The Division could well be Ubisoft's Genre Defining Magnum Opus
The Open Beta for The Division has opened on Xbox One and will soon be available to PC & PS4. As avid gamers the world over log on and take their first look at Ubisoft’s 2016 blockbuster title they will get their first taste (maybe second if you were in the closed beta), of a game that could well be the Magnum Opus for a studio that has taken heavy criticism over the last couple of years.
Before you immediately hit the comment button and berate me for making such lofty claims for a title that has only been in Open Beta for a bit over 12 hours, allow me to explain how I could possibly put forward such lofty words such as “Magnum Opus”. You see one of the perks of being a part of the gaming media is that every now and again you get a chance to take an early look at titles. For me I have been following The Division closely, as many of you have, ever since it was first announced. I have also had the chance to sit on on various early hands-off preview sessions for the game and prior to the Open Beta have had the privilege of being part of the Closed Beta phase.
Now that we’ve got that bit out of the way, allow me to explain why I believe The Division has the potential to change the way people think of Ubisoft and re-define a genre.
When I first saw the announcement trailers I was blown away by a game that teased a massive open world with some of the crispest graphics I had seen. Of course being a Ubisoft title and watching the way Watch Dogs went from huge amount of potential to an average GTA-esque clone with a cyber twist, I was more than a little bit reluctant to get excited. That reluctance seemed justified when I attended a couple of hands-off previews showing some gameplay on Xbox One. The potential of the open world was clearly on show but graphics wise it was nothing like the game that had been paraded around in the trailers. The high res particle effects and textures shown in trailers had been replaced by a game that showed pixelated and grainy effects, particularly when it came to smoke effects and detail modelling looked way off. At that point in time The Division was still slated for a 2015 release date (after already being pushed back) and I was genuinely concerned for the game. Then came the announcement that The Division wouldn’t see the light of day until 2016 and as E3 2015 rolled around, followed by Armageddon in New Zealand in November, I’d had my first taste of hands-on gameplay. All of a sudden things started to come together, the particle effects had taken a drastic leap forward as had the overall detail of the City. After experiencing the closed Beta and spending a few hours with the open Beta it is immediately evident that Ubisoft got it dead right pushing the release date back. The Division is now a game that, in the hands of the gamer, looks a hell of a lot like the game that we have been shown in the trailers. Exceptional detail on the characters, a world that is stunning with particle and texture effects that bring to life a city that is gripped by crisis.
It’s one thing to have amazing graphics though but it all falls to pieces if the gameplay isn’t up to the same standard. Whilst there are a few niggling issues at this stage, the impressions from hands on time with the game is that there is plenty to suggest that the gameplay is living up to and will continue to live up to the standards set by the graphics, with potential to go even further.
When you first meet the Beta you’ll be greeted by the voice of a friendly community manager (kiwi-accent and all) ready to guide you through a basic tutorial to equip you with the basic knowledge required to jump into the beta. Once that’s done and dusted it’s time to create your character. At Beta stage there isn’t too much depth on offer but the character creation menus suggest that more customisation will be on offer come release day. Get through the character creation and it’s time to launch into the Beta.
Right from the opening cutscene, The Division shows off those stunning visuals, on board a helicopter being taken to the Forward Base in New York City. There is a fair bit in the opening but I don’t want to spoil the opening so other than saying that you start out on a helicopter heading to the forward base, I’ll leave it to you all to experience it first hand. Once at the forward base, you’re greeted by a base that is alive and immediately reveals the fact that The Division is an online Multiplayer RPG. NPC’s are all around the base but look around and you’ll quickly find real players going about their business, not alike what we’ve seen in Destiny. Much like Destiny it is possible to interact with other players and is an essential part of the entire Division experience. Teamwork is right at the heart of the game.
As you make your way out of the forward base heading toward your first mission, that online connectivity starts to come to the forefront. Venture out on your own and you may be alerted to the fact that an event is going on nearby, you can choose to go participate or carry on with what you are doing. Should you choose to participate you’ll engage in a mission that sees you team up with other online players. All of this happens seamlessly as you play, no load times, just a fluid transition from single player to multiplayer, all without having to lift a finger, no annoying message asking you if you want to accept the mission and then have to wait painfully while a connection is loaded only to then find out that the server couldn’t connect.
When it comes to the controls, The Division is a tactical cover based experience. If you want to go in all guns blazing you’re going to experience a world of hurt and be dead before you’ve had a chance to rethink your strategy. Being patient, working with your teammates and more importantly, engaging with the enemy from behind cover will provide you with the biggest rewards and make it easier to complete your objectives. The Division isn’t the first game to employ a cover based system but it does it so well that even in beta form, that it sets a standard that I can easily see other studios copying in the future. In a city that has been ravaged by crisis, there is cover everywhere and entering cover is as simple as pressing one button. From there you can pop out and shoot, throw grenades, heal yourself or even look around and select another piece of cover then watch as your character gets up and automatically runs to the spot you selected. The system is beautifully simplistic and for the most part works very well, expect future cover based games to employ a system that will be very similar.
The Division is an RPG so leveling up and customisation are a big part of the experience. As XP and rewards are gained, skills will be unlocked to allow the player to develop a character that suits their style of play. Anyone who has played this style of game, in particular, Destiny, will be at home with the progression system. It’s been tried and tested over the years and in this instance the “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to progression is welcome. When it comes to weapon customisation, The Division goes for the easy to understand approach. Scopes, Grips, and other accessories, whilst limited in the Beta still give a good indication of what to expect in the final release. What I really like is that when you are looking at the various customisation options, each selection reveals a series of stats the tell you how the change will effect your weapon. I much prefer seeing the what impact my choices will have on my weapon stats rather than just some vague description that says something like “improves accuracy”.
When it comes to The Division, I keep thinking about simplicity. The simple and intuitive cover system, the easy to understand impact of weapon selection and upgrades. Often RPG’s can try and overthink the gameplay experience which leads to unintuitive controls that detract from is otherwise a solid game. The Division’s well thought out approach to the player experience has created one of the most intuitive gameplay experiences I’ve had in an action-RPG, which is unbelievable considering this puppy is going through the beta test. Take the intuitive cover system, mix it with seamless co-operative play, a solid progression system and breathtaking visuals that bring to life a New York City that is as atmospheric as you’ve seen in a video game and Ubisoft appear to be on to a winner. The decision to push back the release date on numerous occasions has been frustrating for many, myself included, in fact at one point I was convinced that the game would never be released, however that decision has turned out to be a godsend. The game as it was near earlier release dates looks nothing like the game that we are seeing now, the polish has really gone on in all aspects of the game. It would take something catastrophic for something to happen to The Division in the few weeks between beta and final release so the everything is pointing towards Ubisoft delivering their best title in years. After the success of Rainbow Six Siege, there could well be a case for Ubisoft just sticking to Tom Clancy titles. Make no mistake about it, The Division has all the hallmarks of a classic. Come release day expect to see a game that takes another leap forward from the beta, if that does happen then this is one title that may well be a genre defining title and Ubisoft’s finest moment, or should I say, Magnum Opus.