The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games and life converge

Tom Clancy’s The Division: A Reflection on the Beta

“There are two kinds of people: the ones who need to be told, and the ones who figure it out all by themselves.” —Tom Clancy

A week ago, the open beta for Tom Clancy’s The Division (hereafter referred to as The Division for brevity) became available, and I spent around ten hours exploring Lower Manhattan before the beta period expired. Taking on the role of a Strategic Homeland Division operator (known as the Division), the player must investigate the virus while working to restore order and basic services to New York City after a smallpox pandemic sweeps across the United States on Black Friday, causing the government to collapse. An open world game, The Division allows players to explore Manhattan to their heart’s content, completing missions to improve their base of operations’ functionality and obtain increasingly effective gear to aid their investigations. The Division is a third-person shooter, and makes use of a cover system to encourage more tactical play. Better gear can be obtained in the Dark Zone, a PvP environment that plays completely differently than the regular regions of Manhattan. The game itself is set for a release on March 8, and from the time I spent in the game, I reached the level cap, playing through the story missions plus all of the available side missions. During this time, I thoroughly enjoyed the open world aspect, which allowed me to compete objects in any manner of my choosing. The deserted streets of New York take on a very eerie feel, and it was absolutely thrilling to instigate a firefight while in a blizzard, or else watch the afternoon sun reflect off the glass windows of a skyscraper. Gameplay was reasonably smooth, and the guns handled quite well: because this is an RPG, they do not handle as one would expect an FPS weapon would, but the recoil patterns, weapon customisation and sounds allow the weapons to feel powerful nonetheless.

The single most unique element about The Division is not the combat system, plot or setting: it’s the user interface. From the HUD displaying player status, to the maps and inventory, the user interface in The Division takes inspiration from augmented reality interfaces. It is seamlessly integrated into the game world, being anchored to the player and taking on a minimalist design that displays the appropriate amount of information to players without obfuscating the environment. Because The Division is an open world, a good map is critical; The Division handles this by projecting a holographic map around the player and fades out the player model as one looks around the map to locate a destination. When a destination is found, a route planner is projected into the 3D environment on the streets or path the player must follow, making it easy to get from point A to point B without being disoriented in Manhattan. The menus for inventory, skills and even to change game settings likewise appear inspired by augmented reality interfaces, being drawn at an angle to resemble a screen the player is perusing in their environment. Augmented reality (AR) is gaining momentum, and it’s becoming an area of interest for the lab where I work: the AR seen in The Division would be what it might be reasonably expected to look like in reality if implemented, and in the context of The Division, succeeds in reducing the amount of information one must look through in a firefight, as well as making it easier to navigate around Manhattan.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • My first impressions of The Division was that the setting looks amazing. While not quite the same level of details as seen in the E3, the game nonetheless looks good enough to convey the atmosphere essential to The Division. It’s nearing Christmas in Manhattan, and Christmas lights adjourn the streets, although there’s none of the festivities on account of the virus. This open beta came quite suddenly, and I admit that I spent more a little more time playing this beta otherwise better spent working on my conference publication/course presentations/thesis work last weekend 😛

  • The first major mission is to rescue Dr. Kandel in the Madison Field Hospital from bandits. Set inside Madison Cube Square Garden, I made my way through to the upper seats and roof of the stadium, making extensive use of cover to boost my odds of survival. The Division beta starts players off with an M4A1, Mp5 and M1911 at level four, and ammunition can be replenished through resupply boxes scattered throughout some maps, as well as back at the Base of Operations (it is less commonly dropped from enemies). According to the developers, players will begin their journey from level one in the full game.

  • Boss fights in The Division are challenging because swarms of weaker enemies will engage the player in conjunction with the boss: difficult enemies are protected by heavy armour that negates damage to their health, but after it is depleted, the enemies’ health drains much more quickly. The end of this first mission landed me an L86A2 LMG, which handles slightly less effectively than the M4A1 and can be thought of as a convenient secondary weapon for mid-range combat.

  • Throughout The Division, I always will carry the M1A marksman rifle or a shotgun of some sort (usually the 870 MCS) in my secondary slot to complement the assault rifle. Whereas the assault rifle fulfills the role of a versatile all-range weapon, the secondary weapon is used for more specialised situations demanding precision at range or close-quarters carnage.

  • The weather in The Division changes at the drop of a hat: sometimes, it’s sunny, while it’s foggy at other times, and on some occasions, a blizzard strikes. There is something magical about Manhattan during a snowstorm, and it was quite fun to run through the streets to complete a mission while completely ignoring the effects of weather.

  • Besides shooting and cover elements, consumables and skills form a large part of the gameplay in The Division: I ran most of the game with the first aid and proximity scan skills, with the latter helping me identify enemies’ locations and the former being quite useful for restoring my own health. There have been numerous occasions where I saved myself from a difficult situation with a combination of diving and the first aid skill.

  • Items dropped in the world are instanced to the player, so there’s no worry that other players will steal said items. In the main campaign, items above standard quality are quite uncommon and usually are dropped by boss characters, or else can be bought from vendors for a price. Because items such as medical packs and ammunition are counted separately, one does not need to expend any money towards buying supplies and can continue saving up for weapons, weapon modifications and armour.

  • I found a SCAR-L early on in the game to replace the starting M4A1, and customised it to have a reflex sight, front handgrip and a quick-release magazine to reduce reload times. Weapons can be modified on the fly by going into the inventory, and because one is able to carry 30 items, one can always carry their preferred loadout with them, plus any weapons accessories, at all times. However, it’s nowhere near as smooth as Crysis; switching during combat is unwieldy and may lead to death.

  • The cover system in The Division is excellent: areas players can take cover behind are highlighted, and moving from cover to cover is accomplished by looking at another spot that is valid, then holding down spacebar to move quickly towards it. While it’s tempting to hold down the trigger and empty one’s magazine at an enemy, firing in short controlled bursts is better for both recoil and ammunition management.

  • The side missions are enjoyable to carry out: here, I’ve rescued Heather Lau. While most of The Division is set outdoors, there are several locations that allow players to explore the apartments. Sections of the world are also highly contaminated and require a filter in order to safely enter. Players will automatically don and remove filters as required, although there are different levels of contamination and as such, lower level filters will not work in some places.

  • A red dot sight can be seen on my rifle as I fire on an enemy position. Hitting tab or an equivalent key will allow players to enter first person mode and look down sights for higher magnification optics such as the 12x rifle scope or ACOG sights. A marksman rifle can actually be quite a powerful asset against some enemies: by staying out of their aggro range, one can wear down their armour and health with well-placed headshots on short order, and on my second playthrough of the Madison Field Hospital mission, I succeeded in playing it solo on hard difficulty precisely because I had a good long-range weapon.

  • Running around Manhattan under different times of day with different weather and lighting can be an adventure on its own, although that isn’t to say this beta is without flaws; my biggest complaint is the relative lack of enemies to kill in the city streets. Most of the enemies are gathered in mission areas or else only are present if there’s a side quest, and otherwise, the streets are quite devoid of things to shoot at. One improvement I would suggest is that groups of enemies randomly spawn in the map to increase the sense of danger (especially if a high-ranking enemy occasionally joins these groups).

  • Running under the sunlight throws my backpack and M1A rifle into sharp relief as I jog to the next mission. Another thing that would be nice to have in The Division is the option for a bicycle or scooter of some sort: because fast travel only works between some locations, running between places can grow tiresome.

  • A marksman rifle can one-shot an enemy if the shot is carefully placed, and for most of the game, I carried around different levels of the M1A rifle to act as my long-range weapon. I’ve read that one of the caveats about such a realistic setting in The Division is that the game takes away from the fantastical elements seen in other RPG shooters (such as Borderlands). For me, I find that the premise in The Division is quite unsettling for the fact that it is not implausible.

  • Foggy, snowy maps remind me of older Playstation Two games set in remote forests; fog obscuring a map always conveys a sense of mystery, and although they were used in older games on account of graphical limitations, the fact remains is that they are able to create a particular atmosphere in a game.

  • The virus responsible for the pandemic in The Division is smallpox: probably one of the best examples of how immunisation works, Edward Jenners found in 1796 that, if a patient were to be inoculated with the less virulent cowpox, they would become immune to smallpox. Subsequently, a smallpox was declared globally eradicated thanks to immunisation in 1979, although small samples allegedly exist for here and there for research and military purposes.

  • This image captures some of the graphics effects in The Division as they appear on my computer: even at medium settings, the game doesn’t look bad at all, and in fact, I believe I also played through Star Wars: Battlefront on medium.

  • The cleaners are an organisation whose members were assigned to contain the infection, although they became fanatics in the process. Wearing hazmat suits and wielding flame throwers, these enemies are tougher than the bandits that are encountered earlier. The cleaners are downright lethal at close quarters and better engaged from a distance: they have a crippling weakness in the form of the fuel tanks that they carry on their backs. When these sustain enough damage, they explode, killing them in the process and damaging enemies in their immediate surroundings.

  • The second mission that was available in the beta was the Subway Morgue, where the player is tasked with helping Pual Rhodes restore the power by going deep into the bowels of the New York subway tunnels. Successful completion of this mission will unlock the tech wing at the base of operations, which provides access to the sticky bomb and turrets. Throughout this mission, the player will encounter various transformers that must be activated, and two involve hauling fuse boxes to the transformer.

  • Cleaners constitute a large majority of the enemies encountered in the tunnels, and the boss, Benchley, is a spec’d up version of the regular cleaners encountered. Armed with an incredibly damaging and long-range flame thrower, he also has fuel tanks on his back that can be ignited for massive damage. Numerous other enemies make this fight difficult, so the recommended suggestion for this mission, provided it doesn’t change in the final build, will be to blow away all of the minions first, and continue to maintain good distance from Benchley the entire time while returning fire.

  • At some point in the game, I found a leather jacket and different hats by shooting up different enemies on the map while completing some of the side missions. Clothing items are purely cosmetic and appear as aqua-coloured pillars when dropped.

  • After spending several hours in the Dark Zone, I realised that I had left all of the side missions from the starting area incomplete. By this point, I had picked up some specialised weapons while in the Dark Zone, including the Black Market T821 and Vector. While in the Dark Zone, I saw that vendors offered some superior weapons, but was not high enough rank to get the high-end stuff.

  • I had accumulated enough currency to buy several specialised weapons after selling off gear from the Dark Zone, so my collection of specialised weapons expanded to include the M1A, M4A1 and RPK; by this point, the remaining missions were trivially easy, and I finished them to conclude my experience of the beta’s campaign side. These weapons made short work of the level four opponents in the earlier side missions in Chelsea.

  • At close ranges, shotguns can one-shot standard enemies, although they become useless at ranges above five or so meters. I’m wielding the M870, a variant of the 870 MCS from Battlefield, which has reasonable stopping power and a better capacity compared to the double-barreled shotgun. For the most part, shotguns are useful in tight spaces, but their slower reload exposes players to some of the enemies that rush with the axe.

  • Sidearms in The Division have an unlimited ammunition pool and consequently, they are backup weapons that can be relied upon should the players ever deplete their entire pool of ammunition. As better backpacks are equipped, one’s carrying capacity increases, as well. Here, a snowstorm kicks up as I near the end of one mission, making for a very Christmas-esque feel to the atmosphere.

  • We’re now nearing the end of this post, which means it’s time to consider what changes will be made between the beta and release builds of The Division. From the sounds of things, the HUD will be given a slight update so there’s less clutter, and missions can also be replayed on higher difficulties than “hard”: I managed to beat Madison Field Hospital at level eight just fine on my own during my second playthrough.

  • The final release of the game will allow players to access some of the best gear through means other than the Dark Zone, so for players like myself, who would rather avoid PvP, this is excellent news: rather than gaining enough Dark Zone levels and currency to buy the best gear from vendors, the finished game will provide high-end gear for completing missions and through crafting (which was not available in the beta). Moreover, the superior items seen on vendors in the Dark Zone during the beta won’t actually be available until much later.

  • I’m rocking the RPK here, a superior LMG to the L86A2 in my experience. Against level four enemies, it’s pwnage the entire way, and with this, I’ve more or less experienced The Division beta in its fullest. In a twist, I spent roughly the same amount of time in the Star Wars: Battlefront beta as I did in The Division, despite having spent most of Saturday recovering my lab computer, which had suffered a catastrophic failure, and worked on a Unity implementation of BOIDs.

  • By the time I got home, it was an hour to dinner, and so, only played an hour’s worth of missions before sitting down to a fried chicken dinner. Sunday was also quite busy with respect to my workload, but I managed to squeeze in some game time, enough to wrap up the missions I had not completed. Besides missions and side missions, experience can also be obtained by collecting different phones and echoes to watch their stories.

  • This was my final loadout before the beta ended: more than half of my equipped gear was specialised. Overall, this was a fun beta similar to my experiences with the Star Wars: Battlefront beta, and similarly, while the betas have shown the games to be quite enjoyable, I’ll nonetheless wait for some videos to better gauge the games before making a final decision. I’ll be dropping by to do a separate talk about the Dark Zone later, and it would appear that just shy of two months into 2016, I’m finally done my backlog of posts for the present! Perhaps I’ll review Aria the Avvenire‘s first episode next time I drop by.

From a gameplay perspective, The Division was handles quite well: while there are some issues with handling here and there, the firefights are satisfying to participate in. The story is also engaging: the beta only allows for players to experience two missions, but each mission has a good amount of content and contributes differently to the player’s base of operations. Completing the missions unlocks additional skills for the player, and taken together, the beta offers a good sampling of what is available in the full game. Throughout the game, there are contents marked “unavailable” in the beta: the complete game will certainly have more to do, and if the single player campaign has sufficient content scattered around the open world (a mix of story missions and side quests), The Division could easily prove to be worthwhile just for this. Of course, most players will be buying into the game for adventures in the Dark Zone: between the campaign and Dark Zone, plus the future expansions, The Division is looking like a game that will have a fair bit of content. Only time will tell as to whether or not Ubisoft delivers on expectations. Similar to Star Wars: Battlefront, I’ll likely wait around to see just what the full game entails before making the decision on whether or not I’ll be picking it up. Of course, if the amount of content is sufficient, given the amount of fun I had during the ten hours I experienced, The Division just might be worth considering.

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