The Division 2 VIP Beta Review

Let me start by saying that I did not preorder The Division 2. I did play the VIP beta, because I was fortunate enough to obtain a code. But I would never preorder a game in order to demo the game. For me, since demos are now almost completely dead (written as I currently download the Devil May Cry V demo), betas are the new demos. This is even more true when you consider just how little beta feedback actually changes the final game from the beta these days. Betas are the new way we try before we buy. And developers know that which is why they’ve started doing these closed betas that require most participants to pre-order the game. It’s a dumb system and dumb choice to fall into it, but lots of people do it so developers will keep getting away with it. That opening statement was not in any way, shape, or form meant to disparage The Division 2 as a game. It’s merely to comment on current business practices I disagree with while also stating my objectivity with this review because I haven’t spent any money on the game and thus can judge the beta from a neutral position.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Division 2 is that Ubisoft did not reinvent the wheel, and that’s a compliment. I really liked The Division. I liked the core story. I loved the gameplay. I loved the map. I loved the concept of the dark zone. I loved a lot, but not everything, about the gear system. For me it was a great game. The endgame was severely lacking at the start and then by the time it released I had no interest in jumping back into the game so I never really got to experience a lot of the later content. But in general I thought it was an excellent game. Really what I wanted from The Division 2 was the same core game with a lot more polish in a new locale with better endgame content. While I can’t speak to the amount of content in this sequel based on the beta, I can speak to the gameplay and basic mechanics and those are for the most part almost exactly what I wanted.

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Improvements have been made. One of the most noticeable is in the storage. It’s organized now. As soon as you open it, you notice the specific gear type categories. Thank God! So much more convenient. And managing your gear is streamlined as well. You can mark things as junk and leave them in your backpack or stash to return to them later still marked as junk. Or you can press “Deconstruct Junk” from the sub-menu and all your junk gear is instantly deconstructed. I will never go back to manually deconstructing again, because it takes longer to manually deconstruct one item than to just mark the one item as junk and deconstruct it through the sub menu. The gameplay is still really tight, but I think the cover to cover movement is even smoother than in the first game. The weapons and gear system is pretty much the same with the color coding, numbers, and special attributes. And that’s fine. The compare items system works much better than I remember it being in the first game. Maybe I’m just imagining that part though. But in general the gameplay feels better while not totally different. The crafting is still an annoying RNG system though.

The world is much more interesting. I know a lot of people were/are whining that it’s no longer set in New York, but that’s a stupid complaint. What really matters is how alive the setting itself is regardless of where it is. The world of The Division 2 is much more alive . . . with NPCs. There are many more animals in the map now. Not just dogs. There are dear, raccoons, rats, birds, dogs, and probably other things. Hopefully a bear appears at some point. And all the animals are interactive. You can even kill the rats, which I of course tested FOR SCIENCE! There are many more patrols of enemies as well as friendly NPCs roaming the map. You can call for backup from NPCs, which is awesome. You can take control points and then they get guarded and managed by friendlies, who you can then supply with resources to make them stronger. And these control points act as fast travel points so you have a lot more efficiency when traveling around the map, if you want it. At the same time though, the world outside the DZ seemed pretty devoid of other players. I want to believe this was just because it was a closed beta, but I saw plenty of other players in the safe houses. But outside I had very little contact, or even sight of, other players that I wasn’t personally grouped with. And honestly even the DZ wasn’t as populated as I expected/hoped it would be with actual people.

Dead Rat
Rat postmortem.

The lack of players was hopefully the cause of this, but I had so much trouble with the matchmaking. Really that was my only serious complaint about the beta. The entire matchmaking system outside of main missions is/was absolute trash in the beta. The first problem, which the game didn’t notify me about, was that your settings are defaulted to friends and clan members only. The problem with this is that it didn’t tell me which led me to spending over an hour trying to find people to join my group from the matchmaking station with no luck. Someone on Twitter had to tell me to change my settings. But that didn’t even really help. First, the game kept switching back to friends and clan only no matter how many times I set it to open. I’m not sure what was causing this. But even when it was set to open, I had no luck with getting people to join me. I’d sit at the matchmaking station forever and no one would join. I’d get tons of invites to join others but never got anyone to join me. Now usually I don’t care about being the group leader, but because of what I consider a content management flaw, being group leader when you’re actually trying to complete stuff outside of main missions is required.

The matchmaking in main missions works great. You go to the mission start point and the matchmaking station is right there. It works quickly and effectively. And when you complete the mission it’s done for you even if you weren’t the host. The same cannot be said for random map activities. Taking control points is challenging. It’s not impossible to do solo but it is hard. The final control point on my map was too difficult for me to solo with the gear I had at the time. So I opted to try to do it with other people. I joined a random group and we cleared it. Then when I returned to my session it was still unfinished, leaving me stuck still unable to finish it and still unable to get people to join my group. My main issues with the matchmaking come down to a lack of hard controls/customization options.

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First, why do I have to go to the matchmaking station? It’s 2019. This is supposedly a map full of players constantly roaming around looking for things to do. Why can’t I just initiate matchmaking from anywhere in the world and nearby players can just join up? In Destiny I you would see people running around the map all the time. You could easily work together without being in the same group and easily join up without having to change sessions or forgo your own game’s progress.

Second, why can’t I control specific details of the matchmaking process? I would get countless invites to other groups but no one ever joined mine. Why can’t I set that option in the matchmaking? I should be able to tell the game exactly what I’m looking for, whether or not I want to be the group leader, and what specific type of activity I want to do. The matchmaking station only had six categories: random activity, random main mission, open world exploration, answer the call, and random bounty and dark zone, both of which were not available during the beta. These matchmaking options aren’t specific enough. Random activity truly was completely random. It would just pick a task with no regard to what I actually needed to do on my map and try to toss me into some random group. Random main mission seems completely pointless until/unless you’ve already done everything and are just looking to farm XP. I hope I never need to use that. Open world exploration is too vague. Instead you should be able to choose from a list of available activities on the map like take control points, farm XP/gear, side missions, or any other number of things that can be done on the map. Random bounty gives me hope because bounties are a nice new addition. They’re randomly occurring hunt missions where you have to take down a specific NPC within a time limit for special gear and additional XP. Having a specific matchmaking option for this gives me hope that there will be tons of them constantly running on the map. During the beta I only encountered two or three bounties. A dark zone matchmaking system is of course necessary and will obviously be present in the final game. I just hope they put a matchmaking station in the DZ entrance, since there wasn’t one in the beta, in the final game because the safe houses aren’t near the DZ entrance, which you can fast travel to directly.

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The answer the call feature is the beginnings of a great idea that I hope works better and easier in the final product. While you can’t match make from anywhere on the map, you can call for help. This is not when you’re bleeding out and hoping for a revive. You can send up a call directly from the map or menu at any time. People can answer your call and randomly join your group to help with whatever activity you’re doing. This was the only time I was able to get someone to join my group. It took a while, but eventually a white knight answered my call. The nice thing about this feature is that you can leave the call on while still playing the game so you’re not just sitting around waiting like at the matchmaking station. And the game notifies you when someone puts out a call nearby. The problem is it doesn’t show you on the map where they are unless you answer the call so you never really know how far it is till you’ve already committed. Another problem with the feature is that I think you have to go to the matchmaking station and use the answer the call feature to help someone else. I kept getting random notifications via ISAC that someone was in need of assistance and had put out a call. And I genuinely wanted to join these players and help them. But I couldn’t figure out how to do that from where I was when getting the notification. I hope I’m wrong and just couldn’t figure it out because the feature will only be effective if at any time from anywhere you can just answer the call, join their group, and run directly to the location of the player in need. If you actually have to go to a safe house and use the matchmaking station first then it’s a wasted concept no better than the open world exploration matchmaking feature. The matchmaking needs to be heavily improved. Being part of the Division is the main crux of the game’s plot/concept. If you can’t easily and effectively team up and work with others then it’s a waste of what’s for the most part an excellent shared world shooter.

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The Dark Zone seems much improved in some ways and worse in others. There is no longer a single dark zone that everyone plays in. Instead, like the map itself, there are dark zone districts of varying difficulty levels, each with multiple entry points. This is a way better system. It allows players to choose the level of challenge they’ll be facing and better manage their DZ experience. I kind of hope there will be some sort of management controls from Ubisoft’s side that will ensure that super high rank players can’t just roll into the noob DZ and tear through lower level players. That’s the only problem I see with a system that actively tells you where the easy and hard parts of the DZ are. It’s essentially creating a shooting gallery for advanced players. The DZ otherwise works much the same as in the first game. But now there are more marked enemy spawn points and notifications to tell you when they’re occupied so you can better manage your roaming time and not just wonder around hoping to find stuff to do. I didn’t see enough other players in the DZ, but again this was a closed beta so I assume this won’t be a huge issue in the final game. My biggest complaint about the DZ was the frequency of valuable drops. There were not nearly enough air drops taking place. In the time it took me to reach DZ level 10 I saw only two or three total air drops. This is too slow for a populated DZ. They should be happening every five to ten minutes so there’s enough swag for all players to at least have time to get to and try to fight for. And the occupied landmarks weren’t dropping enough valuable stuff at all. Many times I would clear areas and not even get any contaminated gear. While I really liked the fact that you could get some gear in the DZ without having to do the extractions, this shouldn’t be happening at the rate it was compared to finding contaminated gear. And the contaminated gear I was finding was mostly complete trash.

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Since there was no DZ matchmaking available during the beta, I ran the DZ solo. I liked that I was able to do that effectively. I worked with other random players I found within the DZ without ever officially teaming up with them. The system works and people are able to coordinate well within the DZ without being in groups. I was also able to kill a rogue agent, steal his gear, and extract it solo. I only saw two the entire time I was in the DZ so a 50% success rate is pretty good. The DZ leveling system is nice. You can level up fairly quickly if you stick to farming landmarks. In The Division 2 DZ levels come with special perks that only affect the DZ. There are level tiers every five DZ levels and each tier grants you a perk. Some levels have only one perk and others have you choose which one you want to implement, sacrificing the others in that tier in the process. You can respec your DZ perks but this feature wasn’t available in the beta so I don’t know what the cost or process of doing this is.

In general, I really like how the map is broken down. Each area, including the DZ is clearly marked with level range recommendations/requirements. There are a fair number of fast travel locations in each area, once you’ve unlocked them. There are events constantly appearing to farm additional XP such as bounties, hostage situations, and broadcast hacks. Even if the endgame isn’t super strong, there seems like there will be more efforts to keep the game alive past the base game. But there is definitely going to be what seems to be a lot of end game content as well.

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Endgame is always the Achilles heel of these types of games. It’s especially difficult when they’re not trying to go the Destiny route of adding plot based expansions at additional cost, which I can’t say will or won’t be the case with The Division 2 at this point. What I can say is that the beta featured a number of endgame clues and teases. There is of course the DZ, which I already discussed. Each mission can also be replayed on a harder difficulty. But that’s not all there is. There are definitely going to be raids because they’re mentioned in the beta’s pause menu. But there are also invasion missions. Invasion missions are replays of old mission maps with completely new enemies and plot tie-ins. But these aren’t just the same enemies with new skins. These enemies are way harder, way smarter, and way different. I finished the final (second) main mission in the beta at level six. The maximum level you could reach during the beta was level seven. That’s regular level as opposed to DZ level. Upon completing the last available main mission you unlocked special access to an invasion mission. This gave you access to three specialty builds that were much higher level and had way better gear. This gear also included an additional (fourth) weapon with a special feature. Examples included a grenade launcher and a compound bow. This mission had enemies set to level 32, more than four times higher than the enemies in the regular mission. They were a special military group that was invading the area and presumably trying to conquer Washington DC. They had crazy stuff including literal attack robots. This mission was difficult. It took me, as part of a four man team, 58 minutes to complete. It was stressful, it was scary, it was exhilarating, it was satisfying as hell once completed. While I don’t love the idea of replaying the same mission maps over and over, calling these the same missions does a disservice to the people that designed them. It is a wholly different experience. In light of all this, I’d say it looks like there is going to be a fair amount of endgame. I just hope it’s available as soon as I reach the end of the base game.

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Finally, there seems to be a new PVP mode other than the DZ. The Conflict mode was described in one of the tutorial messages, but sadly I didn’t have time to try it before the beta ended. Hopefully I’ll be able to try it in a public beta before the game releases. Based on the little bit the tutorial screen tells about it, I believe it’s a PVP mode with multiple specialized maps and modes that nets rewards. It also has its own leveling system, making a total of three within the game I’ve seen so far. I could also believe that many people were playing this mode which might explain why the map felt so devoid of players to me.

Overall I was really happy with this beta. It showed me the things I needed to see and experience to want to buy the full game. Gold edition seems like it will probably be necessary, but without a content timetable, I can’t say if it’s the best decision for me, as I really didn’t make proper use of the season pass in the first one. I had a good time with this beta and I think this game will do very well. It’s the same core game from the first one with a number of noticeable improvements, added modes, and a new setting. I’m definitely looking forward to retaking Washington DC.

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Finally Tried a Battle Royale Game . . . And I Still Don’t Get It

I’ve been very critical of games like PUBG and Fortnite: Battle Royale, not to be confused with regular old Fortnite, which everyone seems to have forgotten. Not as much here on my blog but definitely on Twitter. The concept has always looked and sounded terrible to me from the very beginning. It’s the reason I have never loaded up Fortnite: Battle Royale, even though it’s free on multiple platforms I own, and though I’ve been asked several times, I’ve never even considered buying PUBG. But I will admit that no matter how much you watch or read about a game, you can’t say you’ve truly experienced it until you’ve actually tried it. So with that thinking in mind, I finally tried a battle royale game.

As a part of my real job, I often have to try certain games to assess their potential marketing value. This weekend, for the first time in my career, a battle royale game came up. And as a professional, even though I had/have no interest in this genre, I still agreed to download and play one of these games through the lens of marketing.

Fortnite-Battle-Royale-Fortnite

I was tasked with trying an early access game called Fear the Wolves. This is a standard PUBG style battle royale game set in the same world as “The Zone” from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. I played it. Took it seriously and genuinely tried to get into it. Even managed to get a kill and find several different types of gear. But I still don’t get it. I don’t understand why people enjoy these games.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying there was anything wrong with this particular game. It worked fine for what it is. The graphics weren’t anything to write home about, but the PUBG graphics were trash when it was first made available in early access as well, so that’s not the issue. The controls worked fine. I experienced a few small glitches, but that’s true for so many betas I’ve played at both indie and AAA level, so again that’s not the issue. I just don’t understand the appeal of these types of games.

Fear The Wolves

This was my experience. Wait for more than I would normally wait for any game, but admittedly not the most I have waited for a multiplayer match in some past games. Then wait through a two to three minute countdown after I’ve already waited for matchmaking to end. This was unacceptable. But I understood why it was necessary. No one sits and waits for that matchmaking because it takes too long. So you tab out and screw around on Twitter while you’re waiting. But then because everyone is tabbed out they have to make a long countdown to give everyone time to tab back in. Then go through this really long helicopter sequence and pretend like where I choose to deploy is actually going to matter in the grand scheme of  things. I will note that the controls menu said you can direct your parachute descent but this didn’t really work for me in the game so that was one glitch that actually did irritate me a lot. Hit the ground and then sprint to the nearest building only to find the same crappy pistols over and over again. Not once did I find a gun better than pistol. Found multiple types of pistols, but never any firearms better than pistol. Found an axe as well, which I of course never got to use because I never got close enough to anyone with it, since they had guns. Spend a bunch of time stressed out waiting in buildings hoping to ambush someone, only to have that stupid enclosing death fog (it’s actually called an “adrenaline infection” in this particular game) show up, forcing me to give up my post and run inward. But now that I’m running inward I’ve lost my element of surprise. Then I see someone and try to run up and kill them, again with my pistol, and even though I shoot them a bunch of times first they don’t die and eventually they kill me, often with a better gun. That was the whole experience over and over again.

Fear The Wolves

Why is this fun for people? Even when I did get a kill, it was still not that gratifying in the grand scheme of things because I never got close to actually winning the matches. I spent more of my time in loading screens and then waiting around or looking for more crappy pistols than I did engaged in combat. It’s one thing when it’s a real stealth game like Metal Gear Solid 3 and you’re going out of your way to sneak up on people. But being in a huge map devoid of people only to then get killed in fairly boring encounters isn’t nearly as entertaining or gratifying as a real stealth game.

This is where the “git gud” crowd will chime in, but I honestly don’t think that applies here. Even if I was surviving longer, it would still be pretty boring, because victory is much easier to achieve by avoiding combat altogether rather than actually trying to engage people. So even if I was amazing, playing logically with the goal of winning would still be mostly waiting around and then eventually dying and having nothing to show for my better placement. It’s really a zero sum scenario where it’s fun to win and otherwise pretty boring or way too stressful but not in a fun way. It’s fun to play a PVP match like Destiny or COD, both games I genuinely hate, because it’s active, exciting, and consequential without being long winded and pointless when you finally do get killed. You can keep playing. You can make up for your death. You can go for revenge. Even though I don’t particularly like PVP games, and especially not those crappy FPS games I mentioned, I can still appreciate why they’re popular. But I have no idea why people enjoy these battle royale games. And I really don’t get how people can watch other people play them. That sounds unbearably boring. And I’m not even comparing them to story based games, which are by far superior both in development effort and gameplay experience.

Fear The Wolves

Someone please explain it to me. If you grew up playing games in a pre-battle royale context, how do you enjoy these types of games? How are you not bored 90% of the time while playing them? I get that kids today have been groomed to play these games. So much of game development has been building to these sorts of hollow experiences in the last five to ten years. The move away from single player games, always online requirements, and microtransactions have all culminated in the battle royale concept. But kids aren’t even the biggest gaming market today. I don’t get how gamers who grew up in or before my era can play these types of games past casual level. If you grew up with Mario, Final Fantasy, Uncharted, and God of War how does this type of gamplay experience appeal to you? It’s not just single player games though. Look at the multiplayer stuff we’ve come from. Mario Kart, Goldeneye, World of Warcraft, and Halo to name a few. I don’t even like all those games, but I’d play them over these battle royale games any day of the week. Even the half and half stuff like Dark Souls, The Division, and GTA Online are way more gratifying for all players than these battle royale experiences. How does one actually enjoy playing a game where only 1 of 100 people can win while everyone is putting in the same amount of time and effort? How does one call an experience where you spend more time in lobbies than actually playing enjoyable? I simply don’t understand the appeal.

Fear The Wolves

Some games got close to the sweet spot. Things like Sea of Thieves and updated No Man’s Sky are starting to get there. The Division, for all its faults, got very close as well. There’s even some merit to Destiny. But these battle royale games have gone too far. They took the concept of rogue likes, the size of RPGs, the mechanics of PVP FPS, and the scale of MMOs and squished them all together in a lazy smattering of tolerable graphics. They squeezed out all the good parts and left the skeleton of each genre. I like the concept of 100 people roaming Skyrim with the ability to rob and kill each other. But the story would still need to be there along with respawning and the ability to retain at least some of your valuables. Battle royale comes off like the Star Wars: Battlefront II of MMOs. All the heart has been pulled out to focus on pure gameplay mechanics, ultimately leaving a disappointing experience. But clearly I’m missing something because it’s currently the most popular genre both for concurrent players and stream views. What exactly am I missing? Because I just don’t see it.

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What is a Beta in 2017?

This week I published an article on Gaming Rebellion about the current state of betas. I specifically focused on the recent Destiny 2 console beta. Here’s the introduction:

Recently, Bungie hosted a console beta for Destiny 2. Supposedly a PC beta will be hosted sometime in late August before the release on September 6th of this year. I have lived through multiple eras of beta practices, but today it seems like betas are hard to even really define.

Call-of-Duty-WW2-Beta

When I was a kid, there was no online gaming. Beta testing literally required you to be invited to go to a facility or development studio and try a pre-build of the game. This was such an honor to users and so hard to get into that even just knowing someone who had been in an actual beta was kind of a big deal. Developers valued this feedback and took it seriously. So much so that even though most true gamers would have done them for free, studios would actually pay people to take the time to go their offices and play beta builds. The ultimate purpose of these betas was to collect feedback to help improve the game. They were done well before a game was being released and required you to fill out a large questionnaire or take part in a group discussion after playing the beta, before leaving the studio. Sadly, I never got to take part in any of these personally.

You can read the rest right here. Please check out my Author’s Archive for other articles by me on Gaming Rebellion.

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.