Monday, March 14, 2016

Is Tom Clancy's The Division Worth Buying?

30 minutes into Tom Clancy's The Division I requested a Steam refund - the first time I've ever availed myself of this service. The game hanged at a black screen the first two times I tried to boot it and when I finally started to play the servers went down within 15. I wasn't about to support an unplayable AAA title at launch and felt justified in asking for my money back. A few hours later, my refund still hadn't been processed and I figured I would give The Division one more go with the hour and a half I had left to play before Steam would reject my refund. While I still had some lingering concerns. after this extra time, I felt compelled to keep playing and ultimately cancelled my refund. Now, with over 20 hours invested, I'm about half way through the main content and ready to dispense my insights on whether or not I regret my purchase.

At its essence, The Division is a genre blend of cover-shooters and MMORPGs set in a near future post-pandemic New York. It compares closely with Destiny set in a prototypical Tom Clancy quagmire. Analysed solely on the merits of its component genres, The Division isn't noteworthy. As a cover-shooter, weak artificial intelligence and repetitive map design creates for predictable moment to moment gameplay. The underlying shooting, while competent, rarely lends itself to white knuckled intensity leaving you gripping your controller and holding your breath. Further, weapons are limited to the usual fare of pistols, rifles, and shotguns that we've seen rehashed countless times; sadly, laser-phasers aren't available in this near future. As an MMORPG, rudimentary character customization, skills, and talent trees result in most player characters feeling like carbon copies of each other with little room for personal expression. Further, quest design is simplistic with riffs on attack, defend, and explore summing the experience. However, The Division isn't about experiencing its components in isolation, but rather how the pieces synergize into an overall product that, for the most part, is pretty fun.

I say pretty fun because The Division does have its points where I feel it could do much better. New York is lovingly rendered to scale but feels bland. Aside from a few major landmarks like Times Square, every street feels overly familiar with abandoned cars strewn about and a collection of nondescript characters bemoaning their situation. Running between mission points gets tedious after a couple of hours once the initial shock of the 'city in waste' landscape wears off. I understand that the game is promoting a realistic environment (and is restricted to Manhattan) but it made me appreciate just how well Grand Theft Auto 4 did with making each area of Liberty City feel distinct. Each zone also has optional collectibles (don't all open world games?) which should encourage you to discover something interesting off the beaten track but too often result in heading down a random alley, subway, or sewer that evokes deja-vu over a sense of exploration. I can imagine solo players giving up pretty quickly especially when considering that you're restricted to a limited two skill loadout at any time (one of which almost has to be pulse). Random encounters with less than savoury characters don't pose a challenge and follow a set pattern: scan the area with pulse to highlight all the baddies, find and take good cover, take pot shots out of cover while occasionally using your other skill (usually the automated turret) until the baddies are dead. Again, this gets tedious.

To this point my impressions of The Division have been mostly negative - a bit buggy to start with, not stellar mechanically, solo gameplay that wears thin after a couple of hours - I stick by theses points and would suggest that The Division is immensely more entertaining when playing with a group. The main story missions can be queued unobtrusively through a simple matchmaking overlay that has never failed to find me a group within 30 seconds. The story missions feature the best set pieces including shootouts across all the classic venues - shopping malls, construction sites, sports arenas - each capped by a boss fight. These missions are designed with groups in mind and feature plenty of great flanking opportunities with ramped up enemies. Success as a team requires every role to be fulfilled. Tanks excel at suppressing enemies and drawing fire for easy group flanking, damagers need to pick off the priority targets by exploiting these flanks, and healers need to position themselves to avoid taking direct fire while still being able to reach their comrades. It's the typical MMORPG trinity but it works extremely well as a cover-shooter and ensures that every role is active. When a group coalesces during a tense boss fight and you end up getting a huge upgrade to your favourite weapon the games' appeal and reward loop is immediately apparent and makes you forget all that collectible hunting you did in drab alleys.

The other huge draw for The Division is its take on PvP play with the Dark Zone. In these areas players can group to take down particularly strong enemies that drop better than average loot. The twist is, that in order to actually collect the loot, you must wait in a designated area for two minutes for a supply chopper pick up. During this time you basically announce your location to the entire zone and that you have loot - you become a sitting duck. Waiting for a chopper is nerve racking especially when you spot a fellow player waiting for their pick up. The inner turmoil of wondering if everyone is going play nice and each take their share or if a last second firefight will erupt is genuine. While killing another player (going rogue) offers a potential quick pay day, it also adds a time limited bounty that any other player in the zone can cash in on by killing you without flagging themselves in turn for such a bounty. The risk/reward mechanics of the Dark Zone are nuanced and successfully attaching a cache of top tier loot to a chopper is a thrilling experience. While not a concern yet at my lowly levels, I can see the capped experience evolving where some very well geared players camp at pick up points and essentially become bosses in and of themselves.

In all, I'm satisfied with my purchase of The Division. It's probably won't appeal to everyone, and I personally found it scratching my MMORPG itch over cover-shooting, but it is especially worth a look if you have a few friends to play with. Solo players will probably want to wait until the title is on sale unless they really love the 'collect 'em all' approach to open world games. I haven't hit the end game content yet but am looking forward to my journey there - especially my planned forays into the Dark Zone.