The Division is a strange brew of several different games and genres. Usually mashups of a multitude of systems makes for a disjointed experience, and while a beta is not a definitive predictor of what the game will be, the game works. Furthermore, while incorporating many direct inspirations from well-established games, The Division manages to be somewhat original. It is a pleasant, astonishing surprise.
At the very core, The Division is an action RPG with colored loot, stats, talent trees and repetition. Like the genre's progenitor Diablo, there is easy drop-in and drop-out cooperative play, a hub world, and endless grinding. The added gunplay points to the Borderlands franchise for a contemporary inspiration with damage numbers flying out of enemies in a similar fashion. However, The Division feels a bit more serious with weapons more grounded than the fantastical variations in Borderlands. Destiny seems a very apt comparison in both the RPG and MMO-like system. While Destiny's genealogy stems from the freer, "floaty", and arcade-y Halo games, The Division tries to focus on tactical and more measured decisions. Borrowing a cover system directly from Gears of War, the action is deliberate and feels at home with the setting and real-world weapons.
To be fair, The Division is still more focused on being an arcade shooter than a realistic Arma-type experience or perhaps even a return to the original Rainbow Six. It strikes a compromise between Borderlands, Rainbow Six Vegas, and GRAW. The movement and moment to moment decisions are tactical while the enemies are arcade bullet sponges with large on-screen damage numbers.
The result is something that is immediately jarring. Initial impressions will be strange, but once you accept a hoodie-wearing hoodlum will shrug off half a clip from an assault rifle, the game will make sense. Honestly, is this any different from a paladin using multiple slashes to down a dire rat or an orc surviving a large exploding fireball? Instead of wizards, shadow knights, and druids, The Division has M4s, tactical vests, and sidearms. In this regard, the usage of the Tom Clancy brand does no favors in establishing the context of the game. The Tom Clancy brand conjures an expectation of a certain kind of movie-style realism. But no matter, the gameplay is solid and at home with an action role-playing game.
The PVP aspect is worth noting because like the core game it borrows judiciously from other genres to crave out its own place. Known as the Dark Zone, the PVP area is separated from the rest of the world with its own leveling system, rules, and economy. The Dark Zone is open PVP with NPC characters to fight. The drops are better, but anyone, even party members, can betray you at any time. In order to use any of the loot from the Dark Zone, players will have to call an extraction for the "contaminated" material. This aspect makes little sense in the world's lore, but paradoxically it is the basis for probably the most tense moments in the game. Whenever the extraction is signaled it take about two minutes for a helicopter to arrive to pick up the loot. Every player in the Dark Zone is alerted to the extraction. Anyone can use the extraction point for their own needs, or betray and steal everyone and everything. As players arrive in the area, the tension slowly builds and builds. This reminds me of meeting players in DayZ and the alternating emotions of distrust and desire for cooperation. It can quickly devolve into a King of the Hill deathmatch situation akin to Marathon or Halo, and is perhaps the highlight of the game.
Attacking other players in the Dark Zone places your character into "rogue" status for a period of time. Like the wanted system in the Grand Theft Auto games, hiding and waiting will eventually get rid of the brand. A certain percentage of damage needs to be inflicted in order for the status to take affect. While smart and very forgiving of stray bullets, there are situations where people take potshots at others to goad them into retaliation and ultimately be branded a rogue. Everyone in the zone knows you are rogue and any player can kill you for experience and money without any repercussions. The longer one stays rogue the more experience and money is awarded when upon survival. A prolonged period as a rogue even with a full group is dangerous and properly intense. Whereas DayZ was the ultimate altruistic anarchist's dream, The Division tries its best to regulate the experience into something more like a game than a social experiment.
Everything about The Division sounds like a solid and fun game, and the surprising beta did a lot to quell my own apprehension. However, I remember how awesome that Destiny beta was almost two years ago and how the final game was a bit thin and light on content. There is already a season pass on sale which doesn't exactly feel right. With a MMO-lite structure, paying for more content is fine, but with little information about the specifics of the season pass, it feels exploitative.
I have criticized Ubisoft in the past for being a sequel machine with games that can feel rote and unoriginal. However, The Division is a brand new original title, and with the amount of money and resources devoted to this game, Ubisoft is swinging for the fences and taking a big chance. In theory, all the pieces for The Division are there for a really cool game. I hope that they built something worthy of all the interesting, disparate, and well-made systems.