Release Date: 08/03/2016
Played On: PC
Available On: PC / PS4 / XBO
Time Played: 42h
Progress: Completed PVE Missions
Developer: Massive Entertainment
Publisher: Ubisoft

As much as I often cringe at multiplayer focused games, there's something about MMOs that I find fascinating. The first time I entered a persistent online world was with Ultima Online: Third Dawn, way back when it was amazing that something so complex could work over dial-up internet. Now with PCs packing more power and the average internet connection offering reliable pings, the options have grown to accommodate a new range of genres to enter the MMO space. 

Of course, I played a bit of World of Warcraft along the way (I stopped after the Burning Crusade expansion) and witnessed the torrent of WoW copycats that would follow. For a while there it seemed like the pinnacle of the MMO experience was hot-key based / tab-targeting RPG experiences. Not that I have ever had much of a problem with the formula. To this day I still enjoy playing Guild Wars 2 and TERA, which have both attempted to evolve the genre, but are essentially doing what MMORPGs have always done.

The first game I remember deviating from the formula in a massive way was 2010's MAG, which offered a first person shooter boasting up to 256 players on the same map. I tried the demo on PS3 and it was pretty impressive, but I don't like first person shooters on consoles either way. MAG was basically a big team deathmatch game, so it didn't push the MMO genre specifically. However, it made me realise that there were other ways to include multiplayer elements in games than I had previously expected. 

Then I played Demon's Souls, which had come out in 2009, but I was a late comer to the innovated and crushing systems integrated into the game. By now the Souls formula for multiplayer is well known and has been inserted into many other titles, but at the time it blew my mind to be playing a single player game, only to be invaded by anther real person. The intimacy of having your space threatened by another person really amped up the stakes and created an urgency I hadn't really experienced before. It was an online experience unlike anything I'd played before.

There are many other examples of people trying different ways of bringing players into an online and connected world, but at the end of the day none have drawn a link between MMORPGs and straight multiplayer experiences. The true strength of a game like WoW was the vast world to explore along with countless others. The RPG element can't be understated as the grind of leveling up with XP and finding loot to improve your character is central to the experience.

Now we get a glimpse of the point I'm haphazardly wandering toward.

I used to play a lot of multiplayer games like Team Fortress Classic (sniping on Well baby), Counter Strike, and Tribes, but these were all played out by a finite number of players in relatively small arenas. Tribes was perhaps the biggest of them all with 64 player maps that spanned large areas with multiple points of interest, but they all pale in comparison to the size of MMORPGs like UO or WoW.

Fast forward to the present and we've just seen an impressive reveal of a new multiplayer game called Anthem. It boasts a vast sci-fi world to explore as a third person shooter/mech type game, but it's draped in MMORPG elements, which gets me worried.

Of course I hope Anthem turns out to be an impressive game that's loads of fun to play, but lately I've been playing Destiny on PS4 and I just finished the subject of this post: Tom Clancy's The Division.

I'll probably write something about Destiny at a later date (when I've finished it), so let's just stick with The Division this time. Remember though, a lot of the points I make here are pretty much applicable to Destiny as well. Both of these recent titles are an attempt to stitch together the MMORPG and first and third person shooters, but I'm not sure either really pulls it off.

For the record, I'm super on board for this concept! Anything that improved on the hot-bar formula of traditional MMORPGs is a welcomed innovation, which is why I still play around with GW2 and TERA as I mentioned earlier. So on paper I'm sold on a third person shooter with MMO elements like The Division, and to perfectly honest, I enjoyed the game overall. There's just a lot about this genre mash-up that still needs to be improved.

The Division looks impressive, as you roam around a section of post-apocalyptic New York. There's a story happening along the way but I never really paid attention to what was happening. It all boiled down to clearing districts of gangs and helping citizens who are persecuted by said gangs. So you go into an area, find the safe house of friendlies, go to all the blips on the map and kill all the bad guys, then move on to the next district. Pretty simple and straight forward, so no awards for doing anything new there.

The environment is beautifully rendered with rubbish and refuse strewn all over the streets and buildings of the city. While you can't get into every building, there are enough accessible interiors that it feels like you're not going into the blocked ones because they're just not that interesting. One of my favourite parts of the game is that the city really feels like it was once a bustling metropolis full of people and traffic. Unfortunately though, this quickly becomes one my biggest complaints about The Division, because it doesn't feel all that populated anymore.

I remember exploring the Lakeshire forests of UO and running into other people all the time. The first time I rode into the Arathi Highlands in WoW left a lasting impression as the land opened up and I could see people fighting evil spirits in a large castle on the horizon. These worlds were always electrifyingly alive and full of life, even to the extent of having to wait around for a special mob to spawn that kept getting killed by everyone else. All the loot and levelling didn't mean as much to me as exploring these world that were alive with other people.

Cut back to The Division and the emptiness of the city is all too apparent. Loading up inside a safe house (hub for each district) usually had me standing around with a handful of other players, but as soon as you walk through the door to head off on a quest, everyone disappeared. I spent a while watching people come and go at a safe house and they would literally appear at the door on their way in, then disappear again as they headed out.

There are some story focused missions that have a starting point in the world where you can be matched with other players who are doing the same mission. I would often enable matchmaking, but head into the mission either way, as most of them can be beaten solo. Occasionally someone else would join my team and we'd head through the linear progression of the mission together. Rarely there would be three or even four of us romping through together, but we never needed to chat or coordinate to succeed. It was like having a powerup along for the ride, which could have been achieved with better balancing between weapons and enemies so that solo play was more enjoyable.

It felt like the game was trying to attempt a bit of a Demon's Souls multiplayer style, with people dropping in and out as you played, but without any persistent multiplayer element. It made the experience of grinding for loot and levels seem a bit pointless, as I played through the whole game with a single player mindset at all times.

To be fair, there is the PVP zone in the middle of the map that has a higher multiplayer focus than the PVE areas, but I would have loved to see a whole bunch of other people running around the PVE zone with me. Perhaps this would be near impossible to do, as enemy mobs would have to respawn at a rate that allows for loads of people to attack them at the same time, which would hurt the "realism". I mean, do we really see much value in MMO zones that have a bunch of mobs standing around strategically ready for a bunch of players to jump in and start attacking them in sequence?!

This is kind of my point though. On one hand The Division is trying to mix MMORPG systems with a third person cover based shooter. On the other hand, it's trying to drive you through the world with a campaign that is comfortably tackled solo and never actually requires input from another player. The world wants to feel alive with other players, but then removes them from most of each zone so that it's not a cluster fuck of too many people in a small area. At least I'm assuming that's why a multiplayer game would have you rolling through zones solo.

It's this friction in the world that makes me think a game like The Division would have been better off if it did without the MMORPG systems that it so eagerly advertises. The drop in and out multiplayer works well enough, and I can definitely see the appeal of rolling through the game permanently with some friends. The game gets bogged down in trying to make loot and XP matter, rather than building a living world that feels populated, which leaves me thinking it would be more fun without all the trappings.

I commend these games for trying to meld two disparate genres and bring something new to the world of interconnected experiences. It's always nice to see how things could change for better or worse, but I hope that a little more care is taken in the future to ensure that these different systems actually help each other, rather than hinder.

It's kind of a failure of its own design, as I remember The Division being marketed to me as an entirely multiplayer experience, which may have been a mistake in the messaging. I had expectations going in, which disappointed me when I realised they weren't all there. If The Division had been sold to me as an optional multiplayer game (like Ghost Recon: Wildlands) I might have forgiven it more for being an odd mix of solo and social gaming. 

Note that this is yet another example of how the marketing message isn't always on-point, which is worth remembering in the future. I hope that Anthem and Destiny 2 manage to overcome these drawbacks, but their marketing doesn't seem like they've hit the nail on the head yet. Here's hoping that message is just missing the point, and that we have some good games coming along. 

Ultimately I'm hoping that the next time I enjoy a game like The Division, it's not in spite of its weird genre mashing. There's so much potential for interconnectivity in games to really escalate them to another level, but it might take a bit more innovation than simply pressing two disparate worlds together.

Seems that "The Division" is actually a comment on the separation of its systems, rather than some crack team of elite agents.