Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tom Clancy's The Division Beta Impressions!




                The Division Beta ended over a week ago so I took my time and let things to cool off a little before I started writing on this article. The first thing that hit me when I started playing during the Beta was the obvious visual downgrade. The graphics were nowhere near as good as they were in the 2013-2014 gameplay videos and that was a letdown. The textures are washed up, many reflections are baked and the lighting has received an overhaul for the worse. But when I started to look past that I came to realize that the game was beautiful nevertheless. The New York in the Division is the best a game had to show yet, it is carefully detailed to the smallest piece of trash on the abandoned streets and that is impressive. The snowy season brings back a vibe of Max Payne depicting a world where the American dream has died replaced by a post-pandemic landscape from a Robert Kirkman nightmare but with a scenario anchored in reality.
                For the graphics hungry users of the PC platform the initial visual impression could create a feeling of repulsion towards the game and it is understandable. To a degree, it is not wrong to say that what Ubisoft did with this game could be categorized as false advertisement and we have been burned so many times in the past. For the longest time we were given the (false) impression that The Division will look like it did in 2013-2014 videos. The Beta has blown away any dust of hope that remained after the leaked images and videos. But judging the game based on this is extremely unfair. The Division looks gorgeous and not only for an online game but it could easily compete with any singleplayer title out there. Don’t give in to that bitter initial impression and let the day-night cycle carry you into the visual magic of this game. New York has a lot to show in the light of day, but it's true beauty comes at night when the images of joy created by the lighten Christmas decoration contrast the grim image of a ravaged New York melting into a pot of sadness and joy foreshadowing the existence of hope in a world engulfed by terror. And that hope translates into the story through you, the player, an agent of the secret organization The Division who has been activated to come to New York and help with the overwhelming situation.
A tasty cocktail of particle effects and lighting!
That level of detail!


                For spoilers reasons the Beta skipped over the story. My character was straight level 4 in a helicopter with an agent that has lost an eye on her way to Manhattan. Why, how and where are questions that will probably be answered in the full game. I presume that the Beta jumped over the tutorial area where the story introduction takes place and brought the players straight to action.
It’s worth mentioning that even if advertised as an MMO, The Division is not one in the conventional way. The minute you walk out the starting hub area you are alone against the world, unless you have other players in your group which will be instanced together with you. The entirety of the narrative driven areas part of the game’s campaign are instance-based and can be completed solo or co-op with up to four players which join the instance of the group’s leader and follow on his progression.
I wonder how that happened.


                As a story driven game the first thing available to do in the game are the story missions which start right off the landing area leading me to the base of operations which was threatened by a gang of outlaws. Defending the base allowed me to access it and open up the rest of the PvE content the CBT had to offer. The second and last main mission was available through the medical wing in the base of operations while the secondary missions could be taken via a map of the area. The other wings, the crafting system and various other features part of the base experience and progression were locked away. So all I had to make an impression about the PvE content was either to go to the local hospital and complete the main mission or grind my way through a bunch of secondary missions.
                The hospital mission was an interesting enough introduction to what the story missions have to offer. It was well paced through beautifully and carefully designed areas with scripted events and ended with a decently challenging boss fight. It was nothing too fancy, but above the average of what an MMO experience can be for in terms of story driven quests. Other than this the available missions were few, mostly generic side missions that had me defending and attacking certain positions. But there was a chain that felt special and it was worth digging into as it allowed me to experience one of the game’s cool features: echo. The echo technology creates static holographic images which are recordings of events from recent past. Why these images are there is probably part of the game's mystery, but the way this technology worked was intriguing as it provided me with actual images of the horrifying things people had to go through when things went south. This concept was put to good use in a chain mission where the echoes served as a backtracking way of finding what happened with someone and I have to say it was a pretty enjoyable adventure.

The outbreak triggered riots in no time...


                The best part about completing these secondary missions is that it forced me to explore Manhattan in its visual and level design beauty. The areas available in the Beta looked pretty limited at the beginning as the rectangular shaped areas gave me a corridor feeling. But the side missions did a great job at leading me outside of the streets to backyards, buildings interiors and roofs. By experiencing the verticality of the level design my confidence in the game grew. Even if just a small part of the buildings are exploreable it’s still more than enough to keep things interesting. While I was tirelessly exploring the game’s world I came across numerous surprises. I found collectible items which included small texts that built on the atmosphere by providing context for the overall story. I also noticed that The Division has some sort of scavenging mechanic as I was able to search for loot and supplies various chests, closets, backpacks, etc. Each of these small mechanics and details added up to an increasingly enjoyable experience and at some point I realized that I might take a liking to this game.
A lot of possibilities.


                The Division experience doesn’t resume to completing the campaign and the adjacent secondary missions. For those interested in a PvP mode the game has an answer for that in the Dark Zone.
                The Dark Zone is an open world PvP area in the center of Manhattan which can house up to 24 players of the same level. In this separately instanced zone players can fight various NPCs to obtain contaminated loot which has to be extracted via a helicopter which will appear shortly in the base of operations. The twist is that having contaminated gear on yourself is visible to the other players, players which can be tempted to attack and even kill you to steal your loot going rogue in the process.  The rogue players become visible on the Dark Zone map and a bounty is set on their head which increases with each assault or kill. A timer is starting to tick from the first moment a player went rogue and if that timer runs out without getting killed the player’s rogue status is removed.
Becoming an enemy of the state has its perks. The Dark Zone has a separated progression system and a currency that can be obtain only in this area. Going rogue and escaping your chasers results in an increase in the zone specific ranking and currency, but dying during rogue status will award the players who killed you the bounty on your head.
Extracting the fat loot!


                The Dark Zone’s scope is to combine the loot rush with PvP and the thrill of losing everything on death and it does it successfully. In my many hours spent in this zone I had a blast chasing bad guys and even joining their ranks in a rebellious attempt of my group to go against the world. The zone specific progression gives more meaning to the Dark Zone than just being a slaughterhouse. The risk of losing experience and currency on death is forcing players to calculate their moves and not recklessly kill each other. It is a neat feature that could add a ton of value to the game if executed correctly. The Dark Zone I’ve seen in the Beta was limited to three out of the six available areas. The mobs were scarce and the exploration limitations were annoying creating exploits where there should have been none. But the thing that got me worried about this game mode was its purpose beyond the ranking up and looting. The danger of going in an action’s loop is real as that’s what happened in the Beta and if the new areas just provide higher level NPCs it might turn into a problem. This won’t be bothering anyone in the first weeks after release, but this game is designed to stay around for a longer period of time and I’m afraid that in a few months post-release players will get bored.
Breaching!


                Earlier I said that the game’s setting is realistic and I stand by that. A virus outbreak spread through bills during Black Friday is an ingenious and plausible form of terrorism. The poor management of the outbreak led to a devastated New York which is a grim but not entirely improbable scenario. This setting and the Tom Clancy name create unrealistic expectations that The Division’s gameplay would be realistic when it’s really not… The faster someone accepts this, the easier it is to enjoy this game and appreciate it for what it is not what you were expecting it to be.
                The Division is a 3rd person cover shooter MMORPG with bullet spongy enemies that sometimes require more than a clip from an assault rifle to take down which has been attributed to its RPG elements. As a parenthesis I would like to say that as a RPG fan I found this incorrect, as the RPG genre doesn’t define itself through such mechanics but MMOs do. Nevertheless, enemies in this game are capable of withstanding being shot numerous times despite most of them wearing casual clothes. This comes with the game’s main progression system which is the loot.
The loot is separated through types, levels and tiers of quality and the enemies’ health pool justifies the different performance of each new piece of gear. It’s an effective way of creating a game that should make players stick around for a longer period of time even after the campaign is over. Loot adds purpose and replayability and these two criteria define an MMO as successful.
                It’s worth noting that The Division is still a skill based game despite its combat mechanics. The enemies are resilient but knowing where to shoot and how to do it makes things much easier. The stats aren’t everything, controlling the weapons recoil adds for a higher damage output and aiming plays a huge role during combat especially in PvP. Headshots deal a great lot more damage up to the point where a bolt action rifle shot can knockdown a player which will require assistance from other players in order to get up again. Even aiming on NPCs can make a huge difference, shooting the gas tank off the back of an enemy equipped with a flamethrower will result in an immediate explosion damaging everything around. The extent of player skill input goes past shooting to the way cover is used.
Running from players and fighting NPCs.


                The cover system provides a way of avoiding taking damage as long as you pick the right objects to hide behind. This system while not the greatest can lead to some tactical gameplay especially in PvP where players can set ambushes and groups engaged in combat have to constantly outflank to gain the upper hand. The cover system makes positioning an important factor in combat and knowing when and where to pick a fight can make a huge difference especially when you add to this equation the agent’s skills.
Show yourself!


                Just like any game with a leveling system, The Division comes with a set of available skills split in three categories: medical, technology and security. The skills available in the Beta were a sticky bomb which has a self explanatory name, a pulse scan which highlighted the enemies in vicinity, a ballistic shield which worked as a mobile cover and a heal. The skills can be enhanced with various new utilities provided through upgrades of the specific wings in the base of operations.  
In the Beta players were able to have two skills simultaneously equipped with three being available at a higher level. The skills add depth to the combat system without limiting the players to set in stone builds as their configuration can be changed anytime outside the combat.
Varied enough.


                From my experience with the Beta I found the gameplay pretty solid. I’m not very fond of cover shooters but I do enjoy 3rd person shooters so I made a compromise of ignoring what bothers me in order to enjoy what I like and that worked out fine.
                As any Beta Test this one wasn’t devoid of problems. Some of these problems like the unstable performance or various minor bugs are normal for a testing phase. But this short testing period raised to the surface some serious issues that will require immediate attention from Massive Entertainment.
One of these issues comes from the fact that most of the data is hosted on the client side resulting in an easy way of cheating. Videos showing players with infinite ammunition shooting without stopping to reload have popped all over the internet. While cheating in PC online games is nothing new and every game has its fair share of cheaters, each game implements a whole lot of countermeasures to reduce the number by as much as possible. On the other hand in its Beta state The Division actually made it easier for players to cheat as client side data is something unheard of in MMOs. The problem can be fixed before release, but a certain level of trust has been shattered with a developer that apparently put the server costs over gameplay quality.
                Another serious issue that came to my attention was the itemization which is the backbone of The Division’s progression system. Each weapon in this game finds its equivalent in reality. In the Beta I got to play with assault rifles like SCAR, M16 and AK47, light machine guns like M60 and various other realistic weapons. Each of these weapons has a number of available slots for mods and players can tune their weapons with scopes, underbarrel grips, suppressors and many other realistic mods. The weapons as the mode themselves have a series of stats including “procs”. The bonuses given by these items include reload speed, extended magazines, threat reduction, accuracy and so on. All these bonuses have logic behind them and while the “procs” are a little more extreme and can’t be grounded in reality they aren’t very different and interesting enough to separate an item from another. In a loot-based game like The Division the quality and uniqueness of the loot is what drives people forward into grinding for better and much cooler items. But that cool factor that games like Borderlands have with crazy weapons is nonexistent as the setting clearly limits the options. I fear that over the time the gear progression will become dull as the better items will be a slightly improved version of the previous ones with nothing to make them stand out.
The best weapon in the beta!


                The last problem I had with the Beta stems from the sound design which was horrendously bad when using a headset. While on speakers the game sounds pretty good with sound effects which include weapon’s echoes and detailed sounds for each object destroyed, using a headset was unbearable. There was no preset audio option for headset and the volume settings were almost useless because no matter how lowered the volume was it still managed to get higher than everything else including VOIP programs. The sound with headset on was disorienting and tiring to the point where I preferred to use my speakers instead when I was playing alone. 


The cleaning squad.
Testing the physics.
OK!


                My impression of the game after a couple of hours of gameplay was pretty terrible. But it grew on me as I got to explore the city, see the echoes, listen to the side stories and get into the Dark Zone and fight against other players. There is a weird blend in this game of extremely awesome features with some questionable ones that will immediately separate players into those who love it and those who dislike it, with no way in between. For the most part the fault is carried by the combat system which will get a lot of players upset for wasting a realistic setting and using the Tom Clancy name on a game that isn’t realistic and to a degree I can understand that. It’s upsetting seeing the Tom Clancy brand slapped on every product just to increase sales when the game is not representative for the brand. But I knew what to expect from the first gameplay video of the game and never fooled myself that The Division will be more realistic than that trailers showed. Accepting the combat, which isn’t bad and can be enjoyable, opens up a game that might be worth playing. The setting is great, the story has potential, the PvP is slightly different from what’s generic for this genre and ironically enough the game looks amazing even after the downgrade.
                There seems to be a lot of value in The Division and it will probably take at least a few weeks if not more to experience most of what this game has to offer at release, but things won’t stop there. Ubisoft has promised updates with free content that will expand the end-game content and there is also a Season Pass (obviously) which will provide three expansions with newer game mechanics. But these are all promises.
                I had a question that goes unanswered even after playing the Beta. How much there is to do outside of the campaign and the Dark Zone? Because the entertainment value of the content experienced in the Beta comes from scaling it down to the small portion of the game we got to access. At launch, when the game’s world fully opens up, the variety of content seen in the Beta together with what was unavailable might not be enough to stop The Division from getting repetitive in the long run. So, while there is a positive vibe in this article, without having a definite answer to this question I’m afraid that purchasing The Division at this point is nothing more than a gamble. 




Nodrim

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