What’s the appeal of The Division?

By Brenna Hillier, Tuesday, 23 February 2016 12:55 GMT

The Division is clearly shaping up to be one of the hits of 2016. Why?

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The Division had its first real popularity test this weekend. The open beta gave a much broader swathe of players a chance to have a go – not just those who’d already mentally pre-invested by buying in or signing up for the closed test’s agonising wait lists.

It seems to have been a roaring success. The Division dominated conversations, winning hearts and firing loins like nobody’s business. The shooter RPG’s subreddit is awash with love – and sorrow over the empty weeks between the close of the beta and release day.

Apart from a sprinkling of bug and balancing complaints, you’ll most find topics like “Taking a moment to applaud Massive for a job well done” and “Finding it hard to play other games after playing the Beta“. Anecdotes of Dark Zone experiences, praise for the tiny slice of the game’s systems available during the taster, and videos of skilled kills abound (I enjoyed this one very much).

We convinced ourselves not to buy The Division” one thread announces, before explaining how the open beta overcame all their post-Destiny blues and won their hearts. “People like my friend must make developers hate us gamers…” says another, telling of a friend who only played 30 minutes before giving up – having exited without ever seeing what makes The Division so unique.

It’s a community intended for and mostly visited by enthusiasts, so it’s no surprise that most of the threads are positive. But even so, there’s clearly something here: The Division, as presented in the open beta, is sticky enough to have inspired serious devotion among core gamers, a group that likes to think of itself as cynical and savvy (while simultaneously expressing fervent enthusiasm for luxury entertainment products sold on a culture of carefully-controlled marketing hype; we’re all guilty of it sometimes). So what is the appeal?

My feelings on The Division have not changed, much to the dismay of my future fireteam partners (soz, Daffyd, Julie). But I also dislike pumpkin pie and think Muse is massively overrated: taste is subjective. Peering at The Division through critical lenses rather than my own fatigued and world-weary experience, I think I can see what the fuss is about:

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Shooting

it’s not just a matter of getting in cover, popping of a headshot, and rinse and repeat – and nor is it all about the right gear for the job (although as an RPG, equipment has an undeniable impact; if you’re moaning about “bullet sponges” then you need better gear). The Division has at its heart a very crunchy bit of third-person shooting, with opportunities for tactical play that ought to prick the ears of any of the older tactical shooter games Ubisoft used to push out on the reg. Cover really matters. Flanking really matters. Staying mobile between burst of fire is significantly more effective and definitely more satisfying than hunkering down and waiting for enemies to pop up. Skilled play is instantly distinguishable from the merely competent.

World and setting

Remember when Ubisoft first announced Watch Dogs and people said it was pretty much modern day Assassin’s Creed? This is a pretty fair assessment, but for everyone who sneered (“it’s just modern day Assassin’s Creed”) there were others who cheered (“oh my gosh it’s modern-day Assassin’s Creed!”) because real world settings are a thing people really enjoy. I don’t know why; I’d much rather dig into sci-fi, fantasy or history – but there, subjectivity again. There are plenty of people who’d rather watch a Bourne film than Lord of the Rings, and more power to them. They’re super excited by the para-military power fantasy of post-plague New York. Hooray for them! You must admit, Ubisoft Massive’s vision is astonishingly detailed and technically impressive.

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Flexible weapon and character build system

There’s a lot more going on in The Division’s skills, perks, talents, weapons and mods than just building the best possible character. When you’re playing solo you might want to max out your DPS, but in groups there’s an opportunity to synergise for seriously deadly potential. It’s not just about nominating a group healer so you have all your bases covered; combining weapon types with skill can grant you a significant tactical advantage. Take a lesson from XCOM and have a gunner suppress your foes with an endless stream of bullets from a light machine gun, keeping them in cover while you sneak around to flank them with a shottie. When we all hit endgame, it’s the groups who adapt their build strategically who win, and with any luck we’ll avoid a Destiny-like scenario of everyone running around with the same equipment.

Sticky loot cycle

Look, we all know RNG-based loot cycles are manipulative. We know they’re designed to tap into the animal bit of our brain that is attracted to slot machines. We know designers use them to pad out games. But hell: we also know this approach works. Developers keep doing this because we gobble it up, riding gleefully on waves of adrenaline from good drops and sullenly abiding through dozens of bad ones, logging in every day to see what new goodies we might turn up today. It’s a thing. May as well enjoy it.

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Open world upgrade-a-thon

Similarly, Ubisoft’s open world approach has been proven again and again. Give us a great big map with icons all over it, tell us we can upgrade our base, equipment and character by hitting them all, and offer us even the flimsiest rewards for doing the same type of things over and over again, and we’ll do them. Is this a delight to tired game journalists faced with their 15th 200 hours game of the year? No. Is it good value for those of you who carefully hoard your pennies for a few big games each year? Arguably. I feel very tired at the thought of all those icons but even I immediately wanted to upgrade every single little bit of my base of operations.

The Dark Zone

What really sets The Division apart so far, based on what we’ve seen of it, is The Dark Zone. There are so many interesting ideas here, from the proximity chat to the extraction system, but it’s the risk-reward balance of PvP that makes it really compelling. There’s nowhere else in the game where you’re as likely to be betrayed, ambushed, tricked or flat out slaughtered, because human players will always be more cunning and deadly than even the best AI. The uncertainty of it all, the elation of success, the camaraderie of rogue alliances and even the admirable organisation of those out to deliberately ruin other people’s days by dominating a server: there’s nothing else quite like it on consoles. There’s not really anything like it elsewhere, either; the Dark Zone walls and extraction system set it apart from PvP servers in MMORPGS, for example.

Is all this to everyone’s taste? No. Is it interesting and worth looking at as we contemplate a new age of blockbuster MMO-lites on consoles? Absolutely. Like it or not, The Division is almost certainly the future.

What did you think of The Division’s open beta? Are you sold?

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