Thursday, 12 May 2016

Tom Clancy’s The Division: It’s great, but it could be even better

Originally posted here:

Tom Clancy’s The Division has been out for a little over a week, and even though I was lucky enough to start playing a day early, I’m far from the max level of 30. This is fine. I’m okay with that – I’m in no rush. Whenever I’m able to grab half an hour here, an hour there, I’m enjoying strolling the streets, searching every nook and cranny, wiping the snow from my shoulders, and closing every car door.

“If you look at this as the foundation of an uncompleted game – and you can accept that – than there is much to look forward to”
My thoughts a week into this game are in the main, positive. There are issues, there are many things that can be improved upon, but if you look at this as the foundation of an uncompleted game – and you can accept that – then there is much to look forward to. What interests me is how many of the concepts that I can think of after just half an hour of ruminating would eventually be implemented into the game. Time will tell.

You have entered a contaminated area
New York is under attack. A virus was released on Black Friday via bank notes, and huge chunks of the population have died. The city is lawless; a contaminated urban, wintry sprawl, filled with bad guys who will shoot on sight, and the desperate rest – a society of dislocated locals who want nothing more than to be able to survive and bury their dead. And not become infected.
It’s bleak; from the incessant violence to the landscape. If the snow storms and fog aren’t oppressing you as you wander the streets, the piles of dead bodies and the after effects of explosions will. As a world-base for a game, it is incredibly well rendered with the Snowdrop engine, and amazingly visualized. It has a more ‘earthy’, grounded texture to it than, say, Grand Theft Auto 5.
There have been many comments about this oxymoron of a game; so real is the story and so grounded is the environment, that when it comes to the actual cover-based gameplay, any sense of immersion is lost. For some, this will kill the game – and they’ll be happy to let you know beneath YouTube videos showing human enemies sponging bullets like there’s no apocalypse. For others, it’s a case of just getting on with it and accepting it. Once you have done this – once you embrace the mechanics that open up from this – you can start enjoying it.
“There is a real sense of camaraderie, as you heal, cover, or revive one another”
The best moments so far, for me, have come from the main story missions. My biggest irk with Destiny was that some missions could be matchmade, while others couldn’t. It’s then a case of building a friendbase – which is fine – but sometimes you only have so much time and you want to just get on with it. Here, you can matchmake before every mission and set the difficulty. Initially, I wanted it to be as hard as possible to get the most XP and best loot for my character. (I’ve since discovered that the difficulty doesn’t affect XP).
Immediately, I realized that this would be the way to play if I wanted to have as much fun as possible, and I haven’t looked back. These missions take forever, as wave after wave of high-level enemies come at you, but as part of a team, especially if there is variety between your classes, there is a real sense of camaraderie, as you heal, cover, or revive one another. Completing the main missions this way gives much more satisfaction than you would otherwise get, better loot notwithstanding.

Loot, looting, and looters
So, everything you do in this game is geared towards getting better loot, be it armor, guns, or clothing. (If youloot, it’s okay – but come across any other looters and they’re dead.) This leads to an odd mental compromise that turns you into a walking Judge Dredd – the only concession I can see is if perhaps Ubisoft implemented a system where looters weren’t bad guys until you were near them, and then they could choose to shoot or run. So it was never you shooting first.
“There needs to be a sub-menu where you can quickly assess all the assault rifles you have collected”
When it comes to the loot, there are basically three categories: weapons, armor and cosmetic. How much attention you pay to these in the early stages is up to you – there’s the constant problem that you can spend half an hour, running around, crafting and buying and upgrading your weapons and armor to max the potential of your level, only for you to go out, earn a few XP, and your gear is already redundant. Only until you max out does it make much sense to get really deeply into it, beyond choosing your weapon-type.
Here is another simple fix which I would be surprised if Ubisoft didn’t deal with. You can return to base with 20-30 weapons and they’re listed in the weapons inventory seemingly at random. The icons for each aren’t immediately clearly indicative of the weapon type. There needs to be a sub-menu where you can quickly assess all the assault rifles you have collected and mark the junk as junk. Likewise, if you don’t use LMGs, you can quickly pop into the sub-menu and mark all as junk. You can compare with triangle (on PS4) but even here it takes your equipped gun and applies all the mods you have fitted to it, which ups its damage ability. You’re comparing a modded gun to a non-modded gun, so you first need to unmod it. Another seemingly simple fix.

For the orienterer in you
The size of the map is pretty decent. The lack of vehicles definitely helps with the scale. If you could drive from one end to the other, it wouldn’t take very long at all. But walking – you’d do well to walk from one end to the other, without becoming distracted by some enemies, in 20 minutes. It’s a game that positively encourages you to walk – not even run – to soak in the environment. If you pull back to reveal the whole map, I would be very surprised if, in the end, the whole of Manhattan doesn’t become available through DLC. You could complain that the variety of locations on show is lacking, but I think the gaming world has been screaming out for a fully-realized, realistic urban environment. And besides, I’m not sure how or if it could be managed, but a simple change of season could really freshen the game world up. Hmm, imagine the game imitating the real-life New York weather and seasons… I digress. The map also discloses locations of side missions and collectibles – the usual. With nearly 300 collectibles, there’s enough for the completionist’s wet-dream.

Playing dress up
Now, can we talk about customization? Why is there no item viewer? For guns and things like knee-pads, it’s not so essential. But half the fun of creating a character that you take into the world to play alongside other players is the ability to customize it. Ubisoft should have made this an important aspect of the game, building certain elements around it. Or perhaps now the foundation has been built, they should be looking at patching this next. For example, it’s all very well picking a pair of trendy boots from someone’s wardrobe without checking them out first, as it doesn’t cost you anything. But you can unlock a cosmetics store in the base of operations and all you have to go on before purchasing is the item name. You should be able to view it, view it on your character, or at least be able to get a refund back. You should also be able to sell clothing back, or at least donate the clothing to the needy (for XP? For other cosmetic exchange?)
“It just populates the world with clones and doesn’t attach you to your own character as much as it could”
That said, the ability to even properly view your own character is pretty limited. And the worst of all things was the character creation module at the start, having to choose from a set of ready-made faces. It just populates the world with clones and doesn’t attach you to your own character as much as it could. You’re role-playing here – where are the customization options? (The ability to change clothing color could also be cool.)
The more I’ve played, the greater variety of clothing I’ve been able to find, but I still wonder how varied it is… still, it’s nice to change up every so often, and a nice touch that Ubisoft could add would be the ability to create outfits, negating the need to enter each category and stroll through the growing list of clothing for that perfect match.

A classless class system
The idea of creating an outfit leads nicely to another idea that could be implemented – perhaps side by side. One of the great benefits of the game is the skills system, which allows you to switch between custom ‘classes’ on the fly. You can be a medic one moment, or a tank the next. In theory, you should decide at the start of a mission how you want to play, judging how your teammates are set up. It would still be nice however if you could have a set of pre-made custom classes that you could switch between on the fly. Perhaps outfits could also be attached to play style.
“That’s why the missions need to be completed in hard mode with other people – it becomes more like a chess match”
On the topic of play style, it’s not for everyone. As a third-person, cover-based shooter, the obvious benefit here is that you can see your character. This means that every action needs to be animated perfectly, and in the main Ubisoft have managed that. There are some sticky issues, literally, getting stuck in cover, or getting to cover only to find that it’s not actually something you can cover behind. It’s instances like this where a crouch button would be handy – I’m honestly not sure why this doesn’t exist. Or the ability to lie prone. I’ve seen complaints that third-person also makes things too easy. If it was first person, when in cover you would have no idea where the enemies were, or if they were flanking you. In third-person, all the action is kind of spelled out. That’s why the missions need to be completed in hard mode with other people – it becomes more like a chess match. It’s an entirely different style of play, and you either enjoy it, or you don’t.

Building on the foundations and end game
If I were Ubisoft I would be looking to both flesh out the world with activities and iron out its incongruity. From their Year One trailer it’s obvious that they have large-scale plans in place in terms of story and missions, to cater for those maxed out players, which is great. There are a lot of people out there debating about The Division‘s End Game, complaining that there isn’t one. I think if you look at the likes of Destiny it’s obvious that there is an End Game, and it consists of completing the same missions over and over, completing challenges, and looting up. But what’s to complain about here? I know at my pace it’ll take me 40-50 hours to max my level, which is more hours than you would put into the main story of a lot of games. On normal, you can complete The Last of Us in 10-12 hours. Where was the End Game there?
“The Dark Zone is likely to play the biggest role when it comes to player’s conception of the End Game”
At least with The Division you’re never likely to have the same mission experience twice. How you complete a mission depends on your class, your teammates’ class, and everyone’s play style. Shotgun or marksman? Explosions or tear gas? From my experience so far there is a huge amount of replayability in the missions. And that’s just the ‘single-player’ experience. I haven’t even touched on the Dark Zone yet, the area where you’re free to shoot other players, or join up and take out high-level bosses for high-level loot. Extraction points can be areas of mania as everyone is watching their back, waiting to be stabbed in it, anxiously waiting for the helicopter to take their loot to be decontaminated. The Dark Zone is likely to play the biggest role when it comes to player’s conception of the End Game.

As fun as the action is, I would love to see a focus on improving the little things, the incongruities that dispel the immersion, however briefly. Favorite moments have come from realizing people are watching from their windows in tenement buildings, or returning to the base of operations and seeing that people have moved around, that they’re active in this world. It’s the use of NPCs where I think the best opportunities could come. At the moment, they’re either the enemy or needy (or scared of you for no reason). As time progresses, NPCs could become more resourceful.
“It is your Division avatar; you want to have fun shooting people, but you want to look good doing it”
Throw in some Bethesda and you could get NPCs dishing out mini missions of their own – one resourceful fellow who has set up a water station from the front of his tenement building and needs to set up a water trade route, or another who trades customization items for resources. There could be NPCs who have unique items of clothing, skins – who can cut your hair and provide other every day services. This sounds a little strange perhaps, as it is a Tom Clancy game, but this is a game that primarily wants you to enjoy the character you create, so everything should be done to help the player immerse themselves fully. It is your Division avatar; you want to have fun shooting people, but you want to look good doing it.
The game is fun to play at the moment and beautifully realized, but it’s just the start. A year from now, it could be exceptional.

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