The promise of Ubisoft Massive's hybrid shooter RPG is finally coming together.
"The Division hasn't shied away from complexity and that's something to be applauded. It's a real RPG and a real shooter in one."
After another session in the open beta for The Division, Ubisoft Massive's vision of what an open-world shooter RPG can be has become a lot clearer. It's turning into one of the most unique games of this generation.
That description of an RPG-shooter-MMO third-person action game is clumsy as hell because we're not used to it. We know all the different elements well, but no other game is bringing them together so well, so successfully.
It's foundations are very traditional. It's a shooter and an RPG. Other games are trying to blend the two together, but none with such consideration for both elements. Even the current leader of hybrid genres, Destiny, is a shooter first, with smaller RPG elements tacked on. You get a character class and you can develop your Guardian to a certain degree, but once you start reaching those higher levels you are, by default, using a lot of the same gear and guns as your peers.
Massive has always said The Division is a classless game, where the player builds their own loadout and takes on whatever role they want. That sounds like an excellent soundbite, but after spending more time in the open beta it genuinely makes sense.
You can essentially play as a rogue, with skills, weapons and perks all geared towards distance attacks and self-defense. But within a couple of minutes, if you have the gear and mods unlocked, you can build yourself a tank, stripping mods from weapons and rebuilding a different gun, completely changing your play style.
Even the low level green gear allows you to do this. Inspect the scopes and grips you find throughout the map and you'll see all sorts of sweet buffs. A little extra XP for headshots goes a long way. Once the turret perk is unlocked you have an auto-gun laying down fire for your heavy build. Equip a shotgun and LMG with better hip fire mods, the shield perk with a magnum, and you're a tank. If you're quick enough you can do this in the middle of a mission or firefight in the Dark Zone.
There's initially an overwhelming amount of weapons and mods, and mods you can apply to your skills, and customisation and further tweaks. This is not an RPG-lite. There's incentives here - to get the blue gun, the upgraded holster, the quick reload ammo clip - to buff your character a few percent. Take those changes into a confrontation and you can feel the difference in the gunplay. You now have an upper hand. Just.
You can feel it in the more populated PvE map of New York, upgraded from the closed beta to include more side missions and encounters. There are more AI enemies too, and they're tougher. But the real difference is in the Dark Zone, The Division's PvP world.
"It finally makes more sense that there are multiple ways to play the Dark Zone. There's a cycle to it - chasing down enemies, taking loot, extracting, earning coins for better gear and repeating."
It finally makes more sense that there are multiple ways to play the Dark Zone. There's a cycle to it - chasing down enemies, taking loot, extracting, earning coins for better gear and repeating. Extraction points are no longer just a killzone of campers; agents have their own goals and there's an uneasy, unspoken truce as yellow bags of loot are choppered out to your base. If you see red skulls moving towards you on the minimap, it's time to brace for a firefight with thieves. Or you can run.
You can hunt down tougher AI (try the group in the department store for a challenge) and extract, or you can hunt down rogue agents for coins. High level rogue agents attract a lot of hunters trying to claim the prize, and that impromptu team-up is infectious. Swamp the rogues and win by sheer numbers if necessary. And then everyone tries to cautiously back off, fingers itching on the trigger just in case. Go rogue yourselves when you see a weaker group, risk it, wait out the timer to end and take the rewards. If you go in solo know you're a prime target. But teaming up with strangers is easy and to everyone's advantage. The Dark Zone makes a lot more sense now.
There are some issues that pull in the wrong direction. The inventory is still big and a little bewildering. Being able to scrap multiple items helps, but there's still a lot of fiddling. Maybe that's the nature of the RPG and it can't be avoided, only streamlined. Armour doesn't seem to give much defence, either - certainly not as much as using cover and caution. Navigating and the waypoint system can feel like a trudge as you slog it across New York, even with a quick travel option.
But that's nit-picking. The Division hasn't shied away from complexity and that's something to be applauded. It's a real RPG and a real shooter in one. It's been said before, but if The Division is anything to go by, the future of shooters really is role-playing games.
The Division is out March 8 on Xbox One, PC and PS4.
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