Hands On: Tom Clancy’s The Division Beta

It kind of feels like Tom Clancy’s The Division has been coming down the pipe for a long time now. We’ve seen it at no less than three E3’s, I’ve seen it demo’d live at EB Expo, two PAX AUS conventions and in numerous trailers online. Despite all of this, I still didn’t really know what The Division was about or even what kind of game it was. What’s kind of funny is that twenty minutes of last weekend’s beta answered all of my questions.

The early part of the beta has you create an ID and pick your avatar from a handful of randomised male and female characters. There was an incredibly broad spectrum of races which was great to see – indeed it took me a full eight presses of the randomiser button before the game dug up a white person for my appraisal. It’s great to see so much diversity off the bat and it seems that will be expanded upon in the full release with a sculpt editor for changing up features even further.

A ten-to-fifteen minute tutorial then plays out with your character arriving in the shell of New York City by helicopter and making their way to a base of operations in the former US Post Office building on 8th Avenue, right across from Madison Square Garden. The city is a ruin following a massive viral outbreak some years before and the survivors now fight and kill for every inch of the city and its remaining supplies. After seeing the fledgling operation to restore order going on inside the Post Office, you are tasked with heading into Madison Square Garden to retrieve a medic. Once inside Madison Square Garden you see that it was, at some point, converted into a hospital to care for the sick and the dying.

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This is where you get your first taste of The Division’s core game loop. Comparisons to Destiny made by games journos who got to play the game a few weeks ago were not inaccurate. Like Destiny, The Division is a large-scale multiplayer shooter with certain RPG elements which meant I knew right away that The Division was for me. You shoot a guy, loot falls out of him, you take his loot and you use to it to upgrade your characters weapons and armour for better survivability. To survive was my main concern in every firefight I got into in the PvE areas. In the early stages, enemies are better equipped than you and they’re pretty decent shots too. While I only died once or twice, it was because I went all Leeroy Jenkins or was ambushed by some sneakily-placed enemy spawns.

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Upgrading your weapons is fairly straightforward and you’re introduced to it right away. Every weapon has its own base stats on which you can improve. Rifles and machine guns, for instance, can be upgraded with scopes, muzzles, suppressors, grips and expanded clips. Tweaking your weapons allows you to maximise your reload times and accuracy to better get the jump on your foes. And make no mistake, getting the jump needs to be foremost in your mind, especially once you leave the PvE areas and venture into the PVP Dark Zone.

The Dark Zone is basically nightmare fuel. It’s an area of New York that is completely unclaimed. It’s full of dangerous enemies but it’s also filled with high level loot. Your risk-reward analysis must always pass through the filter of “how badly screwed am I going to get if I try to get this gear?” Becoming part of a group is one way to ensure survival – those travelling in packs are less likely to attack the attention of any solo cowboys looking to dunk on stragglers or newcomers – but grouping with anyone but your most trusted friends presents dangers of its own. In the Dark Zone, friendly fire is well and truly off. If you pick up some incredible gear and one of your squaddies wants it, they can and will murder you then and there to get it. This is why I say you need to only group with friends who appreciate the delicate co-op balance of gear distribution. Taking that one troll mate could mean the difference between all of you getting amazing drops and a sudden-backstab TPK for the lols.

Visually, The Division (at least in this unfinished beta version) is kind of what we were all expecting. It sits somewhere between Watch Dogs’ serviceable visuals and the exceedingly pretty looks Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Character models are nice and expressive, clothing looks good and it’s nice to see upgrades and changes physically appear on the models.

Certainly, The Division benefits from the Assassin’s Creed team’s experience in building flawless digital replicas of real-world cities because New York itself is rather perfectly scaled. It was when I was running around the PvE map to get a sense of distance that I found The Division felt most like an MMO. It takes a while to get around and sometimes there’s nothing to really do while you’re on the way. It felt like there weren’t quite enough enemies in the PvE part of town just yet but being in a squad and being able to chat amongst yourselves on the way would go a long way to alleviating this (again, just like an MMO).

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I want to highlight the weather effects as well. It’s winter in New York at the time of the beta so snow is everywhere and the streets are being blasted by freezing winds, rain and sleet. The changing weather had a pronounced effect on the way I had to play the game and it’s been awhile since I’ve seen weather in a game that actually carried weight like this. I’d be in the middle of a firefight with a squad of good further down the street and suddenly a white cloud of fog would begin barrelling up behind them. Before any of us could change positions, it would envelop us and visibility would drop from clear to next-to-nothing and the war would go from being a battle of distance to a battle of stealth and ambush.

I had a great time with this beta and based on this, I can see myself spending quite a bit of time with The Division on release. If Ubisoft can find a way to maintain their player base post-launch and not erode it quickly with too much DLC splintering, The Division could have a long and successful life as a viable alternative to Bungie’s seemingly unstoppable MMO shooter.