Preview: Tom Clancy’s The Division

Ubisoft’s long-in-development Tom Clancy’s The Division launches on 08 March 2016. I recently had a good old playthrough of the open beta and, unsurprisingly, have a few opinions I’d like to share.

New York (apparently created on a one-to-one scale) looks and feels fantastic. I’ve only been there once but The Division captures the way the city towers over you perfectly. There’s a real sense of size and scale here that allows for a map that takes time time to explore. The game also throws in day- and night-time cycles and changeable weather that help bring the environment to life. Importantly, the placement of available cover feels realistic too. Abandoned cars, concrete barriers, scaffolds and emergency checkpoints a situated in such a way that the player can duck behind what they need to without it feeling too obvious.

Graphically it’s great too: player models look sharp and the attention to detail on clothing and rucksacks are great. There seems to be a decent amount of variety also, with outward appearance being separate from armour so if you find a jacket you really like there should, in theory, be nothing stopping you from wearing it from start to finish. I only came across one performance issue in the beta, where a defeated enemy model clipped halfway into the floor but aside from that it ran nice and smoothly.

It was also a lot of fun. The cover mechanics and shooting are great, although if you’re used to a Gears-of-War-style one-button-for-everything control system you’ll have to get used to a format that requires much more dexterity. The RPG elements work well, as does the base-building side of things. Even though my character was randomly generated (because, you know, beta) I felt invested in getting the look of him just right and was able to spec him as a sniper / healer who could handle his own in a close range scenario. Player-versus-player (PvP) is a tense affair and worth it for the loot but there are big problems there that need to be addressed. Thankfully, grouping isn’t one of them but by God there needs to be a way to communicate outside of voice chat. As you might expect, I learned a few uncomplimentary things about my mother from the mouths of teens. Charming.

The city is a beautifully crafted thing but lacked that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that would have made it feel alive. More survivors wandering the streets, more looters, more sudden and unexpected outbursts would have been appreciated. As it happened the world felt dead – if you’ll excuse the pun. I appreciate that the city was decimated by the viral outbreak forming the cornerstone of the plot but there should be more people trying to scavenge, more citizens to help and assist. The best open worlds, whether massively-multiplayer online (MMO) or RPG manage to feel alive and with things happening. The Division, at beta admittedly, lacked that.

This was reinforced by the lack of variety in citizen and enemy character models. Random thugs especially all wore the same hoodies in the same colour with the same mask over their face. I agree it helped identify them as hostile but seeing the same guys again and again really breaks the immersion. It works when they have a uniform, such as the faction known as The Cleaners, but random thugs should be just that: random.

There was huge dialogue repetition too. It seemed every bad guy I took off the streets was called Alex. “He shot Alex!” rang out just as frequently as my bullets. As with the character models, it’s difficult to know what variety there will be in the final game but I hope it’s something that Ubisoft address.

The Dark Zone: the wonderfully-tense PvP area where you never quite know if your team-mate is about to shoot you in the back to steal that hard earned loot from your still-twitching corpse. It’s just like the main game but friendly-fire is on and the only way to can keep the new stuff you’ve earned is to make it to an Extraction Zone. Here you call in a team to get you out. So long as you survive the ninety seconds it takes for them to arrive, you’re home free. The premise is excellent and when it works, it works really well. Teaming up with (polite) strangers who may turn out to be a snake in the grass (they will) as you wait for the extraction timer to count down is a blast.

Tom Clancy. The Division, New York, video game, night, show, street, abandoned, cars, man

But… extraction points are fixed which means they are full of high-level campers just waiting to pick you off. It’s gamers being gamers and exploiting the system for the best loot, I know, but it spoils the fun immensely. And because they are high-level, with all of the best loot you don’t stand a chance in a firefight. It’s a big turn off from the Dark Zone and as things stand I won’t venture in there again until I’ve hit the level cap.

Whether Ubisoft intended this final beta as a stress test, demo or other clever marketing ploy I can safely say The Division has my attention. The pros definitely outweigh the cons and it strikes me as a game I can take my time with, learn, explore and improve at over time.

To cut a long story short, I’ll be hitting the streets of New York on 08 March 2016 – will you?

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