Yesterday saw the surprise release for the beta test of The Division’s newest DLC, Survival. Framed as a more hard-core, goal-oriented PvP mode over the game’s usual Dark Zone, the information we were given was intriguing.
Now that I’ve spent a couple of hours wandering around out in the snow, Survival manages to feel like both an entirely new game and also a natural extension of the core experience. It’s not perfect, but I’m enjoying myself.
Survival’s intended to be playable for anyone regardless of level, and it achieves this by stripping away all of your equipment and skills as you enter the instance (don’t worry, it’s given back to you on returning to the main game). As soon as you’ve unlocked the base of operations in Manhattan (about an hour into a new character’s story, if that), head on over to the Terminal in the subway station at the back and you’ll be able to begin matchmaking. In the beta testing it took a decent amount of time to find the 24 players needed, but once it’s in the full game I don’t imagine it’d take quite as long.
The DLC takes place in an instanced version of the entire game map, set during a horrific snowstorm. After antiviral drugs that could potentially cure the green poison are discovered in the centre of the Dark Zone, it’s up to your agent to get there, recover the drugs and extract. Except, this being The Division and all, things go horrible wrong and you find yourself alone in the snowstorm, on the edge of the city, with none of your usual tools, and also infected with sepsis. Sod’s law and all that.
You begin in a randomly selected hideout on the farthest edges of Manhattan. There’s a couple of a cases for some supplies and a crafting station, but other than that there’s not much else to do other than head on outside. The Division’s always been a hauntingly beautiful game, but Survival pushes the visuals up a notch. The blizzard can get so heavy sometimes that you can’t see past the end of your own nose, which is both gorgeous and serves to make encountering enemies all the more stressful. You can’t fight what you can’t see.
In the first match, I spent a while getting to grips with the mechanics unique to Survival: the needs meters. You have to manage your agent’s hunger, thirst, temperature and sickness by finding resources and staying near bonfires for warmth. Temperature in particular is absolutely ruthless. More time will be spent in the early stages of the match finding sources of heat and clothing to keep warm rather than doing the shooty-bang-bang you’re more used to.
On the one hand it’s an interesting way of preventing players from dashing straight to the middle, as you’ll freeze to death before you ever get there. It also often presents interesting situations where you have to choose between freezing or standing out in the open by a flaming barrel to warm up. But on the other, having to stop every few seconds because it’s a bit nippy can be quite distracting, especially when you’ve already set your heart on getting to the next hideout or landmark.
The sickness mechanic serves as a forced time limit to the round. While you can find painkillers to slow the progression, there is a timer constantly ticking down to you succumbing unless you complete your task and extract in time. The rounds are still lengthy, as the timer begins at one hour and with some luck can be stretched out to essentially double that. But having that clock constantly counting down to your death serves as a decent kick up the arse to get moving.
As everyone starts with the same equipment – a hazmat and a pistol – there is a big emphasis on finding the scraps needed to craft better stuff. The best ways to get hold of things are killing the NPC enemies and other players and nicking theirs, but they can also be found in boxes and bags scattered throughout the map. Before you can get into the Dark Zone a Viral Mask has to be crafted, but other than that everything from guns to armour to cosy clothes is up to how you want to build the character.
It’s a cool system, as it means everybody really is on a level playing field. It also causes some really exciting moments because enemies are just as dangerous to other players as they are to you. At one point I stumbled into the middle of a gunfight between a group of NPCs and a player. I hung back, planning to pick off the weakened player once they’d finished with the mob, only to watch as they got killed instead. All of their loot, including some decent ammo and a powerful gun, was right there for the taking if I could just get past the NPCs first.
I managed to creep past them over to the downed player, who could still be revived if I was feeling kind. It would’ve cost me med kits that could keep me alive in a pinch, though, so I finished them off instead. I took their stuff and then wrecked the NPC group’s entire day, getting even more loot in the process. It’s those little moments that being on a very deadly but also level playing field facilitates that makes Survival something special.
Unfortunately, there is one thing that gives higher-level players an advantage over newcomers. Successfully completing the mission and extracting will net you any loot you collected. But should you be killed, you’ll still receive rewards depending on how successful you were.
I played a couple of rounds on my level 15 character, and was disappointed to find all of those rewards were level 30 equipment that I couldn’t use. It would’ve been nice if the rewards I’d picked up were scaled to my character’s level, as it’s not like I can’t return to Survival at any time to get better stuff should I need it. It feels like a weird decision to only give the high-end players rewards when everyone can access the game mode itself.
An interesting twist over the normal Dark Zone is player behaviour. While it was billed as the PvP element before launch, people very rarely go at each other in the Dark Zone, because doing so marks you as a rogue agent and paints a massive target on your back. The risk just isn’t worth it, so it quickly devolves into briefly glaring down other players before going on your merry way.
Survival, on the other hand, is a whole different beast. Rogue agent status doesn’t apply here, so tenuous relationships form between players that can be broken at the drop of a hat. Some players naturally play it like a deathmatch, but others may give you a chance and form an unstoppable team with you.
My first death was caused by massively misjudging another player’s vulnerability. At first I thought they were a sitting duck, when actually they were bait. I engaged them, only to discover a second player hidden in the distance who was in cahoots with them. After being frantically chased down I died, staring down the barrels of the duo who then immediately turned on each other for dibs on my corpse’s possessions.
There isn’t an announced release date for Survival, but if you own the Division and its season pass on PC you’ll be able to get access to the beta testing right now through the PTS client found in Uplay. I definitely recommend checking it out, even if you got bored of The Division before.
Even in this early stage, I’m really enjoying Survival. It feels like an entirely different game, replacing the core’s shooty funtimes with something slower and tenser. I appreciate it being accessible for everyone regardless of their level too, even if some work needs to be done on the rewards.