Reactivated: Returning to The Division with Survival

What is it about The Division that seemed to do so well in its early days, that then went so horribly wrong? Ubisoft’s MM-ish shooter carried the name of Tom Clancy, signalling to the gaming masses that this particular celebration of guns would ride the higher road and treat its subject matter and style with more seriousness, and push its narrative with more than an ounce of heart. Enthusiasm for the title rode high during its open beta, and at one time, Ubisoft boasted that The Division had 9.5 Million registered users. The numbers aren’t so rosy now, but they are improving once again.

While the figures aren’t clear across all platforms, if the Steam Charts for The Division are considered in any way indicative, then the game has had a steady decline of fifty-percent per month from launch until June, a brief plateau in July which would most likely be related to the release for the first expansion DLC Underground, before dropping half the players of the time again in August and even further in September. The numbers rallied with a rise in October that can be attributed to the 1.4 patch which overhauled the core game, and then again this week to coincide with the release of the Survival expansion.

With estimates of under one million players owning the game through Steam, consoles would no doubt take the greater slice of that count of 9.5 million, and due to the exclusivity deal, it is  expected that the Xbox One is unequivocally considered the lead platform for The Division. It continues to get first look at both patches and expansions. The PS4 is expected to reach version parity with the 1.5 Patch before the month is out, subject to final approval from Sony, though due to the The Division’s exclusivity status on Xbox, December 20 is the date for it getting the Survival expansion.

For whatever reason, Underground failed to ignite the interest of the majority of lapsed players and was unable to keep its existing base in the game. It brought new, challenging experiences to the game, but the overall problems that plagued The Division remained – a haphazard approach to the end game that had persisted from launch, a difficulty scale that leaned heavily on bullet sponges, and the Dark Zone lacking any sort of equaliser turning the fascinating concept into a no-go-zone for many.

Massive didn’t get it all wrong. The changes brought about by the 1.4 patch made even casual exploration of New York a challenge once again through world tiers. Operations and Incursions, though not ready at launch, gave much needed activities that brought a considerable level of challenge, and these are even better now – and although it seemingly didn’t inspire, the Underground expansion brought much-needed end-game alternatives to solo players.

Players returning to the game today might find that their old, empty maps are now hives of activity. Challenge modes, daily quests and the like. Gear scores were modified in patch 1.4, and sets are easier to come by. Enemies are challenging again, even in areas that were previously cakewalks at level 30. The Division feels like its best self yet.

In its random dungeon-delving parallels with Diablo, Dragon Age Inquisition’s multiplayer, or closer still, the oft-forgotten Hellgate: London, Underground’s brief provided an interesting draw. Though bereft of lasting consequence to story, it seemed to take a mix of obstacles and enemies to create a coherent course through a subterranean city beneath the streets. It was good, different, and challenging. But not compelling.

Survival is. It is absolutely compelling. It does not contribute to the story laid out by the main game, though it does build upon the world already there, and add to the environment. That is not intended as a pun, though Survival does literally add to the in-game environment, with an incalculable amount of snow dumped over the city. A fierce wintery storm strangles New York with a frigid hand, and dumps you into it with a pistol and an infection.

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Unlike the base game, Survival cares about the state of your character – your sickness, your hunger, your thirst, and even your temperature matter. Wherever in New York you find yourself, the goal is to get to the Dark Zone, find meds, and signal your readiness for rescue. Doing this means navigating the life-threatening cold, evading enemies, scavenging for tools and materials, and dealing with the low visibility that a snowstorm brings.

One of the best thing about Survival’s way of handling gear, starting each player off on a blank slate, is that it recaptures what made the early days of The Dark Zone so exhilarating. Peace was tenuous. It is again here, at least in its PVP mode. PVE is not without challenges, as the spread of resources in both modes is limited, and safety in numbers translates to a shortage in supplies.

The low visibility and scattering of safe places to stop brings gradual exploration into the game, in a manner different to what the game has delivered before. There is a sense of finding your way through and growing from subsistence to thriving, which draws comparisons with open-world survival games like Rust or The Long Dark. With the gradual notices when other agents die, dwindling the numbers until all either escape or die, the commonality with The Hunger Games is plainly visible.

the-division-survival-window

The ever-present cold is definitely the most noticeable factor, with the reliance on fire barrels and interiors altering the player’s use of the world around them. The addition of utility to the clothing as a way of staving off the cold is possibly the best way that the game telegraphs the change that Survival brings, as it turns what were previously cosmetic choices, into a matter of life and death.

If you’re one of the people who bought the Season Pass early, then grew to regret it as your interest in the game waned, Survival is an icy fresh breath of air. It may even be better than the rest of the game.

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