A critical analysis of The Division's beta test (Xbox One)
The Division's beta test is well and truly under way, with less than a day left to experience the game before it is released in March. This is a time to enjoy the restricted content being offered while critiquing it and providing feedback to Ubisoft about possible tweaks or changes.
I logged about 16 hours of beta play time on the Xbox One. In that time I completed every available mission, side mission and encounter whilst also spending a large amount of time in the Dark Zone -- both alone and with my best bud M00key93. I feel that this allowed me to acquire a pretty well rounded opinion on what The Division does well, and what is does not.
DISCLAIMER: This is obviously by no means a review. You clearly cannot produce an accurate review on a game that has not even been released. It is simply an analysis of what is good and what could or should be improved.
What The Division does well
First and foremost, the gameplay is pretty solid. The Division is a tactical, cover-based, 3rd person shooter and they certainly didn't try to reinvent the wheel in that regard. You press A to enter and leave cover (or double tap to roll), press B to vault, and can press RT to blind fire or LT to aim and shoot. The Division doesn't do anything revolutionary but has implemented this system into the game quite well. Movement on the whole feels responsive and isn't particularly clunky. That said, there were quite frustrating moments when I wasn't allowed to jump down a very small drop (as you can see in this video). For the most part, though, movement worked fine.
The HUD is excellent and allows you to keep track of multiple features at once; health, ammo count, ability recharge time, medkits, and grenades; as well as your current level, objectives, waypoints, mini-map and team members. It does all this in the corners of your screen and a small orange rectangle which barely gets in the way of your field of view. The menus are straightforward, and the inventory screen is simple and easy to use. From here you can change your weapons loadout, 'armor' and appearance (i.e. clothes) with ease.
I thought that weapons customization was good, allowing you to buff your guns with grips, suppressors, magazines and scopes. You can also color your weapons with skins, I loved my pink M44 Carbine for instance! Again this is nothing we haven't seen before, but it's nice to have the option to do it at all.
I could definitely feel the tense atmosphere the devs were trying to create in this game. The first time I ran into a group of bandits was exciting and memorable. I took cover behind a car, sneaked into a closer position, equipped my sub-machine gun and opened fire -- dropping one before they knew what hit them. It was a cool experience and was made even better in co-op. When M00key and I decided to enter the Dark Zone, we felt the tension even more when we realised other players were now a threat.
My friend and I had a lot more fun when playing together. That's not to say that the game is boring solo, but tactical gameplay is far more rewarding when you co-ordinate an ambush with your buddy. This is most evident when trying to take down high level NPC enemies or player controlled agents in the Dark Zone. You can also create cool moments like the one in the video below -- where we decided to just walk down the street, taking in the post-apocalyptic view.
I also have to mention that the lighting in The Division, although downgraded (which I'll come to in a minute), looks absolutely fantastic at times. When the sun moves in front of you, shining down the street, reflecting off the windows and snow, the world seems slightly less doomed.
One of the nicer sights we experienced in the beta
What needs work?
Unfortunately there does seem to be a lot that is quite disappointing, particularly after all the hype from the impressive marketing campaign.
First, let's talk graphics. Oh boy, is the downgrade noticeable. Micro details are okay, even good at times but the macro details are so...well just average. Look at this next image. The building in the distance looks like it belongs in a PlayStation 2 or Original Xbox game; not on current gen consoles.
It really is Watch Dogs all over again. The Division looked unreal in all the trailers, but gone are all the incredible graphical features that made it stand out among the rest. Gone are dynamic material shaders, i.e. real time reflections, and dynamic illumination has been severely diminished. Sure if you're not looking too closely then the game looks just fine, but that's just the problem... We don't want "fine." We want what we were promised. We want outstanding.
Moving on... If you bear in mind that this game has been in development for a number of years, Ubisoft electing to completely leave out the option to crouch seems questionable. I don't care that the cover system reduces the need for crouching. In this day and age, this simple control should be a necessity not an option. To this end, they could easily assign crouch to a tap of the B button; which currently serves no other function than to vault cover when near it. This would make free sneaking easier, particularly in the Dark Zone when ambushing other agents and rogue players.
In a game with an MMO-'esque' loot system the devs also decided to not have a trading system between players -- at least for now. Anyone remember Destiny? Remember when you decrypted that piece of armour but couldn't use it because it was for a Titan and you were a Warlock. Well it's the same principle here. If I have a weapon I don’t want or a mod that is incompatible with my currently equipped guns, I can’t give them to my buddy or trade with a random guy who can make use of them. I just have to sell them instead, which is far less interesting than potentially bartering with a stranger over what you think is a fair trade.
They say they omitted this to focus on 'more important' parts of the game. I say that's a poor excuse to leave out such a crucial feature -- especially since the game has been under development for so long.
The last major thing I want to talk about are the Dark Zones, the PvP areas. Although we had fun for the most part, we couldn't help but notice there is a severe lack of content to be found there. All you do is try to extract contaminated items via helicopter by looting containers or killing NPC enemies and other players. That's about it. Fighting other players will cause you and your team to go rogue, painting a target on your back for everyone else to see so they gang up to murder you. There's no objective, there's no real drive (apart from getting the best loot). It simply devolves into a group of players camping the extraction zones, killing smaller groups or solo players over and over again as they try to load their loot onto the helicopter.
Hopefully there will be some sort of community encounters where players team up to take down large groups of high level enemies to receive shared loot. This would provide purpose to what is currently a far too chaotic experience and would allow solo players to join others and not get destroyed by rogue teams. Chaos is great at raising the tension but becomes boring quite quickly. The fact the best equipment can be found in the Dark Zones is pretty much the only reason people will spend much time there.
Dark Zone shenanigans with a whole host of bored players
Finally I will quickly list a few other things that I sadly just did not like:
- Pretty limited interaction with the world in general - only a few buildings can be entered, but this should hopefully be better when the whole map is accessed.
- AI can behave strangely and sometimes basically just stand there and allow you to kill them.
- Bug where I can't loot any of the containers in the Dark Zone (experienced by many others).
- You can't kill civilians?! They don't even react when you shoot them. Not that I want to become a serial killer but what the f*ck Ubisoft?
Why is there no way to kill civilians? Seriously Ubisoft?! Seriously??
From my experience, I feel that The Division is going to be a fun game come release. Just don't expect it to be the blockbuster we were expecting. There are plenty of problems that will most likely not be fixed come launch day. That being said there is very little content that has been made available for us to test during the beta, so it will be great to have an entire world to progress into. Leveling up and acquiring new and better loot was highly addictive and I desperately wanted to travel into the higher level areas that are currently inaccessible during the beta. Playing with a co-op partner makes for a much more enjoyable experience and it will be awesome to share some memorable experiences together come March 8th.
What I am hoping for now is that Ubisoft are able to fix the issues I, and many others, have experienced and reported. After release, hopefully the story holds up well and the world proves to be as immersive as promised. If not, this game will become another Watch Dogs i.e. cool concept but totally underwhelming. Having said that, I can't wait to play the full game and explore the rest of decimated New York City!
Let me know about your experience with the beta in the comments below!