The Division beta: does Massive’s shooter live up to expectations?

By Paul Davies, Tuesday, 2 February 2016 10:19 GMT

After 20 hours tramping through the frozen streets of New York City, it’s time to share some war stories as a try-hard Strategic Homeland Division agent.

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“Headshots require total precision; their numbers are simply much higher than body shots. The lesson here is that no situation is winnable via aim-assisted snap shots to the lid.”

Above all else, everyone can now rest assured that Massive Entertainment’s The Division brings something new and substantial to the latest consoles and high-end PC rigs. It is an experience that ushers all that a modern AAA game can bring; a shared world that invites friends to buddy up and compete – good-naturedly or not – for bragging rights and RNG swag bags.

There’s some mental adjustment to make within minutes of embarking on your overarching mission to save mankind as a species and our humanity along with it. The Division, according to a brief tutorial, is cover-based shooter meets RPG. Transported by helicopter to the hub location at Camp Hudson, the cool chopper and maimed instructor are as melodramatic as the narrative gets. Upon taking control it’s about crucial measurements; residual tendency to run-and-gun suppressed within seconds of attempting to Rambo the first objective.

Since all problems in this fiction are invariably solved by shooting at other people, however, attention is keenly locked onto the gunplay. Your standard issue M4 assault rifle, MP5 sub machine gun and M9 pistol feel perfunctory while taking down thugs swarming the steps outside your soon-to-be Post Office HQ. It’s almost certainly authentic audio we’re hearing, given painstaking attention to detail that we have visually, closer to what’s experienced in Battlefield as opposed to Call of Duty. By that same token, kills feel somewhat disconnected from the act of aiming and pulling the trigger – numbers peeling off, RPG style, describing damage as opposed to ‘BAM! 100 points!’ in flashing lights. It’s only later that you learn to take note of the exact stats being displayed, monitoring the manner in which you perform. Headshots require total precision; their numbers are simply much higher than body shots. The lesson here is that no situation is winnable via aim-assisted snap shots to the lid.

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Upon establishing The Division HQ in Pennsylvania Plaza the RPG side of things makes a far more impactful entrance. This is certainly true for anyone that bought tickets to shoot for loot while maybe feeling a little bit sorry for beleaguered NPC New Yorkers. This base of operations requires attention before you’ll receive fancy pants assistance out in the field. The medical wing was made the focus for the Beta, while in the game proper there will be tech and security to invest hard earned resources into also.

It’s like being told to tidy your room before being allowed to play out; running an errand before receiving your ‘spends’. And, as with so many things in The Division, the base – with its gear vendors and curious stations for services that include counselling and paediatric care – seems almost too much to contend with upon arrival. Best, to begin with, to just follow that mission trail.

In order to gather enough supplies to make the clinic area operational you are assigned a task to retrieve a doctor being held hostage in the nearby Madison Field Hospital. It’s a soft welcome to a small section of the 12-strong list of behavioural archetypes that The Division ultimately offers. Simply unloading bullets into enemy targets is not the most efficient way forward, or even any way forward at all as you may discover when upping the difficulty level (missions can be replayed at higher difficulties after first completion).

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Again, any desire to shoehorn The Division into the role of new-favourite-shooter is curtailed by its insistence to follow an RPG-like structure. The baseball bat wielding rushers and machine-gun bearing assault classes become much less of a problem upon recognising their individual roles. Do you take out the thrower first to avoid being disoriented by grenades, or target the leader to throw his minions into disarray? All this is fascinating to dissect in order to outwit larger groups, such as the one encountered on the hospital rooftop. It urges you to communicate as a team – if you’re fortunate to have other guys to ride out with and watch your back.

“It’s thrilling up until your first attempt at extraction and getting mowed down by a bunch of opportunist griefers that take seconds to undo what might’ve taken an hour to accomplish. Welcome to The Division end game, buddy. Sucks to be you.”

Having a ‘good time’ in The Division depends quite a bit on having real people around whose company you enjoy, even if it’s only because they keep a cool head and can aim shots. There’s only so many times you can plod the famous grid and ponder the Christmas that never was, taking real notice of NPC conversations illuminating the plot. Having the streets descend into darkness, a chance to let those Christmas lights work their eerie magic, and being caught in a blizzard – these things become background to your main thoughts of how to best spend your valuable gaming time. Shooting the same AI that respawn around the map of Manhattan and beyond the Dark Zone checkpoints, that’s the grind. And all by itself, owing to predictability, standard NPC open-world behaviour gets old pretty quick.

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Inevitably you are drawn to the Dark Zone. Yellow-bar NPCs are tougher to take down and drop more attractive, hopefully more useful, blue and purple loot. You and your buddies are excited about conquering the harsher Contamination Zones, especially if somebody has a DZ key to plunder a DZ chest. It’s thrilling up until your first attempt at extraction and getting mowed down by a bunch of opportunist griefers that take seconds to undo what might’ve taken an hour to accomplish. Welcome to The Division end game, buddy. Sucks to be you.

Fair play to those bastards, though. If there’s one thing that Destiny has taught us, it’s that getting a shared-world shooter right with its MMO-lite mechanics to devour your very soul, is a suck-and-see process impossible to get right first time. Or, who knows, never ever.

It’s always the smartest players, potentially your biggest fans, that are just as willing to become your worst enemy. Very much so in The Division’s favour right now is an entire community willing this experience to live up to precious expectations, harboured since June 2013. But after admiring the gorgeous world created and being dazzled by UI up the wazoo, anyone that has played The Division Beta this past week has likely hit the same brick wall.

My feeling is that camaraderie will keep four-man teams going back to the Dark Zone to test its limits alongside their mettle (goodness knows it’s too harrowing if played alone). Meanwhile, Massive Entertainment surely knows that it is now in a race against time to prevent MMOhattan from permanently freezing over.

The Division is out March 8 on PC, Xbox One and PS4. An open beta is planned from February 16-21. Want to find like-minded buddies to play The Division with? Why not sign-up for out LFG site here.

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