Now and then
It's a plain and simple fact that if you think you're getting something and then it gets replaced with something less, disappointment will always follow. Ubisoft are starting to make me think of them parents who promise little Johnny a trip to Disney World every Christmas but end up taking him to Weston-Super-Mare: you can have lots of fun at the latter but you get my point. So yes, the issue of 'downscaling' and misleading hype has once again reared it's ugly head in the Ubisoft camp. My plan is try and talk about it more here in the preview and then leave the slate clean for a more objective review in March.
So before I get going here is the now infamous 2013 E3 'gameplay' demonstration as well as a tech demo of the Snowdrop engine from Ubisoft. Watch them closely, there will be a test at the end.
Now there are some surprisingly talented gamers out there who also have a far greater grasp of video editing than me: so with that admission I'm going to post the best comparison video I've found. The commentator goes through the various graphical features that Ubisoft have claimed are present and working in the game and then looks at the current build of the game. One thing I would say is that this comparison was looking at the XBOX One version of the game, hence this whole article could be null and void once we see the final build on PC.
When is a beta not a beta? When it's a demo
When pre-orders opened with access to the last closed beta I decided to dive in and take an early look: I'm hoping this will help me get a review out as near to launch day as possible. I actually picked the game up on Steam but ran into some kind of activation problem with many other Steam users when the beta went live. A few hours later I tried again and it was up and working, just in time to abate the angry mob forming at the doors of Ubisoft.
So after a brief and limited character creation screen (I assume limited for the beta) the in engine introduction kicked in, the acting is a little OTT but overall good and character models are what I would expect from a AAA game like this: good motion capture and facial expressions. A nice touch was that the second character I created flew into the start zone a night and this was all shown in real time which totally changed the look of the city: small details like this show a lot of thought.
So what we were given this this beta was essentially a small slice of the PVE zone and also a small chunk of the PVP zone (Dark Zone). As you reach the temporary HQ you are given a brief tour of the facilities, it's clear there will be plenty of systems to get lost in from collecting items from the field to upgrading the facilities and crafting new items. Unfortunately many of these systems were disabled in the beta and this has been seen as a huge negative by many as opposed to stopping people finishing the game before it's out. If this was CD Projekt Red I wouldn't even consider it worthy of note, but as we know Ubisoft are not exactly known for being straight with their customers. The one main story mission was good but over in minutes which left a number of random encounters and collectables around the map. I have to say I really did enjoy this part of the beta and as I jogged from place to place it gave me a chance to take in the truly gorgeous city Massive have created. Yes as stated before it's not the city we were shown in 2013 but on PC with maximum settings it gets pretty close. As the weather shifts from early morning hazy sunshine, to thick claustrophobic flog and so on you do feel an amazing sense of atmosphere. I understand that not everyone is like me and is happy to give a game points for the sheer 'gorgeousness' factor but there is no denying this is the most detailed and faithful digital recreation of New York we have ever seen.
As Total Biscuit has so eloquently pointed out, there is a huge problem of context in this game. With such a realistic setting the way combat behaves is something some people are going to have a problem with. Again the initial gameplay demos really gave the impression this was going to be a hyper realistic shooter with advanced damage models and amazingly tense gunfights. The news then that this was going to be an RPG at its core surprised a lot of people and the idea of seeing numbers rising from enemies was a huge disappointment. I'll admit that I had all but written the game off but after actually playing through this short beta I'm having much more fun than I'd initially predicted. When engaging the scattering of gangs over the provided map, I found the combat really fun. Headshots, while not always providing an instant kill do count and the enemy AI seems to do an admirable job of keeping confrontations interesting. Gang members will move around, pitch grenades and even flank you or climb onto street debris to gain a height advantage.
So then we move onto the Dark Zone, this is essentially a cordoned off section of the city where other players will be able to see each other and interact: and by interact I mean shoot one another. There are AI mobs wandering around and also located in certain places, these mobs scale with the level of area you are in: up to level 8-9 in the beta. Any loot you pick up from either crates, mobs or other players will be classed as contaminated, so to get your loot in a useable form you have to call in a chopper to a drop zone and attach it to the line they lower: this is then whisked back to the stash at your HQ back in the PVE zone. This mechanic is very promising for a few reasons, one because as soon as other players see a drop/pickup zone has been activated you know there are people at that location with loot. So like a watering hole on the plains of Africa it becomes a meeting place for those who need to drop off loot and those who wish to take it from them by force. Even in a few hours play I and my friends had some very tense and satisfying moments: either being attacked by other players or seeing temporary bonds being born.
Another excellent feature is the fact you can talk to players in your local area, which as you can imagine adds a whole other dynamic to confrontations. I one situation I caught the back of another player as he crossed my line of fire, only by shouting 'sorry mate accident' a few times did we avoid killing each other. Obviously this also opens up taunts from less imaginative players, even in the beta I've had my mother, father and brother insulted which is interesting as I'm an only child but never mind. This PVP zone will live to die by how players interact and having our own voices in the mix will really help make it shine. I will say though this kind of set up is also a 'griefers' paradise and with reports of hackers already Ubisoft absolutely must keep this in check.
So what are my overall impressions of The Division Beta? Well, for one I had much more fun that I had expected to: even the enemies being bullet sponges didn't rile me all that much. Initially my big interest was focused on graphics and how the environments looked compared to the 2013 E3 demo. However my interest very quickly shifted to the systems the game uses to engage the player. The problem with this Beta was really that it didn't let us see anything we've not seen before, with such a limited area and most systems like crafting turned off many players were left frustrated or bored. I understand that Ubisoft don't want to give us the whole cake at once but with a track record like they have this could very easily be seen as them hiding the game's weaknesses as much as they can for the sake of pre-orders. I think how much you get on with this game will very much depend on if you can reconcile with what the games asks of you and by that I refer mainly to the realistic setting vs the very unrealistic combat model. Ever since Destiny arrived on console PC gamers have been looking for a comparable experience - for some this could be just that.
Thankyou for reading my initial impressions on The Division Beta, come March I will be reviewing the final product and putting The Division through its paces. You can check out my videos on YouTube and also follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic.
Take care guys,