It turns out I was not prepared for The Division. Not at all. Don’t get me wrong, I knew the beta was coming, and I knew I would have access to it well ahead of time. Even going so far as to preload the client many days in advance of the beta going live. And while I have always been intrigued by the promise The Division holds, I wasn’t expecting to come away from the beta as impressed by the game as I actually did.

Let me get something off my chest first of all – the lack of content actually available to try out in this beta was bordering on suffocating. The beta only comes with an introduction and a single story mission, with a few small side missions and activities to complete. Many of the open world, “roving” encounters had apparently been turned off, and the size of the map not blocked off by red barriers (both in the single-player instance and the multiplayer Dark Zone) was tiny. Most of the crafting, base building, character customisation and RPG progression was locked off. This was less a beta and more a small demo.

division2.jpg

One of the reasons this was suffocating, however, was because I wanted to dive deeper into the game. I wanted more things to do, I wanted to build up my base, toy around with my character progression. Essentially I just wanted to keep playing the damn game. After about 2-3 hours I’d seen and done most what there was to see and do in The Division’s closed beta. And I wanted more. Because I enjoyed every second of it.

The gameplay, which I had experienced about 20 minutes of at EGX last year, was a lot of fun. I’m a big fan of third-person, cover based shooters, and The Division was quite a good one. General gunplay was tight, the cover mechanics were smooth and responsive, with snapping to and moving between cover working really well, and all in all shooting bad guys from behind chest high walls was fun for the entire 3 hours and change that I played for.

The story mission I was given access to was neat. After discovering a wrecked forward operating base, which will serve as your base of operations in the game proper, you’re tasked with rescuing a doctor from the nearby Madison Square Garden. She’ll unlock the medical wing of your base, which will grant you access to skills, abilities and perks tied to the medical class, though most of these were locked off in the beta itself.

The mission itself was fairly standard. Progress through the level, shooting bad guys until you find the hostages, head up to the roof and take out the end of level boss. Job done. Madison Square Garden was a great setting for a level, as it turned out (though as a big NHL fan, the fact that the resident hockey team was the “Shortbows” and not the Rangers momentarily pulled me out of the experience). And as I mentioned earlier the gunplay was engaging.

division3.jpg

Enemies not armed with baseball bats were generally decent to engage in combat, if not wholly too bright, and enemies armed with baseball bats were the usual standard of monumentally stupid – constantly charging the position of a protagonist armed with an M4, a shotgun and a 9mm sidearm. A tactic that never worked, much to their surprise. My only bugbear with this section of gameplay was the end boss, who took more bullets to take down than your average Terminator. After a good 5 minutes of fighting I was well and truly bored of the experience as I continued to whittle his health down by tiny fractions with each burst from my assault rifle.

Overall, though, I was impressed with the miniscule amount of The Division’s ersatz single-player I was able to experience. When you’re on the streets of New York that aren’t either the player hub or the Dark Zone, you’re in a private instance. You can invite friends to join you, but other than that, this part of the game is for you and you alone should you choose it to be. I was quite glad that 20 other Division Agents weren’t running around the streets of New York, breaking my immersion with the game.

As far as the side content went, there wasn’t a whole lot of it. There were a couple of side missions that you could pick up from what essentially amounts to a “quest board” back at the player hub. These missions were smaller, more focused snippets of the content I’d already experienced in the Madison Square Garden mission. Though there was a non-combat side-mission, interestingly enough, which tasked me with investigating a disappearance – using my agents AR technology to reconstruct the fate of another person using echoes, which had echoes (heh) of the Batman Arkham investigations.

There were also a few encounters that popped up randomly from time to time, diversions I could choose to partake in or ignore, that saw me defending JFT positions or rescuing hostages from bandits. These were short bursts of combat that, from what I could tell, were all tied to one of the three wings of your base. Completing them gave me points to upgrade one of these wings depending on the task, and with that I imagine upgrade my character and skills along with it. That, however, is something for the main game. There wasn’t a massive amount of variety to these tasks, and while I wasn’t bored of them after 3 hours of play, there’s a danger of them becoming repetitive in the full experience if they’re not mixed up a bit.

division4.jpg

One of the coolest things that The Division does, however, is the design of its player HUD. I didn’t comment on this after my EGX hands-on, so I either failed to notice it at the time (20 minutes isn’t a lot of time to notice every detail of a game) or it’s changed a bit since last September. All of the relevant player information, such as health or number of grenades/medkits, is displayed on a small HUD that’s in the centre of the screen, just to the right of the player character.

Far from getting in the way, as you’d think it would, this was actually quite a good place to put it, as it turns out. It puts all of the pertinent information right where I’m looking, and its small and unobtrusive enough to never get in the way during gameplay. It also keeps the majority of the screen free from clutter, which allows The Division to draw you into its world really easily.

And it’s a really nice looking world at that – a post-disaster, ruined New York City is quite an evocative place. It’s helped that the game is set in the winter, with snow falling to varying degrees. Having the disaster take place on Black Friday was also a shrewd move on the developers part, as it means that the city is littered with reminders that it was almost Christmas at the time – there are decorations, stands and even music to give The Division a distinct look, and a really cool juxtaposition between the horror of the situation and the festivities of Christmas.

 

After finishing the single-player content, and with nothing to do other than a few repeating side activities, I decided it was time to venture into The Dark Zone – The Division’s PvP, multiplayer instance. It’s here that you venture for the best gear, and the biggest risk. Not only are there NPCs out to kill you, but other players could choose to turn on your for a shot at getting your valuable Dark Zone loot.

division5.jpg

One of the things I questioned after The Division’s E3 showing last year was whether a trip to the Dark Zone could actually be as tense as Ubisoft seemed to make it look. I had my doubts. The answer, it turns out, is an emphatic yes. I ventured into The Dark Zone, which is a walled off, quarantined area of New York that was hit hardest by the infection, solo. And boy, was it awesome.

Despite being prepared to run into other players at the drop of a hat, most of my time in The Dark Zone was spent wandering the streets alone, my travels occasionally punctuated by the sound of gun fire in the distance. It was a surprisingly evocative experience – the city had practically fallen apart, and there was graffiti everywhere, with biohazard warnings littering the buildings. It took me about half an hour to find any signs of life whatsoever – in the form of two NPC bandits, who I quickly took care of and procured my first piece of Dark Zone loot.

Then came the next part – getting that loot to the extraction zone and extracting it without dying. I wasn’t far from an extraction zone, so I carefully made my way across, keeping an eye out for other Division Agents who I assumed would shoot me in the back for a shot at my cool new knee pads. Having seen no-one else at the EZ, I hid in a tent and waited. When the chopper was ten seconds away I emerged…and so did two other players. I can’t really convey who tense the next sixty seconds were. I can say it was intense, but you’d have to take my word for it.

As the chopper arrived, set itself into position and prepared to drop a rope for us to attach our gear to, the three of us stood in a triangle around the extraction point. Waiting. Watching. Seeing which of us, if any, would aim a weapon and fire. What felt like five minutes passed, which was actually about 20 seconds, before the rope dropped. We all quickly rushed forward and attached our loot – and then one of the guys backed off and fired a sticky bomb at us.

division6.jpg

We each dove away, took cover, and a firefight erupted. Not a three-way firefight as I had assumed, I was focused on taking down my betrayer, and so was the other guy I had randomly bumped into. Using teamwork we took him down with ease, and emerged from cover. There was a moment where neither of us did anything, and I wondered if he was about to try and take me out, but then the chopper left and we were both still standing. Then another two Agents approached, hoping to get the next extraction, and the whole cycle of mistrust began again.

So, one question answered: is The Division a good game? Yes, it is. In the brief window I played it, I had fun with it. But there are more important questions that can’t be answered yet. Will it hold up to hours upon hours of play? Will there be enough variety in the side content to keep people engaged, or will it become a repetitive grind? Will the gameplay itself get repetitive? Just how big is the actual open world? And when exactly did the Rangers rename themselves the Shortbows?

These questions will only be answered when I’m able to get my hands on the full game, on March 8, coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One.