So The Division has been out for roughly one of your earth weeks, breaking all sorts of sales records. I’m about halfway through, and in general I’ve been enjoying it so far.
The opening cinematic is impressive, a potted version of films like Outbreak or Contagion (or indeed the splendid boardgame Pandemic, though without the coloured cubes). Within the game the story is primarily advanced through set-piece missions that reminded me of Flashpoints from Star Wars: The Old Republic. The best of these (so far) were set in iconic locations such as Madison Square Garden or the Lincoln Tunnel and really set the scene of the devastated city. Even the more humdrum settings, like a block of flats, have been scripted nicely enough to keep things interesting. Like Flashpoints they can also be replayed, with a Hard Mode later to crank up the difficulty; the combat side is interesting enough for a few runs before they get too stale.
In between the main blocks of story are assorted side missions and encounters, plus various collectible items as you’d expect in an MMO/Ubisoft open world. They fit into the setting well enough (rescuing hostages, recovering supplies, analysing virus samples), but by the third or fourth (or fifth or sixth) time of performing essentially the same actions they get a touch repetitive, not really helped by some of the officers who assign the missions.
Unsurprisingly, the overall tone is on the grim side: disease, death, breakdown of society, bit more death, man’s inhumanity to man, extra death. From story missions and collectibles you gather fragments of intelligence that give some insight into the collapse: diary entries, voice recordings, CCTV footage and some interactive ECHO reconstructions (Evidence Correlation Holographic Overlay, apparently). Most have decidedly unhappy endings (spoiler: they’re all dead, Dave. Everybody’s dead. Everybody is dead Dave. Apart from a few groups of psychopaths and some innocents for them to terrorise.) The graphics are excellent; Mr Biffo has a fine piece about how we often take visuals for granted, and I was thinking along similar lines myself while playing. The environments reminded me of the extraordinary attention to detail you often see in behind-the-scenes features for film or television programmes, where sets are meticulously dressed with in-world props that you might only see if you pause a scene and look really closely at the background. Swirling snow and fog and smoke emphasise the bleakness of the setting.
Then you get sent off to retrieve some supplies by a hypochondriac, or an actor who played a special forces agent on TV or someone equally “quirky”, and it just doesn’t mesh; coupled with the repetitive nature of the side missions it disrupts the coherence of the world. (In the middle of writing this, I read a PC Gamer article making much the same point.) I don’t mind a bit of deliberate fourth-wall breaking, or indeed a smidge of Brechtian Alienation, but the NPCs aren’t obviously over-the-top enough for that. Overall, though, the setting is excellent.
Combat is another area where the game mechanics conflict with the world-building. Movement feels fluid and natural, and the cover system works very nicely when moving forward, allowing you to dash and vault from one conveniently bulletproof waist-high obstacle to another. If you need to tactically reposition during combat things can fall apart slightly, as your character invariably decides to leave one piece of cover and cling to the side of a car in full view of several angry rifle-wielding maniacs while you scream “NO! THE *OTHER* SIDE!”, and back up a bit, and then cling to exactly the same spot again, then slowly inch around to the front of the car (still completely exposed to enemy fire), eventually managing to position yourself with the car *between* you and the maniacs at the exact point a grenade lands at your feet, forcing you to repeat the whole performance. It means you can’t just sit in one place and plink away for every encounter, which is fair enough, but confined areas with limited cover and certain enemy combinations can be rather vexing.
The guns seem to be a fairly accurately (visually) modelled collection of modern military hardware as you’d expect in a Tom Clancy branded game, but then the combat mechanics are firmly from the RPG levels-and-healthbars school. Depending on relative levels and such, you can empty an entire belt of machine gun ammunition into the face of a human at point-blank range to little effect. For whatever reason, though, this doesn’t really bother me, possibly from being so thoroughly inculcated in this style of combat; I didn’t come into the game expecting a realistic military shooter. A range of gun types and abilities (including assorted healing powers, buffs, explosives, turrets and such) offer a variety of ways of tackling encounters; whether most will stay viable or “One True Build” will emerge remains to be seen as Massive tweak things around. There’ll probably always be a flavour of the month, but hopefully not so ludicrous as to render any other choices redundant.
The centre of the city is a dark place; not Garth Marenghi’s, but a Dark Zone with more powerful mobs, better loot, and PvP combat. If you kill other players you can nick their stuff (just the Dark Zone loot, not everything), but this turns you Rogue, making you something a beacon for the avenging forces of justice (or other people who want to nick your stuff). Melmoth and I have popped in a few times and it’s an agreeably tense atmosphere, eyeing up other players and wondering if they’re minding their own business or just waiting for an opportunity to strike. Discussion boards are awash with debates about risk and reward in the Dark Zone, it’s a tough balance to strike between having some incentive for PvP (otherwise you might as well just have another PvE zone), but not so much that everyone immediately attacks other players on sight (free-for-all deathmatches have their place but aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially if gear quality is the dominant element of combat).
It’s going to be interesting to see how things develop, whether it’s a passingly fun cover-shooter with loot or has more longevity. My suspicions are leaning towards the former at the moment, but you never know.