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Killing Hoodies In New York

When I purchased the PS4 it was with Destiny on the release date of the game. The PS4 for a good, long while was largely a Destiny playing machine due to the majority of PS4 titles not appealing to me. I played the last Destiny expansion, The Taken King, and then I was done. I realised at that time the Destiny model of play had worn thin and it was never going to transform into the more story-layered game it could have been.

I decided I was never going to get sucked into The Division as it’s another, similar game: an RPG, levelling shooter. I’d decided Destiny had totally ground out my interest in another sprawling, level based, lack of narrative game.

Then all the family members with a PS4 started playing it and I succumbed. I’m glad I did. The Division has largely done this by turning everything I’d normally dislike about this sort of game into a positive.

Lots of Options, Limited Choice

…or I didn’t want to buy The Division because of the many options in The Division character advancement screen and decided it involved too much of a character building game.

When it comes to role-playing games I don’t like games that make character building a big part of the game. It’s true in tabletop games and it’s true in computer games. Some people like the game of building their character to be as awesome and powerful as they can be and being able to do that better than ‘everyone else’. I just like games that ensure my character is competent whatever my choices. I tend to think if there are choices that are radically sub-optimal why are they even there as a trap?!?!

What’s weird about The Division is you are presented with a lot of options, but it still seems enjoyable and easy. You have skills and talents, both split across three groupings (creating 12 skills and 24 talents) and 40 perks. Then you can put modifications on skills to make them work differently.

It did sound like a nightmare and it did put me off. In truth it’s quite simple.

The first simplification is, a bit like Guild Wars, you can only use a small selection of these many options at once. This does two things: limits combinational choices and it means you can switch them around at will. Brilliant, as if there is anything I hate more than an involved character build game it’s an involved character build game with expensive lock-in choices. You can only have two skills active to use on the controller, 4 talents equipped (they are passive advantages) and all 40 perks apply as they are unlocked. Simple.

There seems to be a sense of what sort of focus specific character roles should have, but none of the insane interacting maths that other games seem to like in this regard. I’m thinking of sticking with a support orientated role as that seems to keep the focus on the turret.

An ‘Open World’ I…Like!

….or I didn’t want to buy The Division because it had an open world full of minutia to do and would be busy work.

Every time I thought of The Division all that would come into my mind was Dragon Age: Inquisition. That game was such a frustrating, annoying and, I’ll admit it, an experience verging on betrayal in the sense it represents the MMO-isation of everything approach to game design that I despise. This is true to such an extent every game I buy now goes through the Inquisition test.

The Inquisition test is simple: has the game tied the pointless busy work together with progressing and an open world to give a sense of it being a ‘big game’. Descriptions of The Division suggested this was the case, it sounded very much like Inquisition, right down to building a base of operations and growing that base of operations and in The Division growing that based was linked to character progression so you had to do it.

While it is like that it doesn’t feel remotely similar.

I guess the first advantage is there is no sequence of ‘story missions’ to be cock-blocked by a resource that can only be accumulated by doing open world rubbish. You’re essentially just levelling. It’s sort of the model used in World of Warcraft. The areas of New York available to play in (more I’m sure by expansions) are split into zones which have a level range. Each zone has a safe house that can be unlocked. In the zone are a mixture of core missions, side missions, events, etc. They all involve shooting people on different scales. The most elaborate are the core missions, involving big areas, multiple combats, bosses, etc. If you imagine Mass Effect without as much narrative it’s a bit like that, with its story missions being big and more developed along with lots of other smaller missions and an atmospheric ‘core base’ to work out from.

It works quite well. It makes the city feel busy while giving you plenty of things on the map to click and do without any of them feeling like you’re being asked to anally find thirty pieces of an obscure herb. Half the time you don’t even have to click on the map as events and encounters will occur as you travel, giving the whole place a lived in, chaotic feeling akin to a city in the throws of apocalyptic disaster.

Atmosphere Trumps Story

…or I didn’t want to buy The Division as it wouldn’t be based on an interesting narrative and just soulless levelling up.

The Division does a much better job of wrapping its core RPG shooter experience with some sort of wider experience. It’s not exactly delivering a structured narrative , it’s well away from a story-focused game, but you do feel more drawn in.

I think the core reason for this is the atmosphere of the game, as they’ve really nailed that. While Destiny has big, space fantasy visuals across numerous planets (though it can be argued they are all a bit generic), The Division has focused things to one city and specific areas at that. It’s not really a reduction in size, but more a change in resolution. If Destiny was a film it’s Star Wars zipping from planet to planet, while The Division the Daredevil TV show.

The big advantage for The Division is it can swap the lack of a focused, narrative experience in these sorts of games for atmosphere. The shift to a smaller resolution allows for more detail. The streets of New York are realised in amazing detail pulling all the post-apocalyptic imagery together. The weather is amazingly atmospheric, albeit the game seems to be perpetually locked into winter, but it still beats Destiny’s approach of having all ‘weather’ take place as part of the distant, ‘painted’ backdrop.

It also helps that the few cut scenes that are used are much better written and acted. Destiny has very few cut scenes and when they appear they are really the worst epic space fantasy scenes ever written. They are like really bad fan fiction as characters perform all sorts of bland gymnastics to talk to you without revealing anything, even down to acknowledging ‘they do not have time to tell you why the do not have time’ to reveal anything. In the cut scenes so far in The Division are substantially better. They are grounded, feel like real characters. They give you a sense your levelling work is doing things to make the city safer and bring bits of it back under control. It adds to the fabric.

It pulls me in. It makes me want to play the game. It compensates for the lack of a heavy, narrative focus by doing enough to make you feel like you’re part of something.

The Combat Is Great

…or I didn’t want to buy The Division because the combat seemed boring and full of endless bullet sponge enemies.

A few of the criticisms thrown at The Division are interesting, purely because it seems to get criticised for some things more because it’s set in a contemporary setting rather than it being something other games don’t to all the time.

It’s true The Division has bullet sponge enemies. The is a function of its design. If you have an RPG based on levels and hit points it’s pointless moaning about bullet sponge enemies – they are going to exist. It’s a core basis on which level-based role-playing games are designed on. It seems more acceptable in a sword and sorcery RPG rather than blasting someone in the head with space fantasy assault rifle 50 times? Get over it. It seems ridiculous that an enemy can absorb hundred of machine gun bullets in the final boss battle in the sewers of New York? Get over it.

They are all a bit ridiculous, I can understand why one allows you to accept the ‘game convention’ while another does not, but the truth of that matter is it is the ‘game’ trumping ‘realism’ in every case and you just have to live with it or play a different game.

I love the combat in The Division, or at least the levelling combat. This was probably to be expected as it’s a third person, cover-based, stop and pop shooter like Gears of War rather than a first person, run and gun shooter like a myriad of others available. This means the combat isn’t all about manual dexterity, visual speed and being able to shoot some fast moving enemy in the head while performing some sort of insane jump. It’s about positioning, flanking, timing your attacks and operates at a slow, steadier speed that allows you to think your way through the battle. We’ve even started to use team tactics like suppression and flanking and rotating skills between team members.

This makes each battle fun. I enjoy just shooting stuff in The Division, the tactics, action, sound and the whole visual aesthetic appeals each and every time.

Until The End Game

…or I didn’t want to buy The Division because it would have a grind-based end game needing endless time to get qualifying gear.

This one may actually be true, but I figure I’ve paid my entry fee and if I play it until I hit the end game I can then just stop playing. No big deal. It’ll save me forking out for the next batch of content. There is still a lot to figure out in this area and that will decide how much legs the game has.

Based on the few things I know at the moment I’m not rushing to get involved in the end game. As far as I can figure out it involves grinding out stuff like electronic parts, a bit like collecting herbs in Warcraft, and building stuff using patterns. That doesn’t sound appealing at all. Then there is the Dark Zone, which is some sort of progressing through open world PvP of some sort. It involves another currency and another set of levels.

They’re introducing raids, calling them incursions, and I’m always speculatively interested in raids, but it depends on how they are implemented. They’re raids right down to dropping gear sets and introducing a gear scoring system. It will all come down to how interesting they are as a challenging game: the balance off difficulty against rewards, the entry requirements, to what degree they are just hard rather than demanding skill and so on.

Basically, The New Ghost Recon, Etc

When it comes down to it The Division is the next game in a cycle of relatively rare games that I like: third-person, cover based shooters. We’re talking Ghost Recon, Gears of War, to some extent certain versions of Rainbow Six and Gears, though not the latest one. Even Mass Effect which, when you get down to it, is a third person shooter. I’ve liked each of those games and substantially more than the first person games I’ve experimented with and generally try to avoid.

I’m playing it on that basis and when it becomes too much of a chore rather than fun I’ll stop. I’ll take each item of DLC as it comes. Until then it’s time to kill more hoodies taking part in the breakdown of law and order on the New York streets.

About Ian O'Rourke

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