My honest review & critique of The Division in its current open beta state

The Division is Ubisoft's latest foray in to the open world genre and it features a beautifully realized Manhattan, an interesting take on multiplayer and some very competent cover based shooting.

I've spent a good chunk of time playing the open beta this weekend and while I certainly enjoyed it I am somewhat worried about the long term appeal of The Division. It is a well made game, there's no doubt about that, but it doesn't push any boundaries or make attempts to be more than just "good".

 

Which is a real shame because even after the graphical downgrade The Division looks gorgeous. The streets are littered with broken down cars, random debris from all of the fighting, snow that has become blackened by ash and various other small details that contribute heavily towards a very immersive and realistic depiction of Manhattan.

The attention towards immersion is especially apparent when a snowstorm blows in and the usually cheerful landscape turns almost completely dark and silent as a blanket of snow piles down on it and limits visibility to about a few meters in each direction. Its unfortunate I never had this happen while I was roaming around in a Dark Zone because that would've been one hell of an experience.

I also have to give special mention to the destruction physics, especially when it comes to background objects we've been conditioned to ignore all these years. For example: If you shoot the tires on a truck they will visibly and audibly eject air and the vehicle itself will lurch violently downward; If you shoot glass it won't shatter in to a million pieces like its a Hollywood movie, instead it will produce a simple hole and the spiderweb effect. But if you continue creating holes in the glass it will eventually collapse and fall out; Finally, if you continuously shoot a building cowered in brickwork you will start seeing brick fragments and a whole lot of dust fall out of the cracks.

The Division features some beautiful snow graphics

I hope you didn't plan on seeing anything today

These small examples might not be relevant to the gameplay side of The Division but they sure do make the world feel a lot more lively.

Which is a much needed given that for some reason the open world in The Division is almost devoid of enemies or even things to do. It wasn't uncommon for me to run all the way from the HQ on one side of the city to my quest location on the other without encountering a single living person. And even if you do run in to a couple of enemies they're usually tied to a generic open-world event and thus almost always comprised of the same formation of bad guys.

I've heard rumors that the enemy spawns and random events have been reduced for the open beta and I do hope this is the case because The Division right now has a beautiful world to explore with absolutely nothing of interest to find beyond a couple of resources to upgrade your HQ with.

The Division has a good amount of detail in hidden places

There are some very haunting places you can stumble upon if you explore enough

Speaking of the HQ, I found it to be a rather welcome, albeit simple addition. As it stands right now you can upgrade various parts of your base by completing missions, recruiting personnel and gathering resources. In return you will get some lore, brand new functionality such as the Event Scanner and a couple of perks and abilities to use in combat. There are three distinct branches you can improve: Security, Engineering and Medical. Each of them is equally valuable but uses up different resources so in theory you need to make some hard choices on which perks and tools to focus on. In reality, you can just upgrade everything.

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea behind the HQ as it feels like I'm making a real impact, like I'm helping to recreate what was once lost. The problem is that there are no actual choices or even thought involved, you're simply going down a checklist based on your available resources. However, many features were locked in the beta and everything you could do was limited to early game stuff so there is still a good chance that late-game HQ management can be a compelling activity rather than a by-the-numbers one.

The Division lets you upgrade your HQ

An example of the rewards you get for upgrading your HQ

But let's be honest here, no one is going in to The Division expecting it to be the premier war-time business management simulator. Instead, what I and most others are interested in is the fast-paced combat and tons of shiny loot with colorful text. If that's something that piques your interest I'm glad I'm able to tell you that the combat works great... but just great. I know that sounds like a strange, borderline insane complaint but if you've played even a few cover-based shooters you would quickly realize how similar The Division is to all of them. I'm not saying that as a negative, I just expected a lot more than your standard well-polished cover-based shooter from a game Ubisoft has been hyping up for years now.

To their credit they've managed to seamlessly integrate RPG mechanics in to a shooter while completely avoiding the bullet-spongy enemies that plague games like Borderlands. You will still need to headshot them a couple of times before they go down, depending on your gear, but it doesn't feel like you're shooting a brick wall, it feels just right. The only enemies capable of soaking up immense amounts of firepower are bosses but they drop guaranteed loot so I will find it in my heart to forgive them for that.

What's sadly unforgivable is how boring the loot system is. Given the modern day setting all you will be finding is weapons with incrementally better numbers and a bunch of practical clothing. Finding a pair of fingerless gloves after 30 minutes of battling through the Dark Zone just doesn't feel like a very rewarding activity. The same applies to the weapons. Upgrading from an SMG to the same SMG that comes with a slight bonus to crit and nothing else to distinguish it is just not that interesting, neither is finding a pair of shoes that come with 5 extra armor. I'm hoping this is a beta only issue and that once we get further in to the game more interesting loot will start appearing but as it stands right now I didn't feel my efforts were well rewarded outside of maybe getting ridiculously strong weapons from the Dark Zone.

The Division has a rather plain loot stystem

Yay, my number has increased

Their stats might not be inspirational but the weapons in The Division feel great to use, especially the shotgun which does this somewhat muffled *TWHUMP* sound every time you fire it which is so, so satisfying. Even though charging enemies behind cover with a shotgun might not be the smartest idea in the world I've somehow managed to get through the entire beta doing just that, though I did die on more than one occasion.

Which brings me to the topic of difficulty and how Ubisoft has actually dared to make one of their games properly hard. After being the equivalent of god in both Assassin's Creed and Far Cry I was surprised when I had my knickers handed down to me by a bunch of low level thugs just because I didn't respect the damage they would do and I left cover to talk things over, face to face. The battles were nowhere near Dark Souls levels of difficulty but they were just hard enough to keep me on my toes and in a constant state of awareness which is a welcome break from the usual "we don't want to alienate anyone" mantra most AAA games subscribe to.

The Division features difficult combat

The life of a shotgun enthusiast is a short one

While the combat itself was very enjoyable the reasons for entering it were not. The story, what little of it I've seen, is about as generic as it gets and even though its well voice acted it completely failed to capture my interest. Even the characters, which should be the easiest to break the mold with, fall in to stereotypical roles seen in almost every action game ever. The good doctor, the wounded soldier that wants to get in to the action as soon as possible, the constantly angry guy, the guy that has a beef with authority even though he's an ex government official and so on. I'm betting you can even guess what they sound like just from these descriptions alone.

I keep repeating this sentence but it really is a shame that the developers didn't take a bit more time in order to flesh out every part of The Division. Instead what you get is a generic, completely tame story that takes you through some beautifully crafted locations filled with so much detail and passive storytelling that makes you wonder where it all went wrong. The second mission for example takes place in a building that's being used as a mass dumping ground for diseased bodies.There's coffins wrapped in American flags everywhere but what's supposed to be a touching moment is instead constantly interrupted by a quest that has you flip a few switches because the generator has gone down.

This mission could've been one of the defining moments in The Division, one that makes you realize how truly fucked the world is and why you need to work so hard to fix it and yet, all that people will remember is just another in a series of generic story missions that lead to no satisfying conclusion.

The Division american flags

The Division has some touching moments here and there

Ironically, given how much I can rant about the story, my favorite part of The Division has none of it. I'm talking about the Dark Zone which allows you to either team up with other people to beat up the elite baddies found there or to simply beat up other players in order to steal their loot. In the Dark Zone you don't get to just keep all the loot you get, instead what you need to do is call down an extraction helicopter by lighting a flare and then strapping your spoils of war to it so that it can be decontaminated first.

As you might imagine lighting a bright flare in a dark and snowy environment is the universal sign for "I'M OVER HERE AND I HAVE EXPENSIVE LOOT". Soon after a flare gets lit you will start getting visitors, first a trickle and then people will start appearing by the dozens. Some will be there in order to try and steal your precious goods, others are there to do the same thing as you while a completely different set of people might be on the lookout for renegades to shoot down for points and exp.

The end result is the most extreme game of cat and mouse I've seen in a while, with dozens of people circling each other, no one really sure whose planning what. Eventually someone will foolishly open fire on the crowd and the whole area will erupt in chaos given that you now have a bunch of people standing in a circle firing indiscriminately as they have no idea who started or even whose shooting at them.

The Division Flamethrower

Whatever you do, don't piss off the guy with the flamethrower

Its hard to explain these moments as your own personality will influence how you experience them and how others treat you but for me it has been an absolute blast. Out of the all the hours I've spent in the beta I most remember my time in the Dark Zone, even though there wasn't much to do. Which is perhaps my main complaint with the Dark Zones, they feel empty much like the overworld.

Sure there's some elite enemies here and there that require groups but on a full server those died incredibly quickly and I was left to run around the desolate wilderness of the Dark Zone all alone with nothing to do. I ended up making my own fun, mostly through interaction with other players, but I'm worried that if the late game Dark Zones don't offer anything unique that the whole experience will become very boring, very quickly. This was just the beta however, so there is still a good chance things might improve on higher levels but its an issue worth mentioning regardless.

Verdict

The Division is a very well made and competent cover-based shooter that unfortunately didn't seem to receive the same amount of attention to detail on all fronts so things like the story and HQ progression got left by the wayside while the actual shooting and world design got polished to a mirror sheen.

Is The Division a good game? Absolutely. Should you buy it at full price though? That's where I start getting second thoughts because on one hand I came out of the beta with a smile on my face but on the other I'm slightly worried that the content will grow old and stale even after a few weeks of play. What I would recommend is to wait for release-day reviews so you can get a clearer picture of what exactly The Division offers as the beta had many elements sealed away, elements that might prove to be significant.

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