It's been a long time since a game consistently made my nerves jangle and my adrenaline flow, but playing inside The Division's brutal and unforgiving Dark Zone during this weekend's Beta did that for me. And it was a lot of fun.
I ended up putting about fourteen hours into The Division's PvP aspect, which was far longer than I spent in the somewhat empty PvE side of the game. I think perhaps the Beta was designed to push players into the Dark Zone for testing purposes, and it certainly did that for me. Once I'd finished the handful of PvE quests that were available, there was little to do other than wander the streets of Ubisoft's depressingly dystopian New York City looking for hostiles to take down. But inside the Dark Zone, there was plenty of excitement to be had.
Basically, the way the Dark Zone works is this: players can enter this special PvP area by going through one of several checkpoints. Inside a checkpoint is a safe area, complete with vendor and restocking chest, which refills your ammo and med kits. However, once you exit the safe area and head into the Dark Zone itself, you enter a free-for-all environment where players can kill one another. Of course, you don't have to go around murdering your fellow players – and it's this choice that makes the Dark Zone a really interesting proposition.
As you explore the environment, you'll inevitably encounter other players. Most will be labeled as "non-hostile agents", which is what you see when you aim your gun sight at them. This designation means they haven't shot at or killed anyone recently. You can choose to engage them – and if you kill them they'll drop some of the loot they're carrying – or you can ignore them and go on your merry way. If you do decide to shoot at them, you're immediately branded a rogue agent, a bounty is put on your head, and your location is shown on the map to other players. In other words, you become a tempting target for anyone around – especially since if you're shot by a non-hostile agent, they remain flagged as non-hostile.
This essentially sets up a player-killer versus anti-player-killer situation. I decided I was going to be an APK – a player who only kills players who kill other players. In other words, I wouldn't shoot any fellow players, except for those who were aggressively hunting other players. While I played, I met plenty of other players who also didn't seem interested in killing other players – indeed I'd say they were in the majority – and judging by the way I encountered them, most, like me, were working solo.
Inside the Dark Zone – at least in Beta – there are no missions to tackle. Instead you explore the area looking for groups of hostile NPCs to fight. These packs of enemies are far tougher and more difficult to take down than their equivalents in the main PvE part of the game, but they also drop much better loot. Taking them on solo is generally difficult, but by teaming up with other players, it's far more manageable, and what I found is that a lot of the time there were other players around who'd join in a firefight.
Of course, there was a degree of trust involved here, that the players I was temporarily working with wouldn't just shoot me in the back once we'd taken out all the enemy targets – but they were also putting that trust in me. During the fourteen hours I played, that trust was well founded, and I didn't have one temporary teammate shoot me at any point. I did get killed by other players plenty of times, but those were always teams of player killers – groups of individuals that were clearly working together to deliberately hunt down, kill and loot other players.
When this happened, it was a recipe for some really adrenaline-fueled moments. A few times I was attacked without warning and didn't last more than a few seconds. It's especially challenging when you run into a player-killer who hasn’t killed anyone recently, because their rogue agent flag has expired and they're flagged as non-hostile. Once they start shooting at you, though, you have very little time to fight back, and in most firefights, whichever player gets the drop on the other usually wins – and especially if you run into a coordinated group who fires at you simultaneously, you're dead before you can even react.
However, if a group is flagged, you can see them from a distance, and you at least have time to find cover and prepare to fight them, or, if you're on your own, you can beat a hasty retreat from the marauders. And it was those moments that raised my heart rate as I ran from players who I knew were coming after me. Sometimes I managed to give them the slip, and other times they managed to take me down – but whatever happened, it made for some very exciting action.
One of my favorite situations from the weekend involved a group of four player-killers that had been running around for an hour or so in my game causing havoc – I saw their names come up repeatedly as rogue agents who were killing everyone they met. I'd encountered them a few times and had been shot and killed by them more than once. However, they made the mistake of attacking a person who was part of a loose group of APK players who were engaging some NPC enemies at one of the landmarks inside the Dark Zone. I don't think they could see the rest of us around the corner, but as soon as they started attacking, everyone who was fighting the NPCs turned their attention to the player killers, and as a group we took them all down.
What made the situation interesting to me was that while none of the non-hostile agents were grouped together formally – we'd all just run into the same group of NPC enemies at roughly the same time and had decided to all help one another to take them out – we nevertheless worked as a team to kill the group of four that was clearly working together. Perhaps we'd all been taken out by that group previously as individuals, and wanted revenge, but for whatever reason, we all banded together to eliminate the aggressors.
Another potential catalyst for conflict is dropping your loot off at an extraction area. Dark Zone's loot is generally good, and as you travel around killing NPC characters (or indeed other players), you'll inevitably pick up useful items. However, these can't be taken out of the Zone with you – they have to be extracted by helicopter. To do this, you travel to an extraction area, and call in a chopper. There's a 90-second or so wait while the chopper arrives, and then it drops a rope to which you tie your loot bag. It takes a few stressful seconds, and then your loot is extracted and you can pick it up at your stash at one of the game's hubs.
The thing is, when anyone sets off an extraction, a zone-wide alert sounds and it's shown on the map, meaning that everyone in the area immediately knows what's going on. And for player killers who are hunting other players for their loot, this is a very tempting target. I had a couple of extractions that were interrupted by player killers, and I was killed before I got the chance to extract my loot – which was frustrating to say the least. But I also had instances where there were enough anti-player killers to fight back and secure the area so we could all safely extract our loot. And, of course, there were plenty of times when there were no player killers present, and we all simply attached our loot to the line and then went our own separate ways without incident.
All these situations helped allay some of my fears about The Division's PvP. My initial worry, after finding out how the Dark Zone works, is that it'd be patrolled by groups of rogue players working together to take out solo players, and, as a result, it would make the game almost unplayable for those who want to go it alone. However, while it's clear that dealing with coordinated player killers will definitely be a reality, my experience showed that solo players can and will group together as an improvised team to go after player-killers, precipitating an interesting stand-off between those who want to work with other players and those who want to kill them. That's pretty much vigilantism in action, and definitely bodes well for some interesting encounters once the game goes live.
What all this makes for is a very dynamic-feeling game environment filled with genuine threats, and where the stakes are high. No matter how you get killed – even if an NPC takes you down – you drop loot, which can be taken by anyone who gets to your body before you do. Not only that, but you also drop money and lose some experience, which makes every death really meaningful. It's certainly brutal, and makes the Dark Zone a very unforgiving environment – but a challenging and exciting one too. I've not experienced anything like it in a long time. Indeed, the last game I played that's similar was Asheron's Call's PvP back in 1999. That featured similar drop-on-death penalties – something that is very unusual these days.
Ultimately, I'm impressed with the way The Division's Dark Zone has been designed. When the game goes live, I'm sure I'll have good days and bad days in the Dark Zone – and I'm sure there'll be plenty of griefers to have to deal with. But I'm really encouraged with what I experienced first hand this weekend. Many players seem to be willing to work together to help one another deal with the threat of player killers, and I'm hoping this will help balance the game in the face of potential player hostility. It's essentially catalyzing a battle of "good guys" versus "bad guys": A fight between those who want to simply go into the Dark Zone and hunt for loot without having to resort to killing other players versus those who deliberately go after players for their goods. If that does happen, it'll make The Division and the Dark Zone one of the most interesting PvP prospects seen in a long time.
I can't wait to try it out!