The only technical testing I've done with the beta of Ubisoft's upcoming game The Division is seeing whether I'll like it. So far, it has passed that test. The third-person online shooter, the full title of which is Tom Clancy's The Division and which I've been playing on Xbox One, is designed to at least trick my brain into thinking it's awesome. It's got lots of scheduled-rewards systems. We have loot-collecting, character-levelling, stat-upgrading, perk-adding and base-improving. It's all the "RPG elements" to which modern gamers have grown accustomed, but with Clancy military stuff.
Empty kilojoules at this point, perhaps, but The Division has also got something more nutritious: the killer risk-reward setup of its anything-goes Dark Zone area. In most of The Division, you fight against computer-controlled enemies. In the Dark Zone, you're suddenly able to turn your weapon on supposed human allies. It's much more than straightforward PVP — the Dark Zone incorporates dynamics of deception and betrayal, the kinds of things that make modern board games great but rarely show up in multiplayer video games.
The Division, which will be out on March 8 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, is set in New York City after a Black Friday biological weapons attack made Manhattan a less wonderful place to shop.
The game is billed as an action-role-playing game, and you're able to go on big missions and side missions throughout a ravaged New York City, moving into more and more difficult neighbourhoods that will test your survival skills as you level up. The mechanics are familiar: it's a third-person shooter with an emphasis on cover and the use of upgradeable power-ups to do things like scan the area for enemies or pull out a riot shield.
Story missions have you doing things like rescuing doctors in a Madison Square Garden that was converted into a hospital.
If the story missions were all The Division had, it'd live or die based on the quality of its mission design, its cover-shooting system, and on whether an MMO-style loot grind can be as fun with a backdrop of gritty realism as opposed to the more fantastical alien and demon worlds of other similar games.
The Division's got more than just story missions, though. It's got that Dark Zone, which is the the area that sold me on the game. The DZ stretches many blocks north and south of the Empire State Building. That area contains other players and computer-controlled enemies and has its difficulty zoned out based on the player's distinct Dark Zone character level (which can go up or down).
Human players who are in the Dark Zone with you can be friend or foe. The game doesn't decide. The players do. If you see a player whose name is white, they haven't killed any other players recently. They might (!) be a friend. Players with red names have killed others. They have gone rogue. Don't trust them.
Here I am chasing two rogue players when two apparent friendlies showed up. They were fine. No knives in the back from them:
In this game, you kill enemies and collect loot. That's how it goes. That catch here is that, in the Dark Zone, everything you collect has to be airlifted out before you get to keep it. You have to go to an extraction point, call in a chopper, wait for it to show up, tie your stuff to it and only then does it go into your stash.
Doesn't it seem like you'd be pretty vulnerable while attaching your loot to that rope? Couldn't a savvy nearby player kill you, take your loot and send it up themselves? Shouldn't you have been playing with a friend guarding you? A trusted friend?
Here's how that went down for me yesterday. First, I picked off some computer-controlled enemies in the Dark Zone.
I grabbed their loot.
I called in the chopper.
I backed off so that I could kill the computer-controlled enemies who descended on my extraction point.
I sent my loot to the chopper.
Then I spotted this guy trying to put his stuff on my rope. He turned his back. I moved away and raised my gun. Not nice, I know. I was going rogue!
I killed him and took his stuff.
But then I came under fire!
So much for that. I had been too greedy. I went down just as my original bag of loot was fully extracted.
I died, apparently killed by a computer-controlled lurker. The loot I'd just attacked another player in order to get was now resting by my corpse.
No problem. I respawned nearby and did a corpse run to get that stuff back.
And then I got the hell out of there.
The whole sequence of events took just a few minutes, full of familiar gunplay but much more unfamiliar decisions. I liked coming across other human players and deciding whether to help them or turn on them. I felt more devious deciding to betray that one guy than I would have been filling up some morality meter. I enjoyed constantly wondering who I could trust.
In these pre-release times, the understandable tendency has been to compare The Division with the familiar: It's a little bit Destiny, a little bit Ghost Recon, a little bit Diablo and so on. It does have similarities with those games, but I'm more intrigued by what it's doing differently. The Dark Zone adopts the exciting lawlessness seen in survival games like Rust and DayZ, as well as other more analogue multiplayer games where sides aren't defined and trust isn't guaranteed. Alliances, betrayals, strength in numbers and fear of the unknown aren't your standard video game back-of-the-box bullet points, but they have rich potential.