This week I played a preview of The Division on Xbox One for roughly four hours, and had a surprisingly good time. I wasn't expecting to enjoy a Tom Clancy shooter, but I did because it's not a Tom Clancy shooter. Expensive–haircut–haver and deputy editing humanoid Steve Burns has been insisting that The Division is a "secret numbers game" for some time, and I can report that he is extremely correct. The Division is an RPG down to the ground.
My suspicions were first aroused by the character creation, which let me change my Division Agent's hairstyle, eye colour, and accessories. I then took stock of the ability trees: a large array of upgradeable Skills and Talents which give you access to gun turrets, environment scanners, buffs in certain situations etc. These can be combined and switched around to fit the basic shape of different classes. It was all coming together.
Perhaps my biggest clue, though, came before I even started playing: Julian Gerighty, creative director of Ubisoft in Malmo, said that "Online, open–world, RPG are the pillars of the game". So… it's an MMORPG then? Sort of. A bit. Maybe. The online PvP happens in the Dark Zone, a separate part of the map where you can find loot and either team up with or betray other players (usually the latter, because we're basically all dicks). Whether you're in or out of the DZ you can wander about by yourself, but there's a heavy lean towards multiplayer.
Magnus Jansen, creative director at Massive Entertainment, said that The Division is a "great single player game" but they recommend multiplayer. Jansen also confirmed The Division will be supported with updates and DLC, but for how long is being played close to the chest. Ubi could well be hoping to tap into the same market that Destiny found, itself a game that's not nearly as fun on your own. I can imagine getting a group together and playing The Division at the same time each week, going on forays into the city and raids into the DZ.
You'll still each have separate loot drops and your own Base of Operations (which was adorably referred to by the devs as your BOO), another obvious RPG element. As you upgrade bits of your BOO it changes – Jansen referred to it as being "the physical representation of you taking back New York". So, for example, purchasing the Clinic upgrade added a med bay area to my BOO, which in turn unlocked new abilities for me. It's all complex and connected. Like how RPGs are. Because it's an RPG. It's basically Dungeons and Dragons, but, like, New York and frag grenades.
New York City, incidentally, is currently looking great. Gerighty claims it's "one of the most accurate cities ever created in a videogame", which is a bold statement, but I've been to New York in the winter (she says, much like a smug twat would) and The Division has definitely captured it well, just with added apocalypse. There are some good destructible bits all around you, living elements like arguing couples and tramps fighting over food, and changing weather. It looked genuinely lovely at times.
So far so good for a gurning idiot like me who likes RPGs and wasn't expecting one, but I have an inkling that a lot of people who like shooters are still expecting one of those, and that ain't what they're getting. Up until extremely recently the marketing all pointed to a shooter, not a shoot (and upgrade and customise) and looter.
This may turn out to be doubly problematic in light of the fact that the worst part of The Division so far is the shooting. See, in a fantastical RPG you get over an enemy soaking up attacks because they're a massive dragon and therefore reasonably react less to your hits. But this is a 'based on real life' RPG, built in a realistic city, and while The Division has put on most of the trappings of an RPG the combat isn't based on dice rolls in line with that.
The result is that in an otherwise realistic environment you can empty several clips into a high level enemy's head, and they just continue to advance towards you. It's a jarring contrast. A lot of the time I didn't feel like I was firing a big fuck–off assault rifle as much as an air gun. Even low level grunts in react minimally to a direct hit.
You can try for better guns, of course. The juiciest loot is in the Dark Zone, but it's a massive ballache getting it out – you have a limited inventory space while you're there, and have to be extracted in a helicopter, after which your loot has to be disinfected before you can use it. At any point you could be interrupted by a team of rival players who can go rogue and kill you for your stuff (and if you go rogue other players get bigger rewards for taking you out; you basically get a bounty on your head).
This PvP idea in and of itself is pretty cool, but the rewards aren't that rewarding relative to the effort. Unless there are some massively overpowered or stupid stylised weapons to be added, who needs a new shotgun that doesn't feel that functionally different from the rifle you already have? I can get over it, because I really liked all the collectibles and customising and base building. Other people might not be able to, especially if they were looking forwards to the shooting the most.
Look, you can modify your weapons. You can wear different kinds of hats. There's a crafting station. The only thing missing so far is the option to shag one of your NPC mates, and nobody's actually confirmed that won't happen yet. Ubi, mate, it's a bleedin' RPG. Why didn't you just say? Surely it wasn't a surprise to you as well; you've been working on it since at least 2013.