Monday, February 22, 2016

The Division, part three.

The Division

It's because I'm not American, I decide. That's what's missing from The Division.

This is my second foray into the ruins of Madison Square Garden, now with backup. Having someone to talk to has changed the experience, and I'm not sure it's for the better. It just gives me someone to complain to.

It's when we shoot our way through the repurposed stadium that I decide that The Division's problem is my own lack of knowledge of, or fondness for, the New York landmarks it uses. This could be any hastily-assembled field hospital we're spraying with lead and blood; I have no appreciation of the original location.

The second thing I accept is the unforgiving shooting. Another member has joined our squad, and we repeat the power station mission I completed yesterday. My carbine has come back into fashion against the flamethrowers, but there's no slack to help land headshots. I wish my controller was as precise as the fictional scope on my rifle; another shot passes a pixel to the left of its intended target without aim assist to pull it back on course.

We accept a bounty mission that tasks us with eliminating a murderer who, disappointingly, turns out to be just a gang member with a larger health bar and better drops. The target is, I'm told, a woman, which very well might be the first female enemy I've seen. I don't get close enough to see a difference with her character model.

Later, The Division makes a strong statement in the Dark Zone, where every figure in the distance must be regarded with suspicion. Compared to the desolate streets outside its walls, the Dark Zone is densely populated and thick with danger.

We get greedy with our looting and pay for it when the underground car park we've just cleared is invaded. I lose half my haul to the hooligans but accept it as a necessary lesson.

Extracting the remaining items from the Zone proves to be a tense affair; as we wait for the helicopter to collect our packages, several other players approach the extraction point. There is no way to tell, for anyone, whether the intentions of any other player at the table are nefarious.

My automatic turret is deployed in the final seconds before the helicopter arrives, one of several insurance policies intended to avenge their owners should someone get greedy.

The extraction goes smoothly in the end, my anxiety unfounded and my turrent unnecessary.

Afterwards, we go on the offensive: attempting to murder a player who assisted in fending off a spontaneous attack from NPCs. The plan backfires and we are quickly gunned down by the rest of the district. I lose nearly everything I collected, legitimately, before our ill-advised assassination attempt.

I notice I'm making a lot of comparisons between The Division and Destiny, none of which are yet going in Ubisoft's favour. With more forgiving and satisfying gunplay, Bungie's online shooter/RPG hybrid is more immediately fun. Its loot notifications celebrate each piece of gear you collect in a way that The Division's augmented reality-inspired labels don't - several times I pick up loot without being able to clearly see what the label says, or even before I can identify the icon telling me what kind of armour it is.

I carried no more love for the Cosmodrome into Destiny's early days than I do for New York in this beta, but the grandeur of the Mothyard's bright, wide spaces contrast against the dark claustrophobia of Lunar Complex in a way that the various streets of Manhattan cannot, weather system or not (although a shootout against rogue agents in a Dark Zone blizzard is thrilling in a way no Destiny fight has ever been).

The grid system of the streets constantly keeps me separated from events happening just a few yards away and gives me the overpowering sense that I'm running down corridors, being kept from seeing the landmarks that would reduce my reliance on the map.

It's hardly fair given the hundred hours I've dedicated to my Guardian, but there's a sense of ownership of the character, her weapons and her armour that I don't even feel the roots of with The Division. Maybe it's because I couldn't customise her, because this character is only temporary. Maybe it's because the real-world loot is so drab and samey; I've collected a dozen jackets and can't see any major differences between them. Destiny combined the functional and aesthetic elements of equipment, making the choice of boots a balancing act between being slightly more powerful and looking awesome. The Division lets me change my character's jumper, but I can barely see it and it makes no difference anyway.

I die for the last time, in flames, while exploring a contaminated checkpoint. I decide to return to my base, using fast travel from outside the Dark Zone, but don't make it through the door. The beta is ending soon; I will not benefit from any more upgrades. I don't even bother checking the stats on the equipment I salvaged from the Dark Zone.

I log out.

The Division, part two.

The Division

I'm outside my newly-liberated HQ, but all the quest markers for activating its subsections are still there. I log into the three laptops again and on my way outside I get a cutscene, which I skip.

I pick a mission because I like its bright yellow lightning bolt icon the best: I'm going a few blocks east and clearing out a power substation. I also have to rescue a man called Rhodes, but because I'm not paying attention to the subtitles, for most of the mission I'll think it's someone called Rose and will be surprised when she has a man's voice.

The omnipotent voice in my character's headset tells me - us? - to avoid confronting the cleaners. When I notice that they're carrying flamethrowers, I decide to ignore this advice. A lucky shot ignites a man's fuel tank and he explodes, spectacularly announcing my arrival to his nearby allies. This gang do not appear to use radio communications however, as I am able to use this same explosive sneak-attack at least four more times across the duration of the mission.

I descend through the facility's waist-high forest of crates and construction equipment and die for the first time, burned alive by a sociopath performing an over-enthusiastic homage to Bradbury. My reincarnation is quick and most of my equipment seems to have restocked itself, which removes the sting from the experience; the enemies have also reset themselves, but my tactical advantage of knowing where they're coming from - and how they're armed - proves too much for them to succeed in a second encounter.

I die twice more before reaching an obvious boss arena, where I kill waves of opponents long enough for their larger, better-armoured champion to arrive. He is defeated in an uncontrolled explosion when my missed headshot instead nicks his fuel tank.

Returning to the surface by elevator, I am informed that the engineer I left behind in the power plant has already beaten me to my headquarters and am instructed to meet him there. Since he's no longer in danger I decide to take a scenic route.

I find no fewer than three more military squads being badly outgunned by amateur militias, but only help one.

When I arrive at the base I talk to the engineer and unlock an ability which feels like it's been shanghaied from a different game: to deploy an automatic machine gun turret.

A hostage rescue mission catches my eye and I assist two soldiers in rescuing a third, by running ahead of them and killing fifteen men who have the temerity not to be in the army. Perhaps with military training they would have known better than to stream out of their fortified position and into the waiting crosshairs of my new carbine and ridiculous sci-fi turret.

I decide to take a less combat-oriented task next, searching for a missing person. The science fiction quotient increases when I find an area that recreates, in garish orange hologram, an event from long ago. This historical record does not appear to offer any clues to the woman's location, but my HUD nevertheless informs me that clues have been found and offers a new objective marker to continue the search.

I log out.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Division, part one.

The Division

My beta experience with The Division, Ubisoft's third person RPG/shooter hybrid, is not off to a great start, and I've still not actually played any of it. Building my own character is what I was most looking forward to when I started the game and seeing the tabs greyed out is equal parts puzzling, disappointing and distressing.

Eventually, unable to generate even a remote facsimile of myself, I settle on a randomised, vaguely Asian woman; I'd just kept requesting a new face until I found one who looks like she's been through some shit.

But I'm still not allowed into the ravaged ruins of The Division's New York - there's a multi-minute video tutorial to watch, narrated by an Australian who sounds unable to decide if he's excited or not. I get brief instructions on using cover, special skills and grenades, which will shortly be explained by in-game prompts anyway, but am left to figure out how to sprint, shoot and climb obstacles on my own.

A brief cutscene ends with my character deposited in a safe zone; my HUD lights up with vendor and mission board locations, which I ignore.

I accidentally stumble out into the deserted, allegedly mean streets and make for the nearest non-main quest, a firefight between several heavily-armed soldiers and a trio of under-equipped rioters.

I manage to turn the tide of the battle in the military's favour, by single-handedly killing all three assailants and their two backup shooters.

This is the first of several fairly satisfying combat encounters; I am routinely outnumbered, but my use of cover, special skills and grenades suggests I paid much closer attention to that tutorial video than my AI opponents. It feels much more like an RPG than its obvious main rival Destiny, with damage numbers springing from bullet impacts, but it lacks the punchy satisfaction of Bungie's headshots.

After circling the block twice searching for a door, I enter a building and am tasked, via radio transmission, with activating a number of scanners; the building is uninhabited and filled with lootable containers, so at first I don't even notice the countdown timer. I find and activate the final objective with minutes to spare. I go to the roof to transmit the scan results and kill five more men.

Eventually I find myself at the objective for the primary mission, a besieged museum. Once again the military is being overwhelmed by an opposing force with inferior numbers, inferior training and inferior weapons; once again the deciding factor in the brief battle's outcome is my lone agent.

It strikes me that my equipment and weapons, at this point, are mostly what I've scavenged from fallen enemies. My tactical approach, too, has more in common with the rioters, given that I actually kill the people who shoot at me.

How do the soldiers know I'm not a bad guy?

I go into the museum, another safe zone; my HUD lights up with vendor and mission board locations, which I ignore.

I log out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Tiny Noise

Levi Weaver

My favourite musician has announced that he's retiring from music to become a full-time baseball reporter, and released a 22-track album of unfinished songs and demos as a farewell.

It seems weird to describe what I'm feeling as "loss" or "grief", but Levi Weaver has had a profound impact on me in the short few years I've been aware of him. Being based in America and terminally indie, European performances were incredibly rare; I'm so glad we made the effort to get down to London last year and I got to meet him, to thank him in person. We'd had a couple of Twitter conversations and I wrote a long, personal blog post about how his lyrics made me re-examine my belief system; it sounds maybe selfish to say that I think he knew who I was when we were talking in Finsbury a year ago, but I felt like he was aware of our interactions - but I've been surprised before with "famous" people remembering individual fans.

I sing Kansas, I Decline to my son because he loves the chorus; from his changing table he ends up looking at the star-covered curtains in the nursery. We're Tornadoes When We Dance was the song for our first dance at our wedding. My hands automatically play Levi Weaver songs when I pick up my guitar; I only know how to play Spirit First because he was kind enough to show me on a livestream.

Today I'm going to be listening to a lot of Levi Weaver's songs.