The Division Beta Impressions and Feedback

image credit: ubisoft
image credit: ubisoft

Agent, you’ve been activated. It is time to take back New York City. After breaking radio silence on their upcoming openworld shooter RPG “The Division”, Ubisoft invited fans who had pre-ordered the game to participate in closed beta this weekend. Beta for Xbox One began one day ahead of PC and Playstation, which will run through Sunday evening. My wife and I sat down to run through it today and had a really good time of it. What follows are some of our observations, feedback and most of all; praise.

Update: Although video capture sharing is disabled for the Xbox One version of the beta, I had an opportunity to try it on PC. Here is a link to some footage: The Division PC Beta – 1080p Ultra

A well built beta experience

The new player briefing and developer commentary was specially prepared for this beta audience. It explained, accurately, that there would be bugs and more specifically what kind of bugs to expect. It also provided guidelines as to what content was not included in beta, and finally a quick guide to surviving. The result was something that seemed fully built – most of the missing features were visible but labelled as not included.

“Always On” multiplayer

Although most of the city is “squad only” multiplayer in terms of encountering other players, your friends who are playing are also shown on the map with an option to join them even if they are not currently in your squad. Furthermore, the quest hub areas and competitive PVP/PVE “Dark Zone” are dynamically filled with other players without any interaction from the player, and except for the pause when you join a squad, there are no loading screens going between these two types of game areas at all. Included is a matchmaking service, conveniently also located at the quest hubs.

Distinct factions

The two enemy factions we encountered in the beta included looters and the flame-thrower wielding “cleaners”. Promotional footage suggests at least two more major factions that are not featured in the beta. Each of the factions bring their own twist to an encounter depending on which “class” or type of that enemy are present, and if any of them are elite or named opponents with special abilities or weapons. For example, most groups of looters will have at least one melee equipped “charger”, and frequently another that is equipped with tear gas or another type of grenade. Most of the enemies that have a weapon that should be fired from cover will use cover and line of sight to their advantage (but not always). Contrast this with a chance encounter with the cleaners, where threat of sudden fiery death from their flame thrower equipped heavies requires different tactics than a shootout with lightly armored looters. From go, I found this creates a believable and engaging atmosphere.

Huge, haunting play area.

Despite beta being fenced into just one portion of the total play area, I was immediately struck by the sheer size of the environment. This is one thing really not evident in the pre-beta footage until you see it for yourself – moving around down town New York conveys an intense sense of scale and catastrophe, better than probably any other shooter I have ever played. Exploration opportunities abound, whether you choose to jog directly to your active mission marker or sweep carefully street by street, there are countless details, alleys, underground entrances and rooftop access that make the map seem even larger.

Solid RPG Shooter foundation

The Division is first and foremost an RPG in a cover-based 3rd person shooter’s clothing. All of the players skills are designed to compliment small team tactics against a variety of challenging situations. Advancement, talents, gear customization and specialization further allow the player to tailor their agent to their preferred role in a team, or survival as a lone gun. There are no classes, so one agent can technically fill any role on the fly just by changing their active skill selections and gear.

All those bullets

One caveat and constructive feedback I find in The Divisions’ RPG roots is the dramatic health scaling of difficult AI opponents, although this is a common trait to most RPG Shooters like Borderlands or Fallout. Many elite or boss opponents are tough because of the sheer amount of armor and hit points assigned to them – you’ll empty magazine after magazine into headshots against them unless you are quite over-geared for the encounter. If this has ever bugged you in another game, it’s going to bug you here. I didn’t find it to take anything away from the game or sense of difficulty, and may even make the game more accessible to fans who enjoy that pace over headshot-galleries like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Your milage may vary.

Dark Zone

Saving the best for last – we loved the Dark Zone. Ubisoft has a smoking hot recipe for a rich multiplayer challenge on their hands with how well cooperative PvE challenge and PvP mayhem blend in the Dark Zone. Every aspect of the game leads to it, and the best loot and toughest AI (and living) opponents are found there. You’re welcome to journey in alone but most of the encounters encourage or require cooperation, and the inevitable shootout between player squads ups the fun factor substantially. I found most players were helpful, specially given how frequently they may need to be revived while exploring PvE challenges or just trying to escape. Some seemed to be trying their boundaries with attacking vulnerable players, but the “rogue agent” flagging system tends to get the inexperienced griefer quickly executed. On the other hand, organized teams of rogue agents are a force to be reckoned with. Once they reach “rogue status five” for repeat aggression all nearby players get a bounty mission to kill them; they get a corresponding mission to survive for a set amount of time. The death penalty corresponds to how much “dark zone loot” and currency you’d managed to collect in that trip – you lose a portion of it when you die – and I felt it was “just right” to not feel overly punished for getting killed while still feeling the sting when you get iced right before an extract with a full pack. It’s bold and highly satisfying.

I am very encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and look forward to the full release in March. See you in New York!

The Division – Speculation and Hope for Ubisoft’s Openworld Shooter RPG

TCTD_E314_screenshot_division-agents_1024x768
image credit: ubisoft

In the aftermath of a present day bioweapon catastrophe, survivors must band together to take back New York and restore hope. On the surface, Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy inspired “The Division” has Game of the Year written all over it. However what we actually know about the game is limited to only a few short gameplay demonstrations from E3 two years running, and the coolest parts of the demos are the parts of the game that are only hinted at but not fully shown. Elsewhere a leaked trailer explores some of these aspects in better detail, adding credibility to this possibly being a huge success. What worries me more is trying to ascertain why Ubisoft would play their cards so close to their chests when they are usually quite liberal with game hype ahead of a release. With just two weeks or so before the closed beta, let’s take a closer look at why this game is exciting and what they might not be telling us.

Update: A flood of amazing footage hit YouTube this morning from a few lucky individuals who were invited to Sweden to try it hands on, and it looks absolutely incredible. Here is a link to one of the best yet at Arekkz Gaming.

A Good Start

The foundation of the gameplay we have seen is a tactical multiplayer rpg focused on exploration, survival and challenging combat encounters. Every detail in the trailer and demo begins and ends with cooperation – hope against the insurmountable began with an outstretched hand. This poetry in motion is the backdrop for the excellent gameplay demonstrations from E3 – probably the best material they have released to date. Three players teamed up to move through the ruins of downtown New York to an objective, using a variety of skills to balance three team roles familiar to other successful RPGs – healing, direct damage, damage and threat mitigation. In dangerous areas tackling a group a foes near or above your character levels required communication and teamwork, and the pace of battle was intense.

One of the most interesting aspects of the demo is the late game PvP twist. The team ventures into the Dark Zone, a PvP enabled challenge area where the loot and stakes are raised substantially. What begins as a multi-team cooperative challenge against a much more powerful AI opponent suddenly turns into a brutal team vs team PvP struggle for the sum of the loot. The hostile agent self policing PvP flagging system hinted at in the footage might be comparable to one of my all time favorite openworld rpgs ever: Ultima Online, or at least as it was originally launched.

Pie in the Sky

If you consider for a moment what other more recent games this resembles so far, it is difficult not to get ones hopes up. Consider first its pedigree (a Tom Clancy shooter), the difficulty tuning for three person teams (Destiny) and the broad shooter rpg setting itself (Borderlands 2, Fallout) it seems like a recipe for megahit. Consider further the aspects of the game they haven’t quite shown us outside of hints and details in the leaked trailer regarding how New York is rebuilt one stronghold and critical resource at a time, and I see a truly groundbreaking next generation gaming experience that could eclipse the competition.

Then why not shout it from the rooftops?

Compared to the deluge of footage we’d expect from any other Ubisoft flagship title like Assassin’s Creed, they have been pretty tight lipped about The Division. The site for the game is cool enough but the amount of actual game information and working footage is quite small. With just weeks ahead of the beta and a tentative March release not far behind it, there is valid concern in what we haven’t seen for the game yet. This would not be the first game shown at E3 that looked fantastic but did not resemble the final product – see the infamous case of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was so bad it ended up in court. I doubt that is the case here, but it is worth citing.

Complete duds aside, we haven’t seen much at all about how progression works, side activities, any additional details about how habitually aggressive PvP is handled (this could still be cool), or any hint at what end game content will look like. The latter most could be a landmine issue for the success of the game and might be the most valid concern the game faces.

Another roadblock that is closer to home is the known stability problems that face the other recent Ubisoft online shooter – Rainbow Six: Siege. Granted, we’d hope they would have dedicated servers for an openworld rpg like The Division, but hopes and this actually being the case are two different things.

I don’t expect that the coming beta will be restricted by NDA, and hope to post a follow up once I have hands on experience to confirm or dispel these questions.

Update: The “leaked” trailer was released in the US a little while after I posted this. Keep it coming guys, it looks amazing.