The $US15 "Survival" expansion to 2016's second most-intense emotional rollercoaster, The Division, seems to be a very good addition to the game. Emphasis on "seems to be," because I can only extend so much praise to a clever but brutal game mode that keeps killing me.
These are first impressions from a guy just trying to survive.
Survival is a new side mode that turns The Division into a 24-player struggle to live. When it begins, players are separated and dropped on the edges of the game's virtual recreation of Manhattan. The narrative explanation for that is that you've been sent into the city to secure some antiviral drugs, but your helicopter crashes.
A blizzard is pounding the city, so instead of virtual Manhattan looking like this, as it does in the normal version of the game….
It now looks like this….
They have even figured out the technology that lets the snow in the game get knocked off car windows realistically. File that under Normal Stuff That Looks Amazing When You See It In A Video Game.
The point of Survival mode is to get to the center of Manhattan, find some antiviral drugs, call in a chopper and get out of there.
The mode is meant to be tough. You start with bad gear and almost no weapons. Enemies on the periphery of the map are relatively weak, but so are you, making even the most basic firefights a struggle.
You can play in PvE or PvP, but either way, you face the formidable challenge of not freezing to death. You also have to manage your hunger, your thirst and the onset of infection. Oh, and if you take medicine to deal with infection, you'll develop a resistance that diminishes its effectiveness.
The game breaks down the basics of sickness, cold, thirst and hunger. Failure to manage any of them well leads to big problems.
Death has many vectors in Survival. The elements are against you. Computer-controlled enemies out in the world are against you. If you play in PvP, the other players are against you, though at least you earn more points when your Survival score is tallied at the end of a match. That score tracks how long you lived, how many enemies you killed, how much gear you scavenged and more. Scoring well unlocks rewards in the main game.
You can also play in PvE, but I didn't immediately see the point. So I jumped into a PvP match today and tried my novice best. Notably, matchmaking from the main game's Terminal location took less than a minute on Xbox One. Plenty of people are trying the new mode (it's also available now on PC but won't be out for PS4 for about a month).
First time in, I spawned in a hideout in the southeast corner of the map. My guy was wearing a yellow outfit and armed with garbage starter gear…
Hats, scarves, jackets, pants and boots in the main game are cosmetic. In this mode, they have temperature stats. In the shot above, I'd already crafted a hat that slightly increased my ability to stay warm in the cold. I had crafted that hat using the lone piece of fabric I could find in my starting area. There's just not a lot of material to be had.
By the time I made the hat, the ominous survivor alerts had already tolled for some unfortunate fellow players. We had started with 24, but our numbers were dwindling...
I was far from the center of the map, but that's where I needed to head. How far could I get with my wimpy pistol and my mesh ball cap?
Out into the cold I went. Twenty seconds later, with my temperature meter dropping, I faced off against a computer-controlled enemy…
I killed him and took the loot. I got a bad piece of armour and a soda. Drinking the soda makes your character more alert, which helps them more easily detect nearby supplies.
I went back inside, drank the soda, made myself a scarf, went back outside, foolishly shot at a tougher enemy and was killed.
I had lasted about eight minutes. After my death, only 17 players remained. I hadn't even reached any of them.
Yellow suit again. This time starting on the west side of Manhattan.
I worked my way east, dashing from my starter hideout to one a block over. I carefully engaged some computer-controlled enemies and almost froze to death during the shootout. I killed the enemies and got a marksman rifle off of one of their corpses.
I took shelter in a warehouse, one of the many drab but nicely-drawn new interior areas in Survival mode.
I found fabric that I turned into slightly warmer clothing that let me survive outside a little longer. Resources are scarce, so each scrap you find provides precious progress. You succeed at Survival mode in increments.
Unlike the main game, you don't have a mini-map, and you don't have a floating line directing you to your next objective. You can check the main map, which does fill with icons as you go, but you have to orient yourself. Notice in the map here that I was able to identify the locations of fire barrels. Standing near them raises your body temperature back up. What I really wanted to reach was a helicopter crash site further to the east. I'd read that they provide lots of loot.
I trudged through the snow and engaged more enemies…
I got a warmer jacket for my troubles.
Then I heated myself up at a barrel and took some painkillers. Unfortunately, my guy was starving but had no food.
A little later, I encountered another player. Feeling bold, I shot at him. He killed me and took my gear!
I never made it to the helicopter crash site. I had lasted 17 minutes. Ten players remained after I died.
Attempt number three.
Red suit this time. Same west-side starter hideout as attempt two.
Made a hat. Made a scarf.
Got to the next hideout. Went outside. Stood by a barrel. And… two other players showed up. Um. Should I have shot them?
Let them live. Dashed through the snow. Killed some enemies I could barely see.
Reached another hideout. Crafted some warmer boots.
Spotted the marker for a dying fellow player on the map. Knew downed players could be revived before a five-minute timer ran out. Rushed to help him. Saw him expire as I approached. Discovered he'd left behind some sweet loot.
Got closer to that helicopter crash site.
Admired my slightly-improved gear…
Found a better hat.
Fought a guy who had a shield.
Did less well against the enemy who followed him.
Waited in vain for anyone to come by and revive me. As I did, other players elsewhere on the map continued to fall.
Died. Survival time: 19 minutes. Did well enough to earn an item cache that gave me a better gun for the main game.
The Division's developers at Massive say that a successful playthrough of Survival should take about two hours. At the rate I've seen players die, I'd say most of us aren't ready to do that yet. We're still learning the map, still figuring out where the game's new hideouts are. Early on, you can't stay out in the cold for even a minute without suffering some bad consequences, so you need to keep hopscotching to warm hideouts and fire barrels.
Eventually, you can upgrade your character, adding the ability to set up gun turrets or "pulse" the area to find enemies, but those abilities require better scavenging.
Players can likely fare better when working together, but the enemies and the elements will still be tough foes.
There are some complaints in The Division fan community that the game's expansions should add more to the main game's story. They lament that Survival, like the initial Underground expansion before it, is more of a gameplay remix than a big new thing. I'm not sure if that's the best way to describe it, but it might be. It might also be that this remix is an excellent addition to the game.
So far, I'm having a very good time dipping into Survival missions and trying to eke out slightly better progress. I'll be able to judge it better if I can keep myself warm and get to the centre of Manhattan, past the crash site, into the orange Dark Zone and eventually, finally, get airlifted out of the cold.