We Discuss The Division's Contagious Gameplay And Open-World Depth

by Jeff Cork on Mar 13, 2016 at 08:40 AM

This feature was originally published March 9, 2016.

Executive editor Andrew Reiner and I spent much of yesterday playing The Division on our live stream. During that time, we got our bearings on the game's various systems, leveling mechanics, and multiplayer. Today, we've regrouped and are sharing our initial thoughts on the game, now that we've had some time for our opinions to solidify. Read on for our take on the setting, gunplay, and, of course, how it compares to Destiny.

Reiner: One of the questions we saw the most during our day-long live stream of The Division was “How does it compare to Destiny?” On the surface, both games are cooperative shooters at heart with elements from MMOs and open-world RPGs. In the 10-plus hours I’ve invested in The Division, it’s clear that Ubisoft’s development team studied Destiny – aping some of the content that works, and going in different directions for other things. What is your initial take on how the two games stack up?

Jeff: I guess there are some comparisons to be made, but I think you’re overstating things a bit. If anything, The Division feels like a new classic-style entry in the Rainbow Six series (with MMO trappings), which I’ll take in a heartbeat. I see your point about the similarities between The Division and Destiny, but overall I feel like I’m immediately connecting with Ubisoft’s game in ways that Destiny never clicked – no matter how many dozens of hours I spent with it. I should note that I went into The Division fairly lukewarm, too. I didn't play the beta, and I wasn't expecting much more than an adequate third-person shooter. 

Reiner: In terms of the minute-to-minute gunplay, yes, Rainbow Six is a better comparison point. The cover-based combat in The Division is slower paced, relying heavily on team tactics, whereas Destiny is run-and-gun combat at its best. From what I’ve played thus far, Destiny is the better shooter of the two – the combat encounters are intense in both, but the finesse and flow of Destiny is so much more entertaining. That’s not to say I wasn’t sweating bullets during a good number of The Division’s battles, but a good portion of my time was hunkered down behind cover, deploying turrets, and picking away at enemy health with assault rifles. You say you are connecting to The Division more than you did with Destiny; in what ways?

Jeff: The biggest thing for me is the setting. Sci-fi stuff is fine, but none of it felt grounded in any satisfying ways. The tower has about as much life in it as Mass Effect 1’s empty shopping mall of a Citadel, which sucked much of my enthusiasm for the universe whenever I had to fly my loading screen over to home base. In contrast, I’m really digging The Division’s Post Office HQ and how I’m able to make my own mark on it by upgrading it with resources I’ve picked up on missions. Just seeing something simple like a new counseling station pop up and hearing someone talk about how the epidemic has changed their lives is personally more affecting than whatever universe-spanning conflict Bungie has been trying to convey through their game. Maybe I didn’t read enough grimoire cards?

Reiner: New York City is one of the most overused environments for games, but Ubisoft does a nice job of making this interpretation of it feel unique. The world itself is one of my favorite parts of the game so far. While there isn’t much life to it (for obvious reasons), the scale and density feels right. Streets are filled with abandoned vehicles, trash, and enough visual information to put together scenarios of what may have happened when the virus hit. It also succeeds in exploration purposes. I’m having a great time exploring the city. There’s plenty to do, whether it’s the simple act of helping a civilian in need, or tracking down information pertaining to a fallen Division agent. It delivers in the same way great open-world RPGs do. I don’t feel bound to just one narrative path. I feel like I can carve out my time how I want to.

Jeff: There’s a lot to like in The Division, but one aspect of it jumps out; everything seems to feed into the game’s reality in a really nice way (or as nice as a story about a catastrophic smallpox epidemic can be). Like you said, the streets are generally quiet, but that’s because there have been mass casualties and evacuations. There’s an interesting sense of “we’ll make do” that covers it all, from the repurposed Post Office that’s home base to scrounging together your gear to how familiar landmarks have been turned into mass graves. Ubisoft capitalizes on players recognizing those elements and reinforcing the underlying horror of it all. There are still parts that jump out as being gamey – shooting looters moments before breaking into an apartment with a lockpick and stealing energy bars and sodas from a stranger’s apartment is a little strange – but most of it gels together in a nice cohesive piece. Even the Dark Zone, the place where PvP can optionally take place, kind of makes sense in this lawless world. I’m excited to get to the point where hanging out in that area and making it out alive with new gear is a viable option.

Reiner: The collectible aspect has a strong hook to it, and all of the systems that Ubisoft has in place feed directly into improving the playable character – even the base building aspect brings talent and perk rewards – a great carrot to encourage players to take on these secondary missions. The most fun I’ve had with the game so far, however, is through the standard cooperative missions. The story missions are nicely paced, with impressive difficulty scaling for the numbers of players in a party. While most of the combat encounters demand similar strategies, Ubisoft did a great job of making the big conflicts have that set piece “wow” factor. Part of that comes from the environment design. It also comes through in the enemy formations – which can be relentless. The cooperative and matchmaking systems work exceptionally well. I’m impressed how little loading there is at any point during the game, even when calling in new recruits to help out.

Jeff: We ran into a few boneheads during our seven-hour stream yesterday, but for the most part I’ve been impressed at how well the enemy A.I. holds its own. There’s only so much you can do with human enemies – especially when you’re trying to craft a world that’s based on a particular reality – so I acknowledge the criticisms that you’ve made about a lack of enemy variety. I do think there are enough enemy archetypes to keep larger firefights engaging and interesting. During one ill-fated attempt to solo an area clearly designed for co-op play, I threw myself into one particular kill room at least a dozen times. Even though I eventually recruited some strangers to team up – and like you say, it was easy to do – I appreciated just how differently each of my failed attempts played out. That kind of thing is critically important for a game that hangs its helmet on the promise of longevity. 

Reiner: Yes, you are hiding behind cover most of the time, picking away at enemies, and moving only when they rush your location, but plenty of strategy can be deployed at any given time. Ubisoft’s decision to go with no defined classes and freeform character respecialization allows the player to shift strategies whenever they see fit. I was a healer for five levels, but quickly transitioned to a powerful tech agent when a mission demanded more firepower. We’re both still within the first third of the game, but it seems like there’s plenty of game here. From the side missions to the adjustable difficulty for the story missions (which give better loot) it continues to pump out new content, while encouraging replays of previously completed content. 

Jeff: It seems like there’s a good amount of variety, but like you said we’re still only about a third of the way to level cap. I’ve done a fair amount of exploring on my own, and while the campaign missions that are focused on big landmarks and events are clearly the big-ticket rides, the run-of-the-mill encounters are still entertaining. I was pleasantly surprised to find that mopping up a few missions that were well below my level cap yielded loot that was worth grabbing. And the collectables provide insight into what happened during the outbreak – either through video briefings, voicemails from ordinary citizens, or funky-looking visual reconstructions of dramatic moments from the street level. I want to see more, and I feel like I’m getting more absorbed in the fiction the more I play it. I’ll admit that I’m biased toward apocalyptic fiction, and The Division is delivering on that front.

Reiner: While it’s no secret what happened to the world, the slow drip of information pertaining to who may have spread the virus is interesting enough that I want to see it through to the end. And that’s just the fiction, which takes a backseat to the gameplay, leveling, and exploration. Unless things change, this isn’t a game you should ever go into thinking story first. You briefly touched on the Dark Zone, a section of the city where Division agents can go rogue and turn on their own to secure rarer loot. To go back to the Destiny comparison, The Division doesn’t offer standard PvP gameplay. Is that something you’d like to see, or do you think Ubisoft should stick to its guns of having all PvP elements unfold organically in the Dark Zone?

Jeff: Once again, I like how the PvP folds into an in-universe explanation. People aren’t battling over flags or to grind up rep with a particular faction; they’re looting supplies that will benefit them in the PvE content and optionally engaging with other players. I like that a lot more than hopping into a dedicated lobby and waiting for a timer to count down. I’m not a person who sheds tears over their immersion being broken, but I do appreciate it when attempts are at least made to have things like multiplayer fit into a narrative context. So yeah, I think Ubisoft should stick to its guns so to speak. There’s a clear delineation between the Dark Zone and regular New York, so you know what you’re getting into when you cross that threshold.

Reiner: We did run into a slight problem in our live stream where a group of four players were camping the Dark Zone entrance, but I agree, I like the idea of melding the modes to narrative. It gives the game a unique foot to stand on, and from what I’ve seen of all of The Division thus far, almost all of it is entertaining for different reasons. I’m in for the long run on this game. I legitimately want to see what the end game is, and I feel like the upgrades and new weapons I’m unlocking matter.

Jeff: I don’t think I’m going to find a magic solution for the outbreak or fix everything that’s gone wrong in the game’s world, but I’ll die trying, darn it! It’s easy for me to lose interest in games with a multiplayer focus, but at this point it seems as though there’s enough PvE stuff to keep me busy for those times when I’m not interested in grouping up with anyone. My goal? Hit level 30, and take it from there.