Despite sounding like the second tier of the Greek football league, The Division: Beta is actually this: an invite-only test run for Ubisoft’s new open-world, always connected RPG/3rd person shooter amalgam.
It’s been running this past weekend and I’ve been playing it right up the wazoo so I can bring you some first impressions. By which I mean what I thought of the game, not an exercise in amateur mimicking.
There’s some post-apocalyptic storyline guff about someone releasing a virus that makes New York go a bit rancid. This means it gets sealed off, and now you (as a highly-trained military tough) are part of a small team sent in to fix things and get rid of looters and gangs preying on the poor sods still left there.
That’s not gone into in much depth for the Beta so we won’t dwell on it either, but suffice to say you’ve got a fair chunk of the now semi-deserted city to bod about in (the full game will be suitably more enormous still).
Various side missions and mini events just happen GTA-style as you stumble upon them, and though areas are tagged with a suggested minimum XP level you’re free to explore.
While letting people get a general feel for how the game plays, the real meat of the Beta is in 2 parts – giving you a crack at the first few story missions of the full game and how they relate to your home base area, and the ‘Dark Zone’ (the latter of which I’ll come on to in a bit).
Your home base has 3 ‘wings’ – medical, security and technology.
Doing missions and collecting stuff relevant to each will upgrade these areas and give you new perks and abilities, though in the Beta you can only upgrade a small part of the Medical wing as this relates to the only main mission available.
The base also has various vendors selling guns, armour and mods for weapons – and as this is unashamedly an RPG, there are all manner of stats and options for tinkering with your loadout.
Unsurprisingly you’ll also collect loot while out and about that can be upgraded or sold, and everything comes at various levels of quality with better gear making you suitably more herculean. Crafting is in there too allowing for even more customisation, though again it was left out of the Beta so we haven’t got to try it yet.
Though you can just play the game as a shooter with off-the-shelf kit, mods can make a fair difference to even average guns. So while you may not want to unleash your inner RPG nerd it’s probably worth at least trying out some scopes and barrel upgrades and the like.
In fact you can more or less play around with anything, even down to spray painting your guns a certain colour – marvellously, some of the cosmetic upgrades I found lying about meant I could dress my chap in a puffy jacket, white trainers and skintight jeans, making him look like he’d emerged from a 1980s seaside arcade.
As you’d expect, some of the best grade loot comes from doing missions.
You can tackle these, and indeed any of the wandering about, in a team of up to 4 (chums, or via in-game matchmaking with randoms).
And it’s no bad idea to gang up as until you get some decent kit even low-level content can be pretty tough as a solo player.
Enemies will outflank you and coordinate attacks, and as this is a cover-based shooter (if you’ve played Gears of War or Mass Effect, you’ll be right at home here) going in guns blazing will result in a great deal of very rapidly applied deadness. As well as helping you take out bad guys, allies can also heal each other and revive fallen comrades, so teamwork really is the key.
The other way to get the really good shizzle is to immerse your appendages into the dank world of player vs player – the aforementioned Dark Zone. This is a virus-infected and thus quarantined area where you can find some of the best gear, both lying about and in the hands of generally harder-level NPCs. But there’s a catch: it needs to be extracted and disinfected
Rather than lobbing your manky goods in a bucket and liberally applying Toilet Duck, this is done by calling in a chopper: when it arrives you attach your stash to the rope it drops and off it goes (or, you can piggyback on someone else’s extraction).
Which all sounds delightfully simple, but at any time in the Dark Zone other players can choose to go ‘rogue’ and kill you to steal your stuff.
That puts a bounty on their head making them a target visible across the map (though you don’t go rogue if you kill an agent that’s already rogue), but it’s a quick way to get loot and XP. This makes it a weighty decision as to whether you form an uneasy truce with any players you come across, or go ‘full git’ immediately and then try and tough it out until your rogue status expires or you manage to extract and escape.
As well as costing you any goodies you’ve found, dying in the Dark Zone loses you Dark Zone XP and Dark Zone credits for use with the black market vendors in the area. It doesn’t affect your main game XP or cash, but as your base level dictates how sturdy you are in the Dark Zone and you can use extracted gear outside of it there’s a clever synergy between the two modes.
Doing better in one means you have a headstart in the other, which in turn can get you better gear for the first and so on. The whole setup is a lot of fun – the fact that it can go from co-op to head-to-head instantaneously and simultaneously leads to some very tense Mexican standoff-style encounters, especially around extractions.
This is one game where the happy ‘wave hand’ emote is a lot more than just a bit of fun, as it can save your buttocks from another player’s nervy pre-emptive attack.
Overall, my appetite is well and truly whetted for the full game coming in March.
Despite being a Beta, I never encountered any bugs or flaws, and everything looks essentially finished (and looks very good in a literal sense too – the level of detail makes this feel properly next gen, rather than something a 360 or PS3 could still pull off).
My only minor gripes and concerns are that the menus are fairly busy (though understandably so given how much there is to do), and while it works well the cover/moving between cover system takes a bit of getting used to.
A lot will also hinge on exactly how much content is in the full game. Lovely-looking deserted city streets may fit the bill, but without enough to do it’ll get dull fast even with tense Dark Zone runs to spice things up. Fingers crossed Ubisoft have got a good balance between content and polish, as there’s a lot of potential here for a real cracker. SUPER BAD ADVICE