Ubisoft gets a lot of crap (often times rightly so) for some of their practices in games. They have, for better or worse, come up with a set of gameplay loops that to many – myself included – find impossible to resist. I don’t have any real-life OCD tendencies, but for whatever reason, the Ubi Formula seems to have been keenly tuned to invoke a sense of OCD in gaming. The set of systems goes a little something like this:
- Barf a ridiculous number of collectibles throughout the various open worlds that they’ve created, then hide most of them until the player is in range, then highlight them on their mini-map
- Blanket the world in a fog, but scatter a handful of towers of some sort around, and once climbed/synched, reveal all nearby collectibles
- In more recent games, gate off upgrades behind a certain number of collectibles – nothing absolutely necessary, but good enough that the player will want to at least attempt to get them
This formula germinated and then was fully fleshed out around the Assassin’s Creed games, but it’s spread to nearly all the other open-world games in the Ubi stable – namely Far Cry and, most amusingly of all, The Crew. I know many poo-poo this whole approach, but for me it creates a compulsion that I can’t seem to shake; lizard brain see shiny, must get shiny, must make number go up.
Though it is without question as small slice of the whole, what I’ve played of The Division’s beta that’s running through this weekend thus far seems eager to buck the ostensible Ubi Formula. There are no towers to climb, no points to sync, though there are at least a handful of different collectible types (downed drones, bits of intel). Even still, what’s here has clearly lifted elements from Destiny’s addiction playbook. A dyed-in-the-wool RPG, there’s XP and levels (with attached gear requirements), tons of pointless loot (to be sold for cash to but new equipment, mods and weapons), and enemies that initially feel a little bullet spongey until those level gains and upgraded equipment make fights far more trivial. This is, to put it plainly, extremely my shit. I’ve always found the role-playing mechanic of leveling up – even grinding if need be to make it happen – and seeing the little stat upticks translate into stomping enemies that were previously an inconvenience. It sets off a tingle in the base of my skull like no other gameplay mechanic, and it’s why RPGs are still my favorite genre.
So The Division ticks those boxes nicely. The matchmaking isn’t nearly as heavy-handed as Bungie’s, but people have rightly drawn comparisons to Destiny with the way The Division handles its version of strikes. Gun down waves of enemies, scoot around a level and take down a boss (or boss mob) and dovetail neatly right back into where you started. You can do all of this by yourself (which I did), but you can just as easily pull up the map (delivered in a slick little augmented reality overhead view of the city) and pick out the yellowy-orange blips of friends scooting around those same levels. Tap a button, join on them, and you can replay missions with seamlessly increased enemy numbers and the chance for different loot drops. It works wonderfully, and the hop-in/hop-out nature of how this is done is absolutely commendable.
All this is well and good. A modern-day take on an RPG with guns is well-trodden ground at this point. Borderlands managed to do it quite well, but The Division really feels right. The gunplay is just wiry enough to feel like you’re not just mindlessly gunning down grunts. The enemy AI can suffer from the occasional brain fart, and enemy types seem divided into Shooty – Sometimes Moving, Shooty – Sniping You With Mysterious Glowly Aura, and Charge You With Melee, and that’s all fine. When you swap bits of cover (handled with the single best point-to-point pathing and targeting interface I’ve seen in a third-person cover-based shooter) without being seen, enemies will keep firing on your old position, allowing you to flank. Opening fire again causes the Shooty – Sometimes Moving guys to adapt to a limited degree, but it seems the melee enemies just sort of stand around. Enemy AI used to be something that was actively chased by developers, reaching something of a zenith with FEAR back on the PC. The better part of the decade, though, hasn’t really seen things grow beyond the Good Enough standards that we have now, and though it would likely cause fights to be far more tedious, this seems like the kind of game where it really could have shined – not as a back-of-the-box feature or anything, just as the natural progression of how a next-gen game in this genre should handle these things. Alas.
Back in my editorial days, I spent plenty of time praising the 50 gajillion Ubisoft teams that cobbled together the multiplayer modes for the Assassin’s Creed games because they managed to wrap that slightly wonky traversal around a completely thrilling game of cat and mouse. By making all of the inhabitants of the multiplayer levels the same as the various characters trying to hunt down and kill each other, there’s a constant tension. Which of those seemingly innocuous AI drones is actually a killer hiding in plain sight? Over the three AC games where multiplayer was present, there wasn’t much in the way of evolution – mostly just tying the XP/levels to unlockables that talked about the Abstergo side of AC lore (the background to the MP mode was that you were an Abstergo trainee learning to become a Templar killer), and after Black Flag, the MP was axed. I can understand the reasoning: the devs just didn’t know where to go with things, but that morsel of constant unease and the rush of sneaking up on someone to off them after calmly tailing them in and out of crowds was so damn thrilling that it didn’t matter. And it was completely unlike any other game out there.
The Division seems to have found that same crack in the familiar multiplayer construct and carved out its own niche by simply playing off human nature. The Dark Zone is the game’s free-for-all PvP area, and the premise is incredibly simple: better loot lives here, but the AI is often far more powerful and numerous, so it behooves players to form loose alliances. Thing is, this is a lawless region, and at any time, a player can “go rogue” and simply gun down all his erstwhile teammates and take their stuff. Doing so paints them as a traitor, making their betrayal a neat little risk/reward setup. Since the Dark Zone is teeming with the virus that took down most of New York in the game, any gear or weapons found here have to be decontaminated by calling in an extraction, which starts a countdown timer for the helicopter to arrive and causes the AI to make a beeline for you. I’m only just getting my feet wet in the DZ, but the systems in place here have that same sense of freshness that AC’s multiplayer did. Whatever culture at Ubi that causes them to share gameplay system and crank out endless sequels does seem to also allow genuinely unique concepts to gestate in all that sameness, and with all their development resources, they can properly flesh out and polish those concepts until they really shine.
I’m not a fan of forced matchmaking, but the “mutual benefits” approach in the Dark Zone and the constant threat of greed overriding any sense of ad-hoc community is incredibly compelling to me. The Division’s beta accomplished exactly what all “beta” releases in this modern age are trying to do: it converted me to a full-blown purchase. Nice work, Massive.