Why ‘The Diversion’ you ask?
Mainly because Tom Clancy’s The Division is the MMO shooter I play when I’m not playing that other MMO shooter… that also starts with D… and also wants your gaming time all to itself… forever.
For those that may be considering investing in The Division both financially and with numerous hours of your life, here are some of the aspects of it that I’ve really enjoyed.
VISUALS. The Division looks great, and I don’t just say that because one of the stock character models looks like me. All of the screenshots you see are of the PS4 version running at 1080p, and from landscapes to weather models to animations it all looks pretty darn slick. This is the kind of visual feast that has you stopping and reaching for the Share button as each new vista emerges. Light streams around the architectural silhouettes of anarchic New York in a way that says “forget about the viral apocalypse for a moment and just appreciate another gorgeous, bullet-ridden sunrise”. Ubisoft score an A+ on this one.
COVER-BASED COMBAT SYSTEMS. In the same way that Donkey Kong Country made me a sucker for stunning visuals, Time Crisis II and Resident Evil 4 entrenched my love of static shooters. The Division echoes the feel of these earlier games, with situations being won or lost based on your ability to attain strategic positions and eliminate targets through the skillful use of cover and weaponry. Players are able to move whilst shooting, however hostile encounters are laid out in such a way that you must constantly consider and reconsider your position on the battlefield if you wish to survive. Relocating to optimal cover locations as battles develop is vital, and those moments when you and your opponent are facing off from behind handy stacks of packing crates are the stuff of wild west dreams. So don’t expect to run and gun your way to victory; that’s what Destiny is for.
LOOT TO COLLECT. If you like collecting stuff in games – be it weaponry, Pokemon, trophies or something else entirely – The Division has you covered. The vast array of equipment available to your agent becomes more powerful and gains greater potential for customisation as you progress through the game. This allows players to synergise their character’s burgeoning abilities with specific weapons and armour in a way that defines their own playstyle. I won’t spell things out any further here; if you’ve played a loot grinding RPG before then you’ll know what to expect and how much you’re likely to enjoy this aspect of the game.
MATCHMAKING. Last week I cleared the burning department store you see above of it’s bad guy infestation with the help of a German and a Swede. The week before that I rescued an engineer that I’m assured is vital to our cause (The Division‘s plot takes a back seat to its loot grinding so I can’t recall his name just now) with the help of a couple of guys from the US. The best thing about this was not needing to access an LFG (Looking For Game) website or relying on having friends online when I was. With the press of a button The Division found me teammates of a similar level from all over the world and we got the job done. In-game matchmaking may not sound revolutionary, but having played through most of the Destiny narrative solo I really appreciate having the option of involving other players at a moment’s notice. I hear that Ubisoft are also about to patch in loot trading as well, so if anyone from Bungie is reading this (lol…) PLEEEEEASE take a leaf from The Division‘s book for Destiny 2 and incorporate these features.
Pro Tip: Activating a mission’s matchmaking feature from anywhere on the map also allows you to fast travel to the starting point rather than having to run the whole way and waste bullets on random encounters.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I’ve left this one until last as it can be a double-edged sword. As with Destiny and presumably other MMO titles before it, The Division presents the player with layer upon layer of stuff to do. Initially you will be completing encounters, side missions and story missions to gain valuable XP and cash. Later you can go back and repeat the story missions on a harder difficulty setting for better loot. Then there’s PvP (the Dark Zone) and PvE endgame content such as Challenge modes and the upcoming Incursions that require a strong team working together effectively to complete. Finally, with the aim of keeping players logging in forever there are regenerating daily challenges and regular DLC updates scheduled for the next 12 months and beyond.
On the face of it this carefully constructed sequence of activities sounds great; a digital All You Can Eat if you will. Ubisoft obviously want me to keep coming back to their game after completing the story, and at the moment I crave enjoyable activities that will allow me to level up my character and collect cool gear. Win win!
Or is it…
— DIVERSION WARNING —
If the goal of MMO developers is to maintain their player numbers even after the biggest boss has been defeated by players wielding top-tier gear, then fostering a Pavlovian response (“Do this to get that. Here you go! Now do another one…”) from the very earliest stages of the game makes perfect sense.
In practical terms this involves strategically offering the player opportunities to hasten the grind to max level or tempting them to invest their time for a new piece of collectible gear. Naturally these low to mid-level tasks gradually evolve from being useful XP or currency sources to just another job on a perpetual To Do List. As the list expands the value of each achievement diminishes, until you eventually find yourself wasting time earning endgame currency or unnecessary XP simply because the game offers it up. An outsider looking in might suggest that the problem here is simply a mindless adherence to an open-ended quest, and perhaps in some respects they are correct. Based on my experience as the player however, I believe that this behaviour reward system is carved so deeply into players’ mentalities over tens or hundreds of hours that in the end the reward can be entirely absent and people (read: me) will still log in and complete the limited time activities because that’s what we’ve been trained to do in the inspiring formative stages of the game.
I’ve always been scornful of poker machines because of the sway that hold in so many lives. They pay out at an ideal rate to hook and retain their users, but over the long term it is the machine that wins. At times in Destiny‘s recent PvE content drought I’ve found myself looking a whole lot like someone with a tray of coins and eyes on glued to the pokie screen. Usually I play because it’s fun, but sometimes I play because it’s there.
Even in the early stages of The Division I had the feeling that I was being groomed to play the game exclusively and indefinitely. Portraying myself as a pawn in Ubisoft’s scheme for MMO domination – someone has to take over from World Of Warcraft you know – is probably a little theatrical but you get the idea. To think that developers’ player retention systems deliberately resemble those that elsewhere encourage problem gambling bothers me on a basic, ethical level, but maybe I’m just creating excuses for a lack of self-discipline. If you’ve ever considered this I’d love to hear your conclusions!
So to wrap things up before any more diversions take place, I would heartily recommend playing The Division. It has deep RPG elements, looks great and the production values are exceptional. But be warned: if you know that you have a tendency to obsess over things then an MMO like this may turn out to be a decade- rather a than a month-long commitment.