Bringing Hope to a Broken City

A city in need of a hero.

Belghast recently said in his Division 2 Impressions post, “One of the core problems I had with the original Division is that it was a game without hope. The setting was bleak and it felt like as a Division Agent I was doing very little to actually help those around me.”

He’s not wrong, but it’s also not something I’d really taken note of before. It’s possible it just meant less to me previously. At the time, I really enjoyed The Division 1’s leveling content. It was some of the best I’d experienced (with the caveat that this was only true in a group that stuck together).

One of (at least two) downed planes you can come across.

Nonetheless, Bel’s impressions stuck with me and since reading them I have been thinking of one sequence of events in The Division 2 in particular.

There is a line in the game delivered during the story that really brings this home. I don’t feel it too much a spoiler as it was in the story trailer. But nonetheless, consider this a (small) spoiler warning for the following little bit. The line is: “Outside those walls, it’s perdition. Whatever you’re doing out there — we’re not feeling it in here.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but necessary for context is that it would be fair to say your attention had been elsewhere up until this conversation takes place. They are at the end of their rope, splintering at the seams and beginning to feel like the end has begun all over again.

This state is reflected in the scenery, and while it isn’t as bad as a place you might’ve just been — the need of these people is clear.

And while your character is a silent protagonist, never uttering a sympathetic word, the change you can bring to not only their environment but the outlook on life is fantastic. There is a theme of life finding a way in the face of extreme adversity. Kids finding a way to enjoy the simple things again.

I’ve hit the start of the ‘end game’ now, and I’ll be curious whether this theme continues. It certainly starts on a darker note, with a whole ‘Act 2’ feeling about things. But we’ll see how it goes. :)

The Division 2 Private Beta – Endgame PvE

The Division 2 Private Beta - Endgame mission on hard, reviving a friend.

I think with this, it will conclude my impressions of The Division 2 beta. I could go back and do the structured PvP, I could also go in and play the other specialisations (I tested through with the Demolitionist myself, friends took the other two: Sharpshooter and Survivalist, so I saw them in action too).

But I won’t. In part because the weekend is over and the realities of work reassert themselves, sure. Even were this not true though I feel less of a need to explore the demo more. Because it is such a familiar experience I’m more content to wait and see and do it ‘for real’ in the live game.

In any case, we played through the end-game ‘Invaded’ mission included in the beta 3 times, once on normal and twice on hard, the highest difficulty open in the beta.

So… Was it a bullet sponge fest?

On normal, with the gear the premade specialist characters started with? No, actually.

Normal difficulty felt OK. Red health bar guys were just two pumps of a SPAS-12 (8-round shotgun).

This starter gear was primarily high-end gear with a few epics thrown in. We didn’t have anything in the way of modifications for our skills. (Yep, even skills can have mods now.)

Item Level would’ve been in the 330-340 region, with a maximum possible a bit over 350 from what we could tell. High-end armor pieces were ilvl 350, with the highest weapon drop I personally saw at 352.

With this sort of gear, Normal difficulty felt OK. Red health bar guys were just two pumps of a SPAS-12 (8-round shotgun). Purple and Yellow health barred mobs took more, but still felt pretty OK. Focus firing any given target including named bosses melted them quickly.

And on Hard?

Our first pass of this room on hard was a nightmare. It made our group very afraid of the explosive flying drones. They became priority target #1.

Well… Yeah, OK. No getting around this one.

The Black Tusk enemies on Hard are a significant jump up over their normal counterparts. The damage they can inflict feels OK (actually, it hurts a great deal — I’m not into that kind of thing, I swear!) but their life bars. Sheesh.

The red health bar guys can now take five to six solid SPAS-12 blasts, breaking through the heavy armor of the medieval looking guys with chainguns takes the sustained fire of multiple full mags from the group to actually start doing damage.

Our first time through on normal it was clear as day weather at this section. The rain storm at night made for very poor visibility, and added to the challenge quite a bit.

There are quite a few unknowns that may mitigate this though. As I noted, we were missing modifications for our skills. We didn’t have a full set of skills to choose from. We didn’t necessarily have an optimum setup of attribute rolls, gear talents or brand mixes, either.

How much headroom is there for DPS growth from these factors? Unknown. I hope it is substantial though, because this was just hard. We didn’t have an opportunity to try out Challenging or Legendary1 difficulty yet.

Time to Loot

The drops were not so common as to lose all meaning, but neither were they so rare as to demotivate playing just that little bit more for a chance at another.

Warning: There is absolutely no guarantee that the drop rates experienced in the private beta will match live.

But I hope they do – because it felt like the right balance between the original stinginess of loot that we experienced in the early days of The Division 1 and the loot pinata that you’ll find if you go play now.

Even on the normal run we each received a few high-end / exotic gear pieces each. On the hard runs we perhaps received four to five such pieces each.

Basically, the drops were not so common as to lose all meaning, but neither were they so rare as to demotivate playing just that little bit more for a chance at another.

Outside of the brand gear I talked about in my early game impressions, there was no sign of ‘proper’ set gear as yet. Whether they are keeping that back for the full retail launch, or whether it is being held back for a later release, or worst of all in my opinion, expected to no longer be needed due to brands — I don’t know.

The Specialist Roles

Ehhhh.

But will there be perks to differentiate one specialisation from another? Gear sets exclusive to the specs, perhaps? I hope so, as they certainly do not feel very distinct from one another from our experience in the demo and need something to give flavour.

This is probably the area I’d most like to withhold judgement on until the the full release of the game.

But it seemed like your selection of specialty had very little bearing on how you play the game.

90 to 95% of the time you’ll be using your ‘standard’ kit, because the exotic ammo drops are rare. Extremely so. One or two drops of the ammo per run it seems, although on the first run through I had none at all.

The Sharpshooter’s .50 cal rifle is a great fight starter if they’re given the chance. The Demolitionist’s grenade launcher was excellent as an ‘Oh shi-‘ button (although using it honestly just put me in the frame of mind as it being a poor-man’s version of the Colossus’ ultimate). The Survivalist has a crossbow with explosive rounds. It seemed like a fairly versatile weapon, with the bolt lodging into whatever enemy it hits. At that point there is no escape, even if they run behind cover — that explosion in their chest is now inevitable.

But will there be perks to differentiate one specialisation from another? Gear sets exclusive to the specs, perhaps? I hope so, as they certainly do not feel very distinct from one another from our experience in the demo and need something to give flavour.

Conclusion

If you haven’t already, you may also wish to view my thoughts on the early game PvE, and the Dark Zone PvP.

With this experience I wrap-up my time with The Division 2 demo. In large part because the weekend is over and I’m back to work tomorrow, but even if that was not the case, I don’t feel any particular drive to go in and play more.

Don’t get me wrong, my experience with The Division 2 — some frustrating bugs and crashes notwithstanding2 — has been by and large a positive one.

But it’s also been a very familiar one. The changes are for the most part very welcome, but the core of the game is just The Division 1 done in summer.

I’ve said it before — but it really is true; if you enjoyed and want more Division 1, this will be absolutely your jam. If you didn’t get on with Division 1 then it’s equally likely you’ll find nothing here to change your mind.

I enjoyed the taste of the endgame the beta allowed, I feel that some tuning on enemy life / armor values might be in order if the player damage doesn’t scale much from the additional mod slots we were missing, especially in consideration of the fact this was only on ‘Hard’ difficulty.

It’s not a pre-order, must have, day 1 title for me. When I pick it up is going to largely depend on the rate of content releases for Anthem. With the first story update scheduled for March, Anthem may well hold me over for some time.

Potentially that is quite an optimistic view though, and I know within my circle of gaming friends some of them are hyper-keen and were extremely impressed by the continuation of The Division. This makes it much more likely that I’ll pick it up on or soon after release — but I’ll get it when I need to and assess when that is as we go.

As always though with demo impressions, this is by no means a review. There are just too many unknowns (for me, at least) to even begin to make such a claim. Certainly the demo experience has solidified my position on to buy or not personally — but if you’re still on the fence and didn’t get a chance to try the beta out this weekend yourself…

Just wait for the actual reviews and launched game streams, etc. You’ll be able to get a much firmer idea then how well (or not) Massive and Ubisoft have managed to deal with the bugs, the balance and the like.

The Division 2 Private Beta – Early Impressions of Early Game

Righto, so I’ve spent about 6-7 hours with The Division 2 beta so far. This first day of access has been about the early game (starting right from level 1) with a transition to allowing late-game play and testing a specialisation after the three-hour maintenance tonight.

I’ve completed both of the main story missions available in the demo, most of the side missions and then a bunch of the more randomly-generated event based content.

I have not yet tried out the available Dark Zone area or the PvP, so I can’t talk to that just yet.

Before I go any further though, I want to acknowledge I have a bias toward Anthem. I intend to ultimately play both games, and see myself bouncing between them as content releases occur, but certainly my preference is to start with Anthem. If you’re interested in why that is — then some of my reasoning for that is here.

I’ll endeavour to keep most of these sections therefore as factual as possible, with a more subjective opinion piece in the post’s conclusion.

Technical Stability

The Division 2 immediately presents a more polished set of technicals than the Anthem demo did, and I include the improved open Anthem demo in that statement too.

The servers showed little to no sign of a struggle to start with and game performance was solid without causing the PC to do a pretty good impression of a space heater like the Anthem demo client did.

There is unfortunately one very significant caveat to this — if you play in sessions longer than ~2 hours at a time, you will be subject to a memory leak issue.

It presents in one of a few ways — the most common being to simply crash, but at one time I started taking performance dips which grew increasingly worse over time, from 75-90 FPS working well, down to 15-25 FPS with judders before I finally reset the client.

There are also intermittent server-side disconnects. They’re not terribly frequent — perhaps once every hour or two, but a poorly timed one can cause you to lose all progress in a mission and restart.

Earlier I was running from the nearest safehouse to the East Darkzone (the one open during the Beta). I was just about there when a client freeze and crash hit. I logged in again, almost arrived a second time and then had a server disconnect. Sigh.

Visuals

Whether it is simply YouTube compression being YouTube compression, an intentional downplay of the visuals to avoid accusations of ‘Downgraaade!’ later on or other — the game in action on your very own screen looks a lot better than the game trailers would suggest.

While it is unmistakably still the same engine as The Division 1, there is an increased visual fidelity and sharpness to The Division 2.

I believe higher res textures are playing a role here, but also a conscious design choice from Massive to not soften the image so much in post process. This game is edgy, but not in a jaggy unanti-aliased kind of way.

There doesn’t appear to be any sort of Motion Blur on by default which I’m sure will make a lot of people happy.

In short, Division 2 aims for a much crisper display, and hits the target well.

Gameplay

If you played The Division 1, you know what to expect and you will already know whether or not that is a thing you want more of.

If not for the increased diversity in biomes in the game, the moment-to-moment gameplay could easily be mistaken for that of the first game.

That’s not to say there haven’t been changes – there have, of course. But if you didn’t enjoy the core gameplay of the first there is likely nothing here to change your mind.

I’m a new to The Division!

In that case – know that you’re in for a third-person cover shooter that leans more toward the RPG end of things with longer time-to-kill than most other shooters you might be familiar with.

The Division 1: Expect to see a lot of snow.

Having said that, standing around, not using the plentiful cover around will still see you a pile of mincemeat on the ground in fairly short order. At least — that is true until you’ve geared up and started using the appropriate skills if that is a position on the field you want to occupy.

Loot is a huge component of the game, if you consider Diablo or Borderlands in third-person shooter form you’re pretty much there.

And like Diablo at least — the abilities also play a major role. You can unlock the ability to heal, wield a powerful shield letting you advance on the enemy position without cover and ultimately flank, deploy turrets, and more. You can equip two such skills at a time, select a modded-variant of these skills to use and then also pick an ultimate skill from a selection of three.

The game can technically be played solo. But don’t. You’re best off with friends and may have up to 4 (including yourself) in the freeroam and main story missions.

For more detailed information, highly suggest you take a look around the net for other reviews, but I note that any review from the launch of The Division will be woefully out of date.

I’m not new — what are some of the key differences?

You might want to sit down for this one. After your experience with the JTF in The Division 1 you might not be ready for it.

Seated? OK, good.

The friendly NPCs in this game are not useless. The relatively low-key ‘capture and hold the area around this box’ side-missions of The Division 1 have been upgraded to a Territory Control mechanic in The Division 2.

Skill selection in the demo is incredibly limited but for the most part are quite promising. Perhaps the biggest exception to this is the new Division 2 variant of the Seeker Mine which is… not good.

A small area of the map will become an enemy stronghold, which you can fire off a flare to bring in surrounding friendly NPCs.

And they do work. They will push in on enemy positions and really make their presence felt. They’re also not your typical MMO or MMO-lite NPCs that deal no damage and essentially are just activity placeholders til you come to save the day.

No, these guys will mow shiz down.

And this sets a general theme for Division 1 –> 2 transition. Everything that was in the freeroam map of Division 1 is still here but generally speaking a bit bigger and better.

Side missions are more like mini main story missions, although perhaps a bit formulaic in what we’ve seen so far. Fight your way into a building. Do something (e.g., save a hostage, check on some intel), then: Oops, the enemy got mad and sent in reinforcements. Fight your way back out as well.

Safehouses still exist, but some of them are now Settlements. Settlements can be upgraded with your support with new facilities to help both the people there and yourself. They’re where you will recruit your operational staff from which unlocks additional facilities back at the Base of Operations.

They’re also often extended mission hubs, with each upgrade then opening more missions and side activity options.

Making up for this somewhat, the turrets (both Assault and Sniper variants) are amazing — so there is definitely a bit of a mixed bag.

The gunplay is about the same (which is to say, competent — but nothing to write home about).

Skill selection in the demo is incredibly limited but for the most part are quite promising. Perhaps the biggest exception to this is the new Division 2 variant of the Seeker Mine which is… not good.

‘Seeker’ Mine is now a bit of misnomer. Because it doesn’t. (At least not in the Airburst modded form, I couldn’t say for certainty none of the mods do.) Instead you deploy the Seeker as before, but then must target an area for it to go do its thing at.

If you’re using this to open combat, then all good! It will scuttle on over and give a rather surprising ‘Hi!’

If you’re already in combat, generally by the time it’s rolled its merry way over to the target location everyone there is either dead or 10-meters away in some other direction.

It doesn’t feel good to use in its current form which is disheartening because the Airburst Seeker Mine was one of my favourite skills from The Division 1.

Making up for this somewhat, the turrets (both Assault and Sniper variants) are amazing — so there is definitely a bit of a mixed bag.

Loot

I’ll likely comment on this again after we get to see some of the endgame variants, but I already can tell I like the direction of the changes to Loot from Division 1 –> 2.

Armor and Brands

Right from the outset with low-level green drops, armor pieces can belong to one of several ‘brands’. This forms the basis of a set-bonus for gear right from the outset, letting players customise builds in interesting ways.

The ‘Providence’ brand, an all-rounder set that covers off skillpower, health and weapon damage.

Right from level 1, you can start thinking about the direction you want to focus — be that on empowering your abilities, marksmanship, defensive staying power or straight up raw firepower.

Brand set bonuses only require 3 pieces to get their maximum bonus, so you have a number of ways to mix and match across your gear.

Perhaps the one downside to this is that crafting armor pieces feels a waste of time as they do not come with a ‘brand’. At least not at the outset of the game.

Weapons and Modifications

The variety in weapons and their handling characteristics is impressive. The shooting perhaps seemed a bit loose to start with, but may well have been a symptom of lower accuracy weapons without the benefit of modifications.

Seeing an Epic drop, even in the demo, lit up all the reward centres in my brain.

Around levels 5-6 I started getting weapons which felt tighter to control and access to enough perk points to buy out the basic range of weapon modifications.

Mods now don’t litter your stash or inventory taking up space. You gain access to at least a set of basic modifications through investing in Perks, which can then be used on any weapon at any time.

Modifications will typically have both a positive and a negative effect, and at least for these low level variants there is an actual decision to be made on whether or not you’d want to use them. Is a reduction in Crit damage worth the increase in Stability? For an LMG, maybe. For a SMG almost certainly not.

I’ve also gained access to to some Blueprints for Modifications which do appear to need to be crafted before they can be used. I think these DO go into your bag, but there is a separate inventory for modifications.

I haven’t crafted one of these yet though, so I’m not 100% positive how this fits together. I’ll revisit this in a later post.

Character Progression and Perks

The Division 1 lacked much in the way meaningful progression outside of levels and gear. While there was a perk system present, it offered less meaningful choices and it was relatively linear in how it was unlocked.

Expect for your main way of character progression to be, as it was with The Division 1, with levels and gear.

The Division 2 by contrast, while very likely to end up in the same position of a ‘finished’ character having everything unlocked at least provides you with a set of decisions on what order to tackle your unlocks in based on what you felt you wanted or needed most in the moment.

The options are largely themed around capacity. For example, increased inventory (starting size is frustrating), increased stash, carry capacity for grenades, armor kits, etc. But there is some variation for example with the basic set of weapon modifications.

Still, expect for your main way of character progression to be, as it was with The Division 1, with levels and gear.

Impressions of the Early Division 2 Gameplay vs. Anthem

I like what I see. There is a lot of promise and fans of The Division 1 are likely to be pleased with the direction the game has taken.

When I can’t jump or even step over certain ledges, getting stuck on a ramp only inches from the ground in places — I’m immediately drawn back to the hyper-mobility of Anthem.

On paper, I was beginning to question my choice in focusing on Anthem first, as it sounds like The Division 2 is going to have a much heavier load of endgame content from out of the gate. Some of which we’ll get to try later tonight or tomorrow!

However actually getting my hands on the game again confirmed for me that I’d be happier with Anthem. The weighty, stuck to the ground feel of The Division 2 offers a much more realistic environment (not that ‘realistic’ is a term that should be tied too heavily to a looter-shooter) but it also offers up its own set of annoyances.

When I can’t jump or even step over certain ledges, getting stuck on a ramp only inches from the ground in places — I’m immediately drawn back to the hyper-mobility of Anthem.

It’s hard to say with having had exposure to such a limited selection of abilities in The Division 2 so far how they compare, but it is easy to tell they’re more of a supportive role as opposed to Anthem where they are (depending to some extent on your choice of Javelin) the main feature of the combat. At least this is true without the heavier cooldown orientated builds which may be possible with later game gear.

So this leaves The Division 2 reliant on its gunplay and cover mechanics. This is a solid foundation, and with the right set of friends by your side allows for some awesome moments in the set-pieces of the main missions.

The grounded nature of The Division 2 can then be turned into a strength whereby flanking your enemy to get a good shot becomes an exercise in team tactics.

Ultimately my wish is that The Division 2 and Anthem were separated in launch dates by more than just a month. Even one extra month would have allowed for a much more peaceful co-existence in my life. ;)

As it is, my friends and I will have to prioritise once both are out. Barring any nasty surprises with the launch of Anthem, my expectation is that my preference still lies there.

The content schedule for Anthem while heartening, I feel is still going to provide a gap. In which, jumping over to experience the story and endgame of The Division 2 for a while shall be very welcome.


Why Anthem? Why not The Division 2?

I’ve been asked this question in various forms over the last little while. Some just want to know what about Anthem excites me full stop, for others they’ve been legitimately curious why I would be more hyped for Anthem than I am for The Division 2.

And my knee-jerk reaction in my head was, ‘Well duh- just look at ’em!’–but then when it came to actually articulate these oh-so-clearly-self-evident reasons, I drew a blank.

I couldn’t really say why I had such a strong preference for Anthem.

Not to worry if your preferences lean the other way–there is little doubt that I’ll ultimately cover both. I’m not really going to be trying to change your mind with this either, rather just give some insight into why I lean this way.

Going back to the Announcements

But I want to see full on expansions with level cap increases, new areas, new stories and new shinies to chase. I would have joyously paid for this for The Division 1. No amount of logic has been able to completely remove the sting of lost opportunity that The Division 1 represents.

When the titles were announced, Anthem left me with a sense of ‘Eh. We’ll see.’ Mass Effect: Andromeda was still fresh in the mind, so my usual enthusiasm for all things BioWare was tempered. Nonetheless, it looked interesting and I made a mental note to check on it again when it was a bit further along.

The Division 2 announcement, however, actively irked me. It felt to me that The Division 1 had plenty of potential life left to it, but had been left to die. Two years after launch and the story had not been moved, cars crashed into place on Day 1 were still there on Day 601.

The Division 1 had been left to stagnate, stuck in stasis, opportunity wasted. And then along comes The Division 2, seeming to me as nothing more than a rather cynical cash grab.

I’ve since tempered my view a little – I recognise that there were some fundamental problems with the way stats and itemisation worked in The Division 1. And sure, they could have done a Loot 2.0 patch but not without risk of pissing off at least some of the remaining player base who liked things the way they were.

Second, like it or not–I also recognise that Ubisoft is a business. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be treating consumers well of course, but they are not a charity. They do not carry any obligation to continue delivering against The Division 1 if the business case doesn’t stack up.

But I want to see full on expansions with level cap increases, new areas, new stories and new shinies to chase. I would have joyously paid for this for The Division 1. No amount of logic has been able to completely remove the sting of lost opportunity that The Division 1 represents, especially in light of Anthem claiming a 10-year plan.

The Story

The story and mission structure of The Division 1 was some of the best leveling content I’ve ever had the pleasure to play through. There was a sense of mystery around the First Wave agents, how or who spread the virus and more.

The Division 2’s story trailer by contrast leaves me a bit cold. The reality may be that the story is just as good and builds on Division 1’s — but if that’s true they’ve done a terrible job of conveying it.

Granted with Anthem, BioWare has been very close to the chest with the story. But even from what little has been shown and spoken about, there is mystery, forces bigger than ourselves, a misguided bad-guy with a pinch of Thanos and pinch of Darth Vadar in the mix. Reality manipulation is a thing. Forces of creation can and will go wild. Perhaps a pinch of The Dark Tower in there too.

I expect it will closely follow the BioWare tried and true template (albeit with 100% less sexy-times this time around, which personally I’m good with) but it’s been… quite a while… since I’ve been through a BioWare story in full, so I’m ready!1

But… But… EA!

Alright, let’s clear the air on this one a little.

And secondly, perhaps a bit more controversially — I think anyone holding the view that EA is evil but Ubisoft is good is being willfully ignorant or perhaps stuck in denial.

I’m well aware of the grievances against EA. They have certainly not been any kind of consumer advocate. ;) The issues were covered in excruciating detail, after all. But the resolutions and post launch improvements? Hardly a boo spoken.

Nonetheless, I don’t have any illusions that they’ve somehow overnight come up with a customer-first policy. I’m well aware that they may end up stinging us with something unwanted in Anthem.

But two points on this:

I think EA has been sufficiently frightened off being too obnoxious for a time by the fallout over lootboxes and the intense backlash they’ve received; not only by their customers but by legislators and as a result their shareholders.

And secondly, perhaps a bit more controversially — I think anyone holding the view that EA is evil but Ubisoft is good is being willfully ignorant or perhaps stuck in denial.

Ubisoft has not been a saint either, through adding microtransactions to titles (even The Division 1, in fact) post the review cycle. Even when adding them in at the game’s launch — including somewhat scummy items such as an XP Booster for a SP game (AC: Odyssey, which full disclosure I loved the game in spite of this).

They’re also a firm believer in creating a half-dozen editions of a game, and for Division 2 this has crossed from simple cosmetics or short-lived starter gear to a permanent stash-space increase only available with the super-duper uber-rich-person edition.

And in conclusion…

Anthem lets you play as fricken Iron Man, man. Case closed. Booyah. ;)

I actually went for more of a War Machine look as opposed to Iron Man. (Pfft; everyone was doing that!) Legs should have been darker as well, but were tied to the face plate colour. Overall happy with the results the customiser allowed for!

More seriously; I’d be happiest of all if both games were successful. I don’t buy into an ‘us or them’ mentality over the two. If I had unlimited time, I’d cover both from the get-go.

But since I don’t have unlimited time, and must choose — it’s Anthem for me to start with.

When my team and I run through all available content and are hankering for more, I believe The Division 2 will be there for us in our time of need. Switching between the two, allowing for content to develop in one whilst we play the other is going to be excellent.

There is more I could talk to over the relative transparency of the Devs and their community interactions, but the more I dove into my own motivations and thought processes the more I realised the centre of it for me was mostly around Ubisoft’s lack of long-term support for Div 1.

I’m willing to forgive and forget, providing a chance to Div 2 to be better. But if in a couple of years from now we’re talking about the announcement for Div 3 — I think we’re done!

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