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Monday, 20 March 2017

Tom Clancy's The Division one year later

Actually, Ubisoft's The Division was first announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2013, three years before it was released. To much of everyone who gleefully expected the game, including me, the game was almost what was advertised. Honestly, I first thought it would be a sort of single-player but mostly co-op focused open world third person shooter with role playing elements. As you'll see, it is not that. The graphics weren't as amazing as they were initially presented, but I understand that for two reasons. First, it was in a time when Ubisoft really put ALL their trust in the marketing department and used to advertise their games in a misleading manner. I think they learned their lesson by now, since their newest Tom Clancy game, Ghost Recon: Wildlands, was advertised in the most accurate way... possible. Secondly, these first gameplay footages they are showcasing are mostly done specifically for advertising purposes while the game is still very early in development and they only have the basics of what they strive for in the final version, hence why The Division has an entirely modified HUD. Besides, these first reveal gameplays are always done in a very constrained and linear manner, so that it can be filled with all kinds of effects, details and textures that can't be rendered in a full game with the limits of current technology. Now that I've both defended and criticized a single shitty practice Ubisoft pulled to rack in lots of money, let's talk about how The Division fares after its first birthday.
Before anything, I have to say that I first played The Division when Ubisoft released an open beta (I think it was open, don't remember) for the game before release and I was so disappointed with the game then just as I was recently with Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Please, before you judge my preferences, keep in mind that I respect yours. So I waited for a price drop. My rules are simple ones, and when it comes to prices, I value a game on what I see. If going by that first reveal gameplay at E3, I would've jumped the hype bandwagon day one, 60 bucks, no question asked. That's why I don't do that... anymore. Wait for reviews, watch some gameplay, decide if the game is worth full price or set your auction limit and wait until it gets there. From my experience, you won't miss anything. On the contrary, the longer you wait, the more polished a game you'll get. For me, it was 15 dollars. It got to that point in retail just recently and I decided it was worth the price.
I started my experience as a loner, retraced my open beta steps and then continued the story and side missions as much as I could, leveling up along the way. I did play with other people for a while, did some missions with others and went in the Dark Zone a few times as well, but I didn't linger too much on that aspect of the game. It may be that I'm simply not a multiplayer type of gamer, but it might also be that the multiplayer aspect of The Division felt soulless, devoid of personality. I could very well enjoy the story, since it made me feel like I was part of something, doing something that actually progressed my character and the world around me. By the way, the open world city of New York, more specifically just the midtown of Manhattan, devastated by the violent aftermath of the green flu virus, is in large part tied to each player's progress, so even when you're playing cooperatively you're either helping one squadmate or they're helping you, although you do share spoils and experience upon completion. I don't think the multiplayer part of the game was an afterthought, but it does seem to me like the game was primarily designed as a single-player, story-driven experience. It doesn't matter if you meet other players at a safe house or if the game picks them for you when you're giving matchmaking a chance, unless you play with a team of friends or a bunch of serious players, you're bound to play solo anyway, either dying a lot, spending a lot of time reviving others or just pushing forward silently. Oh, you'll get chatty ones or people who don't understand how microphones work, but there won't be anything pertinent coming from them. When they won't beg to be revived, most of the time they'll polute the sound with crappy background music and chips crackling, or whatever they're doing. So my advice is to just play alone or find cool people to play with and stick with them until you all get done with the game.
So what do you do in the game? You farm... for loot, weapons and gear. As I said, I went for the story missions first, I unlocked the Joint Task Force (JTF) Base of Operations and I've been given the task to upgrade it and seek safe houses, which unlock other stuff to do, like side missions, encounters, which are basically side missions, and finding collectibles. The JTF are the military good guys of the game, because the game says so and all other factions are basically just despicable people. There are four enemy factions roaming around the city and you have to take them all out. The Rioters are just some thugs with guns who loot stuff and are the most basic enemies in the game. Further down the map you'll meet the Cleaners, who are from what I understand a bunch of engineers who decided to put on fire retardant hazmat suits and armed themselves with flame throwers in an atempt to "clean" the virus on the streets. If you think their mission sounds noble but misguided, that's what the game wants you to believe too. However, they're just sadistic murderers who burn alive everyone who gets in their path. The third faction is called the Rikers and this is what's basically a highly organized street gang, stereotypes and all. The leader of the Rikers is a scarface lady by the name of Larae Barrett and this one's the most terrible human being I've ever seen in a video game, not really because she's portrayed as a digustingly evil villain, I can understand that, but because the developers wanted me to somehow feel sorry for her because she had a tough life. Lastly, but not really lastly, you'll meet the Last Man Battalion, a bunch of private military soldiers who pretend to bring order in the chaos, but just like all the other factions, they're just murderers, except very well equiped and the most dangerous force you'll face in the game. Apparently there's one more faction called the Hunters or something, but it's part of a DLC and I couldn't be bothered with that. As for the Rogue agents of The Division you'll meet once in a while, on top of them all stands a mysterious guy called Aaron Keener. You'll be fighting patiently for tens of hours to be able to turn him into Spongebob, but you won't get to because FU that's why, says the game. Well you can become a rogue agent too, you just need to shoot a brethren player in the Dark Zone, but guess what? What happens in the Dark Zone, stays in the Dark Zone. Except not really, because if one dude decides to go rogue, every other player in there, or even near the Dark Zone, knows who this guy is and he stays rogue until someone puts the bloke out of his or her missery, or everyone ignores them and they escape. So... it's kind of awkwardly thought out. You can kill whoever you want in the Dark Zone and if you meet them at a safe house all they can do is call you a bastard in the chatbox. At least they tried to rationalize this dissonance, but if it were up to me I'd just have left the multiplayer and single-player two separate things.
The level cap in the game is 30 and the closer you get to that level the more you start realizing how this loot farming is increasingly becoming a grind. The leveling system doesn't grant perks, you get that by upgrading the Base. The only benefit of the leveling system is the you get to equip better gear. Aft level 30, the gear is classified by "scores", which is kinda like levels, but dumber. However, with the introduction of the Underground expansion, the devs added Gear Sets, which although can drop the score of the gear, offer special tactical advantages, you know, like a real role playing game, and gladly you don't have to pay for this feature of the expansion. In terms of weapons, what you do is find (or buy) a really cool gun that you'll stick with for a very long time and you start mowing down enemies until they crap items that you'll sell to buy better items to mow down enemies to find more loot to sell and so on and so forth. I don't know what the limit is to this insanity because I have other stuff to do in my real life, so if the goal is to become the best at PVP in The Division, I really don't care. Also after level 30, you get some more grinding missions, called Search & Destroy, in which basically you can endlessly search and destroy harder targets. The point of this being that while you stop leveling up after 30, you start gaining experience points to get proficiency chaches, which contain various loot items, and you can gain these by carrying out daily and weekly challenges, or the good ol' fashion way, by being a cold serial killer. But it's okay, they're bad people so they deserve it.
Rest in peace, Sergeant Belden

If the game had a whole lot of bugs and problems when it first came out, Ubisoft had a whole year to flesh them out and make the game flawless, at least technically. Well, after revisions and updates, you at least won't fall through textures into the depths of digital limbo, but there are still texture pop-ins, I can't record gameplay anymore, like I did during the beta, without the game going haywire.
I know I give the impression that I'm a Negative Nancy about this game, but it did get under my skin in a lot of wonderful ways. Technical issues aside, the game looks wonderful even at the lowest settings. I actually had to play it on Medium graphical setting because anything higher would make the framerate stutter insanely, but it's probably something on my side, because I'm not using Ubisoft preferred GPU manufacturer. Massive Entertainment's Snowdrop Engine is that kind of impressive graphical achievement, so much so that Hideo Kojima has not only praised it but adopted it to make his newest game, Death Stranding, and the guy knows a thing or two about building games and game engines. One of the most amazing things about it was the cutscenes and the character animations. The first thing I thought was that the cutscenes are pre-rendered, but they're not, they're rendered in-engine on the spot. You can tell by the fact that your playable character retains his look the way you've customized his looks and clothing. The lighting is also just gorgeous, making the city feel simply photorealistic, be it day or night, foggy, snowing or sunny. The building look amazing, the interiors very detailed, even if in such a big world they handmade the interiors sometimes look the same and got me confused and asking myself if I've been there before or not. But this happens in other games too, at least this game has a huge amount of interiors to explore. The beauty is also in the details, in the fact that your character leaves steps in the snow, that the snow sticks to the models, the glaze of the sun in puddles on the street, the art and posters on the walls, the physics of objects you kick, the damn rats in the sewers and the freaking car door you can close and get an achievement for the first time you do it, like they're so f-ing proud of it. And the character animations are amazing too, like when you shoot a guy and he begins stumbling and limping to a cover, even though you shoot them in the head... you know, bulletsponges aside.
No, but speaking of animations, what the hell happened to Mass Effect: Andromeda? Damn!
Okay, let's talk about the bulletsponge thing and why enemies need several bullets in the brain to stay down. I get it, even though it's a Tom Clancy game and Tom Clancy games always strived for realism. There's no way you can do a multiplayer role playing game without gear progress and a leveling system, otherwise it wouldn't be a role playing game, and if you have the skill and accuracy to shoot every enemy in the head, then no amount of leveling would pose a threat and weapon levels wouldn't make any sense. It's one of the reasons why I liked Ghost Recon: Wildlands, actually.
I found the lack of enemy diversity to be also very disappointing and the elite enemies very frustrating. They're predictable, but they do try their hard to flank you and if you venture in a harder territory in which the enemies have a higher level than yours, you'll get shot down with couple of well placed bullets. The most annoying are the elite snipers. Even if they're ducked in cover and don't see when you move away from an initial spot, the second they pop out of cover their aim is spot on your brain. How do you counter that? It's a game on its own, trust me. You just need to be slightly faster than the AI, seriously. Wanna guess how many times you'll fail? That's why you just need to grind until no AI is a match. And then try Challenging mode... alone. Good luck!
You can wait an hour, it won't happen

Batman much?...

Since I mentioned Mass Effect: Andromeda... goodness, I can't get over that... I have to mention some of the things that reminded me of the Mass Effect original trilogy. One is the cover mechanic, you get a button to stick to a cover, push it twice to vault over cover and you can't jump, can't do it. Another is the soundtrack and holy mother of music it's amazing! Once in a while, out of nowhere, it kicks this uplifting heroic melody with that synthesizer sound that makes you want to get into a DeLorean and roam around the decrepit streets of New York like you're Snake Plisken. But you don't get to drive cars in The Division. The story is also told through the collectibles you discover throughout the city, like phone recordings, crashed drones, incident reports, survival guides and ECHOs, which are kinda like Batman Arkham's detective mode. Even if they seem optional, they're really interesting and you get the bigger picture of the disaster by discovering the events from other points of view than just what the main missions show.
Yeah, I got stuck and died

To conclude, I kinda like Ubisoft's The Division, but not really the way I hoped I will. If you didn't play the game yet, I think you should do it before they shut down servers and you'll miss out on history. If you did play the game, you probably hate me, but not for good reason. This game made me feel insignificant, a cog in a multiplayer machine. My character in which I put so much time and work isn't a hero or anyone special, but only a mute soldier among other soldiers that are probably better than me at what I did, even if it is one of the few games to congratulate me for being badass at what I do. That's why I prefer story focused games and playing lone wolf. I don't want to babysit other players, I don't want to be babysat and I don't want to feel like I'm controlling a mindless murderous puppet that's told what to do and does it without question. For example, a couple of the leaders of these factions could have at least been persuaded to see that what they're doing was wrong since their goals were, in theory, well-meaning. But you can't have that in a role playing game, right? Since I was playing the role of a dolt who has to buy his guns from the (Directive 51) government that I'm helping succeed. What the hell? Come on!
The last boss fight is with a helicopter.