Should You Join The Division? (Closed Beta Thoughts)

Recently alongside many others, I had a chance to have a go at The Division’s closed beta, a game I’d simply been ignorant of out of laziness and as such was not all that interested in. Following my short experience with a slice of the game, despite a few small flaws, I’m left kicking my former self for not making more of an effort to follow what has become a very unique and ambitious title.

For those who don’t know, Ubisoft’s The Division is an open world third-person shooter RPG, launching March 8th 2016 for Xbox One, PS4 and PC. It’s an interesting cocktail of a game, combining a lot of elements from different genres, and for the most part is has delivered exceptionally well – I had a great time with the game and repeatedly felt the need to play more. However, like anything, it’s not perfect and has some room for improvement – but before we get onto some of the game’s flaws, let’s have a quick look at some of the things The Division gets right.

If the minds at Ubisoft have proven one thing, it’s that they know how to build convincing and engaging environments, and The Division is no exception. Set in a post-apocalyptic New York following an outbreak of smallpox on Black Friday, The Division places the player in the shoes of a Strategic Homeland Division agent, a heavily-trained operative given Presidential authority to do whatever it takes to prevent the collapse of society and restore order. As a Divison agent, players have to navigate the streets and facilities of New York, freeing allies and confronting the factions who have risen up to further society’s collapse into turmoil, in pursuit of their own power.

The city of New York has been painstakingly detailed with signs of destruction and anarchy around every corner. Explorable buildings are rife with signs of desertion and failed attempts to prepare for evacuation and the threat of danger is everywhere. The city is brought to life further by the advanced and dynamic weather system, with some days being bright and sunny, whilst occasional blizzards make navigation believably difficult and heightening the danger with more unexpected conflicts. Night falls quickly and the whole tone changes, making the Dark Zone, a lawless every-man-for-himself PvP area, that much more intimidating.

Ah yes, that’s right – the Dark Zone. Possibly one of my favourite aspects of the game, this free-for-all arena is a fantastic display of organised chaos and solid gameplay mechanics. The Dark Zone has been abandoned by all official bodies and sealed off from the rest of the city, resulting in a contaminated sector of the city ruled by anarchy and firepower. All the “best” gear is located within the Dark Zone, available through killing AI faction enemies littered around the area, and more challengingly – other agents. The PvP system creates a delicate and precarious balance of friend-or-foe second-guessing; all agents are designated as non-hostile, until they give up that title by choice. How? Go Rogue.

Herein lies a fantastic, yet flawed mechanic of the game – Rogue status. Player become rogue by firing upon fellow non-hostile players multiple times or for a prolonged period, meaning the occasional stray shot shouldn’t penalise you right away. Once rogue the player is give a contextual timer, ticking down as they remain peaceful and out of sight, being shot at and shooting at others will freeze and potentially increase the time period given. Whilst rogue, players are highlighted red and offer rewards including their on-hand loot for being killed by fellow players. Non-hostile players will not become rogue for firing on rogue players.

Unfortunately, this feature is currently a cause of frustration and confusion to players due to the nature of how it’s activated. Stray shots that catch fellow peaceful players will mark the shooter as red, but not rogue, ore of a tentative stage, effectively warning players that this red person could potentially be a threat. The difficulty with this is that it’s very easy to turn a corner, bump into a red player and instinctively unload half an SMG clip into them – only to discover they’re peaceful and accidentally shot their teammate a few seconds ago… and now you’re rogue and being hunted down. This can be especially frustrating if the player is on their way to an extraction zone to “bank” all the exciting loot they just spent 20 minutes collecting.

All the loot in the Dark Zone has been exposed to the environment and is unfortunately contaminated, it’s all well and good killing all the rogue players and nabbing their gear but it’s no use to you until it’s cleaned and safe to use. When players collect loot in the Dark Zone, it’s stored in a bag to await extraction – this can be performed at special locations spread around the map by shooting off a flare and waiting an allotted time for the helicopter to arrive and collect your gear.

This is where the rogue feature injects some further fun. When you shoot off that flare, all nearby players are alerted that an extraction has been called in at a nearby zone, this also informs potentially troublesome players that there’s a nice collection of loot marked on their map ready for the stealing. If you’re lucky enough not to be raided by rogue players whilst waiting for extraction, you will either wait alone, or be joined by other players also wanting to extract gear, the question is whether these other players have purely honourable intentions or whether they’re waiting for you to let your guard down… These mind games can result in fascinating Mexican standoffs and dances around the extraction zone, some even joining the ranks of the most memorable experiences in the game.

On the flipside, there are inevitably less memorable experiences, chief among them currently being the painfully tedious periods of simply… nothing. Whilst heading to waypoints in both the main game and the Dark Zone, I came across streets and areas that simply had nothing to do but run. Now, I accept these may be inevitable to occur once in a while, but certainly not as frequently as it did. Even if it were simply coming across a few civilian NPCs with no intention other than to walk past you, at least it would inject some life into what is otherwise a tedious, disengaging street. This is potentially a minor criticism, as I could have just been unlucky, but it seemed disappointingly abundant in New York.

Another small frustration came in the form of Dark Zone loot, or moreover, where it’s stored. All extracted loot goes to your “stash”, a central storage area within your Base of Operations. Unfortunately for you, this is a good distance from the Dark Zone, meaning if you want to try on any of your new, shiny gear or take advantage of it to get even more shiny loot, you have to go on a lengthy journey. Even more frustrating is that fast travel operates from the DZ to the BoO, but not in reverse, so there’s a good 5-10 mins running to get back to the DZ when you’re done accessorising.

On the plus side, when you do get to use your awesome news guns, it’s pretty darned great. The cover system is excellently implemented and can be a powerful tool in the right hands, different weapon classes all have their time and place and all are reasonably customisable to specific functions. Whilst I rarely use a sniper rifle in PvP scenarios because of their difficulty to use in quick encounters, I found them to be extremely satisfying to use and practical in the right situations. If you’re grouped up with friends, you can all slot into your own roles depending on your loadout and become solid counterparts to each other.

Speaking of loadouts, The Division’s RPG elements come into play superbly with a plethora of abilities to equip within the game’s large skill tree. It’s not the most complex or expansive skill tree in RPG history, but it’s certainly got plenty in there and easily ticks the necessary boxes. Branches of the tree are linked to areas of your Base of Operations, so as you progress further in say, the Medical Centre’s reestablishment, the more advanced skills you can access in that branch.  All skills have their place, and every player will find skills that suit their playstyle, regardless of whether you’re the stealthy type or the wrong type of player.

Now, whether you missed out on the closed beta or simply couldn’t get enough like me, you’re in luck – there’s going to be an open beta from the 19th-21st February, with early access on Xbox One from the 18th! Make sure to check out this article for the full details on how to jump in. The Division launches on March 8th, and if the full game is anything like the beta, I’d certainly recommend picking it up when it does launch, or at least trying this beta – it’s free after all!

Did you play the closed beta? What did you think?

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