By Keza MacDonald and Julian Benson
On the fence about The Division? These are our observations from a couple of days of play.
Julian and I spent most of yesterday playing The Division in a little mini-squad of two, working through the early game, getting to grips with its systems and quirks. If you’re just starting out, these beginner tips will hopefully make things easier – but if you’re wondering whether The Division is for you, you might find this run-down of what we’re loving and not loving about the game more helpful.
What We Like
Keza: OK, first up, let’s not pretend that ‘disaster-stricken, vaguely post-apocalyptic American city’ is exactly a novel setting, but The Division does it well. It feels and looks just like the real New York, except you’re running around it with a gun. It reminds me a lot of The Last of Us. This feeds into something that I like about The Division that's lacking in a lot of other online persistent games: it feels like a place, rather than a series of stages for fire-fights. I kind of hate the Destiny comparison that people keep throwing around – they're very different games and it's not really a helpful comparison – but one key difference between The Division and Destiny is that Destiny's places feel so empty when they're not full of aliens to shoot.
Julian: A lot of the missions I took part in yesterday were encounters I wandered into while exploring the city streets. It feels like a proper open world, as opposed to Destiny which can feel like a string of well-walked corridors.
Keza: I feel like that game still relies predominantly on how amazing the gunplay feels, but with The Division there has been so much effort put into scene-setting, environmental storytelling and the other things that make a game's setting feel complete. Anyway, I’m doing that thing I hate, which is comparing it to Destiny.
Julian: The environmental storytelling is done really well. I came across an apartment where you can see how someone has taken in a lot of outsiders: there were sleeping bags everywhere and food cartons; then in the bathroom there were bloodstains, suggesting there had been some sort of fight between the occupants. There’s a lot of detail around the place - like those “echoes”, where suddenly you get a snapshot of a moment in time when the epidemic was kicking off, and you can see and hear what happened just a few weeks ago. There are those CCTV tapes you find, that show looters attacking places or beating people down. It makes you feel connected to the city.
Keza: That's another thing I really like about The Division, in that you can actually go into buildings and look about and usually find something there. There's a point to exploring. You can get lost, and enjoy being lost. You're always coming across things that give you a small glimpse of what went down when the outbreak hit. I find it kind of spookily believable, the city being full of elite sleeper operatives notwithstanding.
Julian: There were a couple of times yesterday where I left you in the middle of a firefight to go and take screenshots. Not for an article, just because there are times when The Division just looks spectacular.
Keza: Can’t help but agree. The weather, the day-night cycle... when you're crawling through the streets and a blizzard comes in, and suddenly you can't see two feet in front of you… it’s extremely good-looking. And that technique they use that creates contrast between indoor and outdoor environments is very cool, too.
Julian: There was a point, for instance, when we were working down a narrow trench of cars and a blizzard was blowing in. There was a bus laying across the road engulfed in flames and the fire was lighting the cloud of snow. It was really impressive. I've played that mission three or four times now and then elements haven't aligned like that in any of the other plays.
Keza: The most important thing about the weather and the day-night cycle for me is how it actually feeds into how you play. It necessitates different tactics. The Division is genuinely a tactical game, designed to be played in a squad, with tight communication. I really appreciate that.
Keza: There's also that omnipresent sense of danger, because you never know when a couple of looters might turn out to be scouts for a big group of the bastards. I've been caught by surprise a couple of times and ended up dead.
Julian: The thing we kept forgetting was to think vertically. While there's a lot of doors on the ground floor you can enter, a lot of places could be accessed by climbing onto the roof of a truck and jumping to a fire escape, and then climbing into a building through a window.
Keza: Absolutely. That's a large part of why the gun-play actually feels tactical and intelligent. You can plan properly: one of you down on the ground drawing fire, one of you on a rooftop... You can't just wander in there and jump six feet into the air while shooting lightning from your hands. (I’m doing it again, aren’t I.)
Julian: The skills play into that, too. Early on I picked up a skill that lets me fire a sticky bomb. It's best used to open a fight when the enemies are still clustered together. So we'd spot our targets and I'd find a spot from which to fire the bomb. Then, when I unlocked the sentry turret skill it made sense to set that up on a wall where it could suppress enemies for us to flank.
Keza: I do prefer a tactical shooter to your guns-and-superpowers shooter, generally; this is why I was interested in playing The Division in the first place. One thing, though, I'm not sure the enemies are quite smart enough. More difficult means more enemies in this game, rather than smarter enemies. Although, that said, they are FAR smarter than usual modern FPS enemies, especially the boss-type ones. Remember that guy who holed himself up at the back of the level with a gun-turret while the flamethrower guys flanked us? YIKES.
Julian: And when you start coming across snipers. You sort of forget they're there and then they take off most your health.
Keza: There have been some really good missions! It's good that you can replay them at any time, too. Doing so has shown me that The Division's systems often converge differently. Missions don't play out exactly the same every time, even if sometimes the main change is just the weather.
What We Don’t Like
The Map and UI
Keza: Right, so. The fucking map.
Julian: Your favourite thing.
Keza: OK the map is the worst map I have ever seen in a video game. It's so bad and unclear and forested with incomprehensible icons. It's this kind of Watch Dogs-like mesh map of New York but it doesn't actually show you useful things like, you know, streets and buildings. It looks cool, but it’s worse than useless: it’s actively obstructive. I get the impression that a lot of effort was put into it and nobody could bear to ditch it. The pathfinding is pretty sub-optimal too; the GPS is weird and confusing.
Julian: It took a long time to orientate yourself, too. Even finding your base of operations, which is a massive great gold icon on the map, can take a little while to find. Using the minimap to navigate is basically a nightmare.
Keza: God, yes, the icons on the map are terrible. Actually all the icons in the whole game are terrible; I was in the equipment menu yesterday asking you "have you figured out what these symbols mean?" You asked which ones, and I was like, “Uh… a road heading off into the distance, and empty battery, and the illuminati triangle?”
Julian: Yeah, there was one tutorial screen that flashed up when we got to level five that explained what they were, but you immediately forget it because the symbols don't connect up to what they represent.
Keza: All of the visual language in The Division is almost hilariously bad, to be honest. The UI is all floating text and meaningless numbers and coloured lines. And it's exacerbated by the fact that this is a military shooter, and therefore absolutely packed with jargon: "Aid the JTF with supply extraction", and so on. The military jargon is something I can deal with, even if only because I like pretending to be a soldier and talking about hostiles and sit-reps on the headset, but the total lack of clarity in the numbers and symbols that determine important things like skills and weapon stats is less forgivable.
Keza: I'm thinking that maybe I'll just end up playing the loot game like an illiterate person, i.e., I’ll stop bothering to try to understand what all the numbers meant and just go for the highest one.
Julian: Yeah, trying to work out what was the best gun is far too difficult. I'm spending too long trying to compare a double-barrelled shotgun to a light machine gun.
Keza: Even working out whether something is single-shot or burst fire took me a while, in the menus. Much easier if you just equip it and try it out. The primary stat that it shows prominently is damage per second, but obviously the guns with the highest DPS (see, already with the jargon) are sub-machine guns and the like. Rifles are more powerful, but that doesn't show up clearly in the stats. I really want the game to organise my loot by type of weapon, rather than just "primary" (everything from SMGs to SCAR rifles) and "secondary" (handguns).
Abilities, Skills, Perks, Talents…
Julian: The way that character customisation works is legitimately indecipherable right now.
Keza: There are just too many different things going on with character development. You have Abilities, which are skills, talents and perks; gear stats and skills, which I don't understand at all; plus weapon stats and skills that unlock based on OTHER stats. Even after spending a couple of hours yesterday breaking this stuff down for our beginner tips guide, I don't feel like I fully understand it.
Julian: Yeah, there are parts of my skill tree I'm just ignoring at the moment until I understand other bits. For instance, perks: they unlock as you expand your base of operations, but you only have a couple of slots to choose which ones you want to use and some of them are really granular. Like, there's one that activates a buff to your armour every time you move between cover. They all seem a bit bitty and unimportant. I also don't think levelling feels particularly substantial. There were lots of times where I'd level up without noticing and my new level didn't really expand what I could do.
The Cover System
Julian: The cover system really did have us both screaming into our headsets. It’s one of those games where you can take cover behind anything, but that comes with a LOT of problems.
Keza: I think the main issue with it is that the buttons do not do what you expect them to do.
Whenever I stopped thinking about it – ie, when I was reacting in a firefight – I pressed X to vault rather than O to go into cover and ended up leaping over barriers straight into oncoming fire. There are two options in the menu screen that do help: you can set it so that you have to physically press X to get out of cover or go around a corner on cover. That way you don't end up exposed because of an erroneous nudge of the analogue stick. But the game is SO cover-dependent that it feels infuriating when the cover system isn't perfect.
Julian: There's also a big issue with having the button to dodge roll being the same as entering cover. Too many times in a boss fight last night I tried to roll out of the radius of a molotov only to hug the nearest wall and get set on fire.
Keza: Oh, yeah! X to enter cover, double-tap X to roll. Who thought that up?
Julian: Why can I not unlock a dog perk in this game?
Keza: Oh yeah, when you saw Canine Unit in the base upgrade menu you pretty much lost it, but it did not actually unlock dogs, did it?
Julian: There is nothing I want more in this game than my own pet dog.
Keza: To be fair to Ubisoft, I think last year was the officially designated Year of the Video Game Dog.
Julian: Yeah, but this is still in the same financial year so Ubisoft totally can add a dog. I'll allow it.
The Division is definitely better at launch than most other persistent online games I have played. It doesn't have huge technical problems, it doesn't have the bizarre emptiness of other online shooters, and I’m definitely enjoying myself. The good thing about most of the negatives we’ve pointed out – the map and UI, particularly – is that these are things that can be changed, and probably will be changed as players get used to The Division. The fundamentals – fun, interesting gunplay, most importantly – are already in a good state.