(Originally posted on April 7, 2016)
By now, most people have had a chance to read or formulate a review on Tom Clancy’s The Division. Among long delays, my feelings for it waxed and waned, but ultimately I enjoyed traversing through an apocalyptic Midtown Manhattan.
My approach here is to not really review the overall game but to focus in on the User Interface (UI) and some of the User Experience (UX) to see what the game does right and what could have been improved.
Let’s do this!
From my first view of the game, I was very intrigued by the design philosophy of the game to use a more flat and clean approach. By now, the flat look has been more widely adopted in games such as Destiny or more obviously Apple. Much of today’s design community eschews the skeuomorphism look, which basically attempts to recreate real life textures and objects.
But when The Division was first announced, the look was much more unique and definitely stood out in my eyes. Luckily they’ve largely preserved the approach from Alpha stages to the final game.
A lot of it works well, but flat and clean doesn’t always mean simple and easy. Some of the content requires the design to do a lot of heavy lifting to make it easy to understand, and the system here for the most part handles it well.
To compliment (or offset) the flat look, all the UI elements have a dimensional, angled orientation. It helps make those elements feel like an immersive part of the game, which I’m usually not a fan of since sometimes information gets displayed at weird angles. Borderlands didn’t work as well because there was always something that was hard to read or blocked by another element. Here, that doesn’t seem to be much of an issue.
The biggest thing for me was the strong usage of color, especially the orange. It’s used to indicate all the most important UI elements that the player should see while the rest is usually in white, with red as emergency or restricted indicators. Working well to stand out from the game’s overall drab and gray palette, the orange always manages to pop, even if it’s just a thin line on the screen.
This is the main UI and I think it’s fairly elegant in design. There’s a lot happening but it’s still successful in being concise and unobstructive despite having it constantly in the middle of the screen next to the player’s character.
It’s also nice that the abilities and items are composed in a way that indicate which buttons they’re mapped to. Items on the left side are mapped to the left bumper and left d-pad, and right button items are on the right. Makes sense!
There are a few nice touches here and there such as a small progress bar for weapon reloading and a HUD element that only appears on the backpack when a player stores an item in it.
But the thing about the simplistic approach is sometimes it goes too far. A few of the elements were just too obtuse and I had to scour the internet to find out what they indicated. Such as items dropped on the floor are indicated with a generic icon even though it could be any of a dozen types of items. Why not have specific icons instead, especially since they’re already designed and used in other parts of the UI? Another confusing element is the ammo indicator, which shows the amount in the current clip and the amount overall. But it took me forever to realize that the number in the box further below was the ammo count in my secondary weapon. There’s no graphic indicator to explain what that is. It’s literally a number in a rectangle.
Main HUD Grade: B+
Map and Wayfinding
One of the most impressive UI elements is The Division‘s map feature.
A virtual map sprouts out around the character for a 3-D view of the area. The map spins and zooms, and it looks very cool. I don’t have too many quips about this feature. There are extra functions but I never needed to dive into them because the overall map is implemented very well.
In the HUD, the radial map is pretty typical of what you find in modern games. The developers didn’t reinvent anything here, but I like how the objective is listed next to the map along with its distance away.When a player selects a waypoint, the HUD shows the path with a thin orange line hovering above the roads. It’s a really nice element that looks clean and is fairly responsive.
My only complaint is that usually I’d focus too much on the guiding line and not even look around at the amazing environment. It’s a case where I maybe would’ve rather not have a guide and just a final point marker to leave it up to me as to how to get there.
Map Screen Grade: A
This is where the bulk of the game info resides and there’s a strain on the UI system to arrange it in a way that is comprehensible.
Color and simple typography really do a lot to make sense out of everything. Choosing to mostly stay with silhouettes of items helps as well. It mostly works mainly because the designers adhere to a consistent system and grid. In Batman: Arkham Knight, the menus were all over the place as far as design systems. One menu would use a radial circle, the next would have a hexagon grid, another had rows of squares. As a player, I was constantly feeling confused and jolted from one screen to the next. The Division is head and shoulders above in that aspect because of its unified approach.
Again the stripped down look sometimes leaves the player guessing as to what the information is, such as the mod indicators on the weapons. It’s nice to see when a weapon has mods, but there’s no way to decipher what mods are what with just a row of colored rectangles. Further in, a weapon screen shows the mods in detail so then just leave it off the main inventory screen.
My main problem with the menus is in the item comparison options. It’s maddening that I can’t easily compare weapon types or mods to each other. If I’m viewing a shotgun at a vendor, I can only compare it to the three weapons I have equipped and not the shotgun I have in my backpack. Also, for some reason you can’t compare stats for mods at the vendors at all.
Another issue is how hard it is to sort through and view appearance accessories. Names like “Modern Work Boots” and “Trendy Work Boots” don’t do a whole lot for me. And you can’t view the item very easily until you’ve selected an item and exited out to the prior menu. Plus the vendor who sells appearance items won’t let you preview an item until you buy it first! What a racket this lady has in the post-apocalypse!
The vendor UI has more problems that I kept struggling with. Sorting and ordering features need to be added. The item cost and how much money the player has aren’t prominent enough. Too prominent were the character level requirements. If an item has a level too high for me then the whole area is colored red, but if I can equip it then I don’t care what the item level is. I would’ve much rather been able to easily see the price and how much I had.
Menu Screens Grade: B-
I think The Division
does a lot right in the way of UI and UX. Games such as this and Destiny
show that developers are getting more savvy and placing more importance of good design and layout.Consistent adherence to the design philosophy and smart, restrained usage of color and typography are all winning elements of their system.Again, when the information load per screen increases, the simplicity starts to struggle. Although that occurs in any case. It’s a great feat that The Division
doesn’t really break down when faced with that challenge.
I was going to complain about how the game over-uses the indicator for taking cover, showing the A (or X) icon on virtually every wall, but then I realized that most of the UI and HUD elements can be turned off! It’s an ingenious option that I hope becomes an industry standard.
In general, I hope a lot of developers examine The Division and what it does right for UI. If so, then the future is bright for games and design. At least brighter than the future of New York depicted in this game.