentally fantastic without being overcomplicated. The mechanics are basic yet well implemented, rather like the city’s grid system. It will keep players entertained while the city dazzles the daffodils into bloom with its beauty. The content within the game is the main concern, chiefly post-launch when players have maxed out their level. Ubisoft needs to heavily support this game, not just with paid expansions but with significant free updates as well.