Tom Clancy’s The Division – Beta Impressions

Title   Tom Clancy’s The Division
Developer  Ubisoft Massive
Publisher  Ubisoft
Platform  Windows PC, PS4, Xbox One
Genre  MMO, Third-person shooter, Action RPG
Release Date  March 8th, 2016
Official Site

divisionbeta1New York can’t seem to catch a break.  If it’s not being blown to bits, invaded by aliens or submerged by the sea, it’s ground zero for an epidemic of weaponised smallpox. On Black Friday, banknotes infected with a virus are unleashed upon the unknowing, bargain-hungry shoppers of the Big Apple, who unwittingly spread the contagion as the infected notes countlessly change hands. Before anyone can do much about it, the pandemic has already breached the city and swept across the United States, and within five days the Government has collapsed, society has crumbled, and panic-induced chaos has erupted.

This is the cheery and scarily factual premise of Ubisoft’s much delayed Tom Clancy’s The Division, the online, open-world RPG from Massive Entertainment which set tongues wagging all the way back at E3 2013.  As a member of the top-secret Strategic Homeland Division, it’s your job (and every other Agents’ in this partially shared world shooter) to bring back order and keep the peace on New York’s now lawless streets, taking back the city from the opportunistic gangs who’ve thrived in the viral outbreak’s ensuing disorder, and ultimately uncover the truth behind the bio-terror attack.


After an Xbox One exclusive Alpha and suffering a delay itself, Ubisoft recently allowed players to get some hands-on time with the game via a closed Beta on all platforms. Granting access to a very small slice of the early game, we were given a taste of what to expect from The Division’s full release come early March, with slightly mixed results. Make no mistake, there are enough positives to suggest The Division will be another fine addition (excuse the unintentional mathematical pun) to the Tom Clancy universe, but equally there are causes for concern which indicate, on this showing, a greater struggle than first thought in living up to the near insurmountable levels of hype generated over the last two-and-a-half years.

First things first, let’s address the elephant in the room. As is common practise for Ubisoft these days, The Division has expectedly undergone a noticeable graphical downgrade since its jaw-dropping reveal demo in 2013. We’re not quite talking a Watch Dogs-level downgrade here, though, and by no means is it a bad looking game, Massive’s in-house Snowdrop engine producing impressive views from all angles. But compared to its first showing, the city streets aren’t as rich with detail, effects have been pared back, and the famous car door closing animation looks less nuanced. It’s not a deal breaker or unsurprising, but it is still a disappointment and worth a mention all the same.

divisionbeta3Of interesting note are the options available to tweak some graphical settings in the Visuals menu. These allow you to toggle chromatic aberration (a motion blur of sorts) on and off and adjust image sharpness with a slider. Meanwhile, a recent Q&A with Massive hinted at another slider not present in the Beta which controls lighting, claiming it may have an impact on frame-rate depending on your preference. With the default settings on Xbox One, however, the frame-rate seemed pretty solid as it is, but whether this will be the case come later in the game during busier scenes remains to be seen.

It also remains to be seen how the game will begin proper. Story details were understandably cut from the Beta, and it’s pretty obvious from the opening cutscene something critical transpired only moments ago. Whatever it was probably acts as the full game’s tutorial, but Ubisoft evidently aren’t ready show this yet. After being dropped off at the Hudson Piers, our first task is to establish a Base of Operations over at the James A. Farley Post Office Building, only a few blocks’ walk away in the game. After being decontaminated, we make our way through the surrounding military camp, a social hub for players, walking past a bunch of vendors selling items we can’t yet afford and a situation board as other players greet us by way of waving, clapping, and jumping jacks. Holding down right on the d-pad to bring up a selection wheel of emotes, we return the gestures, showcasing some of The Division’s MMO leanings.

Once out on the streets, it’s an understatement to say the city has seen better days.  Cars sit abandoned with scavengers attempting to break in for supplies, rubbish bags pile up on street corners waiting to be collected by non-existent services, and one poor fellow staggers up to us in clear need of medical aid. We give them one of our few Medkits, figuring they need it more than we do, and proceed to make our way towards our objective, following the floating orange trail projected onto our HUD. As we walk across the iced over roadways, civilians audibly react to our presence and the firearms we carry, and so too do a pair looters who stupidly pull out their own weapons of choice, thinking they can make an easy grab.  They’re promptly taken care of, but two men can’t put up enough of a challenge to test out The Division’s tactical, cover-based combat in full. But from the radio chatter and sound of gunfire, a proper fight is only around the corner.


Our designated Base of Operations is under fire from multiple enemies whose backs are turned to us as we enter the street, giving us the drop on the fight. Hunkering down behind a waist-high wall, we edge around the corner by holding the analogue stick to the side, and dart from cover to cover by holding down the A button. After getting close enough and lining up sights with the nearest shooter, it takes a few extra bullets than you’d expect to bring him down. Picking his mates off one by one afterwards, it becomes apparent this is indeed more of an RPG than the dedicated shooter it first appears, numbers instead of blood coming out of enemies representing damage inflicted.

Watching a hoodlum take half a dozen bullets to the face and survive certainly takes some getting used to, especially for a game bearing the Tom Clancy name – Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six all feature shooting where a straight headshot equals instant death. This isn’t the case with The Division, and combat feels less satisfying and more of a drag as a result. Of course, we have to bear in mind this is only the start of the game, with a low level Agent equipped with entry level gear, and it’s more a matter attributed to the type of game than a problem with its mechanics, but if enemies scale up as you do and persist as bullet-sponges throughout then combat will likely grow tiring come the endgame.

divisionbeta5With the attack thwarted, it’s time to enter the building and establish the base by inspecting its Medical, Tech and Security wings. From what we can tell, these wings will form the basis of the mission structure, as tasks out in the field are categorised by their three different headings, and by eventually upgrading each you’ll be gifted with a string of associated rewards. The first assignment for each is to find a suitable figure to run their respective operations, because at this point each wing is little more than an empty room, urgently needing staff and equipment.  Talking to your handler, the right persons for the job are currently in need of rescuing out in the city, but for the Beta only one of these missions are available – to rescue Dr Jessica Kandel from some rather nasty people over the road in Madison Square Garden, which has been adapted into a makeshift field hospital.

But before we depart, we’ve levelled up enough to select a new Skill. You can have two of these equipped at any one time mapped to the shoulder buttons, and these are also split into Medical, Tech and Security, essentially the game’s healer, damage-dealer and support classes. Except “classes” isn’t the right word, because in The Division you’re not bound to any particular role, able to mix and match at your leisure. One of the slots we earlier assigned the Ballistic Shield, which grants us some extra protection at the cost of using two-handed weaponry. For the second slot, we opt for Pulse, which sends out a signal highlighting hostiles and allies on our HUD. A lot of the Skills were not available in the Beta, though, but looking at their names and going by previous demoes you can expect the usual assortment of mobile cover, sentry turrets and homing mines. No doubt all will have their uses, but there’s nothing particularly original on offer, not that that’s a bad thing. The menus to select your Skills, as well as weapon mods, the map, Talents and Perks (the latter two also not available in the Beta) aren’t exactly what you’d call user friendly, mind you. Overly cluttered and easy to get lost in, these could greatly benefit from a redesign.


Over in Madison Square Garden, there are more opportunities to test our trigger finger. Moving upwards towards Dr Kandel, the battles here are mostly wave based, sending up to four separate groups of enemies flooding into an area one after another. Armed with an assault rifle, submachine gun, pistol and grenades, they’re not too difficult to take out, in spite of absorbing a few bullets too many. Equipping grenades proves to be of greater challenge, holding down left on the d-pad to bring up the selection wheel and using the analogue stick to choose the desired projectile being quite a fiddle in the heat of combat. Nevertheless, after a climactic battle on the roof involving a heavy-gunner, Dr Kandel is finally rescued and safely returned to base, opening up the Medical wing for upgrades and bringing the closed Beta’s offering of missions to a close (the open Beta, not yet live at the time of writing, is set to include one more).

divisionbeta7The main missions may have ceased, but this is an online game, and even in the Beta there remain activities in need of our attention, and gladly we’re not talking about the equivalent of hacking into radio towers à la every other Ubisoft game here. Encounters involving hostage rescue and base assaults are scattered throughout the network of streets and back alleys, one of which involves the Cleaners, of faction of nutters hell-bent on eradicating the virus, and thus any potential carriers, with flamethrowers. There are also Echoes to uncover, backstory-revealing 3D holographic recordings of events during the outbreak which play out in an augmented reality.

And then there’s the Dark Zone.

The Dark Zone is a walled-off quarantine zone in the middle of the city where the infection is most concentrated. It’s where the military desperately tried to contain the outbreak during the early days of the pandemic, gathering all infected patients here in an attempt to keep the virus contained. But after being overwhelmed with not just the sick but rioters and looters, made worse by the eventual lack of power, the military abandoned the area leaving all their supplies and equipment behind in their haste.  This means the Dark Zone is where The Division’s best loot can be found, and it’s also the game’s PvP area, meaning you may be in for a fight to keep that high-end weaponry for yourself.

Entering the Dark Zone solo is ill-advised. Clad in gas masks, it’s every Agent for him or herself out here, and there are also members of the game’s enemy factions, naturally armed to the teeth, to contend with too, so ideally you’ll want some trusted backup at your side. When you do get your hands on some loot, be it through force or unlocking one of the many hidden chests, you need to call in a helicopter to extract it and take it away for decontamination, although why you can’t take it to one of the decontamination chambers you exit the Dark Zone through is unclear. By launching a flare into the sky, you’re not only calling in for the chopper but advertising to everyone in the vicinity, NPC and players, that you’ve got something worth extracting.  They’ll be coming for you, and you’ve got to hold out for ninety seconds until the helicopter arrives.


NPCs in the Dark Zone will always be hostile, but you can form uneasy alliances with other players who may also have some loot they wish to extract as well. Caution is advised, however, because they can turn rogue and gun you down at a moment’s notice, as can your trusted buddies, to take you’re would-be rewards from your cold, dead hands and keep it for themselves. It brings to mind the paranoia of Kane & Lynch’s Fragile Alliance modes, where the greed of other players can bring out the worst in them. But it might not be greed so much as desperation in The Division; it’s going to be a tough fight to reclaim New York, and if you think you can escape the Dark Zone unscathed with some unlawfully obtained high-end gear and the resulting bounty on your head, it might be worth living with the guilt and taking the risk.

divisionbeta9And that brings our time with The Division’s Beta to a close. There’s a fair amount here in need of polish and optimising – the shooting lacks impact, movement feels a bit stodgy, the UI needs tidying – but Ubisoft are keen to stress this is still just a Beta, although realistically being so near to release it’s probably closer to a demo. Expect a sizable day one patch, then, but even considering no single aspect of The Division is outright exceptional at present, it’s a game that’s more than the sum of its parts. An online RPG shooter set in a decimated open-world New York as part of the Tom Clancy universe is a strong enough premise to get anyone hot under the collar, and gradually taking back the city, levelling up your Agent and Base of Operations, and venturing into the Dark Zone in the name of sweet loot may forge an addictive and absorbing enough pastime to smooth over any shortcomings.

On the flipside, with less than a month to go, it is concerning there’s still an awful lot we don’t yet know about: how well will the non-linear story be handled, what will the endgame entail, and exactly how much of New York will be available to explore at launch? If anything, Destiny proved a weak storyline and repetitive missions can’t deter players if the core loop of shooting and looting hooks you in deep. But based on the Beta, The Division’s shooting isn’t in the same league as Bungie’s blaster. Watching regular humans soak up bullets like the Hive, Vex and Cabal is a bit of stretch for the imagination, and for a game largely based around shooting bad guys, it could rather ironically end up dividing players down the middle.

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