Neither Ubisoft’s Nor Massive’s Finest Hour
A Review of Tom Clancy’s: The Division (Beta)
What is it with the contemporary MMO video game? Why is it that despite looking fairly different, they all feel the same? The only reason for this is that software companies are desperate to recapture the same pattern of profitability from the gold standard of this genre: World of Warcraft. Any commentary from the likes of Massive Entertainment or Ubisoft regarding The Division being something else entirely is inaccurate. Level grinding, color coded weapon rarity, kill-enemies-here quests, instances, repetitive gameplay, lack of (or completely superfluous) story – yes, these are all proven to be rinsed and repeated pillars of gameplay in The Division. The limited access Beta for this game just wrapped up on January 31st of this year and not only was I unimpressed, I was completely deflated by my short time with it.
When this game was revealed at E3 in 2013, I (like countless others) was completely taken by its stunning visuals, promising gameplay, environmental scope and potential for storytelling. I was a super-fan at first glance. I devoured any online articles pertaining to it. I subscribed to several YouTube channels in pursuit of more knowledge of it. I had convinced myself into believing this product would be a true “game-changer” in the industry.
Unfortunately, all of those sweet details soured over time as the more I learned, the less I loved this project. Delay after delay, additional software companies hired to lighten the load, gameplay options being removed, less of NYC to explore, graphical downgrades: all of these developments caused my confidence to plunge. What was most disappointing was the removal of the second screen, tablet integration mechanic to permit a potential 5th member to a squad of 4 agents patrolling Manhattan to join in on the fun. I saw this as an excellent opportunity to play with my fiancé who is all about mobile/tablet gaming and Massive Entertainment took that away from me. Oh well, life is full of disappointments and I proceeded to put money down on a preorder in hopes that access to the Beta would ease my concerns.
It started off fairly well as its visual presentation was certainly not as dynamic as the endless promotional videos I had seen in months past, but it was acceptable given this was just a Beta. Load times were creatively masked by contextually walking through certain corridors in the environment. Sound effects seemed on point. The game helped just enough in getting a novice up to speed on how to navigate the environment without being annoyingly intrusive. I was able to get around all of the PvE content without any squad mates or friends to back me up. And then the Beta’s final mission told me to check out the Dark Zone …
… or as it should be referred to as: the Dick-Head Zone! You see, the Dark Zone is The Division’s area for PvP activity to take place in so if the player gets tired of gunning down countless enemy AI opposition in the game proper, he or she can proceed to Call of Duty human opposition. But there’s a problem. The Dark Zone plays almost exactly like the regular game. You are still exploring the environment. You are still looking for loot. And you are still running into AI opposition that periodically respawn in certain areas. These guys are tougher to take down though, and thus, their drops are a higher quality on average. In order to actually use these rarer drops, you must make your way to extraction points within the Dark Zone to have these items “decontaminated” in what sometimes presents a “micro horde mode” with enemy AI being drawn to the helicopter flare and the player(s) defending that position until the chopper comes. Mind you, everything I just described was fun and an interesting change of pace, not to mention a welcome increase to the challenge this game presented so far.
I mentioned dick-heads, didn’t I? Oh yeah, the Dark Zone is where you’ll find them. On the first day of the Beta, players were still getting used to everything as there seemed to be an understood détente when encountering other agents in the Dark Zone. Everyone appeared to be on board with going about your business, getting to extraction, getting your gear and moving on. Peace would be maintained so long as no one rocked the boat.
Then, the thugs got organized into squads and they hit the streets. Duos, trios and quads of rogue agents found out that numbers advantage was a quick and easy path to progress and profit. Every time I was gunned down while minding my own business, or looking at a menu, or looking at the map I lost a little bit of experience, a little bit of “Dark Zone dollars” and … ALL of the gear I had worked so hard to fight enemy AI for. Even if I went out of my way to conceal myself from everyone, stay away from popular battle grounds and avoid extraction points all together, the wolves would still find me and I would never have a chance in these handicap scenarios. The reason is because this action RPG MMO is an RPG first that defines the winning formula the same way EVERY MMO does: first is the number of human players in a squad, then quality/rarity of gear equipped, then perks/talents, then player level and lastly personal skill.
Unless a level capped character in the Beta was being accosted by two level 4’s that just started the game with introductory gear, handicap confrontations are virtually unwinnable and there is NO drawback to preying on individuals by going rogue as a group of dick-heads. The Division’s flaccid attempt to “punish” jerks is by marking the squad as rogue so that anyone in the near vicinity can see their position through walls, obstructions and floors and the idea is that everyone else should descend upon them like the wrath of God as retribution, right? Wrong.
You see, the dick-heads know that there’s limited numbers of players in the Dark Zone (to be increased when the full game launches) and therefore an exponentially lower chance of grouped opposition that would even make an attempt to go after them. So the cap a few individuals, hunker down in a defensible position and wait for their “rogue” status to time out. The only ones compelled to hunt down the hunters are the people that were murdered by them in the first place and all they’d be doing is walking into another expedient death. The actual “punishment” administered to dick-heads only occurs if they are killed while they are in a “rogue” state where they suffer a greater loss to experience, money and of course whatever gear (not equipped) they were carrying. Again, for any of this to matter, a full communal effort at self-policing is vital and completely unreasonable to rely upon when most individuals want to go into Dark Zones, level up a bit to get better gear and then get the hell out.
I could go on and on about other problems I had with this Beta such as the somewhat clunky movement, wonky camera controls and the fact there are two separate player levels and economies for regular zone and Dark Zone environments respectively. The fact that Dark Zones are so central to progression in this game turns the theoretical catharsis of video game escapism into real world equivalent frustration and that turns me off. I would be completely content by never entering a Dark Zone ever again and Massive and Ubisoft would concur by commenting that the entire game can be traversed without spending one minute on PvP activity. To that I laugh and suggest to both parties not to condescend to me because the fact is superior gear is exclusively found in the Dark Zone and until BOTH Ubisoft and Massive confirm that weapons and gear of equal stats and abilities can be found in both environments, nothing they say can convince me otherwise. Make no mistake. PvP in The Division is as forced a gaming option can be without a company specifically saying it is so and unless you have a group of dedicated players you can run with for mutual protection, the Dark Zone is a Green Mile for lambs led to slaughter.
Thank you Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment. I appreciate your effort, but I have no interest in your product. You’ve somehow made me more interested in getting involved with Destiny.