The Division Hands On Preview (Gamescom)

The Division has had a rocky history and it’s not even out yet. From a surprise unveiling at Ubisoft’s E3 conference in 2013 with unbelievable graphics and innovative gameplay, to this year’s playable demos at events, less spectacular graphics and the axing of the previously-hyped drone-control mobile app, opinion has often been divided. The Division is a third-world co-operative cover-based shooter/rpg/adventure game set in a mostly abandoned New York following an apocalyptic plague. For most of the game you explore with your team and face off against AI opponents, but venture into the ‘dark zones’ in search of better loot and you’ll come face to face with other players who you can either choose to help, or turn on them to steal whatever they’ve managed to pilfer from the city. This kind of gameplay was shockingly innovative at the time, seen only really in PC titles like DayZ. But now we live in a world where Destiny, Elite Dangerous, and even Ubisoft’s own Watchdogs have all been released with similar ideas behind their gameplay. A massively connected open-world is no longer a unique selling point, so we had a go on The Division to see what else it had to offer.

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For the demo we were grouped up with a German journalist and sent into the city alongside three other groups of three. We all had a bit of time to get used to the controls and our class ( I was a character who could heal) and then we climbed over a wall into the dark zone.

First of all, the graphics have definitely taken a turn for the more mundane since that original reveal. It’s still a pretty game, but in a fairly dull ‘we’ve seen New York 50 times before’ kind of way. The lighting on flares is still quite impressive, but the texture work and physicality of the world has definitely been toned down. Most of the ‘clutter’ around the city seemed to be mostly static, so in reality you’re funneled down corridor-like streets, with no way to enter any of the buildings. The game did open up into the occasional park but it definitely felt more like Gears of War than Grand Theft Auto. We’d like to point out that this could have just been a closed off area for the purposes of the demo. The trailers have definitely shown interior locations so we don’t know how much of it can be opened up.

During our demo we almost immediately came upon a small group of enemies. They were surprisingly smart and took cover as soon as shots were fired, regularly moving around to make things more difficult for us. At the end of the firefight we were chasing a single soldier down who managed to keep just losing us around the back of a wrecked vehicle, until we finally coordinated our efforts and flanked him. If you go down in a firefight your teammates can heal you, or if you die you can respawn after a timer is up, but you drop any unclaimed loot you might be carrying.

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From our first little battle we discovered one of these pieces of loot. You can’t just use weapons you find straight away, they need to be claimed by taking them to the evac zone (conveniently located in a park) and then calling a helicopter to take it back to your base for processing. This seemed to be the main feature of the game Ubisoft were keen to show off. We arrived their first after finding that loot so quickly, so we moved around and took out a squad of flamethrower-wielding enemies quite efficiently now we were using our class abilities like a turret and some heals. Once we’d called in the helicopter we had to hold the area for 90 seconds and of course this brought not only new AI enemies, but also the other players started to arrive. Fighting in a more open space was much more interesting than the corridor fights before, allowing us to consider our options and entrench in a corner, shooting from a distance to pick off anyone who came too close. Once this started getting more difficult, we charged in and took many human players out by surprise, just flanking their positions and engaging in some quite messy close combat. Sadly my machine crashed when I hooked the bag onto the helicopter, but we had scored out loot and essentially ‘won’.

The rest of the demo consisted of us holding the evacuation zone and preventing other players from being able to secure their loot, stealing whatever they dropped when we killed them. The demo was a lot of fun, but it’s hard not to be disappointed by how mundane it all feels. This will be a solid c-op experience, but it definitely isn’t the groundbreaking game we were shown two years ago. Reality has taken it’s toll and The Division looks to be exactly what you expect, rather than something particularly innovative.

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