The concept of “Shared World Shooters” is relatively new (though we didn’t forget you Hellgate: London!). As a genre they have aggressively approached the fore thanks to the technical prowess of these newer gen consoles, and the more capable architecture of today’s online networks. It seems that developers Bungie and Massive Entertainment had the same idea at the turn of the generation as The Division was officially announced at Ubisoft’s press conference at E3 2013, whereas Destiny’s first official details were revealed earlier the same year. However, Bungie reached the starting line first, giving Massive an 18 month lead time to study its indisputable competitor.
So, now that both The Division and Destiny are available to the public, how does the first month of Massive’s Tom Clancy branded 3rd person shooter stack up against the first month of Bungie’s space trotting loot opera?
Ubisoft doesn’t get enough credit for their satisfyingly efficient cover mechanics. First introduced in Splinter Cell: Conviction, the publisher has iterated on their in-house cover system and adapted it within a number of their franchises from Ghost Recon to their more recent newer IP, Watch Dogs. The Division brings the latest version of these game mechanics into a winterized and diseased Manhattan.
Snapping into cover lends that satisfying ‘thunk’ when securing your position behind the safety of any number of waist to above-head high objects, all without the worry of slipping out like less competent cover shooters. Your cover not only extends from side to side, but it gives you the option of riding along their perimeter, circling around your environmental shield to avoid more aggressive hostiles à la Mass Effect 3. But what makes this a Ubisoft cover shooter is the ability to pre-select your cover and automating the transition to your next position with the press and hold of a button. This keeps the cover-to-cover action quick and stylish, yet precise and tactical, ensuring that you’re always in control.
The gunplay, though at the mercy of The Division’s RPG elements, feels authentic enough to play like a more serious Tom Clancy game. The amount of muzzle climb and drift depends on the looted mods that you find for your gun, but precision modification doesn’t obfuscate the need to feather your trigger and aim carefully as Rikers or Rioters rush you. The AI is aggressive and adaptable enough to always feels challenging to fight.
That is, of course, when they’re not Elites. Many naysayers of The Division scoff at the several headshots it takes to kill a dude wearing a hoodie. The dissonance is indeed jarring, though Massive should be commended for opting for a near future real-world setting instead of the generic sci fi/fantasy dressing. Nonetheless, Elite foes with stacked armor can withstand over half a dozen headshots before they take real damage steers the shooting’s pacing into a sinkhole. As an RPG/shooter, this isn’t quite a problem that has been solved yet, which opens the way for more developers that aren’t Massive or Bungie to solve.
How Destiny Stacks Up
There were many negative aspects to Destiny at first launch, but the gunplay was deservingly absent from this list. It comes as no surprise that the developers behind one of the best console first person shooters ever made managed to replicate their success once more. Destiny’s shooting is damn-near perfect with a true variety in enemy encounter design that keeps the gunplay incredibly mobile and frantic. While The Division introduces a distinct faction called The Cleaners (arsonist psychopaths that wield flamethrowers at close range with explosive gas tanks strapped to their backs), the vast majority of the enemies found here are painfully similar in their subclasses – save for the rare but welcomed LMB Medics. Every faction in Destiny, on the other hand, brings their own tactics and behavior to combat, diversifying the gunplay significantly with every shootout.
This also greatly informs how Guardian abilities are used in combat, which were – and even more so now – more exciting and fleshed out than what’s found in The Division. The vast majority of The Division’s ‘Skills’ serve as passive buffs, leaving a few Skills such as Mobile Cover, Ballistic Shield, and almost all those listed in the Tech Wing as active abilities. This may play into The Division’s tactical strengths, but there’s a greater sense of satisfaction when pulling off a Super in Destiny, or finding the advantages of a new subclass’ grenade and melee attack. Lastly, both Destiny and The Division suffer from “reload battles” with their versions of boss fights, however in the case with Destiny, your freedom of movement and verticality prevents you from feeling as boxed into a corner.
Bungie infuses their dynamic and kinetic first person shooter design with an empowering set of movement and abilities making it, by far, the game to deliver the better combat experience.
As stated, Massive deserves credit for building an RPG set in modern day New York. This allows the developer to weave in recent historical events such as Hurricane Sandy and 9/11 as a wink and nod to the player. One can argue, though, that these references aren’t handled with any real depth, and can even go as far as to say that they’re handled irresponsibly. Merely mentioning high social concepts with no substance to back them up is a missed opportunity to say something meaningful. But even though there’s a superficiality to The Division, the city of Manhattan and the small glimpse at Brooklyn connect with the player in a way that The Witcher’s Northern Realms and even Fallout 4’s irradiated Boston don’t.
I recently revisited my hometown of Manhattan last month while taking my wife to see a Broadway play. On my way to 44th street through Time Square, after making a similar trip in a far less crowded virtual Manhattan, my visit to New York was riddled with flashes of virus-outbreak aftermath. The Division’s NYC is by far Ubisoft’s most strikingly detailed city ever built. From the litany of abandoned vehicles, to falling Christmas decorations, to authentic graffiti, every detail in The Division casts a shadow of what life was like for these New Yorkers. There was a moment where I turned a corner in the game and was frozen in awe as a replica of a family friend’s street was lined with garbage piled up to each residence’s second floor window. The Division strives to simulate a pandemic on top of an existing city, and because of this, it upholds a level of environmental story telling that rivals what was seen in The Last of Us – but spread across the square mileage of Midtown Manhattan.
Unsurprisingly The Division’s more explicit and directed storytelling is less impressive, but still has its strengths. Outside of some sparse monologue performances by of the game’s main characters, the voice acting varies broadly, with the cynical radio host delivering mixed results, and the annoying civilian complaining about back pain and med-seeking at every safe house. Echoes are The Division’s unique means of storytelling with stilled holograms that illustrate the events seemingly moments after the outbreak. Many of these present isolated incidents in their own right, while others ambitiously bring you to various parts of the city to piece together a fuller narrative.
As for the main plot itself, it spins a high concept tale of government conspiracy and dual identity. These ideas would perhaps be better presented in a book or a film rather than crying for attention amidst the white noise of gunning down anarchists and micromanaging loot drops. In the rare moments that the plot does stand out, primarily in the beginning and end of the main campaign, it offers moments of genuine intrigue and does a commendable job of at least keeping the player invested and wanting to know more about the fate of Manhattan.
How Destiny Stacks Up
At launch, Destiny’s story was abysmal, and the hoops players had to jump through to get the complete story was even worse. Your venture as a Guardian was occasionally interrupted by hokey cutscenes that spread Destiny’s lifeless plot even thinner with eye rolling melodrama, and was further exemplified by Peter Dinklage’s couldn’t-care-less voice acting.
These broad-stroked story beats did little to offer substantial context to Destiny’s universe, and thus Bungie decided to continue their insidious habit of actively disrespecting the player’s time (more on that later) by their use of Grimoire Cards. Grimoire Cards directed players to online portals between the Destiny Companion App and Bungie.net to gather additional context to the game, conext that shold have existed in the game itself. Looking back now, it comes to no surprise the abject cluster-fuck Bungie’s writers had to endure, a story broken by Kotaku’s Jason Schrier.
Winner: The Division
While coated in your modern day para-militarism, The Division strikes a chord with us citizens of the real world, painting a harrowing image of civilization reduced to its mere shell after a lethally manufactured pandemic.
There’s a lot to unpack here. In a way, The Division is a much more social game than Destiny was in its first month. In theory, it’s easier here to link up and join other players, and it demands participants to both take a more active role in collaborating with others while on the other hand being weary of the ulterior motives of mysterious players. In doing this, it hosts an intense and even uncomfortable social experiment within the framework of its multiplayer.
Early on, The Division presents itself as a hollowed out, lonely experience, making you believe that the virus disintegrated more lives than initially thought – (or that Massive was incapable of building the networking architecture required to populate the streets with more warm or digital bodies). There’s a weird juxtaposition that occurs in The Division. Knowing that it’s a shared world shooter, and seeing about a dozen players doing jumping jacks in a safe house, you then find yourself alone as soon as you step outside as the game teleports you to your private, individualized Manhattan. In the city’s streets, The Division makes no effort to lend any sign that other players exist in such a way that the theory where player population was experimented with and then cut out, seem entirely plausible.
Whereas Destiny allows for Journey-like peer to peer encounters, The Division makes up for this by enabling matchmaking from anywhere at any time. This selection is tucked away in the city map under “Matchmaking” (I’d like to think that I’m not the only one who had trouble finding this), which gives you the option to partner up in “Free-Roam”, “Mission” and “Dark Zone” sessions. While I’ve heard it often works smoothly, it’s been a consistently messy experience for me. Waiting an average of 5 minutes for matches to be fully established is the norm. Other times, I’ve had game crashes, missions that won’t start, and a rare phenomenon where I rolled a mission with a sausage fest “squad” of 10 Division agents (mission player max is four).
Selecting the latter two, Mission and Dark Zone, leads you to The Division’s cream of the crop, both of which offer some of the most compelling multiplayer experiences I’ve ever partaken in. The main story missions often scale in such a way that make you feel as if you have just enough squad-mates to make it at the end of each level. The pacing is exceptional, with tightening and widening arenas populated with encounters that keeps up the momentum, and agent’s skillsets – as few as they may be – are purposefully designed to complement one another. This inevitably fades over time as experienced Division agents can cut through missions on Hard in sometimes less than 10 minutes. But Challenging mode (the game’s highest difficulty) at times feels harder than a Destiny raid on steroids when facing up against all Elites that can absorb multiple clips from all four players firing upon them at once.
The Dark Zone is its own kind of beast, and feels like what the full game might have looked like in an early prototype. In this PvPvE set up, the concept of grabbing loot, getting it to the extraction point, and waiting that heart-pounding minute and a half worried that AI enemies will kill you, and previously friendly players will turn on you and take your shit, creates a high level of stress and excitement. This is the very core of The Division’s social experiment, forcing players to take chances with alliances while not knowing who would go “Rogue” at the drop of a hat.
Rogue status: where a loot hungry hostile player is marked after killing another, has been a work in progress since launch. The punishment for dying as a Rogue agent (which consists of losing a significant amount of DZ experience and DZ cash), had been so significant that players were deterred from ever doing so. A patch has been applied to fix that, however many argue that the DZ grind is still too slow and monotonous, while some feel as if there’s too great of an incentive to pick on others. As much as I’ve been public on how I feel about the bullying that can happen in the Dark Zone, the fact of the matter is that it needs assholes that are greedy and willing to betray you to keep things interesting.
And here’s where the co-op element of the Dark Zone is most important. This mode is unapologetically unkind to those that venture alone, though some of my favorite experiences have been doing just that. Not only do you paint yourself as a target, but the AI encounters are strictly designed for multiple players. Rolling with a crew that you trust creates a comradery that’s not often seen in online shooters, symbolizing you and your mates against the world. This low barrier of entry/high bar of sustenance is rare in multiplayer games, which is why the Dark Zone is so fascinating.
How Destiny Stacks Up
Outside of Public Events and the occasional opportunity to run into other players during a Strike mission, Destiny’s multiplayer framework was conventional, yet perfectly functional. The shared world/player connection elements of Destiny were surprisingly minimal outside of the Tower between squad invites and Crucible matches. But in doing so, while partnering up in PvE is less of a collaborative effort than The Division’s tactical design, it’s still incredibly fun to play just as pick-any-Halo-co-op-campaign has been. And the competitive multiplayer, while imbalanced even outside of the Iron Banner thanks to equipped gear, was just as mechanically cohesive as almost any Halo title that Bungie has ever created. Everything about Destiny’s multiplayer is immediate and reliable, something that The Division can’t quite claim just yet.
Destiny edges out this category with reliable multiplayer that’s both consistent in its enjoyment and performance.
That’s all for part 1. Tune in tomorrow at 4pm DST where we will determine who’s the winner between The Division and Destiny.