There's 90 seconds until the extraction is complete and I'm eyeing the clock. I'm standing next to a guy I met up with a few blocks back. He was pinned down by looters. We finished them off together and exchanged jumping jack emotes, then headed off to the extraction point to secure our reward.
60 seconds to go now, and another player has joined us. We all keep moving, circling around with an eye on our radars. Or, at least, that's what I think we're all doing. This is great - there's no one else around, all is going well. I'm about to complete the first of what will likely be hundreds of runs through The Division's little gameplay loops. Ubisoft's online shooter is about venturing out, exploring, finding supplies and taking on AI enemies (or other players, if they have decided to turn on others and been branded as rogue, meaning fair game). Then you extract your loot so it is waiting, clean and ready, the next time you return to base.
20 seconds left, all still seems fine. 10 seconds - and out of nowhere my character is on the floor. She's been shot in the head and is bleeding out. My buddy from a few blocks back is running over, trying to revive me, but our newest friend is already on top of him too. And that's it - the loot is gone - and that guy's perfectly timed betrayal is complete. What a prick.
You couldn't get this same experience in Destiny, Bungie's own "shared world shooter" with which The Division is frequently compared. Because where Destiny is prescribed - you will go here, you will do this, you will level up by x amount - The Division seems a little more capable of surprise. This is still early days, of course. Destiny has been out for 18 months and has gone through major changes. The Division is barely in its infancy, still in closed beta form, still hiding many of its secrets.
The Division's potential for generating interesting stories will be there as long as its players are, too
I don't know how The Division is going to turn out, if it will still keep a passionate community of players engaged for hours a day over the months to come. But it already has a few promising signs. The Dark Zone, where player-versus-player combat is enabled, already feels like the place experienced players will congregate. It's somewhere noobs such as myself will likely call upon a couple of friends before next venturing in. It's unpredictable, and I am excited by that. It's something Destiny really isn't. Nothing is more repetitive than when you've put hours into a raid and your fireteam is still stuck on a particular boss fight - or more frustrating than when you've suffered through the latest Weekly Nightfall strike and been given a terrible reward.
Again, it's impossible to say if The Division may yet end up dragging players down a similar path, but the potential for the game to continue generating interesting stories is there, as long as its players are, too. And while Ubisoft is keeping firmly schtum on what The Division's end-game plans are, or how people will progress their characters further once they've wound down the game's dozen mission campaign, the publisher has laid out plans for the game's first two add-on packs. The Division community has a roadmap for how their game will expand and grow post-release - something Destiny fans have been begging for details of for some time.
That said, there are things about The Division which don't sit so well. I'm pretty impressed by how The Division looks but I can see its world getting dull fast. It has Ubisoft collectibles™ and a grid of streets which are already growing over-familiar. I'm not drawn in by The Division's tale of a Contagion-style viral outbreak either, and I haven't seen anything resembling a memorable character. Destiny's lore began threadbare but its world - or worlds - and characters soon found personalities of their own through the alien experiences they offered and the player-defined attachments that formed. Destiny players love to hate the Cryptarch, the snooty blue-skinned trader who is your main merchant contact in the Tower. In The Division your safezone just has a military bloke in camo. And post-apocalyptic snow? I can go to the Cosmodrome for that.
More fundamentally, the main point of contention for many players is likely to be The Division's gameplay - which just does not match up to Bungie's expertly designed movement and combat encounters. I can take a running jump off a disappearing platform and know I'll Hunter double jump or Blink to the other side. I know when I pull out a shotgun that the guy coming round the next corner in the Crucible is toast. In The Division - which the beta shows is basically a cover shooter - I can roly poly out the way and move from cover to cover, but its bullet sponge enemies will still inexplicably be standing even after I have emptied a full clip into their beanies. I've yet to be convinced by any of the beta's guns, either - rather than Destiny's range of gun types and tropes, The Division's arsenal seems to just offer a choice between better or worse. Again, a caveat - none of us are playing with The Division's top level loot as of yet. But already after Destiny's beta, all the way back when, I was wanting to play more just for the sake of how it felt to do so.
The Division has other strengths - a detailed tech tree of talents, gun modding, crafting, extra abilities which unlock on when you upgrade its world. It has weaknesses too, but Destiny also has plenty of those. What I'm pleased about is that these rarely seem to overlap. As Destiny dips into its deepest stretch of dormancy yet, The Division will undoubtedly gobble up more than a few lapsed Guardians (and a number of high-profile Destiny streamers have already lead the charge). I've seen enough to know I'll be there. And as Bungie works on whatever comes next, whenever it does, I like that it will have to keep a closer eye on its radar, too.