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Every time that we have something good to say about Tom Clancy's The Division, there's a 'but' at the end of the statement. Maybe we're just miserable gits, or perhaps we're just wary of Ubisoft's ability to con us into thinking something's really good when deep down, it's actually pretty unremarkable. While there's no question that The Division is shaping up to be a polished product befitting its AAA standing, we'd be lying if we said that we didn't have concerns based on what we've played of the game's beta.

Going into this public stress test, Ubisoft's open world role-playing third person shooter [Phew - Ed] has been compared an awful lot to Destiny – a sci-fi adventure that, over time, has proven to be more divisive than Marmite. The truth is that The Division takes the structure of Destiny's gameplay loop and combines it with a touch of Ubisoft's stereotypical sandbox design. The result is a game that seems like a bit of a Frankenstein at first, but we're happy to admit that, after dumping several hours into this early look, the formula ends up feeling comfortably cohesive.

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However, even after spending just a short amount of time with the beta, it's clear that this is going to be an experience similar to Bungie's shooter in that having friends by your side improves just about everything. Tackling missions alone is definitely doable, and you can certainly have fun, but there's clearly room for teamwork in this grim depiction of New York.

This is especially noticeable when you decide to jump into the game's much discussed player-versus-player area, the Dark Zone. Mere minutes after entering this foreboding section of the city, we regretted not arriving with allies when we were set upon by a group of other players. Flanked from all angles, we were disposed of like yesterday's trash. It goes without saying that the Dark Zone is a brutal place, but you should really just go ahead and put that cringeworthy gameplay trailer out of your mind right now – there's no room for rational talks with other players when they can shoot you in the head at a moment's notice.

We came back to the Dark Zone a little later with a couple of buddies, and who would have guessed that every other group of players that we stumbled across would still instantly try to kill us? Indeed, even when we purposefully held our fire, we'd be shot at all the same. In short, it's folly to think that, in a space where you're given total freedom, players are going to attempt to bring order to things. For reference, just try to spend five minutes in a Grand Theft Auto Online public server without being sniped, blown up, or mowed down by a muscle car – the same principle applies here. Whether The Division's multiplayer offering will reach its potential depends entirely upon how committed the community becomes, but history says that we'll be looking at another chaotic bloodbath come March.

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Moving on, there's no denying that the title's portrayal of Manhattan is impressive. The city's been turned upside down by a deadly virus, and civilisation, as they say, has gone to sh*t. Trudging across the slushy streets and picking around abandoned electronics stores is more engaging than it may sound: your custom agent moves with a realistic weightiness, and travelling from one locale to the next through the city's eerily silence creates a believable atmosphere.

Dotting the generous portion of the map that's available in the beta are a number of missions, alongside points of interest that are marked down as you discover them. There are dynamic events that occur now and then, with violent rioters combing certain areas, but once we had visited each location that was automatically pointed out to us, proceedings soon started to get stale. The Division's map can't really be described as a big sandbox playground – instead, it's more of an intricate but largely empty space that you have to traverse in order to get from one chunk of meaningful gameplay to the next.

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Or at least, that's our worry. Obviously, the beta doesn't represent the finished product, but we're left wondering how long the game's wintry world will actually keep you interested after you've mopped up its numerous, relatively short side-missions. Destiny often gets a kicking for how empty its patrol locations are, but even though The Division's seamless open world naturally offers greater opportunity for exploration and discovery, it's unclear whether it'll amount to anything more than a series of straight streets that have next to nothing in them.

This brings us neatly to the beta's main story missions, which have a little more meat to them, and sport some pretty cool shootouts. Although this early glimpse of the release doesn't feature a prolonged look at the game's plot, it perhaps comes as no surprise to hear that we don't have high hopes for it based on what we've seen. The one central character that you meet is blunt and very military, which is rarely a good combination when it comes to relatable characters in video games. She's going to be there to dish out the missions, basically, and while the concept of a viral outbreak shutting down an entire city is undeniably interesting, we can barely get past the shaky cutscene camera, which mimics the kind of vomit-inducing, "realistic" method of filming found in movies like Cloverfield. It's not a good look.

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But okay, Destiny certainly doesn't have a good story and that hasn't stopped people from pumping thousands of hours into it, so let's talk about The Division's most compelling aspect: the loot. Equipment can be dropped by enemies or found in containers, and as always, stumbling across a rare new rifle or a brand spanking new pair of knee pads makes it feel like your efforts have been rewarded. Your agent has three weapon slots: primary, secondary, and sidearm, and you can also equip various layers of armour. In other words, there's a lot of stuff to replace on a regular basis as you find better gear, which hopefully means that you won't hit a brick wall in terms of character growth and progression just ten hours into this supposedly huge RPG.

We can't fault the loot system just yet then, especially since there's going to be far greater variety in the finished release, but this raises another concern in that the loot just isn't all that interesting. To make this point, let's take a look at Diablo III, Blizzard's superb hack and slash loot-'em-up. In Diablo III, you start off wearing the most basic of gear, but by the time that the main quest is over, you're decked out in equipment that makes you look like a God, and we're struggling to think of how The Division can possibly offer that same sort of satisfaction. After all, how menacing can backpacks become? How do you make endgame knee pads stand out from the crowd?

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Is The Division's creativity going to end up being limited by its realism? Quite possibly, although we'd argue that an RPG which isn't set in some sort of fantasy universe makes for a compelling change of pace. Nevertheless, there's a lot that Ubisoft's upcoming title won't be able to get away with – the game features an abundance of advanced technology, so we suppose that there's some potential there, but its seriousness means that it doesn't have a license to go full comic book like Fallout 4 does, and its ties to our own world keep it from doing anything too outlandish in a more general sense.

There's an argument, then, that The Division's a bit boring in its overall tone. If you really wanted to be critical you could boil it down to being a grey cover shooter with, truth be told, rather unremarkable gunplay, but again, we've only played an unfinished portion of the full release. There's a certain melancholy atmosphere to the game that's quite attractive, and the RPG elements are easily a highlight, so there's definitely still hope that the finished product can bury our fears in the snow – but at this point in time, we're just not entirely convinced.

What do you think of The Division so far? Are you enjoying the beta, or are you weary of how the full game might actually turn out? Vote in our poll, and then radio into the comments section below.

What do you think of The Division's PS4 beta? (85 votes)

  1. I love what I've played and I'm excited for the finished game22%
  2. I like it, but I'm not sold on the game22%
  3. I don't like it, but I'll wait to see how the full game turns out7%
  4. I hate it - it's actually put me off buying the game4%
  5. I haven't played the beta yet45%

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