Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Blacklist came and went without making a major splash, and the most recent Clancy-Ubisoft release, Rainbow Six Siege, is an error-and-microtransaction-filled husk of what could (read: should) have been the greatest shooter of 2015. But just as Ubisoft’s latest entries to their Tom Clancy lineup of flagship franchises falter, the brand’s saving grace might be just around the corner.

Tom Clancy’s The Division is Ubisoft’s most ambitious game to date, developed by Sweden’s Massive Entertainment (Ground Control, World in Conflict), and it just may be the “killer app” that puts the Tom Clancy name brand back in the spotlight.

The game’s been earning quite a few headlines for its alpha release on Xbox One, followed up yesterday by the launch of The Division closed beta on Xbox One (now available as of today on PC and PS4). The beta serves as a demo, with the disclaimer right up front that it only includes a “small slice” of the game. And it’s not a bad slice.

It Actually Works

Given Ubisoft’s recent track record of online, connected experiences, namely Assassin’s Creed Unity and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege, it’s easy to look at The Division and think “no way.” Ubisoft can’t do it. But to those critics, we can happily say you’re wrong.

The closed beta actually works. It runs silky smooth on Xbox One, the least powerful from a tech standpoint of the three platforms The Division will be playable on, and the best part is – there are virtually no load screens. It’s all one, big open-world, and while fast-travel options are available, players have the freedom to walk anywhere.

In my first 90 minutes of play time, the game froze and crashed twice, and in the five hours since, barely a hiccup. The only minor glitches we witnessed were a civilian NPC clipping back and forth through an environmental object for a second or two, and party members surfing around the screen without leg animations when loading into a particular area.

Gameplay Controls & AI Are The Concern

The Division Screenshot Interior Contagion Tom Clancys The Division Closed Beta Impressions

I didn’t partake in The Division alpha test, but did go hands-on with the game in the summer at an Xbox media event. That experience was not a good one and I was nearly ready to write off the game from that playable demo. I’m thankful I didn’t because the beta has me interested again, even if there are major issues.

The Division is a third-person action game and it’s easy to see how it borrows elements from Watch Dogs in how it plays with tech and augmented reality in the HUD elements. The interface, while busy at first glance, is rather intuitive for the most part but requires too much clicking through menus. Grouping with friends, using the map, and managing inventory (from adding/removing weapon mods to marking items as junk) is quick and painless, but a few things feel lacking or downright missing.

For a game designed to be played with others, there are no ways to tag specific enemies or highlight things in the world for fellow players like you can in the most recent Tom Clancy release, Rainbow Six Siege. You’ll have to use voice as the only way to communicate information, which is odd for a near-future, tech-themed title. There are loads unlockable abilities which may address some of this in the full game.

The Division Screenshot AR Map Tom Clancys The Division Closed Beta Impressions

The Division’s in-game map literally displays in-game

That’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but the movement and shooter controls might be for some players because this is the single biggest area The Division shows a lack of polish. It’s also where it differs the most from its main comparison in Bungie’s Destiny. Where Destiny lets players freely move around the environment with silky smooth movement, animation and weapon play in a first-person perspective, The Division is more comparable to Gears of War and Watch Dogs in its third-person combat but… not as good.

Gears of War lets players use a single button to sprint, crash into cover, and vault over objects, and it works, but in The Division (and there’s literally no way in the settings to customize this), all of these things are different button commands. The left stick is for sprinting, ‘A’ is to go into cover, and ‘B’ is to climb onto or over cover. It’s an annoyance and while adequate, it can so easily be made better but instead is made worse by invisible barriers that seem to break flow of movement constantly. The shooting isn’t much better. It’s not precise, the crosshairs are huge and frequently blocked by damage numbers popping up on targets, and all enemies that pose any kind of threat are just unintelligent bullet sponges. And they’re all indistinguishable. These issues combined may prevent The Division from being a great game, no matter how wonderful its story, world, progression, and loot systems could end up being.

Next Page: Beware of The Dark Zone

Beware of The Dark Zone

The Division PC Screenshot Outdoor Firefight Tom Clancys The Division Closed Beta Impressions

The Division only looks this good on PC

The Division’s depiction of a worn-down, semi-post-apocalyptic New York city is wonderful. The game world is highly detailed, very fleshed out, and does feature notable environmental destruction even if it looks like a downgrade from the E3 presentations. From bullet damage to cars, windows, certain environmental elements, even random objects on desks add a welcome layer of realism not seen in Destiny. It’s surprisingly polished and a nice step forward for the sub-genre.

The beta only contains a subsection of the playable world however, and also holds back many of The Division’s features. Most of the beta map is labeled “out of bounds” and things like character customization, crafting, perks, talents, and upgrading the base are mostly or entirely unavailable as well.

But there’s enough there to see a sampling of the main story, side missions, encounters, looting, and exploration to get a sense of what the game is really about. There are even a few buildings where players can go through, floor by floor, or travel on from roof to roof. There’s not too much variety in the actual gameplay when it comes to the missions which may be another concern depending what the The Division’s launch content shapes up to be (recent news confirms Brooklyn, Long Island, and Staten Island won’t be in the game at launch). Hint: it’s a lot of running from point A to B.

The Division Screenshot The Dark Zone Tom Clancys The Division Closed Beta Impressions

Anything goes in The Dark Zone

A major feature of The Division, and this is where PvP comes in, is in The Dark Zone and this is playable in the closed beta as well. This area is perhaps the game’s most interesting and has the most potential, borrowing the human element from what makes survival titles like DayZ so popular. The area has high-level AI enemies in contaminated areas, and it’s hard to know what to actually do when in this area, but when you stumble across other players, everything changes.

By default, all players are labeled non-hostile, but if they shoot at another player, they and their party become “Rogue” and are labeled as such in-game and on the map until a short timer runs down. Rogue players are free to shoot without penalty and any player killed drops any loot they’ve acquired in The Dark Zone, along with some currency and rank (the Dark Zone has its own progression and money, for better or worse). There’s a real penalty to dying which makes the gameplay that much more intense, especially if you’ve lucked upon valuable loot. All loot acquired in the Dark Zone is “contaminated” and cannot be equipped.

The only way to save what you’ve found and to be able to use it later is to extract it which means stepping into a designated Extraction Zone and firing off a flare. When that happens, players have 90 seconds to defend themselves against any potential would-be greedy fellow players until a helicopter arrives. When it does players attach their contaminated Dark Zone loot and it becomes theirs for good and will appear back at base in the player’s stash.

The Division Screenshot Department Store Tom Clancys The Division Closed Beta Impressions

The Division has lots of potential

This mechanic is rather fun, because it’s unlike anything else in the game, and it really encourages teamwork for the basic necessity of survival. In the full game we know that the higher level you are the further north in The Dark Zone you can travel to find better gear. After exploring the area available in the beta, we left somewhat unimpressed though. There’s simply not much to do outside of killing other players or finding enemy NPCs to grind through. There were no missions, objectives, story bits, characters, or anything outside of running around fighting randoms, so we can only hope the full Dark Zone will have more to it and better-defined goals outside of chests (some of which you can only open if a random drop is a key).

What we’ve played has us intrigued and interested in delving into The Division at launch. It’s addicting and fun to play with friends, but we can already see that gameplay controls, alongside enemy and mission variety could pose problems. And of course, we fear microtransactions may enter the fold post-launch and tarnish the loot experience. Please don’t, Ubisoft.

Tom Clancy’s The Division releases March 8, 2016 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.