The Division has Players Divided

Thursday, March 17, 2016

I've been lurking on the edges of the Division community. I've read the complaints and the praise from players. So far, there's a lot of polarization within the player base. Some say there isn't enough content, others praise how much of it there is. Most of the initial reviews were provisional (due largely to there being no early review copies sent to the press), but positive. Now that most of those reviews have been finished, the critical consensus pouts The Division in the middle of the road. So how do we feel about Ubisoft's new MMO shooter?

We've been waiting for a while for The Division. The first bit of gameplay video teased at E3 three years ago showed a detailed, dynamic world with interesting gunplay and interesting team mechanics. So far, I'd say that most of those things are still in the final release, though the world is (predictably) less detailed and dynamic -even on a high end PC- than the 2013 demo.

The core of The Division is in its combat. Like many Tom Clancy games before it, there are numerous weapons, and even more options for customization. Each weapon carries some number of slots that can hold attachments like foregrips and scopes. These attachments do a variety of things from increasing accuracy to reducing your threat. Depending on the level and quality of the attachment, the amount of improvement will change, though usually by small amounts, allowing you to hold on to some attachments through a couple new gear sets.

The feel of the combat is good as well, though the encounters outside of missions feel a bit sparse. There are a few skirmishes in the streets, but for the most part I have to go looking for a fight if I really want to get into it. The missions provide the best firefights, some of which have been pretty intense. Moving from cover to cover and coordinating fire with teammates while under assault from overwhelming enemies is one of the best experiences anywhere in the game.

The enemies are somewhat varied and can be challenging, but the encounters in the streets are almost always reduced to them being surprised, running to cover and firing from there until you drop them. Luckily, since the groups are so few, these rote fights aren't too numerous.

The RPG elements of The Division give me a lot of leeway to tweak some of the finer points of my character, something that I really enjoy doing. The three skill trees are unlocked by upgrading your base of operations and are not tied to your level at all, nor is any any character locked into a tree once a skill is unlocked. Being able to save up supplies for a particular skill is a really nice touch and helps reduce the grindy feeling that bogs down character progression in other MMOs. I feel like I can really make the build I want without having to jump through a ton of hoops to get there.

The upgrades also unlock talents and perks. Perks give your agent passive abilities that increase the number of consumables you can carry or gives you access to some basic crafting materials in your base. Talents are more conditional abilities; they increase the effect of your medkits when below a certain percentage of health or give your headshots a chance to stun the enemy. You are only allowed to have a maximum of four talents active at any given time but you can switch them around should you need to spec into a higher DPS role or focus on support. When the three combine, the result is a dynamic, if subtly so, system that allows greater tactical flexibility, even when under fire.

Scattered throughout the city are safe houses. Each one has a specific vendor (gear, mods or weapons) and is a social hub to connect with other players. I've found the other players in the community to be helpful and friendly folks, eager to team up and tackle more difficult missions. The safe houses are the best place to meet up with other players looking for a group, but you can drop into a matchmade group for any activity at almost any time. It is a nice touch that trusts player to what what they need to tackle as a group and what they can handle on their own.

An orderly line of players waiting to access the laptop at the end of a mission. Best representation of the community so far. 
There is no dedicated PVP arena in The Division. Instead there is the Dark Zone, an area in the middle of the map containing high level gear that has to be extracted from specific points in order to retain it. The canon of the area says that because the area is so contaminated by possible pathogens that anything salvaged from that zone has to be cleaned and decontaminated before it can be used.

When a player signals for extraction, a flare is sent up that any other player in the zone can see. While players wait for extraction, enemies will flood the zone, but so will other players. Anywhere else in the game, another player would be a welcome sight but the Dark Zone is a little different. The game doesn't require player to play nice with each other in there, so there is nothing to stop someone else from shooting you to take all your hard-earned loot. Players that kill other players regularly get a bounty placed on their heads that anyone else in the zone can claim by killing them within a certain time limit. If the rogue agent survives, they get the reward instead.

The Dark Zone is one of the most compelling areas of the game. There is a tension there that I can only compare to playing DayZ on a crowded server. The constant fear of another agent killing you or being betrayed by your own friends is something I'm very familiar with from my time in Chernarus, but it is no less stressful in The Division. There have been some issues in the Dark Zone that Ubisoft has patched since release, mostly regarding the amount of Dark Zone currency dropped by enemies and the power of a couple weapons.

Some people will tell you that there isn't a lot of content in The Division. They'll tell you that they already hit level 30 and that you shouldn't bother with the game because there isn't enough end-game content to keep you occupied after that. Those players represent the extreme end of the player base. These are people that play for five hours or more at a time, grinding levels as quickly as possible and are not representative of the average player. People like me, who are only able to play for a couple hours at a time and take their time to learn the story and interact with other players should find plenty to keep them busy. So far, I've really enjoyed my time in The Division. As more of my friends get into the game, I look forward to the things our squad will accomplish together.