The Division Beta

The Division – Beta Impressions

Admittedly, I had lost much of my interest in The Division until recently.  What looked impressive – at least visually – at E3 a while ago seemed to have suffered from the now widely known downgrades, leading me to worry that Ubisoft was failing us yet again.  However, some of my friends from my Star Citizen org rekindled my interest.  I decided to preorder the game to get into the beta and also started poking about a bit to learn more about the game.

I’ve played the PC beta now, and it should be wrapped up soon.  I enjoyed the game, and I will be keeping my preorder – though I do have some lingering concerns.  Let us say that I am cautiously optimistic.  Here are my impressions of the game so far:

Performance, Visuals, and Controls

Overall, it appears that the graphics in the PC version are significantly better than those shown in console gameplay videos.  While at high settings the game still didn’t look quite as good as those earlier videos (your character doesn’t have a reflection in standing water/ice, for example), everything still looked good.

My rig includes 2 GTX 680 cards in SLI, and I was able to run everything on high – the game recommends a single GTX 970.  Everything was smooth and I didn’t experience any stuttering or other common issues.  When everything was running properly, I found The Division to be one of the most stable triple-A games I can remember.  However, Ubisoft does caution that nvidia users may currently suffer from some issues, and on a couple of occasions it appeared that some form of antialiasing or motion blur was acting up.  This resulted in everything appearing blurry and an odd halo effect around my character.  Simply restarting the game appeared to clear it up.

The biggest technical issue I experienced was a maddening tendency to crash because “Tom Clancy’s The Division has stopped working.”  This usually occurred after running the game for just a couple of minutes, and the lack of any explanation made it all the more frustrating.  In addition to the common “update your drivers” and “run the game in administrator mode” suggested fixes, it was also recommended to run the game in Windows 7 compatibility mode if running Windows 10.  It was also recommended to disable v-sync in-game as well as any third-party program features that involve an in-game overlay.  Both of these are things Ubisoft needs to get squared away before launch.  The issue of in-game overlays also strikes me as a little strange since it includes the overlays used by Uplay itself – and disabling the Uplay overlays actually results in a warning when trying to play The Division.

In the end, the change that appeared to have the most positive impact in letting me play the game crash-free was actually tied to how I manage my GPU.  Since my cards are slightly below the recommended spec, I was slightly overclocking them in addition to the normal fan speed boost.  Returning the cards to their default setting via Precision seemed to put an end to the crashes.  To be clear, there were no performance or heat issues prior to the crash, so this is a little odd in my experience.

Overall, everything is working well, but there are a few issues that need to be ironed out, and it’s important that Ubisoft gets this taken care of if they want a smooth launch.  I didn’t encounter any issues related to server loads, but I’m not sure they would have manifested during this beta.

Beta Limitations

On that note, this beta seemed a little limited to me.  It consisted of a single story mission, a few side missions, and several smaller encounters.  These all seemed to work well, but the fact that there were so few of them raises two concerning possibilities.  First, I hope that the limited number of missions in the beta is not indicative of a similarly small number of total missions in the final game.  If the rationale for the small offering is a reluctance to reveal a significant portion of the final game, this may suggest the game is small – too small to fair well post-launch.  Second, the small size of the beta could mean that the lion’s share of the game doesn’t receive sufficient testing.  Without that testing, there could be a lot of gameplay bugs in the final game – which would be similarly problematic.  Hopefully Ubisoft has a lot of internal testing going on to catch these issues before launch.

The beta was not only limited in terms of the number of missions available; entire systems were disabled during the beta.  Some of these appeared primarily story-based, such as the ability to view pieces of intelligence that had been collected.  This seems straightforward and probably doesn’t require much testing.  However, systems like crafting were also disabled during the beta, which is troubling.  Without testing, the crafting system could suffer problems related to bugs or imbalance.  Of course, it’s possible that the crafting system is so simple that testing is largely unnecessary, but that could be disastrous for a game that describes itself as a form of RPG.

Finally, I’m not sure how representative the beta map is of the final map.  The beta map felt large in terms of distance, but it amounted to a handful of streets with only a few functional buildings.  Unless the beta map is only a small portion of the game at launch, the game isn’t going to feel very open world unless more buildings can be entered than were available in the beta.

Gameplay

The gameplay felt solid, as did the combat.  Movement was smooth and didn’t suffer from stupid clipping or invisible wall issues common in open world games.  Accuracy and difficulty were good, though it’s unclear if the variety of encounters in the final game will lend itself to interesting gameplay over the long term.  I liked the customizability of the weapons and the fact that your appearance was largely separated from the gear you were wearing to boost your stats.

The abilities available in the beta were very limited – another area where I hope more testing isn’t needed – and were good for the most part.  However, I noticed that the Sticky Bomb felt largely worthless – it just didn’t seem to do much damage at all.  On the other hand, hitting the napalm tank strapped to a Cleaner’s back was most satisfying…

The encounters made sense in context and struck a good balance in terms of challenge and the time required to complete them.  The side missions were more involved and varied.  They also contributed to the story, though I’m not certain there is enough variety in the mechanics involved to keep the side mission from feeling distinctive from one another over the course of the game.

untitled-21_236847Story & Longevity

Let’s be clear – there is a lot of story potential in this game.  The cutscene following the single beta story mission and one of the side missions suggests that Ubisoft is capable of telling a good story – it remains to be seen if that ability will be applied throughout the game.

Since they are pitching this game as an RPG, Ubisoft needs to be sure to maintain a high focus on story and character development to avoid falling into a Destiny-like trap and becoming a one-dimensional shooter.  One way they can achieve this is to incorporate a gameplay element that has been used to great effect in other RPGs – meaningful player choices.  There is no indication of branching missions or storylines in the beta, but that doesn’t tell us anything about the larger game.  If Ubisoft doesn’t already have anything like this planned for launch, they would do well to incorporate story-based player choice in free DLC as soon as possible – and simply choosing what upgrades to work on first or abilities to utilize does not count.  I’m talking real character-tied choices that affect the game world and later missions.

Wrap-Up

I dabbled in the Dark Zone PvP (or PvPvE) area as well.  It has potential, but many players have expressed frustration with griefing, camping, and players generally killing one another for no reason other than “because they can”.  As a simple PvP zone, it is passable, but Ubisoft claims to want to make it something more.  A few tweaks here and there could do wonders, and the community hasn’t been shy about making suggestions.  There’s nothing that requires a massive rework, but this is another area that Ubisoft has some work to do if they want a good launch and positive reviews.

The game would benefit from some guild-like features.  Since you are limited to 4-person teams a massive guild system is unnecessary, but providing the ability to benefit from joining a guild or clan would be wise.  This could be coupled with clan-wide bonuses that could be expanded over time – similar to Guild Wars 2 perhaps.  Clan members could contribute crafting materials, DZ funds, etc. which could be used to construct clan upgrades over time.  Once complete, each upgrade could function similar to character perks that affect all members of the clan.  This would provide some long-term endgame goals and introduce a degree of sandbox gameplay.

Which brings me to my final thought:  As an online game, The Division needs to include at least some measure of sandbox gameplay to ensure long-term playability.  If the game consists of just the basic campaign, a handful of base expansions to earn, and the Dark Zone, I seriously doubt Ubisoft will be able to pump out DLC content at a quick enough rate to keep the game going and the community active.  Incorporating sandbox elements – which should usually be a no-brainer in an open world game – is often an effective way to ensure players maintain a vested interest in the game between major story additions.  An in-depth crafting system is one common example, but the beta has revealed nothing in this area.  At this point, we’ll just have to see how things go once the game has launched.

For now, I remain cautiously optimistic…

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