This week, The Division got its first major expansion. It adds some pretty cool stuff to the game, but I've been having a hard time getting into it. Turns out once you've fallen off the Division train, it's hard to get back on.
The Division: Underground is, in theory, just the sort of thing the game needed. It adds a new system of procedurally generated dungeons beneath the city of New York, which players can explore through a technically endless series of customisable operations. You set your parameters and difficulty level and then, if you're a lone wolf like me and you actually want to beat the mission, you matchmake into a group of randoms. Then you head into the subway, ride down into Manhattan's underbelly, kill a bunch of dudes, and get a few new guns and pieces of gear.
The Division had previously been hurting for endgame PvE content. Its anything-goes Dark Zone became too much of an entrenched PvP killing field to be much fun for a lot of players. The Incursions and High Value Target missions Ubisoft Massive has added to the game's main map were fun enough, but both felt somewhat limited. Underground is a meaty addition (it should be, as it costs $US15 ($20)), and accompanies a substantial patch. The Division, now fresh and clean, is ready for a new look.
I've been playing Underground since it launched on Tuesday and I'm having a hard time sticking with it. There are a few reasons for that.
The Division is and has always been a loot game, with a deliberately Diablo-y way of handing out rewards. These days everyone has a Gear Score, which is determined according to some averaging of the numbers next to each weapon and piece of armour you have.
Time was, a gold high-end gun was basically a gold high-end gun, but nowadays the colour of a piece of gear tells even less of the whole story. I've gotten new high-end guns that have a gear score of 182. I still have some that are only at 163. I've gotten coveted dark-green "set" gear items that are at 214. The people I'm matching with routinely have Gear Scores above 230, which makes me view all of my gear — including the sweet G36 assault rifle I just got — as junk that I'll eventually replace.
Questions I now have to ask upon getting a new piece of gear:
- What is the DPS? What is the armour rating?
- What are the perks?
- If I don't like the perks, how much does it cost to re-roll them?
- If it's armour, how does it affect my various attributes?
- If it's set armour, which set is it part of? Is that a set I want? Or even have?
- Above all else, what is the Gear Score rating?
The wrong answer to any of those questions can render a piece of loot either useless or, at best, only temporarily useful. When I think about weighing each piece of gear against all the other ones in my inventory, I mostly just feel tired.
Despite the fact that almost all of my equipment looks the same, all those variables mean that there is still a ton of loot in this game, and the loot structures are arcane and difficult to keep track of. The idea of grinding to get a matched set of armour fills me with weariness, particularly given how rare some of them are.
The Grind is Real
After an hour or so of blasting through increasingly difficult operations in Underground, the template became clear: Head into a mission, kill some dudes, go to another area, kill some more dudes, defend a point against some waves of dudes and kill a boss. Level up my Underground rank (separate from my overall level) to unlock more modifiers.
Another hour or two revealed some minor variations (these bad guys have a disruptor; this level has a slightly more interesting backdrop), but the template stayed the same. Playing with modifiers (ammo restrictions, no radar) makes things more interesting. Adding additional objectives makes missions last longer. But I already feel I've seen what there is to see.
Were I to stick with Underground, I can see the future laid out in front of me. I'd start playing on challenging difficulty. I'd add more modifiers. Eventually I'd start to play on heroic difficulty. My Underground level would climb. I'd earn more and more Directive Intel and be able to afford more and more modifiers. The enemies I'd fight would absorb more and more and more bullets. The mission structure would remain basically the same.
All the while, my gear score would steadily climb. I'd replace my old guns with new guns that look the same but have a higher number. I'd get halfway to having a complete set of armour. I'd think about buying a blueprint and crafting something. I'd junk a lot of gear I didn't want, and would gradually grow more and more numb to the endless repetition.
Granted, all games like The Division are "a grind." I've tried to figure out why I've been happier to grind in games like Diablo III and Destiny in the past, but am less interested in grinding in The Division. There are a lot of possible answers, some of them related to how fun the The Division's core gameplay is, some related to how arcane and purely stat-driven a lot of the loot differentiation is. But it also comes down to…
So Grey, So Drab
When I returned to The Division on Tuesday, I hadn't played in more than a month. I headed out to take on the new above-ground mission that kicks off Underground and was immediately struck by how beautiful this game can be. It was night in the city, and snow was falling. I could barely see where I was going.
Shortly after that I headed down into the subway to begin playing Underground proper. The first mission culminates in a fight in what amounts to a neon-lit basement rave. It was a little bit corny in that Ubisofty kinda way, but at least it was colourful.
Since then, almost every mission I've done has taken place among the same bleak subway terminals and power stations. The Division is a handsome game even when constrained to underground interiors, but it loses something without the icy winds and concrete chasms of the city itself. The grind becomes grindier, and the missions feel more repetitive.
As has always been the case with The Division, it remains difficult to get very excited about getting a new shotgun with slightly different perks, or a new grey backpack that holds more ammo. None of it fundamentally changes the way my character looks, nor how I play the game — my team and I roll into an area and hose down enemies until they're all gone. Rinse and repeat.
I understand that higher-level play demands more considered strategy, but I don't know that I have the time or energy to grind for the gear I'd need to even allow me to play a specialised build in the first place. Let alone attaining a high enough gear score not to risk being immediately kicked from high-level matchmade teams.
When I started Underground, my gear score was 171. It's now 196. I look around me and I see a sea of 231s, 233s, 240s, a stray 243. They all look the same to me, guys in grey military gear with (occasionally fluorescent) military guns, running around in circles before heading off on their next subterranean sortie. I think of how their gear is basically like my gear. I think about how all of our gear will be made irrelevant when the next DLC arrives. Then I think about all the other games I could be playing instead of this one.
I've certainly gotten something out of my time with The Division. Steam tells me I've played almost 80 hours, which is actually higher than I would have thought. If I had a regular crew of friends to play with, I'm sure I'd stick around longer. But I don't, so here I am: half a dozen operations under my belt, interest fading fast.
I'll be back from time to time to casually play an operation or two, and I'm sure I'll check out the next DLC when it hits. But it sure is hard to get back on the Division train once you've fallen off.