In one short week (or less, depending when you read this), the tactical 3rd person shooter/RPG/open world game Tom Clancy’s The Division will be hitting shelves and digital storefronts worldwide. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the past four years, here’s the deal.
The Division is a curious undertaking. It was originally planned to be more or less a sandbox MMO in the same style as Bungie’s much-maligned Destiny was intended to be, and The Division has been through just as many feature cuts, revisions and delays as Destiny. But it’s still somehow managed to keep the interest of Console and PC gamers alike, mostly due to co-developer Red Storm Entertainment and Ubisoft not behaving like blinkered morons, and actually looking at what Bungie’s laurel-sitting bought them.
Apparently, this meant listening to their play testers about what was engaging in the gameplay and what wasn’t. It also meant lots of polishing — say what you will about the game, but there are very few glitches, and zero show-stopping bugs. The Division has been pushed back twice during its development cycle, and while I personally think that the fanboys’ pat answer of ‘What, do you want another Watch Dogs?’ is a bit trite, I can certainly respect the end result. However, by no means does that earn Ubi or Red Storm a gold star, as there are still some glaring issues. Apart from the irritatingly lazy but by now almost expected looping audio from NPCs, and the ridiculous fact that certain bosses have unlimited ammo, there are deeper, almost cringe-worthy decisions that may yet keep this title from being the paradigm shift it was originally intended to be.
I’ve said this often to the other XP4T staffers, and I stand by it; The Division we have today is quite simply, and sadly, a mere shadow of what was promised to us at its 2013 E3 reveal. Some of the decisions behind the changes made since then will, I believe, end up costing Red Storm and Ubisoft in the long run. In the worst case scenario, they may actually effect what games coming out of this that we do or don’t see in the future.
So let’s have a look at some of those decisions, starting with the now-scrapped Companion App. Anyone remember this video?
The Companion App was going to allow players to hook up with their friends via mobile devices and tablets to interact with them and their guild mates in a “really meaningful way”. Less than two years later, the app was scrapped with the very lame excuse that it would cause an imbalance in the gameplay, and while that could be true in the PvP Dark Zone, it’s an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has played a Co-Op or MMO game in the past three years, in which content can be scaled to meet different conditions. The more likely reason for its demise is the Xbox One’s throttled Xbox Live connection speed, because let’s face it folks, it would have been much easier to disallow the app in PvP than to scrap the entire project.
That brings us to the entire Xbox One exclusivity fiasco, which began when the project was announced and reached a crescendo when consumers were informed that all future DLC was going to the Xbox One first, and only afterwards to the PC and PS4. Say what you will about this practice, but no matter which platform is being favored, it marginalizes fans and gamers of the others, and in the long run costs developers customer loyalty. Perhaps worst of all, Ubisoft agreed to it despite a huge grassroots fan movement to have the game developed primarily for PC, as well as the very real fact that the PS4 Collector’s Edition sold out online just a few days after its announcement. Ultimately, this speaks to just how out of touch most publishers’ marketing departments are with their consumer base.
But in my mind the biggest disappointment is the graphics barrier that has surrounded The Division for quite some time. Despite Ubisoft’s claim to the contrary, there has been a very noticeable graphical downgrade, to better accommodate the XBox One version at the expense of the stronger PS4 and PC. Yes, the PC version does offer slightly better shadowing distance and reflections, but it’s still nowhere near what PC enthusiasts expected, especially from the much-vaunted Snowdrop engine. Furthermore, any PS4 owner that has played Assassin’s Creed Unity or Dying Light can tell you that Ubisoft could have gotten so much more out of Snowdrop on the PS4 than they have for the XBox One, but their Exclusivity pact with Microsoft has obviously prevented this, which is a major mistake. Buckling to the manufacturers — whether it’s Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, AMD, or Nvidia — is just a huge mistake, and we can all see the results in, for example, the current tiff between Activision and Microsoft over the CoD franchise.
But despite all of this, my hands-on experience with The Division also gives me hope for the industry. Despite the warts, terrible marketing decisions and doublespeak from the developers, The Division is a damned good fun, engaging game. It makes me want to log in and play right now, and will probably continue to do so solidly for at least five-six months after launch. So if you haven’t had a chance to take this crazy diamond on a test run, I suggest you do so. And if Ubisoft can continue to learn from its mistakes, and possibly recruit some actual gamers to its marketing team, then they may be looking at their most successful franchise to date.