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Tom Clancy’s The Division

So with a first look inside the new Clancy-branded shooter, what does our guest author find? ~

Guest Contributor John J. Szucs, 25 February 2016

Like many of you here on GrogHeads, I have been a long-time fan of Tom Clancy’s work. His second book, Red Storm Rising, was a milestone in my life, taking me from an early-teenaged “Rambo is cool” level to life-long serious study of the art and science of warfare that helped shaped my career and given me some extraordinary experiences working side-by-side with our warfighters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. While the books in Tom Clancy franchise went through a period of dilution and exploitation with ghost writers, UbiSoft has generally done right by the video game side of the franchise and looks to be on track to put out three very solid titles in the 2015-2016 gaming season. The recently-released Rainbow Six Shield is the deepest and most innovative tactical shooter of the past twelve months and Ghost Recon: Wildlands looks very promising.

The third title in this line-up is Tom Clancy’s The Division, an open-world, massively multi-player online (MMO), third-person tactical role-playing game. The game recently had a closed Beta test period and just completed an open Beta period that ran from Friday, February 19 through Monday, February 22, 2016. Xbox One players, like myself, had a one-day exclusive on the open Beta, starting on Thursday, February 18.

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The premise of The Division is that a clandestine government agency referred to as “The Division” has embedded deep-cover agents within American society, to be activated in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack or similar major natural or man-made disaster. Such an event occurs on Black Friday in New York City, when a deadly virus known as the “Dollar Flu” is released and infects thousands of shoppers. The rapid spread of the virus throws the city into chaos, with thousands of deaths, looting, rioting, fleeing citizens, and other effects overwhelming the city’s police, fire/rescue, and medical services and infrastructure. A joint, inter-agency, inter-governmental task force, called simply the Joint Task Force, is deployed to provide relief, restore order, and re-stabilize the city. As one of the few surviving Division agents in the area, you have a critical role in accomplishing these objectives.

Like most games, The Division’s premise requires a certain suspension of disbelief. What’s the point of embedding these deep-cover agents in American society? NYC is not a foreign land like Afghanistan with a completely different culture and there are plenty of opportunities to build and maintain inter-agency and inter-governmental relationships through overt channels. What can one guy wearing blue jeans, a parka, and a Maxpedition Monsoon Gearslinger pack do that a fully-armed, trained, and equipped Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA, or “A Team”) can’t do? There are legal provisions for military support to civil authority that would almost certainly be exercised in such an event.

But, for now, let’s set all that aside and get to work. The people of the Big Apple are counting on me!

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The open Beta only includes a subset of the full map, but the area that was included was highly detailed. You can hop fences, climb onto rooftops, go into many of the buildings, explore the subway system, and do just about anything else you might do to make you way through a city in a grid-down crisis. The entire environment is richly detailed and is populated by a variety of non-player characters, ranging from beleaguered police officers and National Guardsmen to innocent civilians and scavenging looters. All of this combines to make the world feel very real and alive.

There are many items to pick-up. For example, you might find tools in an auto mechanic’s shop, medical supplies in a pharmacy, or electronic parts in an electronics store. In the full game, you will be able to use these components to craft new equipment for your character. Defeated enemies also drop loot, as is typical in games of this type.

Different neighborhoods have different levels of difficulty. For example, in the screenshot above, I am in the Garment District, which is recommended for characters at level 5-9. I found the gentlemen in the screenshot below looting an abandoned NYPD cruiser. They won’t be doing that again.

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The combat system is a core element of the game. Many games struggle with balancing realism and fun in portraying combat with firearms. The Division is no exception and the designers clearly chose fun over realism. Even low-level enemies, like the looters in the picture above, can take five or ten hits from an M4 to stop and, except on rare occasions, they aren’t even stunned by hits. Maybe they’re all on PCP or methamphetamines?

For the most part, voluntary suspension of disbelief obscures this, but it does become a problem at times. For example, in the last storyline mission of the open Beta, there is a boss battle. The setting is an underground electrical power facility, with a balcony overlooking an area filled with boxes and machinery. The boss and a few henchmen appear. I quickly dispatched the henchmen and now it’s just me against the boss. This experience yanked me out of the game’s fantasy and into a frustrating struggle with the game mechanics that degenerated into slapstick comedy. While he chases me with a flamethrower, I run from one side of the balcony to the other, peppering him with hit after hit from both an M4 and a SCAR-H and tossing fragmentation grenades until I finally wear him down.

That said, the cover mechanics are well-done, with natural mechanisms to move along cover and rush from one covered position to another. “I’m up, he sees me, I’m down!” Most of the game is played from an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, but you can switch to a first-person view through your weapon sight.

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In the screenshot above, I’m about to engage in one of my guilty pleasures of the game. At a level above the random rioters and looters are a group of enemies called “Cleaners,” who have taken it upon themselves to “cleanse” the infected city with flamethrowers. You can, of course, just shoot them to death like other enemies, but they offer a more entertaining possibility: if you hit the fuel tank on their backs, the tank will spew flame for a few seconds and then explode, killing the Cleaner and any of his buddies who don’t pay enough attention to tactical dispersion.

At a strategic level, the opening acts of the campaign center around establishing a base of operations, which you continue to improve throughout the game to gain various benefits. The base has three main wings: medical, tech, and security.

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In the base of operations are weapons, gear, and mod vendors, where you can buy and sell items. Why does a clandestine government agent in the midst of a major crisis have to buy or scrounge all his own weapons and equipment? I think the recent defense cutbacks really have gone too far. At least I don’t have to pay for my own ammo, which I can restock at the base or at various restock points throughout the city.

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As a self-confessed “gear whore,” I of course enjoy perfecting my weapons and equipment load in any tactical game and The Division is no exception. However, I did find some of the game mechanics around weapons and equipment also broke my suspension of disbelief. For example, I found both “military” and “police” versions of the ever-popular M4 carbine. Yes, the military M4s are three-round burst or fully automatic, while “police” carbines are often semi-automatic only, but this is not the case in the game. The “police” version of the M4 in The Division does slightly more damage. Is this supposed to account for police use of hollow-point rounds, which the military generally does not use due to the Hague Conventions? If so, that’s not a feature of the weapon, but of the ammunition and The Division already has a mechanism for different types of ammunition, including incendiary and explosive rounds.

Some of the mechanics simply defy logic, like different holsters contributing to improve my character’s armor level. As you can see in the screenshot above, the effect of an ACOG is to improve the effective range of the rifle. While one could sort-of justify that, it seems like a better model for the effects of optics and the trade-offs between them would be accuracy, time to acquire a good sight picture, weight, bulk, and possibly field of view. As with the combat system, I couldn’t help but think that a more input from people knowledgeable about the subject matter in the real world would have been helpful. I’m not asking forThe Division to be ARMA 3 or Operation Flashpoint, but they could have done a slightly better job with the realism.

Returning to the strategic level, the campaign has a mission thread associated with each wing of the base (medical, tech, and security). For example, to open the tech wing of your base, you have to help an engineer re-start the power generation facility that I mentioned above. In the screenshot below, I am working my way through the facility, overlooking a massive grave in a subway tunnel under construction.

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The open Beta only includes a small, but representative, subset of the main campaign, side missions, and encounters. Borrowing from other MMO games like World of Warcraft, The Division offers a full range of social features. There is an ad-hoc matchmaking system to team up with other players to accomplish a specific mission and you can also form groups, which are similar to guilds in the fantasy-oriented games like WoW or Neverwinter. There is also a so-called Dark Zone, which allows player-versus-player (PvP) combat and offers rarer, more valuable loot.

I only had a few hours to play the open Beta and tend to be more of a solo gamer, so I did not try the multiplayer features during the open Beta. I was pleased that the game doesn’t force the social features and MMO aspect onto you and it seems to be entirely possible to have an enjoyable experience with the game playing by yourself.

In conclusion, I’ve been looking forward to The Division since it was first announced during E3 2013 (which seems like a life-time ago, now that I think about it). I certainly have some quibbles about realism, but based on my experiences in the closed and open Beta test periods, the game was worth waiting for. The Division has an interesting concept, a rich environment, and, except for the moments where it breaks suspension of disbelief, it does a good job of immersing you in the chaos of New York City in the grip of a pandemic virus outbreak. I have pre-ordered the game, already downloaded it to my Xbox One, and look forward to being able to play the full game when it is released on March 8, 2016.

 


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