An Atomic Moo Gaming Review of Ubisoft’s new Tom Clancy Game
An Original Article by Atomic Moo’s Chief Gamer: Numbers
When it comes to jingoistic military fiction, one of the masters is undoubtedly Tom Clancy. His novels have been translated into multiple languages, adapted into movies, and deployed around the world like the freedom-defending characters depicted in his works. Though he is no longer with us, his name lives on, attached to video games which have little, if anything, to do with his writing. Games such as Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division.
Recently, many brave Agents were dropped into virus-ravaged New York City, and your friends here at True Game Truths were among them. These are our stories of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s The Division’s beta’s shenanigans. This article specifically deals with The Division’s beta test and in no way reflects the final retail product. At least, we certainly hope it doesn’t.
Once again, Ubisoft calls a pre-release stress test a “beta,” which is clearly not the right term at this point into the game’s development. While it did not include the entire full version’s content, it is infinitely more stable than a true beta would be. Consider it a demo.
After launching the mandatory proprietary Uplay client, making a Uplay account, adding friends to said Uplay account, and allowing the game to update through the Uplay launcher (even if you own the game through Steam and have a populated Steam friends list), you can finally load up The Division. Players expecting a main menu will have to wait through a “beta gameplay tips” video.
Much like how the stress test is erroneously referred to as a “beta,” the “tips” presented in the video are nothing of the sort. Instead, they are the basic concepts of the game (shooting, using cover, switching weapons) and the default controls. Upon choosing one of the three pre-made characters (the character creation menus were disabled in this demo), players are moved by helicopter to Camp Hudson with their commanding officer, who has been injured. In The Division, New York has been hit by a mysterious of viral attack during the rush of Black Friday sales, and the resulting panic, rioting, and looting have brought the city to its knees.
Following the viral attack on New York City, emergency services did what they could to help before the city fell into panic-stricken chaos. The military was called in, a Joint Task Force was summoned, but by the time the Agents of The Division (player characters) arrive in NYC, hell has already broken loose. It’s up to the Agents to pull the town together, rescue survivors, and maybe, just maybe, take back the city.
While chaotic NYC is plausibly presented with abandoned cars, ransacked stores, disease-carrying animals, and corpses scattering the streets in the dead of winter, the game’s premise is not. Maybe the full version paints a clearer picture, or players are simply expected to suspend their disbelief and roll with the nonsensical story.
What is this “Division,” exactly? According to a loading screen’s tooltip, “Before the outbreak, the Division was a secret government agency with embedded sleeper agents across the nation.” Are these Agents soldiers or politicians? Are they relief workers or mercenaries? Why do the Agents not have any kind of easily-identifiable uniforms? If the Agents are forced to wear whatever clothing they can scavenge in the city, how are the surviving civilians able to recognize them at a glance, especially when the Agents themselves go around shooting and looting as much as the enemy characters?
The only recognizable identifiers that reveal a player character as an Agent (not to be confused with a survivor or a looter) include glowing orange circles on their wrists and backpacks and a single eagle-shaped patch on their right arm, none of which are easily visible at a distance. Yet no civilians confuse Agents for the gun-toting maniacs running loose in the ruined city.
To further add to the disbelief players are expected to suspend, the Agents’ glowing watches are some kind of wrist-worn supercomputers, capable of scanning the environment, opening sealed security doors, displaying a polygonal virtual-reality map, storing data from the hidden collectible phones scattered around New York, carry a talking artificial intelligence, and even displaying digital versions of what are essentially ghosts. Contrasted with the generally-plausible depiction of post-virus New York City, the sci-fi technology does not gel at all.
If the Agents were equipped with some kind of sealed-environment power armor, like the superhuman law-enforcement Agents from the Crackdown games, perhaps the futuristic gadgetry would be easier to swallow. As it stands, it feels as though Ubisoft wants to carry over some unused vaguely-cyberpunk elements from that cellphone-oriented open-world stinker they put out a few years back. The Division’s Agents don’t even have helmets, goggles, or communication headsets, and only equip environment masks when in particularly contaminated areas. The fact that fantastic futuristic technology exists in this universe, but only to player characters, is not plausible, and neither is the level to which the Agents are under-equipped for the job. In some cases, they walk into contaminated combat zones in jeans and a hoodie.
It is regrettable that the high-tech equipment’s presence completely shatters the realistic tone of The Division. So much care has been put into presenting a plausible, believable New York in crisis, so why throw it away for space-age gizmos that shatter immersion? Quarantine zones, buildings and vehicles abandoned in a hurry, ransacked stores, subway stations turned into refugee camps, downtrodden survivors, and other signs of emergency and panic are plentiful and present a believable ruined city. This is not some kind of overdone zombie game (consider ourselves fortunate). Depictions of a world in chaos are akin to (and handled with a similar maturity to) the Metro games, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, the upcoming Escape from Tarkov, and Spec Ops: The Line. There is plenty of dark atmosphere and morbid, unsettling environments, such as subway platforms turned into biohazardous waste storage areas, filled to capacity with contaminated bodies.
In terms of gameplay, The Division is a conventional cover-based third-person shooter. It tries to differentiate itself by also being a loot-based shooter MMO with varied character abilities, not unlike Destiny. Much like Destiny, there seem to be more promises here than content.
Characters can gain the ability to heal themselves and each other, plant remote explosives, deploy riot shields, set up sentry guns, and more. Each toggleable ability has multiple variations, allowing for players to fine-tune not only their weapons (thanks to the weapon attachment system) but also their special powers to suit their playstyle, mission, environment, and teammates. There are no classes in The Division, so any character can equip any weapon and skill, provided they have them unlocked.
Agents are going to need all the guns and abilities they can get, because the story has them attempt to set up a Base of Operations and try to take back a crisis-stricken NYC. Players will attempt to rescue vital personnel, such as doctor who can research the virus and a conspiracy-theorist PMC soldier who will unlock devastating new weapons. These story characters will also improve the Base, allowing more abilities and features to be accessed, but upgrading the Base requires resources.
Resources are earned from scripted events including story missions, side quests, and enemy encounters. These events can be found on the map, but once they’re done, they’re done. Story missions can be replayed on higher difficulties, but events cannot be replayed, possibly to prevent players from simply grinding out Base resources.
Unfortunately, this means that there is very little to do in the open world, other than hunt for crafting materials, search for collectibles, and push the story forward. There are no repeatable, random open-world events to speak of. In other open-world MMO shooters such as Defiance, Firefall, and to a certain extent Destiny (assuming the Patrols to be open-worlds, albeit small ones), random events are frequent and give players more to do than grind loot and rush through story missions. Driving from point A to point B in Defiance without running into a random event is unlikely. Firefall’s map is littered with a plethora of open-world events. The Division has nothing, possibly to encourage players to purchase DLC. If free-to-play MMO shooters can create open worlds populated with randomized content, however repetitive, I’d expect the same from a triple-A studio.
What is there to do other than finish the scripted events, story missions, and hunt for loot and collectibles? Players are encouraged to get on the highway to the Dark Zone. In fact, a story mission brings players to the dangerous, highly-contaminated no-man’s-land where safety is not guaranteed, but the best loot and toughest enemies can be found. Players can also attack other players in the Dark Zone, creating a satisfying risk-versus-reward challenge not found in the main story mission area.
Call me a reasonably skeptical cynic (*Atomic Moo: He’s a reasonably Skeptical Cynic…*), I can’t help but think that someone at Ubisoft said, “The Kids like that ‘Rusty Daisy’ survival crap, right? Well, let’s put that in our game instead of a sizable story!” The risk-versus-reward hunt-for-loot-and-try-not-to-get-killed-by-other-players thing has been done to death already. There is a plethora of shovelware on Steam based on nothing more than this concept. To see it in a full-priced triple-A game that is already light on story content (even worse, possibly instead of story content) is regrettable.
PvE enemies in the Dark Zone drop the best loot, much stronger than the stuff you’ll find in the mission-focused area of the city. However, the Dark Zone loot is contaminated, and must be brought to an Extraction Point and loaded onto a helicopter in order for you to find it in your personal stash at your Base of Operations, decontaminated and ready to be equipped. When you die in the Dark Zone, you only drop the items you collected on that run and did not have a chance to extract – but you can pick it up again if you run back to your corpse. Other players can kill you if they want, but get flagged as “Rogue Agents” in the process. Not much of a deterrent when taking other players down and grabbing their stuff is satisfying. The Dark Zone is all about risk and reward.
But if there is already a limited amount of content in the non-Dark-Zone area of the city and no open-world random events, why would I go into the Dark Zone to hunt for loot, making myself a target for other players? What will I do with that loot if there’s nothing to do but use said loot to hunt for more loot? I hope the answer is not “wait for Ubisoft to release more mission-focused DLC.” As exciting as it is to work with friends to take down challenging enemies in the Dark Zone, I’d much rather have gameplay that pushes the story (if not the game world) forward – and preferably without other players killing me in the process.
Ubisoft really wants to push The Division as an MMO. As such, it has some MMO features not expected to be found in a console-focused cover-based third-person shooter. Players have six emotes to choose from, which are unbound by default in the controls menu. Saluting other players in the Dark Zone is a great way to show them that you are not hostile. There is an autorun button (but no vehicles, not even bicycles in New York City). The UI is customizable, MMO-style. There is a chatbox in the bottom-left corner of the screen, which presumably will be filled with the usual LFG posts, WTB requests, clan recruiting spam, and tryhards arguing with each other.
Despite the presence of these MMO staples, others are missing. There is no skillbar with hotkeys on the bottom of the screen, even though there are several consumable items in game. Sure, there are default shortcut commands, but why should users have to remember that Ctrl-Shift-Alt-2 uses a water bottle rather than have a convenient and MMO-standard hotkeyed skillbar on the bottom of their screens?
Another missing MMO staple is visual character customization. Facial customization was disabled in the demo so I cannot comment on it. Loot changes the characters’ appearance but in limited, negligible ways. Backpacks have different models, gloves have different colours, kneepads have different textures, and so on. Items such as jackets, hats, and pants need to be found in-game (none of the demo’s vendors sold cosmetic items), which limits players’ ability to make their character look the way they want. Would you like your Agent to have badass combat armour? Too bad; hope you enjoy the puffy winter coat you looted. Naturally, the best-looking clothing items are sold in “Packs” with matching guns and stat-boosting backpacks. In true Ubisoft fashion (pardon the pun), the only way to get these packs so far is to pre-order the game. I would be surprised if there are not already several cosmetic Packs in the pipeline. Free-to-play-style paid cosmetic items in a triple-A big-budget shooter? The DLCision sure is a next-gen poster child.
More irritating than the half-hearted MMO features were the unfortunate technical issues. Double-tapping the Enter/Exit Cover key (mapped to the Spacebar by default) allows Agents to perform evasive rolls. Plenty of objects litter The Division’s world, so hitting the Enter Cover button twice while moving more often than not resulted in my character taking cover near my opponents instead of rolling away from them. The baseball-bat-wielding maniacs I was trying to avoid did not seem to mind.
You can instead double-tap a movement key to roll in that direction, but there is no single-press roll button. I was hoping for a system like Warframe, in which tapping the Shift key performs a roll and holding the Shift key makes you run. No such luck. At least sprinting can be set to Toggle or Hold, but there is surprisingly no option to enable Toggle Aiming. You must keep your right mouse button held in to keep aiming your guns.
When holding the Aim Weapon button (default: right mouse button), players can press a Zoom key (default: Tab) to activate their weapon’s scope or sight, if the firearm in question has been fitted with any optic modifications. Before players can effectively use the scopes, they must wait through a fade-in animation during which a black screen transitions to one with the scope overlay, and then wait for the depth-of-field effects to finish the scope-focusing-on-enemies animation. The entire process must only take a second or two, but seconds count in a firefight, especially when Agents must lean out of cover before activating the scope at all. Unlike in Grand Theft Auto V, Agents in The Division must manually bring the scope back up again and wait through the fade in from black and focus animation every time they duck in and out of cover. Want to take cover to heal up? Need to swap mags? Hope you like that depth-of-field scope-focusing animation. By the time my scope was brought up and zoomed in, I’d already lost at least a third of my health. Ridiculous.
What gets even worse is that the scope-activating Zoom button doubles as the game’s melee attack key, a fact which is never mentioned in-game. Even the control mapping menu makes no reference to the Zoom key’s melee functionality. Presumably, the early-game tutorial which is missing from the demo would explain how to deliver melee attacks, but that is no reason for controls menu not to list it. Strangely enough, one of the questions in the post-beta-test questionnaire was “Did you know there was a melee attack?” Similarly, hitting the Sprint key while holding the Aim button switches the shoulder over which the camera is placed, but there is no mention of such functionality either in-game or in the menus. Much like the scopes which need to be reactivated each time you aim, the aiming shoulder must be manually switched every time you aim as well, with no option to set a default aiming shoulder.
The worst offender in the Control Issues category is without a doubt the climbing system. In most third-person open-world action games since at least Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, moving characters towards objects and pressing the Jump key causes them to jump over or climb over said objects. In the case of taller obstacles such as walls, fences, or low-hanging ledges, characters might first jump, grab the edge of the object, and pull themselves up. If only it was that easy in The Division.
The Agents’ motto of “When society falls, we rise” might be a tad exaggerated since they can’t climb over any old object like a GTA character. Agents must first approach the obstacle and hope that the Climb prompt appears, at which point pressing the Climb key (default: Ctrl) sends them over the object. If the prompt does not appear, as is often the case, players must leave the general vicinity of the object and approach it again. I noticed that having a riot shield deployed made it less likely for the Climb prompts to appear. During my time with The Division, I would frequently find myself running into objects while mashing my Climb button, hoping that my character would eventually find her way over them, eventually opting to avoid climbable objects altogether. When playing with friends, I’ve missed entire firefights because my Agent just wouldn’t climb a damn ladder.
Believe it or not, it gets worse. Climbing up is half the battle. You would think that Agents could simply walk over the edges of platforms or combat roll off ledges, but that’s not the case in post-viral New York. Climbing down works the same way as climbing up: walk to a Climb interaction point and hope the prompt appears. If it does, mash that Climb key. If not, walk away and try again. I imagine Ubisoft wants to prevent players from accidentally falling off ledges, but that’s no reason to try to protect players from themselves. I had my character stuck on top of parked cars, cinderblocks, and even a mailbox, running in circles, button-mashing my Ctrl key. Agents are trained to use a variety of weapons and tools – you’d think they could climb up ladders and descend from atop a yellow taxi without difficulty.
Agents should be able to climb up without needing the Climb prompts to appear. Pressing the Climb key while moving towards an object should result in a context-sensitive animation, such as easily stepping onto the hood of a car, or jumping up to grab and climb over a fence. This is how it is in most third-person games, even RPGs such as Dragon’s Dogma and action-MMO Black Desert. It’s nice that a warning icon appears when dropping off a ladder or rappel line will cause fall damage, but perhaps only falls that will cause damage should require a press of the Climb key. Walking, running, or combat rolling off a ledge should be more than enough. Jumping down from the top of a mailbox should not be a chore.
Even with the autorun feature and the optional auto-climb feature, getting around the city can be a hassle. Quick-travel is limited to the few base camps you have uncovered and your teammates if you are playing with a party, but it isn’t quite fast enough. There are no usable vehicles to speak of. No motorcycles, no ATVs, not even hipster “fixie” bikes in New York City. Other MMO shooters with sci-fi themes have spawnable vehicles players can summon at will, such as Destiny’s hoverbikes, Firefall’s motorcycles, and Defiance’s fleet of off-roaders. You could argue that being able to summon a vehicle out of thin air anywhere in the city and have it vanish before your eyes when you are done with it would not suit The Division’s relatively-plausible setting. As you have already read, I would say that there is already a ton of immersion-breaking content in The Division, so why not have spawnable vehicles that would make life easier for players? If that magic, glowing watch can holoproject a map of the city, house an A.I., and generate digital ghosts through on some kind of cyber-scrying ability, why shouldn’t it be able to spawn me a dirtbike or ATV capable of handling the winter driving conditions?
Visually, The Division is stunning. Post-viral New York City is gorgeously, plausibly detailed. Debris hangs in trees and blows in the wind. Oil leaking from wrecked cars, frozen in the ice, gives the pavement a pearlescent sheen in places. Carefully placed lights pepper the world, some for illumination like flickering street lights, others for world-building like Christmas lights lining the trees in a deserted park. Dynamic lighting, dynamic weather, and a day/night cycle combine to create a powerful sense of atmosphere, especially with the ambient sounds of distant sirens, people shouting, and exchanges of gunfire. Fighting enemies in a blizzard with only construction-yard floodlights to pierce the darkness is an experience I won’t soon forget.
There is a serious attention to detail, though that does not always translate to a high Level of Detail. In certain cases, the game does not load the high-polycount high-texture-quality models until you get close to them, and will instead display a boxy assortment of polygons until the high LOD versions load in. There is not even a texture quality setting in the options. Textures are blurry and muddy until they have enough time to load, which usually wasn’t until I was ready to leave cover and find another blurry object to hide behind. In one of the earliest cut scenes, a character walks over a postcard or newspaper on the ground, presumably with an important headline or at least a “Wish You Were Here” message which would ironically contrast with the disaster in NYC. At least, I think that’s what the item on the ground was, because its high-res texture never loaded and as such was never legible. Technical issues aside, The Division is visually stunning, and as much as I am not a fan of the trying-too-hard-to-be-cyberpunk art direction of the UI, they stick to it commendably.
I went in with low, very low, expectations, but I found enough that impressed me, despite the technical issues and lack of content. Tom Clancy’s The Division has some good ideas and a spectacular world, but I have many concerns. The sci-fi elements feel like they belong in another game. The controls do not feel tight enough. There are good ideas but the game doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. I can’t help but feel like it would work better as a single-player or co-op-focused narrative-driven game, without the MMO grinding and the PvP-survival-game Dark Zone. I predict a lack of content and a broken product upon release. I fear we have another Destiny on our hands, and with Ubisoft’s track record, I cannot give them the benefit of the doubt. Still, by this time next year, once the inevitable collected edition comes out with all of the game’s content and patches, The Division might be worth a look.