The Division has had a troubled road to release. Not only is it a victim of the feared and much-debated Ubisoft tendency of revealing visually ambitious trailers, and then slowly but surely turning down the dials on the finished product (or perhaps showing actual working code and not visuals they're aiming for). The Division also suffers from being a new player on the field, one that's desperately trying to carve out its own space in the already dense gaming landscape. That's why this huge beta test wasn't just necessary in terms of stress testing the server architecture, it was also necessary because players needs to experience The Division before they can understand what the game is trying to achieve. How can this be an RPG? Why does each enemy require so many hits? How does the interaction with other players work? The questions are many, and the majority of those needed to be answered via the short beta period. Luckily we have many of the answers, and a lot of impressions to boot.
The very first thing you're being reminded of when you open The Division beta is that this is an RPG. This means that even though the game might look like your traditional cover-based third-person shooter, The Division is more The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt than Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Beneath the deceiving exterior beats a true RPG heart, and that means that this game is about numbers, and numbers only. If your gear is somehow ineffectively set up, you'll walk home empty handed, and that goes for both the Dark Zone, or anywhere else in the game. In The Division, your experience resembles what you might find in World of Warcraft. You pick a class that has some abilities, these abilities can be upgraded, adapted and arranged, and then you collect and upgrade your gear; that's how your character becomes effective and an extension of your own playstyle.
Adaptation and efficiency is expressed via the aforementioned numbers, which hover gently over your enemies' heads. It's a value that represents a calculation based on your weapon, your level, your abilities and where you've hit your target. It's simple, strategic mathematics, and that's the hardest thing to get used to in The Division. You shoot like in any classic shooter, but the feedback you receive from your actions is entirely different. This led to a couple of comments on our livestreams, referring to enemies as bullet sponges. It does take some time getting used to, but once the concept is clear, and the design philosophy reveals itself to the player, it's an addictive and well thought out experience.
This doesn't necessarily mean that The Division is a complete game changer, but it does innovate enough and bypass common expectations regarding certain gameplay elements, so much so that it feels refreshing to play. It feels new, or at least like a new combination of already established ideas.
One of the single largest misinterpretations regarding The Division is that for all intents and purposes it's an MMO. And by MMO, we mean an experience which is dictated by thousands upon thousands of players running around in New York at the same time as you. The Division's New York is actually entirely your own, and you are alone within it. You complete missions, gather collectibles and save civilians as a single player game. The game world is entirely dedicated to you, except for a small number of enclosed areas, where other players can gather and network, just as The Tower in Destiny. Thus the game's single-player content is completely isolated from the multiplayer component.
If, however, you wish to invite your friends into your game and complete the single-player content together, then the choice is yours. Nothing is forced upon you, and the values are always dynamic. Everything is single-player, but can with the press of a button become multiplayer. When you're in the mood to invite friends into your game, the game's class system and RPG layout offers perfect cooperative strategy, but should you want to be isolated and immersed by the game, there's voice acting, awesome music, cutscenes and tons of strategic gameplay options, all perfectly suited for completing content single-handedly. There's a diversity here, and the choice is never yanked away from the player.
All this of course has an exception: The Dark Zone. This is where a high percentage of your time is going to be spent. Here, players run amok, and everyone can fire at you at any time, albeit at the risk of being exposed as a rogue. You're constantly under pressure, and mistrust runs deep in this part of town. The moment you collect a cool piece of gear, you're imminently aware that anyone could take it away from you at any time. It's incredibly intense.
But then again, you choose whether or not you want to enter The Dark Zone. The choice once again rests with the player, and when you're in there, you can treat it like a single-player experience, as there is no need to bring friends of your own.
The Division feels gigantic, but it might not be as huge as many of you think it is. The beta offered what appeared to be one quarter of the combined map, and contained only a fraction of the quests, events and opportunities the final game will include. But, instead of dealing in hours and minutes, let's take a look at the many activities which should keep you busy in The Division.
You have a huge base, called the base of operations, which constantly needs to be tended to, upgraded and adapted. There are three central values - tech, medical and security, and by completing certain quests, you'll receive more resources for that specific part of the base. In addition you have a bunch of different quests, and these task you with saving civilians, secure important research, put together radio transmissions, killing gang leaders, and anything in between. While you complete these objectives, you'll gather collectibles and crafting materials.
Most importantly, however, is the game's central campaign, which consists of large-scale missions, that can be completed alone or with friends, and these can also be replayed on various difficulties, that is if you wish to receive greater rewards. All these activities will help raise your level, and when you get to a certain rank, there should be dungeons in place to offer you and your crew better gear. All of this culminates in the Dark Zone.
It wouldn't surprise us if The Division had 70-80 hours of solid content, but whether that theory holds up, we'll have to wait and see in the final version. The point is that the connections between the various strands of content appear to be strong, and they're all tied to that central RPG premise, which is to upgrade your gear, and ultimately become more efficient in combat. It's a hook which we already know works from our time spent playing other RPGs.
The Division is, in many ways, a thought provoking project. The game isn't without its flaws, but most of these are quite trivial, such as having to run a long way between various assignments, and civilian NPCs not behaving naturally, but all in all, Massive has been wise to focus on dynamic gameplay and content, and let the players make the choice on how to experience the game. Every type of player can get something out of The Division (assuming you like to shoot at things), and the experience seems robust. Do you want it to be social, then it can be. If you want it to be immersive, it can be that too. Are you more competitive, then that's fine. Do you never want to see another player, well, you almost don't have to.
Whether the game holds up over a longer stretch of time is difficult to say. The amount of different gear seems to be diverse and large enough to keep us looking out for cool new items. It has a similar gameplay loop as Destiny. Opinion here at the office is still split on that game, but we can all agree that if The Division succeeds with its aims, Bungie's shooter is going to have a genuine rival. If Ubisoft can improve on the amount of player choice and the way that it's implemented, it may even have Destiny beat.
As it stands the closed beta left us incredibly impressed, and we're looking forward to seeing more.