E3 2015: Hands-On with ‘The Division’s’ Dark Zones

By | 1 year ago 

Boy, The Division sounds cool. A console-based MMO that fuses third person shooting with a deadly, disease ravaged New York City? Divide-and-conquer-based gameplay, focused on gathering resources and building strong, urban bases? A well implemented endgame, and innovative player versus player combat? That’s awfully ambitious, but Ubisoft seems confident that it’s up to the task.

It’s not clear if that’s true. So far, the game’s been delayed twice; The Division is now due out in 2016, roughly three years after it made its E3 debut. Recently, Massive Entertainment brought in Ubisoft Annecy to help with the game’s development. Those aren’t great signs. As critics of Destiny and Watch Dogs know, it’s easy to make bold promises; delivering is a whole other issue.

The demo at Ubisoft’s pre-E3 event – the very first time that the public ever got to play the game – didn’t assuage fears about repetitive gameplay, or a possible lack of endgame content, or the reliability of the game’s online infrastructure. It did, however, prove one thing: The Division exists. It’s playable. And Game Rant has tried it.

In the demo, teams of three players (two members of the press and one Ubisoft representative) ventured into The Division’s Dark Zone, an area of Manhattan that’s been abandoned by the military. Inside, there’s a lot of elite loot; it’s also incredibly dangerous. The area is patrolled by flame-thrower wielding Cleaners, as well as groups of escaped convicts called Rikers; it’s also filled with other players. Players don’t have to fight each other, but over the course of the E3 demo, that didn’t stop them.

Ubisoft made a big deal about how the transition between the regular game and the Dark Zone is seamless, and – at least in the twelve-person demo – that was true. Players simply climbed over a barricade in Times Square, and there they were. According to the reps, players outside the Dark Zone will actually be able to see other players inside through the barricade’s chain link fence, but there weren’t enough players online to see that working first hand.

The Dark Zone gameplay has two parts. First, teams need to hunt down loot, mostly by tracking groups of Cleaners and Rikers and raiding their supply stashes. However, the loot’s contaminated, and needs to be airlifted out of the Dark Zone. That’s the harder part. Teams can battle their way to the extraction point and call for a helicopter, but the helicopter takes about a minute and a half to arrive.

That’s a problem. Every player in the Dark Zone knows when a team calls for an extraction, meaning that the extraction points quickly devolve into deadly battlegrounds. Anyone who attacks another player is designated a “rogue agent,” and appears on the radar as an enemy. Killing rogue agents awards more experience, but that’s assuming that the rogue’s initial attack didn’t already wipe your team out. Oh, and if another player dies, their loot is up for grabs.

The Division Snow Manhattan

Survive for a minute and a half and successfully attach the contaminated gear to the helicopter (which takes a couple of seconds, and leaves players entirely exposed) to win the loot. From what we saw, that doesn’t always happen. Again, Ubisoft reps said that teams could work together if they wanted, but it never happened. Every extraction point was a bloodbath.

Mechanically, The Division feels pretty solid. As advertised, it’s a cover-based, third person shooter, and the basic combat engine doesn’t have any major surprises. Snapping in and out of cover is smooth and easy, and weapons felt fairly powerful, given the characters’ lower levels. This makes combat sound less exciting than it is. It’s hard to describe; over the course of the demo, nothing about the combat stood out, but it all felt right, somehow.

In addition to the two main weapons, characters also came equipped with a sidearm, and two specials – things like a group heal, “pulse” (which highlights enemies in the area), deployable turrets, sticky bombs, and so. Each special has its own cool down timer, so it can’t be spammed. There wasn’t enough time to really figure out the best way to use specials, but they did make every character feel like he had his own role to play.

What was impressive about the Dark Zone demo was just how many ways there were to play the game. Every team seemed to have a different set of tactics. Some players rushed the extraction zone guns blazing, clearing the area out before calling the helicopter. Others camped out, waiting to ambush unsuspecting players. Our team decided to hide until the helicopter arrived, avoiding combat entirely (this drove the trigger-happy Ubisoft developer nuts, but on the other hand, it almost worked).

Like Destiny, The Division will live or die based on its longevity, and 20 minutes isn’t long enough to tell whether or not the game will survive weeks – or months, or years – of playing. In a single short burst, however, it was incredibly compelling. After the demo, many players discussed strategy; when there was room, they’d eagerly go back for another round. If The Division can maintain that level of enthusiasm over the long haul, Ubisoft should have a big hit on its hands – assuming it ever comes out, of course.

The Division is currently scheduled for a 2016 release on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.