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'The Division: Survival' DLC Review (Xbox One): Frozen Solid, Half-Baked

While most games are content to simply add new missions and map areas to expand their open world through DLC, The Division is determined to buck tradition, for better or worse. The game’s first DLC, Underground, added a randomized, farming dungeon full of player-created instances and a fair bit of loot, while Survival goes in the complete opposite direction, stripping away every bit of a player’s gear for a unique session that injects time limits and survival elements for an experience completely different from anything else in the game.

I expect that Survival will be pretty polarizing. I have certainly seen a wide range of reactions from fans, press and streamers so far, and have wrestled with my own conflicting thoughts on the nature of the DLC.

I thought the concept sounded like something I wouldn’t like, and lo and behold, I absolutely hated Survival when I first loaded it up. But I gave it some time, and over the past day, I’ve gone from pure, unadulterated loathing to merely disliking it. Progress!

Here’s the thing about Survival, despite what some may claim, it’s not terribly original, as it’s based on other start-with-nothing-and-don’t-die games like H1Z1. As such, it’s going to be hit or miss with a lot of people, as that’s a fairly niche genre. For me, I like the core gameplay of The Division because it’s a loot shooter like Destiny and Borderlands before it. You build your character up over time through killing and farming, and you’re always making progress, in some way or another. Survival takes away the core of what makes The Division, The Division, and instead creates a unique instance where every 30 minutes to 2 hours you are essentially creating an entirely new character from scratch, carrying over nothing in the process.

Survival has you trying to retrieve some anti-virals from the Dark Zone in the middle of a blizzard. Your helicopter crashes (of course), and you’re flung out of it with no gear and a nasty infection. The entire point is the scavenge throughout the landscape to find food, shelter and gear as you make your way to the Dark Zone, get the anti-virals, and evac out.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, because the game introduces a whole host of new mechanics that will try to thwart you at every turn, ones not featured anywhere else in the game, and pulled from an entirely different genre altogether.

The first thing you’ll notice is that you’re cold, freezing, actually, and you have to run from shelter to shelter or bonfire to bonfire in order to regain your core temperature. When you first start out, you can probably only last about 30-45 seconds before you “coldness meter” depletes, and it’s a frantic search for warmth. You can increase your potential exposure time by looting cosmetic gear with a “warmth rating” that will help you survive outside for longer. The cold mechanic is a brutal introduction to Survival when you’re first getting started, and it’s very likely that players will freeze to death three or four times before they get a rhythm down. Later in the game, the cold isn’t any less brutal as sometimes you’ll lose track of the meter in the middle of a prolonged firefight and whoops, you’re a popsicle before enemy bullets can even kill you.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Your player can get hungry and thirsty, which will affect their health and vision, and you have to eat and drink to stave it off. And the entire time you’re sick with some unspecified, mutating disease that will eventually kill you. This serves to put a hard time limit on the activity, and you can delay your demise with meds for a while, extending max playtime to two hours-ish, while it might be only 45 minutes or so when you first start.

The “goals” of Survival are in four major categories, crafting a filter so you can survive in the DZ, crafting a flare gun so you can signal in the DZ, getting to the DZ and finding the antivirals, and then evac-ing out.

I quickly learned that like everything else in The Division, it’s better to do this activity grouped up than solo. Despite the lengthy play sessions, Survival employs permadeath, meaning when you die, you die, unless someone is there to revive you. Given the fact that there is no visibility outside, and that any bad encounter or long stretch without warmth can kill you, it’s better to stay in a group.

Survival has PvP and PvE modes, where one is distinctly Dark Zone-ish and the other can let you team up with others, but there are limited resources so you will hate everyone else anyway. One of the most inexplicably frustrating things about Survival is the fact that loot is not shared among players like it is almost everywhere else in the game. This makes sense for PvP, but for PvE? When you’re in a party with three other people? It’s maddening to find supplies or have enemies drop loot and have it be a mad scramble as everyone tries to pick it up. You’ll feel like a jerk for racing to grab stuff, but you’ll think everyone else is a jerk when they do it. Coordinated teams might be able to divvy this stuff up appropriately, but matchmade groups? Forget about it. In my time spent playing with a group, it was the single biggest complaint I (and my teammates) had about the mode.

There’s kind of a cool feature in Survival where there’s a sort of Hunger Games-like countdown as people are killed off in the 24-person instance, and in most of my playthroughs, practically no one actually finished by extracting the anti-virals. You can get all the way there and then end up getting stomped by the new “Hunter” enemies that will destroy you if you haven’t built your character up enough. The fact that barely anyone finishes per round may change as people learn how to play Survival better, but it should give you some idea about its difficulty curve. Even in a group, all it takes is one wrong turn, one misjudged encounter for a total wipe, and an almost complete loss of progress. The fact that you have no radar and enemies can easily sneak up on you in the blinding storm means this can happen fairly often.

The Division sort of has the right idea here that re-leveling the playing field for all players by taking level and gear out of the equation for an activity is interesting. But I think they’ve gone the wrong direction with the concept, and creating a new character every instance gets exhausting really quickly. I would have much rather seen something like Diablo 3’s “seasonal character” system, where you can roll a fresh character and make progress with them over a set period of time, achieving certain objectives and earning stuff that transfers to your main characters eventually.

But the current system just feels like a giant waste of time once you’ve gone through it once or twice. You can have a perfect run, or you can die in the first two minutes, and while the former may loot you some caches, you’re not making much progress in the larger game, and any progress you do make never helps you in Survival one bit. I may not be a fan of the Dark Zone, but at least there’s some measure of progress there where it ties in directly with the larger game, and vice versa. But in Survival, it doesn’t matter how many times you play it, each time you boot up an instance, you will always start from square one.

This idea may appeal to some people. During this initial launch phase, I noticed that it does make for a pretty entertaining spectator experience like DayZ and H1Z1 before it, and streamers seem to be having a lot of fun with it. And those games have their own fanbases, so I guess the desire for this kind of content may be there for some.

But it isn’t for me, and Survival just seems so counter to literally everything else in The Division to the point where I don’t understand why it exists. Many may praise Massive for thinking outside the box and not just making new missions and areas, but guess what? I really want new missions and areas! The missions and areas of the original game are the best things about it! To introduce a new activity that has only minimal ties to the larger game, and doesn’t allow for any carryover of current skills or gear seems in direct opposition to literally every other piece of content The Division has introduced, and in two DLCs and five patches, we still have not seen the story or map expand in meaningful ways. Survival is quite literally a reskin of the existing map, with a few new gameplay systems added.

While I can see how a certain group of people might find this activity fun initially, I have to believe that A) many loot-focused Division players will ignore it in favor of more consistently rewarding activities and B) even the players who like it won’t find a reason to beat it more than once or twice, given the inherently repetitive nature of the experience.

I just don’t like Survival. It’s partially based on my own personal disdain for gameplay mechanics like oppressive countdown timers, hunger/thirst meters and permadeath, partially because I just flat-out think this is the wrong type of content for The Division to pursue. So it’s fully channeling H1Z1 now, great. What’s next? Tower defense? Go-kart racing? I don’t understand why The Division looks at its incredibly successful story campaign, it’s newly successful and stabilized farming endgame, and says “let’s make something that uses none of that.” That’s what Survival is.

Your opinion may differ from mine, but I gave it a chance and even though I grew to not hate it, I can’t say I’ve ever really enjoyed myself while playing it either. I’m much more interested to go back to the zillions of other activities that are more rewarding with gear as I try to hunt down new stuff in the 1.5 patch, and I have little desire to stumble around blind, freezing and dying crafting the same respirator for the dozenth time in Survival.

The Division acts like it’s trying to do something different here, but it’s really just copying and pasting from outside the genre, and the result is something that doesn’t feel like it belongs in the game at all. After a number of solid steps forward as Massive works to improve the game, Survival might not be a step backward for The Division, but it’s like the game has taken a hard right turn and started marching in a direction that doesn’t make any sense.

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