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March is going to be a busy month for gamers, with no impending release looming as large as Tom Clancy“s The Division, an MMO third-person shooter with RPG elements. The hype train behind the game has been building for months, and Ubisoft has decided to set the speed to over-drive with the closed beta, which opened late last week. Demand for The Division“s beta has been â€œunprecedentedâ€, leading to a restriction for some pre-order backers who were left out in the cold until the past day or so. After spending considerable time with the beta, I have a few thoughts on the direction of Ubisoft“s potential blockbuster release. The first thing to clarify is that The Division is nothing like Destiny. They have a few traits in common, like a pseudo-MMO shared-world where players can interact and play with one another. Beyond that, however, The Division“s gameplay structure is fundamentally different. The beta highlights two particular zones of the play; a solo PvE area and the Dark Zone, which is where PvP and PvE take place. The starting area is designed to facilitate level progression in the base game, with a story mission and a few side activities made available during the beta. And the content on offer is enough to get a taste for what the full release will have, but I felt like the solo zone was relatively empty. Enemy spawns were few and infrequent, which meant I had to do a lot of walking to find anything interesting. Side activities also didn“t refresh, though this may have been to restrict players from advancing past level 8. I can“t say much more on the solo side of things as there wasn“t much to do, but most of the MMO-like trappings and hub-upgrade missions were present, if currently locked away. One interesting thing to note is that the upgrades made to the hub-base can have direct impacts on gameplay, unlocking useful mods for player abilities and actions. Mods for the sensor sweep were the only ones accessible, but the greyed-out trees showed extensive options for crafting player ability loadouts. Conveniently, you can swap between any of the abilities by pulling up the menu and mapping each one to either the Q or E key. Only having two abilities at a time is less than enthralling, but I guess it“s supposed to be more realistic than the typical MMO character powerhouses. Loot is relatively plentiful, though a lot of it is mostly useless by the time you hit level 7 or 8 in the beta. Each weapon is color-coded based on rarity. The higher tiers of drops offer a few stat buffs in addition to base attributes. To get these buffs, you have to have gear that boosts three different categories of player attributes, including Firearms, Technology, and Health. Gear will also contribute to the armor rating, so it“s important to find the right balance between DPS, armor, health, and tech ratings, which influence the power of your abilities. It all sounds a little complicated, but you“ll quickly learn how it works once you get used to the UI. Weapons can also be customized with attachments that add further stat boosts and visual aids, like long-range scopes and laser-pointers. Attachments are further divided by large and small-caliber weapons (rifles vs. SMGs/pistols). The tiers of rarity offer some of the same perks as tiered weapons, but I found that rarity wasn“t the best indicator of utility. Some more common attachments offered better stat boosts than the rarest items you can purchase or find from drops. Combat is somewhat hit-or-miss, with firearms having a distinctly clunky feel. Destiny felt very much like the perfect shooter, whereas the combat in The Division is mostly serviceable. The area-of-effect for grenades and explosives is also ridiculously narrow, failing to behave as explosives would in real life. I shouldn“t have to make sure the enemy is highlighted in the red hemisphere to know my grenade will do damage. Mercifully, there aren“t many bullet-sponge enemies beyond a few minor armored bosses, so this issue is mostly constrained to fighting against other players. The biggest draw of The Division will likely be the Dark Zone, which features a hybrid of PvE and PvP gameplay. Consequently, this is where the best loot is to be found. In order to extract loot, however, you have to call in a chopper at specified locations and wait for a couple of minutes before you can send your gear off. The PvP element comes into play here as other players are neutral by default. They can, however, open fire on you and go rogue at any time. More often than not, rogues will wait until the chopper is just about to arrive before jumping you for your loot. Thus, it“s imperative to group up with friends you trust via match-making. Squad-members can“t shoot you directly, and any outside rogues will be discouraged by parties of four players. If you choose to solo the Dark Zone, the keys to survival are to keep moving and trust no one. It“s essentially a hybrid of Destiny and Day Z, only a lot more chaotic. The beta fails to disclose a lot of the conditions for going rogue, how to identify certain rogue health-bars from others, and some of the more complex features of the game. In essence, you“re basically thrown into the Dark Zone without much of a roadmap. On top of that, the Dark Zone has a leveling system that“s mostly independent of the solo content. You earn separate credits and experience, allowing you to purchase the rarest gear. Oddly enough, I did notice that the solo ranking would occasionally get small experience boosts while in the Dark Zone, either from player revives or other actions. It is possible that the systems actually aren“t all that independent in the full release, but are restricted here to maintain the level cap. Thus far, The Division is a pretty game, though it won“t live up to the E3 trailers. As expected, the visual downgrade is somewhat noticeable, but I wasn“t bothered by it in the least. What would be nice is to have some environmental destruction and vehicle deformation. More NPCs would also be a welcome sight. As it is, New York feels pretty empty, even if it is set in a post-viral outbreak environment. The beta has offered a limited slice, but I“m interested by what The Division has to offer. There“s a lot of work that needs to be done, including proper documentation for all of the game“s mechanics. The Dark Zone PvP will also need to be rebalanced to avoid griefing and ganking. I“m not sure that it“s worth pre-ordering yet, but I“d certainly recommend keeping an eye on it. If Ubisoft can correct some of these flaws prior to launch, The Division should be a standout title early in the year.