The Division 2 Private Beta (Impressions)

I written before how I generally was a huge fan of the original game and how the The Division 2 was definitely on my radar for 2019 upcoming releases. Fortunately I was lucky enough to be included in the private beta after registering last year.

I played this on an Xbox One X despite having played the original on PC and these are my thoughts:

  • I’ve had a few bugs and glitches with enemies floating or zooming about once or twice. Also the game disconnected and crashed to the Xbox dashboard twice on the first hotel mission. And the ‘poor connection to host server’ message has appeared a lot suggesting the servers are struggling on Ubisoft’s side. When I’ve been disconnected both times I’ve had to start the whole mission again which was very annoying. At least Anthem would ask if I wanted to re-join the expedition to resume where I was when this happened.
  • Framerate seems fine (on Xbox One X) and as far as I could tell the didn’t fluctuate badly. I would guess the game is dynamic 2160p or 4K – scaling down the game’s resolution when required. On a personal note having played the original on PC I can’t say the drop from 60-100+ fps bothered me that much.
  • Like the original a very pretty game. It appears to recreate its location in stunning detail. Washington, D.C. might not be as iconic as New York City but the more open, green areas are welcome.
  • AR’s and SMG’s seem to have more recoil on them, almost like LMGs from the original game.
  • The map doesn’t seem any bigger than the original, although wider. I know Massive have said it is 20% bigger though.
  • The UI is very similar and very badly implemented. They feel like they are optimised for console/controller, over flashy, don’t use space well and are even more complex than the first game.
  • Although a new look the game seems to have the same enemies types in this, but again they try and flank and take cover etc. when they need to.
  • I also followed some friendly NPC’s around because it says they are scouting for water thinking it might be an organic side mission, but alas even with an enemy shootout there was no reward or anything.
  • I also could play everything so far solo (haven’t tried endgame stuff) but unsure if it scales up for groups.
  • It feels like there are more lootable objects hidden around which is good and encourages exploration.

Overall

Everything feels very similar to the first game; the way the story starts, the way you build the base, the gunplay, movement, skills, perks, echoes, audio recordings etc. It’s simply more of the first game as if the same template has just been lifted from the first one, and simply put into the new location with some minor changes. And whilst that’s great for fans of the game I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I personally wanted an Assassin’s Creed 2 or Mass Effect 2 style improvement.

This all feels so remarkably similar, that my hunch is that we are looking at more of the same. Meaning you are replaying the same mission content over, and over. Of course many will argue that is true of the genre but I very rarely have the same complaint of similar games like Warframe where it always feels like there is more actual content.

Of course as mentioned this is a demo/beta and the full game may unlock more new features. And I do think there is enough enjoyment here for hardcore fans of the original who will love this as it is more of the same. However whether irrationally or not I did burn-out on the original Division and I haven’t seen quite enough to buy at the initial asking price. Although I will likely purchase at some point in the future.

Which is good in some ways because there are other games that I am really looking forward to playing and my backlog is still as big as ever.

A changing of the guard

Over the festive period the retailer HMV in the UK announced it was going into administration. Whilst in no way personally affected it did trigger some slightly irrational thoughts on what format I wanted to still buy films on. In the run up to Christmas I had purchased a few movies on Blu-Ray discs. However seeing the only national physical entertainment retailer in trouble (again) made me question whether it is time to finally adopt buying movies on digital. In part because there will inevitably be less choice where to buy a movie on disc as time goes by.

I’ve been a Steam user since the very early days (17 Sept 2003 – only 6 days missed!). Over the years I’ve watched Steam grow from a multiplayer network replacing the old WON system to the feature rich digital platform we know today. It continues to be the only PC Storefront or Gaming Client that automatically starts with my PC and has since the Windows XP days. It is where I gravitate towards when looking to buy any new PC game. But slowly it feels like that relationship might be under strain.

The news that Ubisoft won’t be releasing it games on Steam anymore isn’t necessarily a surprise. However the manner Ubisoft reached an agreement with Epic and will release games on the Epic Games Store alongside its own gaming client; UPlay certainly was a shock. It now means that some of the biggest western Publishers; Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Bethesda Games Studios no longer release games on Steam.

It’s probably only a matter of time for 2K and Take 2 Interactive (Rockstar) to follow. Indeed what are the odds now for Borderlands 3, an Unreal Engine game to follow suite. Probably a very likely outcome.

So why does this matter? One of the strengths of Steam was arguably having all your PC games in one place. Along with automatic updates, friends, voice chat etc. However if the games you want aren’t on the platform, then it doesn’t matter how good or feature rich the store is.

Certainly I’ve not been completely bought in to everything Valve has implemented on Steam. I hate the microtransactions they have implemented within the store itself (cards for badges). And crucially I also feel they missed a trick with in-game comms and streaming that has seen the rise of the new standards; Discord and Twitch.

Therefore for the first time ever I suddenly feel like I’m faced with the question of where should I be buying my next PC game from and hence my opening paragraph. Like my decision with movies for the first time ever I question if Steam is the best place to buy games. For example would Humble or GOG be better. With large western publishers and even some of the (bigger) indies rushing to a new PC Storefront there is now uncertainty around the Steam ecosystem. And certainly the fact developers receive 88% of revenue from the Epic Game Store is something that I am happy to support. But it is so disappointing that the dream of all games in one place is now most definitely over (arguably it was anyway) and it’s a case of installing multiply different PC gaming clients just to play a PC game.

I won’t be rushing overnight to rebuy all my games on any new PC Storefront but all of this does make me slightly lose faith in PC gaming. Along with the increase in certain hardware prices this is making me not inclined to buy new PC games. And indeed thankful that on my consoles all my games are in one place. With only one store to buy from.

Assassin’s Grind Odyssey?

A number of prominent Youtubers such as Worth A Buy, SkillUp, Jim Sterling, along with websites like Polygon have all noted that the recently released Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is much more ‘grindy’ than previous entries in the series. Indeed a few have mentioned that it isn’t possible to play the main story questline without having to complete a large amounts of side content beforehand. Indeed Jim Sterling went even further suggesting that the game’s progression is much more enjoyable once the permanent XP booster has been purchased (about £10).

Predictably this has stirred quite a debate on forums such as ResetEra and Reddit. With a usual range of reactions, from the ‘it doesn’t impact the game’, to those who are angry with Ubisoft for even implementing microtransactions. Many have claimed that Assassin’s Creed Origins had the same progression and microtransaction model. Although I can’t find any similar criticisms from that game’s launch a year ago.

To be clear I haven’t played the latest Assassin’s Creed game. So I don’t want to fully wade in to the debate. However where microtransactions are concerned there seems to be lots of misunderstanding circulating. I thought it might be worth delving into some of the key points being raised about this game.

1. It doesn’t impact the gameplay and you can ignore them

Not really true. All business models will have some impact on a game’s design. Usually a buy-once model will have the least impact because the developer or publisher isn’t pressured to monetise the game’s design. Just because you might enjoy the grind or not be inclined to spent any extra money probably means you weren’t the target audience for the microtransactions. Indeed Ubisoft is probably looking at those more casual players that only play a bit of games and don’t frequent videogames forums.

2. Just play more side quests

Misses the point entirelySkillUp mentioned in his review that even after 45 hours he hadn’t been able to ‘beeline’ the main campaign. Side quests should arguably be stuff that extends the game or grant additional rewards. With Odyssey it seems to be that the side content has become mandatory in order just to complete the main story questline.

Just being able to earn something in the game is irrelevant if it takes hundreds of hours to do so. That is where the example of ‘it takes 40 hours to unlock Darth Vader’ was so illuminating. It provided an undebatable fact to illustrate clearly the scale of the problem.

3. Just don’t buy the game or don’t buy microtransactions

Won’t make a difference. Neither of these options will likely register as a complaint against microtransactions. If you buy the game but never buy from the in-game store, Ubisoft can measure this and simply increase or change their business model to be more successful next time. And if you don’t buy the game, then it’s a lost sale that Ubisoft can’t measure in any meaningful way. But at worst may simply result in no sequels if the game sales are that bad.

Creating bad PR and being a noisy consumer is the best strategy to registering complaints with publishers. As we have seen with Star Wars Battlefront 2’s Lootbox fiasco or Sony’s stance on PS4 Fortnite cross-play, bad PR can force companies to change.

4. Microtransactions shouldn’t exist in premium £50-£90+ games

Maybe. Personally I think you have to judge each game on an individual basis. Arguably f2p games have a better argument for in-game transactions, but many publishers now use multiple business models to extract the maximum profit from their games. For example; preorder bonuses, multiple tiered editions, promotional tie ups, platform exclusive content, microtransactions and season pass models (sometimes yearly season passes). Assassin’s Creed Odyssey uses all of the these tactics.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a premium single-player game. It is not an online, multiplayer experience having to support thousands of connected players. Major upcoming content is being paid for by the season pass. So why are there in-game microtransactions? Wouldn’t it be better if all of that stuff was in the game and rewards for completing side quests and collectables. It is hard to argue against this viewpoint.

5. Games are more expensive to make and need microtransactions

Are they? First of all without real budget and sales figures from the publishers it is very difficult to validate this statement. Marketing spend is increasing but large western studios are tending to make less games which are profitable for far, far longer. This means there is less unpredictability about revenue, compared to say 5 or 10 years ago. And none of this accounts for the cheaper costs of digital distribution. There is evidence to suggest in real terms the costs of making games are actually decreasing.

It is very likely true that a game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey would be profitable even if it just sold for a fixed price without any other monetisation.

The large western publishers are currently making record profits. They have become very good at monetising their games to increase revenue. They have more big data and experts than ever to help improve how they monetise their games. They don’t NEED to do it.


Information is good

Still whatever your view on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey it’s good to see the criticisms being raised are in the public domain. More information can mean being able to make a more informed purchasing decision. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve thought ‘but why didn’t the reviews pick up on this‘ when the latest post-launch problem comes to light.

As Jim Sterling himself admitted for a long time in traditional games media there was a genuine reluctance about raising any criticism of a game’s business model for fear of being blacklisted by a publisher. Now with increased social media and review channels there is genuine critique which publishers and developers can’t escape. And that is a good thing.

The Division Review

Start spreading the news, I want to be a part of it. A flawed but great game.

When I think of a game that captures a location almost perfectly, it’s hard not to think of Ubisoft’s 2016 third-person shooter Tom Clancy’s The Division. It’s recreation of a New York city torn apart after a release of a deadly virus is stunning in almost every way.

Given the sequel is coming out early next year and how I am all but done with this game, I thought it might be worth compiling how I felt about this first entry in the series. It’s made more interesting by the fact that it does some things really well, but then in other areas almost falls flat on itself. That said I really enjoyed The Division and my hundreds of hours with the game are something I’ll look back fondly on.

In short Ubisoft created one of the best third-person shooters of this generation. Whilst it’s more of an RPG in places there is no doubt that the core gameplay loop is on point. Weapons and movement feel right, audio is great, graphically it is one of the most stunning games I have ever played. And the loot game, the ‘just one more go’ compelling gameplay loop, is largely there and done well.

It is also a game that respects the solo player in ways that its competitors such as Destiny don’t. You can play the whole of this game solo, never needing to matchmake or group up. And whilst there will be group or multiplayer activities you will miss out on, there is no exclusion from the endgame. Almost every activity will improve your character in some way although exotics are limited to a few missions or weekly activities. In effect grouping up just gives you a faster route to find the same endgame gear.

However it’s no secret that the game has problems. And I think none more so than how Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment handled the support of the game. You will often here how The Division was supported more than Destiny or how Ubisoft has done a good job with support. However that’s not entirely accurate. In reality The Division morphed into getting events and piecemeal recursive modes, but really missed out on substantial story, locations and new PVE content. And ironically The Division may have some of the same challenges as the Destiny series has been through when the sequel comes out.

The second year ‘no-show’ of content isn’t often talked about but in a Ubisoft shareholders call in February 2017, it was announced it had ‘another triple-A game lined up for the coming financial year but that this will now be replaced by continued support for an existing, well-performing live game’. And it does appear this was definitely referring to The Division, as shortly afterwards it was confirmed that there was no paid for content for year 2 of the game. What this meant was that The Division got Lootboxes, events and a new game mode. But what it never got was new missions, areas, story, factions or anything major. For many, including myself this simply reaffirmed that the game was in maintenance mode whilst Massive worked on the sequel and basically cemented my burnout with the game. Every time I’ve gone back to the game for events I’ve very quickly burnt out as I’m got sick and tired of playing the same content over, and over, and over, and over.

And even the Year one content felt like it was outsourced although it did add greatly to the game. Three big content drops that were managed over the first twelve months whilst the majority of the studio were likely working on the sequel. Indeed it feels like the much talked about 1.4 patch that dramatically improved the game was as much about increasing the playerbase than anything. And of course as players didn’t substantively return in droves, then it may have beena reason why Ubisoft abandoned major content for the first game to focus on the sequel.

And that is one of my chief concerns with the sequel. That it received true support rather than being a Games as a Product with support in disguise as a live service. It’s getting old very quickly how publishers talk about GaaS but then continue to do major £80-£90 releases very regularly.

The game had lots of other problems. A less than stellar launch, lots of cheaters on PC, a small map with a lack of variety and a very short story campaign with a small number of missions, along with lots of issues with PVP. But all of that aside, this is a game that still shone through it’s problems. And particularly now if you were to have come to the game late. What you’ll find now is a very well balanced, interesting and with loads of modes to enjoy and explore. Indeed the ‘player power’ fantasy is almost perfect with the way you are able to breeze through more challenging content now.

This is a game I could probably write much, much more about, but in short, I do think this was a great first entry that has hopefully setup what will be a more interesting and polished sequel. Hopefully without too aggressive monetisation. But for now, goodbye New York. I am leaving today.

Played PC / UPlay version