The Division has been on gaming’s radar since 2013, when we first glimpsed the third-person door-closing simulator on Ubisoft’s E3 stage. Since then, it’s been delayed numerous times and has largely been shrouded in mystery.
Now, almost three years later, Ubisoft finally unleashed The Division‘s open beta on PC, Xbox One and PS4 last weekend, and I got to take it for a spin.
The Division takes place in the near future, after a viral outbreak devastates the planet. You assume the role of a member of The Division, a militant sleeper cell tasked with restoring order in the event of a catastrophe. And so, armed with plenty of free rein and a cache of futuristic military toys, you’re set free in Manhattan to shoot, loot and automatically shut car doors while in cover.
The beta allowed players to kinda, sorta create their own characters, although only a choice in gender and the option to randomise your appearance were present. All the other features of the character creation suite were locked out, but the randomiser gave a decent look at how much diversity the game will have. Naturally, I settled on a bearded, generally pretty generic character. It looks like we’ll have to make up our own backstories for our agents, because they seem to be entirely silent protagonists.
The beta kicked off with you touching down in Manhattan by helicopter, and from there the first order of business is to set up The Division’s base of operations. The walk from the helipad to the base really helps set up the atmosphere of The Division. Manhattan has clearly gone to hell in a handbasket, and everywhere you look is snowy desolation. People mill about seeking aid and just trying to stay alive in this hostile urban environment. However, Manhattan is a location that has been visited often in games, and I worry the familiar cityscape and toned-down colour palette will begin to feel repetitive before too long, no matter how atmospheric it is.
The base serves as your personal hub area throughout the game, like the Villa Auditore from Assassin’s Creed II. It’s a dump when you first move in, with trash everywhere and no upgrades. A set of early missions present in the beta requires players to rescue and recruit medical, security and technology officers to staff various wings of the HQ. As your base gets better staffed and upgraded, it begins to look cleaner and provides various bonuses. This leads to The Division‘s interesting skill tree, which unlocks more skills and perks depending on how upgraded your HQ is. Want to specialise in healing? Upgrade the medical wing first and select the newly unlocked perks. This will hopefully give a heightened sense of value to your HQ, because at no point will you be buying upgrades just for the sake of buying upgrades.
The game styles itself as an RPG, with experience points, random loot drops and skill unlocks. If I had to describe it in terms of other games, then The Division is Borderlands plus Destiny with the cover system of Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. The RPG aspects seem to take a backseat though, and the ability to quickly swap out your abilities feels more like a load-out, not a class. For the most part, the action is fast-paced and satisfying, but I noticed some sluggishness in the aiming and firing. Even after tweaking the sensitivity, the game never really felt like it was operating at my pace. Many successful hits on enemies had a slight delay between landing and dealing damage, which broke a great deal of the immersion.
This may have been due to dips in my Internet connection and it’s likely that slight lag like this may plague the game – or it could be that the game’s net code still needs to be tweaked, and the beta was the best time to test it. I didn’t run into too many hackers because I played on PS4, but PC players could easily have run into people who were freely giving themselves unlimited ammunition and super-speed, among other things.
The beta had a number of enjoyable aspects to it, all of which shine a positive light on The Division as a whole. The aesthetic is striking, with augmented reality-style pop-ups of mission-critical data overlaid in vibrant orange over the more subdued backgrounds. The cover system is also superb, allowing players to motor between cover just by holding down a button. There’s also plenty of loot to collect, including a plethora of upgradeable firearms, different cosmetic clothing options and armour. It’s clear that playing dress-up will be a prominent part of the final product.
The Division‘s beta left me with several thoughts. It felt incredibly similar to Destiny, in that sort of grind, shoot, loot, rinse, repeat kind of way. If you enjoy that style of RPG then that’s not at all a bad thing. I’m obviously not yet sure how much pull the game’s story will have, and whether or not it’ll give more of an incentive to stick around and keep playing long after the RPG mechanics potentially lose their novelty.
And speaking of sticking around, this brings me to my final concern: what will the post-launch campaign for The Division look like? Ubisoft has previously confirmed that the game only takes place in Manhattan. In other words, players will be exploring the same ominous, snowy and fairly repetitive environments for some time. Contrast this design with Destiny, which takes players to vastly different worlds and locations, thereby giving players a much-needed change of scenery every now and then.
So, my final impression of The Division‘s beta? It shows loads of promise and will likely offer a similarly addictive online multiplayer experience to Destiny. It was fun to play around with all the toys and the game’s representation of Manhattan can be highly absorbing at times. That, and the endless hunt for swanky new sets of knee-pads will undoubtedly give the game a decent lifespan.