Across several different events Gamereactor has tried The Division, but now, for the first time, we were afforded the opportunity to sit down with the game and explore Manhattan for four uninterrupted hours. We completed the first few missions, participated in several random encounters, and killed way too many friendly Agents in the PvP Dark Zones. In summary; we had a great time.
The Division feels like a new beginning for the tried and tested Ubisoft open-world formula. In this game you don't start in a city overtaken by "the evil rich" and have to take it back district by district. If you open the map, you won't see a city overflowing with collectibles and side missions, and you don't have to drag yourself up the highest (radio)tower to open up the map. The Division is a lot of things: online, RPG, shooter, but most important of all is the feeling that the game is different. It was announced in 2013 and has been subject to several well-publicised delays since then. All is forgiven when you finally play it though, because Ubisoft Massive is in the middle of re-inventing the wheel (so to speak), and that takes time and effort.
Our time with the game can be divided in two: the beginning where we played the first two hours of the game with a level 4 character, and a subsequent session where we controlled a level 20 character at a point much later in the game.
But first let's start at the beginning. For a lot of people, it's still unclear how much of an open-world game The Division really is. Can you play alone, or will other players constantly be part of your world? The answer is: The Division lets you play by yourself, and you only meet other players if you wish so. A major part of the city is dedicated to PvE, where you can move around alone or with up to three allies. Here you can complete missions together, engage with side quests, or partake in random encounters where you - for example - have to save a hostage or kill a given number of enemies. This is good news for people who want to play by themselves, although you shouldn't celebrate too soon. For even though the game can be played lone wolf - and even if the developers keep emphasising how good the game is in single-player - we wouldn't recommend it. Partly because the enemies are really robust and need a scary amount of bullets before they go down (which ensures that even the easy missions are difficult alone), but especially because the game really shines when you play with a team.
With a team behind you the shootouts can often become tactical affairs, which is something we're getting used to in Ubisoft shooters. There are no classes in the game, which means that everyone begins at the same starting point. Instead there are different skills to learn over time, focusing on medical, tech and security. If you have a good medical-build, you can work as a healer for your team while your teammate can assume the security-build tank role. If you grow tired of being a healer, you can always change it simply by going to the menu. This will make finding a group of comrades much easier in the long run. How many times have we tried to find a group in an MMO, but they already have a healer so they can't use you? In The Division you simply change to a security- or tech-build and join the team.
The three different skill trees connect directly to the story in the game. The story is split in three, with medical missions concerned with finding a cure to a virus, tech missions centred around rebuilding the city, and security missions focused on maintaining stability and order. If you play all the medical missions, but choose not to play the other story threads, then you end up an excellent healer, but you'll be weak in the other areas. The two missions we managed to complete were a hostage rescue and the collection of some important data, and in both there were a bunch of enemies stood in our way. Even though the goal was different, the two missions felt kind of similar, and we hope to see more diversity when the final game arrives. Another thing we probably won't find out until the final game is out, is what the end-game looks like. During our interview we learned that the level cap is 30 - and you'll have to play a lot before you reach that level - and it's possible to replay old missions on higher difficulties when you've completed the story. Again, we hope the final game will offer a lot more, because it's limited how much time gamers will spend replaying old missions with a level 30 character.
Open-world online games often lack a tangible progression besides your character growing stronger. In an MMO you can complete countless quests, but the world around you remains unchanged. The Division suffers the same curse, but Ubisoft Massive has found an elegant solution. After you have completed a mission, you have to return to your personal hub, reporting back and often getting your next assignment. Your hub can't be visited by other players and is therefore a representation of your progress in the story. If you complete a lot of medical missions, but choose to ignore tech and security, then your medical wing will become clean and welcoming, while the two other wings will remain in darkness because of your negligence. It's an interesting system that constantly paints a picture of your progress in the game, even though you maybe won't feel it as much when you walk through the city streets.
After completing the two missions with two other players, we got a short break, after which we returned to a level 20 character fully equipped with some epic gear. Instead of playing more story missions we decided to jump the fence and visit the center of the city - where the outbreak of the virus was worst and where all communication has gone silent: the ominous sounding Dark Zone. Where the rest of the game - with the exception of safe houses - is PvE centric, the Dark Zone are a possible PvP playground. "Possible" being the key word in that sentence, because it's not necessary to kill other players, it's just an option. The best loot is being kept in the Dark Zones, so even though the risk is high, so too is the reward. When you find some new gear you automatically get a yellow bag on your back that tells those around you that you have new gear, and the only way other players can get it is by killing you. At the same time, all the loot you acquire in the Dark Zones is contaminated, so before you can use it you'll have to get it extracted by helicopter. Wandering through the Dark Zone with precious new loot hanging on your back, edging towards the extraction point where you have to stay alive for more than a minute, is an intense experience. Right after you have shot your flare gun asking the chopper to pick up your loot, all the players in the Dark Zone will be aware of you and maybe will try to steal what you have. You can work together with strangers, but the chance of them committing mutiny at the last second will always be in the back of your mind. If you choose to shoot first against an agent who has done nothing wrong, then the game will mark you as a Rogue Agent, after which everyone can shoot you without any consequences. It's a brilliant concept that'll put strangers' trust in each other to the test. Do we have the confidence to trust in each other or is it every man for himself?
When playing The Division it's important to accept that it's an RPG first, and a shooter second. The biggest proof of this is the AI-controlled enemies in the game that refuse to die after taking twenty shots to the chest. We're used to the unspoken rules of shooters: a head shot kills - unless the enemy has a really good helmet on - and everything below the neck takes a few more bullets. This is also the case in The Division, but here the enemies often feel like bullet sponges before they finally go down. It's a classic RPG-feature that enemies need a lot of slashes with a sword before you kill them. When your level increase so too does that of your enemies, and therefore they're able to sustain a lot more damage than we're used to in shooters. Players need to get accustomed to this, but if they manage to accept this quirk, then the shooting works almost impeccably. We would like them to decrease the recoil on some of the weapons and make the AI more inclined to seek cover, but that's something they can still fix before the game is out.
One area Ubisoft Massive doesn't need to fix is its recreation of Manhattan. It equals that of Ubisoft's earlier open-world cities, maybe even surpassing them. Manhattan, as the city looks after the outbreak, is filled with detail, landmarks we know and buildings you can step into. There is no loading screen when walking through the city or when you step into the Dark Zone. The fact that the game manages to go from PvE to PvP without a loading screen is fantastic and sets the bar high for games that in the future would like to blend dynamic matchmaking with single-player. It also contains a full day/night cycle with opportunities for snowstorms, which makes it harder to control your weapon, or there's fog that lowers the visibility for both you and your enemies. It adds something to the experience, the fact that the dynamic weather has an effect on gameplay.
There is much at stake for Ubisoft with The Division, and the team knows it. They have promised too much since the beginning, and have delayed the game too often in order to get where they are. The company can't take much more bad press, so you can bet there'll be serious consequences if the game doesn't live up to expectations. On the other hand a lot of last year's mistakes will be forgiven - if not forgotten - if the game manages to deliver. It's a new take on the open-world for Ubisoft, a huge step away from their classic formula, one which will surprise a lot of loyal fans. It's a brave new beginning, and in a time where the big companies are afraid to take risks, The Division should be rewarded for walking where none have dared before. The risks are certainly high, and the margin for error small, but the rewards could be huge if Ubisoft and Massive get it right.
The Division is heading into closed beta later this month. For more dates and details head this way.