The emptyish streets of New York, with it’s skyscrapers looming menacingly, are a great environment for an apocalyptic story. From The Day After Tomorrow to Escape from New York and videogames like Crysis 3 and [PROTOTYPE] and Deus Ex. The major landmarks, it’s infamous history, the 9/11 attacks and Seinfeld, it all makes it so it’s at the same time familiar and removed from us at the same time. That’s why I imagine so many post-apocalyptic stories happen there instead of, say, Los Angeles. NYC is just that more interesting when civilization came crashing down. And the Big Apple is where The Division takes place.
Tom Clancy’s The Division (beta)
I love this game. It’s the type of open world that all games should aim, just like the Witcher 3 did. You begin after a short cutscene where a fellow agent and you are flown by helicopter after some kind of ambush- the beta outright tells you the intro is skipping many story elements in order to avoid spoilers. The other agent is seriously injured- by the looks of it, she lost an eye!- and so it’s up to you to restore order in New York.
The premise is based on actual simulations carried out by U.S. government agencies in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks. Called Operation Dark Winter, it found that the country was woefully unprepared for a large scale bioterrorist attack, and it probably helped create the “Executive Directive 51” “which claims power to execute procedures for continuity of the federal government in the event of a “catastrophic emergency””. This is heavy.
You’re an agent of “The Division”, a secret government agency that seeded “sleeper agents” in civilian populations in order to work without supply lines, chain of command or even a functioning government to help secure and restore order in case of total catastrophe. I like the idea, it’s an interesting reversal of the “sleeper agent” trope used in the Cold War and more recently the “War on terror”.
After an outbreak of weaponized smallpox -cleverly distributed in contaminated bills during Black Friday- infects pretty much all of the United States, The Division agents are tasked with creating safe zones from which order will be slowly restored while also investigating the origins of the attack and pursue it’s masterminds in a city abandoned by the military. But you won’t quit, will you?
One of the most noticeable aspects of the game, asides the incredibly detailed environments, is the HUD. This is a case of a Diegetic Interface, which is when what the player sees in the world is what the character sees. There’s no pause in the game when you’re sorting the inventory or modding a weapon, much like in Dead Space. Helpful holograms tell you where to go to arrive to your next mission, point out loot, analyzes friendly and enemy targets, they even point out when a civilian is distressed so you can help!
While at first disorienting- used as I am to play games with minimal or even no HUD at all-, you get used to it quickly and then start to wish every game was like it, this game does the Shooter/RPG thing right, even better than Borderlands. The HUD displays a wealth of information in a very intuitive way that doesn’t obstruct the gameplay at all. Kudos there!
The new game engine is a thing of beauty and it runs great with all bells and whistles on full HD. It simulates weather very well, with snowstorms affecting gameplay and enemy behavior. It’s what should be expected from a game of this scope, but not groundbreaking.
Gameplay and combat
Gameplay wise The Division is very straightforward. You take cover, shoot the bad guys. You can peek out to aim or fire blindly to avoid taking hits, or you can move from cover to cover by selecting the desired location and holding spacebar. Your character navigates very well when used this way, but the enemy AI is very good at that too. Enemies will try to spread out and flank you, using cover like you. You can use grenades to flush them out, so can they. You can level up your character with talents, skills and perks, so can they. In fact, I saw them trying to retreat a few times- not that I gave them the chance to. I wonder if enemies can surrender, it would be a good addition to the game.
As you level up you unlock active talents, of which you can have 2 plus a signature talent equipped, passive ones and perks. Even some of the weapons can have abilities attached! Since there are no player classes, you can customize your selection at any time to fit your gameplay style. Different armors affect your main stats in their own way, the weapons can be modded or scrapped for parts on the fly, there are vendors in your base and black market traders are available in the Dark Zone. The RPG aspect is done so well I spent many minutes tinkering with my loadout barely an hour into the beta.
When exploring you can have random encounters with looters. They might be picking over a dead body or holding an NPC at gunpoint. They shoot you on sight inevitably, despite being obviously well equipped. Ah well, it wouldn’t be an RPG without enemies being suicidally overconfident. Maybe it will be featured on the full game, there are many mentions of gang factions fighting over the leftovers of the military supplies.
I tried co-op for one of the missions and then tried it again solo to compare. I heartily recommend playing with friends or using the matchmaking service. The game scales AI and enemies accordingly to the number of players and their respective levels to make for a good challenge, and the action is that much better when more people are involved. In fact, the entire campaign can be played on co-op!
Then there is the Dark Zone. It’s the PvP environment. It’s where the infection hit hardest, where you find the best loot and where other players can try to kill you for it. I recommend playing with friends you’re sure won’t turn on you. If a player does, he becomes a Rogue Agent and is fair game though. You bag the loot in infected bags and call for an extraction so it will be forever linked to your character… if you survive long enough for the actual extraction to take place! The Dark Zone is so different from the rest of the game that it effectively has it’s own separate EXP and level tracking.
I love it. It feels like a proper Tom Clancy game. The voice acting is good, the setting is excellent, the RPG elements done right and the multiplayer is great. I experienced no bugs and the only performance hit I had was when using FRAPS to record some gameplay. If you had doubts about pre-ordering the game, cast them aside Agent, because The Division needs you!