Tom Clancy’s The Division – Hands-on preview

Hundreds of billions of dollars change hands on the day after Thanksgiving. In a bid to grab the latest tech, clothes for the kids, or that cheap Blu Ray player, people flock to stores before the sun rises — a warped and often violent version of hunting and gathering that has fueled economies around the world for decades.

Imagine what would happen if that money was tainted.

People thought it was an early outbreak of the flu. It wasn’t until the bridges were closed and the first cases of smallpox were diagnosed that things turned ugly. People began to die by the hundreds, and then thousands. Central Park was turned into a cemetery. Riker’s Island prison had a full riot and all prisoners were loosed on the city with weaponry. The police and first responders simply didn’t have the numbers to fight against a threat this large, and the collapse that followed was devastating.

Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, New York, and other cities fell to this pandemic. When law and order fails, and essential services collapse, a group called The Division is activated to try to help where local and national government cannot. Unlike other Tom Clancy protagonists, members of The Division are not super soldiers. They are highly skilled and trained embedded agents, but fall into an almost sleeper cell-like role, carrying on normal lives as teachers, firefighters, and other mundane paths.

The Division is made of everyday heroes.

The Division is made of everyday heroes.

Warriors, come out and play
I went hands-on with The Division’s single player experience, as well as the mysterious Dark Zone that rounds out the game. Throughout the experience I was paired up with another member of the press, and a Ubisoft environmental artist. The Division can be played solo, but at its core it is a four-player cooperative open-world action RPG/shooter hybrid. In a near 1:1 representation of the island of Manhattan in New York City, the game plays out in three different initial paths.

Before you get too far into the city you’ll be tasked with breaking the siege on the Post Office in front of Penn Station. With the enemy presence fended off, that’ll serve as your base of operations. It’s, frankly, a shithole. But hey, it’s your shithole, and you’ll get the chance to upgrade it across three tracks — Medical, Technology, or Security. As you rescue essential personnel such as doctors, military members, or infrastructure experts, they come back to the base and help spruce it up. Beyond cosmetics, these also unlock additional perks and attract vendors and other survivors that bring it to life. Everything you do in the world earns you resources, allowing you to build out the three wings. This building is instanced to you, preventing a “Groundhog Day” situation, or having the upgrade spoiled for you by other players. Where you go and what you do is what affects your progression, not just vanilla XP from kills. The open world and non-linear narrative unfolds as you see fit, giving you puzzle pieces that complete the story as a whole.

The Division is not class-based, instead relying on skills, perks, and most important weapons and mods to round out a character that quickly starts to feel uniquely your own. That said, you aren’t locked into any particular loadout, allowing you to re-spec on the fly as you group up with friends. You can be the medic one minute and the grenadier the next, or mix and match as you see fit. The world is your toxin-filled oyster.

Awfulness abounds in the world of The Division.

Awfulness abounds in the world of The Division.

We’ve all played cover-based shooters, but The Division deserves the nod for managing to live up to that “thinking man’s shooter” moniker. Early on in my play I felt like I was a rookie, fumbling among the main and secondary firearms, juggling six gear slots, and two skills. There were plenty of times where I dropped a flashbang at my own feet on accident. After an hour, I was a seasoned veteran, having levelled up and mastered the simple-but-full control scheme. It’s at that point that I really dug into the mods.

Mods are typically reserved for weapons, allowing you to put a scope, buttstock, or other goodie onto your favorite toy for additional damage or handling. All of that is here to be sure, but you can also mod the huge array of unlockable skills, all of your armor pieces that fill your character slots, and that doesn’t even include the 40 unlockable perks! Combine all of that with tactical planning, cover placement, and teamwork and you’ve got something that feels like a blend of many of Red Storm’s earlier tactical-shooter efforts.

With a few main missions under our belt, we popped open the minimap to see the side content. We saw two factions that had a grip on the city. The aforementioned “Rikers” were the escaped prisoners from Rikers Island. They live to sow chaos, and have taken enough police equipment to do exactly that. We also ran into Cleaners. These are blue collar sanitation workers who’ve unilaterally decided to solve this problem by burning it out. Making no distinction between sick and healthy, they intend to kill everyone and start over. We also spotted a third faction, but I’m going to leave that one in the shadows as it’d spoil some of the fun. Taking out these side missions granted loot drop opportunities, credits, XP, but most importantly Intel. Pieces of intel are collectibles that fill in some more of the story on how things in New York ended up as bad as its current state. In my limited playthrough they didn’t feel repetitive like some other open-world games, but time will tell.

This building becomes your hub...if you can take it from the enemy.

This building becomes your hub…if you can take it from the enemy.

We didn’t do a lot of interacting with the civilian populous, but there are folks roaming the streets of New York. Dropping random things like bottles of water and dog food you might otherwise use for your own health yielded a few interesting items. Sometimes it’s a “Fashionable hat” or a new cosmetic skin for my weapon, but it’s another method to drag random loot into your bag.

As this game is an open-world RPG, as you discover areas you’ll see a recommended level for tackling it via the well-integrated augmented reality overlay. You are welcome to tackle it anyway, but enemies within are smarter, well equipped, and may simply riddle you full of holes. Playing cooperatively you can be stabilized by other players should you fall, but all skills have a cooldown timer (including healing), and medpacks are finite, so approach at your own peril. .

Welcome to the Dark Zone
The Dark Zone lies at the center of the city, and is every bit as ominous as it sounds. It is the only area where friendly fire is enabled, and it’s the only place you’ll run into other players that aren’t a part of your co-op team. Using the emotes, or proximity-based voice chat, you’ll get a chance to have other players plead their case. You see, the Dark Zone is where the best loot in the game resides. Scattered randomly around the zone are bags, boxes, and other sources of loot. The loot, MMO style, falls into your usual color-coded schema, with Legendary topping the list. Not unlike many ARPGs, they also are level-bound to prevent anyone from pumping up their friends before they’ve hit the appropriate levels. Once you pick up one of these items, your character will sport a conspicuous yellow bag hanging behind their pack.

It might as well be a red bullseye.

The bag contains your contaminated weapon, mod, or whatever else might be in the mystery box. You won’t know until you successfully extract it, and therein lies the rub. Once you find an extraction point, you’ll have to pop a flare to signal for pick up — something everyone in the zone can see. You wouldn’t be extracting if you didn’t have something worthwhile, so it tends to attract everyone in the zone. If they show up and see a well-armed group, all sporting bags of their own, they might think better of engaging and slink off to find their own goodies. They could also roll the dice and open fire, using flanking and tactics to take down the team. They could also join your team with relative ease and earn a few bits of Dark Zone credits or Dark Zone XP, even if they don’t get a share of the item-shaped loot.

The risks of the Dark Zone are very real.

The risks of the Dark Zone are very real.

Let’s suppose that you are the griefing sort in the Dark Zone. If you shoot a fellow player you are flagged as “Going rogue” and have a small penalty imposed on you if you die. Kill more players and that after-death penalty grows larger, but you’ll likely have picked up some gear and extracted it in the bargain. This sort of risk/reward mechanism had a surprising effect — once players felt the sting, suddenly the Dark Zone went from being a free-for-all to somewhat self-policing. Sure, there was some backstabbing going on, especially as the extraction zone, but the fear of losing their own gear helped balance it out. We’ll have to see what happens when the game ships, but this hands-on time gave me a new perspective. The Alpha felt a little too much like unrestrained chaos, but the threat of losing my favorite sniper rifle sure made me sit up in my seat a little and behave.

Both Massive and Red Storm made it very clear over the four hours of hands-on time that they realize that they need to deliver more than what ships to keep their audiences engaged. When the game ships on March 8th the teams have already committed to “several free updates and DLC” post-launch. What that translates to is still very much up in the air, but it’s encouraging to hear.

Mid-game content
The final portion of our day focused on the mid-game content of The Division Bumping our characters up to Level 20 (the cap is 30) and filling our bags with all sorts of mods and weapons, we aimed to tackle one of the more difficult missions in the game. Bumping the difficulty to Hard (the developer said we were the best team he’d seen play the game) we entered the Lexington Event Center. Our objective was simple — secure the stadium and drive out the current residents; a group of well-equipped looters lead by a woman named Larae Bennett. All we knew going in was that Larae had done horrible things, killing first-responders, police, and other civilians without mercy. We’d have to take her and her thugs down to recover the intel that would help us fill in the gaps. Below you’ll find a video that showcases this fight, showing off how teamwork can be critical to success.

Tom Clancy's The Division - no commentary [Gaming Trend]

With my time with The Division at a close, I was pretty surprised at how feature-complete and bug-free it was with two months before the March 8th release date. Sure, there were some animation wobbles, and at one point my guy’s “hacking” amounted to his hands spinning around like they were attached to a blender, but the gameplay was solid, the gunplay worked perfectly, and the risk/reward of the Dark Zone had even the most staunch single-player zealot like me raising an eyebrow at the risk/reward of precious loot. I got my hands on the PC version (note I did not say port) but we’ll dig into that on the 22nd when the embargo lifts. I’ll say this — if you’ve been disappointed with PC ports in the past, you’ll want to tune in as the team has something pretty special here.

Tom Clancy’s The Division releases on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on March 8th.

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