Before we talk about what is a very promising game, it is time to call the industry out on the Alpha and Beta bullshit that they have been messing about with during this latest generation of consoles. In the past, Betas were a behind closed doors affair that allowed select individuals to test upcoming games – usually MMOs, such as World of Warcraft and its expansions. That explains why the fervour for keys when someone like Ubisoft say they are letting people play a Beta is always huge, because of the exclusivity the term puts across. It was also pretty much exclusive to the PC community. However, the landscape has changed now; Ubisoft, EA, and every other big company under the sun is now offering Beta access in return for you pre-ordering their games (or if you use Amazon, pre-ordering, getting your code and cancelling your order immediately). The Beta you play though isn’t really a Beta, it is just an over glorified demo. I’m not complaining; everyone loves early access to heavily anticipated games, but let’s not call a cat a dog. We are getting demos in a super convoluted way. Rant over, let’s talk about The Division.
The Division Beta offers us the exact same experience the closed Alpha did a few months ago. We are allowed to run around three areas of Manhattan, two of which are a PVP Dark Zone. The general storyline is outlined, but it feels like were jumping in an hour or two into the game, as you are instructed to find your base of operations (BO) by an injured senior officer who is talking about events that we have not been shown yet. A brief run through the snow-covered deserted streets of Manhattan, and you get an intro into how the BO works. It is a pretty standard RPG base; it’s split into three wings: Medical, Tech, and Security. Each wing is unlocked by doing a mission to liberate the person who can run it. In the Beta, we only have access to the medical wing mission, which takes place in Madison Square Garden. We fight our way to the roof, kill the bad guys and save the good doctor – that is about it in terms of story content.
We are also given a brief chance to have a bit of fun in the open world. There are different coloured side missions on the map which are colour coded to correspond to the different wings of your BO. As you complete each mission, it gives points to the mission’s corresponding wing, which then allows you to upgrade it and unlock various perks. We are only offered three missions – one for each wing – but there is potential there for plenty of variety. The Medical side mission involves us scanning a contaminated area and getting plenty of things to loot, while the security mission involves clearing out a few waves of enemies and saving a hostage or two. If the developers can come up with enough variety in these missions, levelling up the BO wings should be a pleasure. There are, of course, like most other open world games, plenty of little areas with extra loot and collectibles, but they didn’t offer too much in the Beta to get a clear picture of what we can expect.
The final part of the map open to us is the PVP Dark Zone. The basic premise is that the Dark Zones are the areas hit hardest by the outbreak which has destroyed New York. Therefore, any loot that you get inside must be extracted and decontaminated. The catch is you can only carry six pieces of loot at a time, so before you can pick up more, you have to go get it extracted. This where the danger comes in; the moment you activate the extraction, everyone in the zone can see it and will attempt to kill you in order to steal your hard-earned goodies. If you are playing solo, this isn’t the zone for you. The Dark Zone also has special vendors and its own ranking system separate from your normal level. It is equal parts thrilling and frustrating. If you are grouped via matchmaking with people who maybe got a bit luckier with loot, it becomes daunting, but if you are with a balanced group of players, it can lead to some really memorable moments. Anyone can shoot anyone, even if you are in a party together. If you do, however, you become a rogue and visible to everyone on the map. The rogue status can also become increasingly higher the more agents you betray, and other players will receive added bonuses, depending on how high your rogue level is, if they kill you. Apart from that mechanic, the zone is pretty empty; there are sometimes spawns of high level AI units that drop good stuff, but they are quite rare, and if you are not with friends, it can be boring. Hopefully, this is something they improve upon full release, because the Dark Zone has all the ingredients to be an excellent bit of gaming.
Character customisation is quite a straight forward but nonetheless slickly implemented affair. The various menus look fantastic and they are very easy to navigate. Facial editing isn’t open in the Beta – we only have a few preset faces to choose from – but the outfit and weapon customisation available makes up for it and gives us a feel of what well encounter in the full game. As you play, you acquire armour via various means that affects your stats as well as aesthetics. There are also plenty of cosmetic-only items that can be equipped on top of your stat-rich stuff such as hats, jackets and shoes. On the weapon side of it, you can equip attachments such as stabilisers, silencers and scopes, all of which have various degrees of stat boosts. All of this is easy to do and find, and a lot of games should look at this UI and feel a sense of great failure (*cough* Fallout 4 *cough* Like seriously, it is horrible). In terms of character abilities, we didn’t have access to many due to the low level cap of the Beta restricting how many points we have to allocate into abilities. The skills are divided into the same three categories as the BO. With Medical, you get stuff like group heals, and a scan of the surrounding area that highlights enemies. Security offers a ballistic shield which protects you from most damage, but restricts you to using your sidearm, while Tech offers special grenades and turrets. There is enough variation here to keep group play fun, and when the full game releases, it will be interesting to see what the abilities furthest down the skill trees are, and how they will be affected by upgrading their corresponding wings at the BO.
Like most big budget games, the game play itself is very tight and responsive and does justice to some of the best entries in the Tom Clancy series. The shooting can be a little hard to control at first, but once you get a weapon with some modifications that increase stability, it becomes a lot easier. I found the PS4 version a bit harder to be accurate with, but playing with keyboard and mouse offered a much stronger experience, and it was easy to chain headshots and keep recoil under control. The cover system can be a little fiddly at first, but once you get used to it, you can manoeuvre around an area of combat with very little time out in the open. It is only a shame when the AI don’t follow the same rules of cover and just keep running around randomly without a care for their own mortality. Possibly the most memorable part of the cover experience is if you are next to a car with an open door; your character will close it stealthily with what is the most slick car door closing animation in gaming to date.
The Division Beta offers us a brief glimpse into what could be a major contender for game of the year if Ubisoft don’t cock it up between now and March. All the foundations are there to build a really captivating and addictive game – fantastic visuals, intuitive controls, and a potentially super addictive PVP zone. But a lot can change between now and March.