Saturday, January 16, 2016

Why I am worried about Tom Clancy's Division and you should be too (if you're a gamer)

Lately I've been on a huge first-person shooter binge, sinking a lot of time into Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 (which I am enjoying immensely much to my surprise, but maybe that's another blog post) as well as a few old-school shooters (like Republic Commandos, Counterstrike 1.6 and the first Jedi Knight), and a bit of time with Star Wars Battlefront (which - thank God - I didn't buy, but borrowed from a friend instead). This coincided with a huge amount of information dropped about one of the most anticipated AAA games of 2016 - Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's The Division (and you can see a bunch of collected game media impressions here on Kotaku). You might also enjoy this impression by a very popular YouTuber AngryJoe.

I was tentatively excited about The Division when it was first announced. It looked like a blend of persistent world MMO, with heavy shooter elements, some MMORPG-style abilities, and a bleak near-future apocalyptic story, all set in a 1 for 1 recreation of New York. Since then the game received its share of controversies, suffering form delay after delay, clear visual performance downgrades (at least on consoles - there has been no footage of the game running on PC in an unscripted setting) and confusion regarding what this game is supposed to be. However, with the media embargo regarding hands-on impressions lifted (as witnessed by the links above) a lot of that confusion has been clarified. On the other hand it also got me worried about the game quite a bit.

The first thing that's got me worried is how hard most game media journalists who have played The Division are trying to both make The Division sound like Destiny ('it's just like Destiny you guys! But you're fighting hobos and looters with realistic guns, instead of fighting aliens with sci-fi magical guns!') and NOT make The Division sound like Destiny ('it's nothing like Destiny other than both are shooters with RPG stats and damage numbers!'). So that's a first warning sign as they (game media and Ubisoft) are trying very hard to sell the game to both fans of Destiny and those who either hated it or never tried it (for the record, I still haven't played a single minute of Destiny and doubt I ever will). Granted, The Division was announced before Destiny actually came out, but it's still weird to see how much effort is spent on fitting The Division into the meta-narrative of the evolution of shooters and RPGs on consoles.

The second thing that makes me doubt the game's staying power is that there doesn't appear to be a huge variety of enemies or environments. You're shooting hobos, looters, criminals, what looks to be rogue cops and army dudes, some weird hazmat-wearing flamethrowing guys and so on. You're shooting them with real-world guns and using near-future but perfectly plausible tech (rolling micro-drones, personal radar systems, etc.) but you are essentially just shooting people with your gun. In games like Call of Duty that's totally fine because: a) the single-player campaign is usually quite short and ends before it gets too repetitive, and b) when playing matches where you shoot other people with your guns, personal skill, map awareness and knowledge of the game count for far more than the stats on your gear and the DPS of your gun. So there needs to be some kind of a greater incentive (both in terms of loot and in terms of narrative) when 'shoot people with guns' is dropped into an MMO-esque RPG. Destiny achieves it (to my knowledge) with having many different-looking worlds, big variety of instanced missions or dungeons (so that you're not just shooting people or the same race of aliens all the time), big variety of enemies and just big visual shifts between areas. The Division appears to have none of that at this moment. You're fighting in urban areas and you are shooting people all day long. It's kind of weird to see that a boss in a mission is some guy named Rudy (or Joe or whatever) but he still looks like the rest of the hobos around him while acting like a giant bullet sponge as if he was a raid boss from World of Warcraft or Destiny. It just doesn't seem like the Division would be able to sustain my interest for too long. Now, maybe the developers are a lot smarter than this, and maybe New York is just the FIRST stage and there are other cities or locations you travel to later on in the game, and maybe later on some weirder enemy types get introduce (robots, or infected or something) and they are just keeping this under wraps. However, given Ubisoft's previous track record with story telling and keeping surprises under wraps I find this difficult to believe.

Then there's the whole loot gathering and crafting progression. Basically I have no time or willpower to play another MMO. Even if, as the developers claim, most missions in The Division can be completed in under an hour. The point is that all of the gameplay videos released recently (see links above) show that the game progression is hugely dependent on gathering or crafting increasingly better loot. It's the same grind as in WoW, FFXIV or (as I am told by hardcore Destiny players) in Destiny and I have no time or patience for that. Especially if, as the developers and game journalists are constantly stressing, The Division will be a kind of game you'll want to play with friends. If my friends outpace me in terms of gear and levels, what am I supposed to do then? Also, I just find gear grinding to be very boring.

The other big concern for me is the tone. The cut scenes, the environment, the music and the ambient dialogue all paint this grim Tom Clancy-ish setting which is utterly at odds with the focus of the game on loot, DPS and shooting a bunch of people. So you're supposed to be restoring law and order in New York in the wake of a deadly epidemic and breakdown of society, but it seems that the primary motivation of the players is to get better guns and gear. Woo! I got a better scope/backpack/gun holster/laser sight! In other words, I feel like there's a big disconnect between what the game is about and the actual gameplay. Also, this disconnect between the narrative and the gameplay coupled with modern day realistic setting raise some rather ugly questions. The looters you shoot in the early stages of the game all wear "urban" clothing (read: African American hiphop influenced fashion), the National Guard elements helping you seem uniformly heroic, the US government (in a typical Tom Clancy military fiction fashion) generally means well and is prepared in some fashion and that society in the absence of the long arm of the government will inevitably break down. But you know, all of it is just an excuse to shoot a whole bunch of people with realistic guns.

Finally, Ubisoft is rather notorious for dropping post-launch support for titles that have no sold so well or that have lost a lot of player base post-launch due to various issues (poor story, buggy gameplay, poor performance). For example Watch_Dogs or Assassin's Creed: Unity. I pity anyone who had bought a season pass for those games because both games have received very little support post-launch. Ubisoft seemed to have dropped both like a hot potato and resolved to never ever speak of them again. Heck, I seem to recall even some sort of apology for Assassin's Creed Unity (and the excellent Assassin's Creed Syndicate seems to have swept Unity aside as a true next-gen Assassin's Creed). Basically, if
a) The Division fails to sell the number of copies that Ubisoft is hoping for, and/or
b) The Division fails to sell the number of season passes that Ubisoft is hoping for, and/or
c) The Division fails to retain the number of players post-launch that Ubisoft is hoping for
Then I am not holding out much hope for the post-launch support or Ubisoft's willingness to invest into the future of the game. Ubisoft needs to realize that MMOs and MMO-style games need constant post-launch support and that no online games come out of the game perfect. WoW didn't start out with 10 million subscribers, FFXIV has not become the huge commercial and critical success until Sony made the gutsy move to first shut down the game, then completely rebuild it, and then provide big monthly updates and an enormous expansion.

So what would make me pick up The Division after it launches (because I sure as shit ain't pre-ordering it or picking it up on day 1)? One, the launch has to be smooth - some server issues are expected, but it better not be a complete shit show. Two, the game needs to feature more than just New York - other cities or at least non-urban environments are a must for me to avoid the tedium. Three, the grind for decent gear should not take as long a time as FFXIV or Destiny. Four, Ubisoft needs to be very clear upfront as to what future additions (via season pass) will hold and approximate dates when they will come out. Five, they seriously need to add a persistent clan option and more social support. For a game that's supposed to be enjoyed with other people it's surprising to me that it has such limited emotes, no clan support, and awkward grouping.

Then again, maybe it'll be an amazing game from day 1. :P