Posted in Video Games

Journal of the Plague Year: Surviving Tom Clancy’s The Division

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It started well, if nothing else. At launch in March, Tom Clancy’s The Division was a sales prodigy, generating more than $330 million worldwide in its first five days – a record for a new gaming IP. But while the game sold like hotcakes, it wasn’t long before things went the way of the soufflé. By June, thanks in part to failings both unintended (glitches, bugs) and intended (an ungenerous endgame, a Dark Zone friendly to griefers), The Division’s playerbase on Steam had declined by more than ninety per cent. A game set in the aftermath of a smallpox pandemic was itself being tested for vital signs.

For my part, the downward spiral was especially depressing because, for the first month or two after release, I loved The Division. A little too much, if anything. The game hooked me like a talon, refusing to relax its grip. The graphics, the loot, yes, even the infamous Dark Zone – I was bonkers for all of it. I counted the day lost that was not spent in the streets of post-apocalyptic Manhattan, an alternative reality where numbers came out of people’s heads and time’s passing went unnoticed. Remarkably for such a social phobic, my favourite activity in the game was matchmaking with random players to complete the story missions. Playing solo was enjoyable too, but there was nothing quite like the esprit de corps of teamwork, of flanking enemies tactically or rushing in like a white knight to pull off clutch revives. Even impossible-seeming missions where the whole squad wiped multiple times (hello Hudson Refugee Camp) weren’t frustrating, but fun.

Most lapsed Division players can pinpoint the date when, for them, the fun stopped. For me it was with the release of patch 1.1 in April. Never mind the much-hated nerf to the crafting system, my main gripe was the arrival of ‘gear score,’ a crude power rating that could be viewed by all other players. Suddenly matchmaking wasn’t so simple: now you could get kicked from groups for the crime of having too low a score (below 190 or some other arbitrary sum). The result for me: a status anxiety I assumed I left behind when I logged on. The result for the game: a generalised prejudice against newer, lower-geared players.

Two more patches followed, but neither helped. Among The Division’s long-suffering community, one opinion is aired so often it’s become a truism: the game is best from levels 1-30. Ask someone mired in the unforgiving endgame about their 1-30 experience and watch them go into ecstasies of nostalgia as if recalling a golden age: when loot was plentiful, progress was meaningful and enemies could be killed without first spraying them with every bullet in your backpack. All this changes – how it changes! – once you hit level 30. Up goes the difficulty of the missions, down goes the quantity of build-improving loot: it’s almost as if developers Massive forgot what made the base game so great and determined to wipe the experience clean of every trace of fun. Like A Christmas Carol told in reverse, the game starts out generous and ends up as a miser, universally resented. The Division: the loot shooter that isn’t.

By the endgame, the stinginess really is bottomless. While it was at least possible, if laborious, to gear up as a solo player in patch 1.0 – using Phoenix Credits, high-end blueprints and crafting materials – it wasn’t from 1.1 onwards. To get the best gear, you needed to beat the hardest content. And to beat the hardest content, you needed the best gear. To square this impossible circle, we were encouraged – nay compelled – to group up with other, stronger players. But here’s the kicker: if your gear score wasn’t high enough, there was a good chance those stronger players wouldn’t let you in their group in the first place.

It was never clear, at least to this gamer, what The Division’s endgame has against the casuals (‘filthy casuals,’ if you will). The developers’ unsparing sternness seems to fly in the face of established videogame psychology, to reject that well-worn feedback loop where players are rewarded for successes – small and large – and thereby compelled to play on. I say this to Massive: we are happy to grind for our rewards. All we ask is a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Ploughing through a metric ton of bullet-sponge enemies on the vanishingly slim chance that RNGesus might favour us with a useable drop – if The Division was a job, it would violate every employment law on the statute book. Is it any wonder that most of the playerbase, their patience spent, have gone on long-term strike?

But a change is coming. The tide is on the turn. Massive, the architects of so much torment for so many, have decided to listen. Or perhaps their Ubisoft overlords, in despair at the game’s haemorrhaging playerbase, went and bashed a few heads together. Either way, in September Massive hosted an ‘Elite Task Force’ in Malmö, Sweden, composed of prominent YouTubers, Twitch streamers and other names to reckon with in the community. The brief of the invitees: to diagnose the game’s failings and workshop the solutions (no pressure, then). Shortly after, Massive let it be known that a Public Test Server – or ‘PTS’ – would be released on PC, allowing us to playtest the new 1.4 patch before release. For beleaguered players like me, this was the first cold proof that they might actually be serious about putting The Division the right way up.

The PTS went live on September 26th, stained with the tears of Massive’s contrition, but I didn’t play it straight away. Five months had passed since I weaned myself from The Division’s teat, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start suckling again just yet. After all, could a game this fucked ever be fixed? But curiosity eventually getting the better of my cynicism, I started playing. And I have to admit, I loved it. My sneer didn’t make it past the loading screen. Immediately it was clear that loot drops and difficulty levels had been rewired out of recognition. A new ‘world tier’ system let the player select a universal enemy level appropriate to their gear score, and conferred a palpable sense of endgame progress. But here was the best thing. To the general stupefaction of the playerbase, loot actually dropped. My eyebrows shot up and stayed there when I saw a teal gearset item – once so vanishingly rare – drop from a random mob. Lord god! This was unprecedentedly amazing.

More good news: the game was accessible to the casual player again. Challenge mode, once best tackled with a full squad and a stiff drink, was solo-able if you had decent gear. Some dissenting voices said that Massive had made the game too easy, had turned the loot taps on too full. Opinion divides sharply on this issue. Obviously the game has to get easier: this is a patch aimed at the lapsed, not the faithful. But if enemies are too squishy and loot too liberal, the playerbase will soon be all geared up with nowhere to go. There was a squeal from the community when the difficulty pendulum swung back the other way, but I think we’ve finally landed in the sweet spot.

Apparently, 1.4 will go live in October (most likely the 25th). For hardcore agents who’ve hung onto the game like grim death, as well as lapsed casuals (raises hand) who gave up a month after release, these are exciting times: a Year Zero for the game we love, or at any rate want to love. Of course, there’s a chance it’s all too little, too late – especially with Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 and Civilization 6 and even Watch Dogs 2 all competing for our thumbs. But I’m inclined to be optimistic. The Division may be in a downed state right now, but I think Massive have got the skill power to perform a revive.

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The Queen is Not Dead: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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Before she rose, the tomb raider very nearly fell. For reasons best known to themselves, publishers Square Enix launched Lara Croft’s latest on a date when most gamers had a diary clash. November 10th 2015 was – as everyone knows – the global release date of Fallout 4, a game which didn’t so much threaten to eclipse Rise of the Tomb Raider in sales as toast it for breakfast in an apocalyptic fission fireball. Sadly, it gets worse: owing to a timed exclusivity deal struck by Microsoft in a rearguard action against all-conquering Sony, ROTTR was available, initially, for Xbox gamers only. Who evidently weren’t tripping over themselves to buy it. The game shipped only 63,000 copies on launch in the UK, against its 2013 predecessor’s 183,000.

Those who did snap up ROTTR on launch – few though they were – would have no cause for remorse, however. The game is a triumph: bigger, better and more beautiful than its predecessor, and quite possibly the finest entry in Tomb Raider’s two-decade history. I should qualify this, firstly, with a word on the plot. A hidden-treasure MacGuffin reputed to grant eternal life? A father whose life work was devoted to tracking down said treasure? An evil collective determined to find and keep said treasure in a tilt at world domination? I mean, for shame, is it or isn’t it an unblushing rip-off of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Yes, the story does prod the action along competently enough, but if ROTTR didn’t breach the Copyright Act, it must have been a close-run thing.

Whether you deem Lara Croft or Indiana Jones better looking is a matter of taste, but I put it to you that no game, before or since, has better visuals than ROTTR. From knuckly cave openings in Syria to mountain passes in frostbitten Siberia, Rise is a game of commanding, ravishing beauty. Lara leaves deep trails as she tramps through thick snowdrifts, campfires look real enough to warm your hands on and the sight of godrays filtering through the shivering branches would make Wordsworth weep – especially if, like me, he played on PC. Truly, it’s a game unlikely to offend anyone’s aesthetics.

And ROTTR manages to be more than just an eye-popping tech demo. Recapturing the formula of its successful predecessor, it’s easy to pick up yet hard to put down. ‘Open world’ may be the catchword of the day, but ROTTR is defiantly, almost proudly linear, with an attention-to-detail that dazzles in the cinematic set pieces that see Lara being sprang at by bears, leaping across fast-disintegrating platforms and ducking from arrows shot by a sinister undead race. While the game plainly doesn’t have the depth of its exact-contemporary Fallout 4, there is a cod-RPG progression system akin to Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed, letting you upgrade Lara’s skills and weaponry – though even at the start of the game, she feels plenty powerful enough.

Combat is satisfying, if a little easy at the default difficulty setting. The game gets stealth right, however: killing enemies with a bow before stealing away unobserved affords a keen pleasure (all the more so because enemy AI is quite sophisticated). If Lara was a survivor in the prequel, this time around she’s a one-woman commando unit, taking down battalions of enemies with explosive arrows and Molotov cocktails and an arsenal of no-nonsense guns. While those aforesaid enemies are evil, Lara has a lot of bloodshed on her conscience: at a low estimate, I butchered over a hundred human souls. It can be hard at times to square the steely, yet sensitive, young woman we see in cut scenes with the unfeeling killing machine who emerges in free play.

All the more so because Lara’s signature accessories these days aren’t so much her twin pistols as the twin ice picks that serve as climbing aids. In the intervals of slaying enemies, you’ll likely as not be climbing: scaling sheer precipices in the howling wind with impossibly deep ravines gaping below. Usually it’s worth the climb: the game is generously strewn with crafting materials and collectibles – from historical artefacts to extracts from journal entries that provide background on the plot. But what I was especially looking for were the optional challenge tombs, those holdovers from Tomb Raiders’ halcyon days that were such a hit in the 2013 reboot. And they’re even better here. I solved the early ones with little ado, but sussing the larger later ones require significant smarts. None took more than half an hour’s head scratching, I should add, and the endorphin rush on solving the harder ones is like nothing else in the game.

If nothing else, the tombs are a welcome gear shift, an opportunity for the player to mop their brow between firefights and get their puzzle hit. Of course, there those who think that the firefights, not the tombs, should be the optional side activity. It’s a high wire that developer Crystal Dynamics must walk: what should Tomb Raider be? Clearly they needed to contemporise Lara to meet modern gaming expectations, but without throwing aside the series’ hallmarks: the exploration, the mystery and above all the puzzles. To hard-bitten Tomb Raider traditionalists, quick time events and on-rails set pieces – staples of 2013’s reboot – are not in Lara’s line at all. Personally, I think ROTTR is much more faithful  to its legacy than its predecessor.

And let’s guard against viewing the classic Tomb Raiders with nostalgia-tinted goggles. Yes, they blazed a trail for 3D gaming and helped sell PlayStations by the truckload, but face it: the combat was crude even by contemporary standards (hold down the shoot button; who needs aiming?), and Ms Croft, for all the craft and love that went into her appearance, controlled more like an eighteen-wheeler than a woman. Then was the uncompromising difficulty setting: ‘90s Lara was a stern mistress. The puzzles – free from hints – were bafflingly hard, and many was the time I died to a falling boulder or marauding T Rex or sudden bastard spike pit. Is it any surprise that most players (raises hand) had the level-skip cheat memorised?

As a history buff, Lara will be aware that no golden era lasts forever. In 1997, Tomb Raider would never have been upstaged by Fallout, or the Fallout equivalent. Tomb Raider was the upstager. While its star has since fallen, and new entries in the series don’t inspire anything like the same event glamour, Lara still has a reputation to uphold as a cultural icon, the first lady of videogaming. But, as ROTTR shows, she’s more than a legacy act. The tomb raider has risen again, and this time she means to stay. Call off the National Trust: Croft Manor hasn’t crumbled to dust just yet.