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Can Tom Clancy's The Division fulfil its potential?

By Matthew Pellett on Wednesday 2nd Apr 2014 at 10:13 AM UTC

It started with greed. Mere hours after Thanksgiving feasts were gluttonously swallowed, over 200 million Americans swarmed into shopping districts across the country to snap up bargains in the Black Friday sales. The Black Friday madness is no stranger to death; just check the archives of news websites for stories of shoppers trampled by crowds spilling out in search of deals. This time, however, it was much worse.

Terrorists opportunistically laced dollar bills with a killer man-made virus and released them into the economy. By the time the Black Friday sales had ended, punters had taken home much more than some discounted electricals. And by the time patient zero felt that telltale first tickle in their throat, millions were already infected and just hours away from showing symptoms.

As the E3 teaser trailer revealed last June, by the end of day one hospitals had filled up beyond capacity. After day two, quarantine zones were established, resources were rationed and transport was locked down. International trade ended on day three, along with stock market activity and oil supplies, while power failed and water stopped flowing through taps on day four. Day five can be summed up with one word: chaos.

"New York is in crisis. Systems are failing. People are dying. It's a lawless environment," explains The Division's game director Ryan Barnard. "And as a Division agent, it's my job [and yours] to go in there and bring order to chaos."

Tom Clancy's The Division begins three weeks after the outbreak. The story's inspired by the real life Executive Directive 51 and sees sleeper agents shed their citizen cover-stories and rejoin the Strategic Homeland Division to try and halt the city's slide into oblivion.

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You'll be exploring New York online as part of a four-person team, gathering supplies, helping civilians and shooting as many holes into bad guys as you can manage to gain XP and rank up. It's new territory for a Clancy game, which up until now is a series all about stopping the terrorists rather than mopping up after they've won.

"For us there are some pillars we really wanted to stay true to," says Barnard. "Things that are core to Clancy are things like the unit itself. But then we want to inject new things because the Clancy purists I've met are excited about having RPG elements. You'll be doing stuff in a Clancy game that you've never done with a Clancy agent before."

In the same way that Mass Effect mixed action with role-playing elements, Tom Clancy's The Division blends classic Clancy tactics and shootery with beardy stat-age. This is a role-playing MMO, remember, that happens to be cleverly disguised as a shooter.

Rewatch that first E3 Division demo and when you look past the sleek gunnery you'll notice that enemies sport health bars over their noggins and bleed numbers when shot. The more you play, the more XP and supplies you'll accrue and you can start customising your agent to play the way you want.

"This is a role-playing MMO that happens to be cleverly disguised as a shooter."

"The trinity that you find in a lot of RPGs, we want that to be in the game as well," explains Barnard, referring to the classic Tank/Healer/Ranged character classes underpinning role-players as far back as we can remember. "But we have a different challenge in that we're a range-based combat game, so it's not like [we have] 'Tank', 'Ranged' and 'Healer' in a typical RPG."

Borderlands managed to bridge this problem with player skills, and it's a solution Ubisoft Massive is also taking - albeit with less wackiness.

"Being Clancy there's cutting-edge technology players can play with - almost like our [take on] 'magic', if you will. But it's very important that's it's grounded. We're staying ambiguous on the year, which helps us a little bit. We want to push the boundaries of tech but not fall into fantasy. I believe if a skill works and is fun and fits the play style, players will like it and accept it. Obviously we're not going to have dragons flying around New York, blowing fire on people - that's going too far!"

Disaster incoming? Despite being announced for a late 2014 release, a recent story on European gaming website GameReactor alleges a developer from Massive has labelled the target, "laughable," and has ruled out a release this year.

"Production is on track and great," responds Barnard when we ask for clarification. "All we can do is offer our official response, which is that we don't comment on speculation and rumours. It's unfortunate that that's out there but everything's going great here in Sweden apart from the weather..."

You can expect a wide variety of skills: team-seeking health packs that can be deployed from afar, noisy distraction devices that draw enemies into new areas, adrenaline boosts, radar pulses that show all enemy activity within a 60m range...

One of our personal favourites is a seeker mine. It's the size of a tennis ball, and when you lay it down it rolls off in the direction of the nearest enemy - dodging obstacles along the way - and blows them to bits.

Many of these skills have upgrade paths, too. "One of the players can place a turret to draw the attention of enemies," says Barnard. "A turret with fire-and-forget, almost like a dummy. Then you can modify that skill as you progress and get attachments.

You can increase the range of fire, add incendiary bullets, have it last longer for its duration... Later on you can even modify the actual functionality and make it into a sticky turret, deploy it above the door, and when enemies come out it will be firing at them from behind.

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"You can have it explode when it gets taken out, so you can throw it into a group of enemies, it can do its damage and then take them all out. It's how we approach all skills: we have a base functionality and as you go deeper you can alter that through investment and through materials that go into crafting."

One exception to this rule governing gadgets is the flying drone known as Chloe, affectionately named after a CTU agent in 24. She's not a skill but a fifth player, joining in on the fun via The Division's tablet companion app.

"There's persistence and progress with the drone itself, and you can have roles to be more offensive or offer support. It's real-time, simultaneous gaming with the HD client, so you're helping the group win fights, find locations, scout resources and
participate in PvP."

Unfortunately PvP - and a large part of PvE - is still under wraps and Ubisoft Massive is reluctant to talk about mission types and enemy factions beyond hinting at the existence of organised units prepared for the disaster and opportunistic crims out to dick about.

"The Snowdrop Engine promises to deliver a New York affected by time of day, weather and damage."

Enemy types will come in different varieties (we heard mention of one bad guy packing a lot of weaponry and armour being referred to as an elite), and this being a massively multiplayer online RPG we'll bet our cred on the existence of raid-style setups where people must club together to assault notably tough encampments in the city.

Having spied mentions of tunnel entrances on our HUD that lead to areas beneath New York's streets, we reckon it would be easy for Massive to create hardcore dungeon environments where the toughest enemies have gathered up the most formidable gear.

Another feature with immense potential is the ability to scan citizens going about their lives. You'll be able to distinguish between healthy and infected people and offer packs to the latter (to heal or to end their suffering, though? That we don't yet know). Your scanner will also read corpses and tell you how people died, which could be a perfect mechanic to tease you about incoming threats.

We know for a fact that animals are freely roaming the streets. Imagine tripping over a body inside a boarded-up building, then scanning it to find out they'd been killed by a pack of dogs. Imagine then the terror of hearing alerted howls coming through a pitch-black doorway just in front of you...

Enough of the speculation, however - let's get back to the facts. Whatever missions we'll be undertaking, they'll be opened up to us in a natural fashion. Your in-game watch doubles as a menu, and one of its functions will project a hologram of New York City onto the floor. Here you'll be able to check on different districts (their statuses described as 'secure', 'failing' and 'critical' depending on how much control the Division has in any given zone) and monitor and check on the nearest vendor and event markers.

Events can be flagged up from something as simple as a burst of gunfire in the distance: the perfect duck call for a Division agent looking to straighten things out. Clear out that area and you may well uncover more clues about where to go next. In the demo, for instance, the Division discovered an updated map of New York pinned up on the police station's inner walls.

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A quick scan with a camera and all the points of interest and reports of civilians in need were downloaded to our map as potential mission markers. Whether you stick to the breadcrumb trails and follow-up these targets is down to you, of course: New York's an open world that you can explore how you please, albeit a place with zones you should think twice about visiting without serious upgrades under your belt if you cherish the ability to pump blood around your body.

New York's also different for different people, Barnard assures us. "The way our world works for you as a player is it's your own specific 'phase', or copy, of New York. It can change from player to player or group to group. So if you join my copy of the game you inherit my world, my universe."

It's here where Ubisoft Massive's new Snowdrop engine comes to the fore. Designed specifically with this game and new-gen platforms in mind, it promises to deliver a New York affected by time of day, by weather systems and by damage.

"Say it's early morning and it's clear. You're in an area with enemies - I don't
want to go into calling them NPCs but enemies - and you have to be really careful as you're moving through the streets if you don't want to alert them to your presence because they can detect you and hear you much further away.

"But during a snowstorm, for example, a big weather system has come up and you can move through the area [freely] and get much closer [undetected]. It changes the tactics and the movement speed you have, and you have to learn how to deal with the environment."

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Time-lapse videos of The Division's Christmastime world are stunning. Snow falls and settles before eventually melting into puddles during the clear days. Skyscraper shadows dance across the map, turning open streets into opportunities for stealth in the early evening when the combo of blinding sun and unlit corners work against enemies and in your favour.

Entire missions can be flipped on their head depending on when you decide to tackle them and what the weather's like when you do. And persistence runs throughout - the day/night rotation is constant while storms and their effects will typically last much longer than just a few minutes.

Persistence applies to damage, as well. "You won't be able to destroy everything in the game: that would be great but it's not really feasible production-wise! It makes people cry," underlines Barnard, pooh-poohing any ideas of unscripted Battlefield-style landscape changes.

"For all its RPG mechanics, The Division looks to work remarkably well as a pure shooter"

Here, damage occurs on a more granular level. A car standing between you and an enemy won't follow the typical gaming pattern of catching fire and eventually exploding if you spray it with bullets. Instead, every round will do what it should. Windows will break, wing mirrors will rip off, metal doors will dent and buckle, plastic light covers will shatter, tyres will deflate and as they do the car's weight will shift accordingly...

"We're a Clancy RPG," says Barnard, "so tactical combat is important and at our core we're a cover based combat game. So covers will all be destructible either from a small bit to being completely destroyed."

Indeed, we've seen some impressive examples in action already. The baseball slides into cover as concrete barriers crumble around us are pure action flick-tastic, but it's the ability for the companion app player to highlight the outline of an enemy hiding behind flimsy plywood boarding - and for us to punch bullets through the opaque obstacle and kill our target before they can even think about rounding a corner and firing back - that has us cooing the most.

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With damage staying put through your New York adventure we'll recall moments such as this with fondness when we walk by past battle zones on the way to new ones. For all its RPG mechanics, The Division looks to work remarkably well as a pure shooter, too, and shows no evidence of the clunk and clatter that stopped the likes of Mass Effect's gunplay from equalling that of, say, The Last of Us.

We're eager to see how the online interactions are implemented in the final game - random Need for Speed: Rivals style PvP game crossovers seemed a likely solution to The Division's massively-multiplayer riddle until Massive talked about individuals' unique phases of New York with distinct times of day and weather systems - and whether the experience feels truly as interconnected and as social as was first promised.

But however the multiplayer meet-ups and shoot-ups come out in the wash, The Division's already promising to deliver a genuinely new new-gen experience that's more than just a prettier take on an existing genre.

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