Actual play-time with The Division has been a long time coming - two years in fact - but Ubisoft finally delivered the goods at E3 2015 and let me go hands-on with the game, which has been right at the top of my “most-anticipated” list since the moment it was announced.
The only problem is that the hands-on demo is just a little bit underwhelming.
It opens well enough. I and my two fellow players appear on a bitterly cold, rundown side street of New York, which provides the setting for the whole game.
We’re first introduced to the controls and our loadout - pre-assigned for this demo but completely customisable (along with your appearance) in the full game. My character is carrying sticky bombs (hold L1 to aim, release to throw, press L1 again to detonate) and a rather cool little rolling grenade-drone, which when deployed using R1 circles around you until a threat comes close enough for it to detect, chase and explode on. Both of these special weapons are on a cool-down - they’re infinite but you have to wait for them to automatically replenish.
In terms of guns I’m carrying a submachine gun and a semi-automatic rifle, and our guide through the demo encourages me to test them out by shooting the heck out of the scenery. The Division’s destruction is really quite impressive. You blow holes in windows and signs and take chunks out of masonry. Cars shudder as you riddle them with bullets, doors are dislodged from their frames, tyres explode, brake lights shatter. I’ve never fired guns at cars in real life (not much call for that in tech journalism) but this seems pretty realistic to me, not to mention visceral and satisfying.
Ride into the Dark Zone
Weapons tested, it’s time to move on to the crux of the demo, which revolves around so-called Dark Zones. These are walled areas that were once at the centre of the US government’s attempts to research and combat the pandemic crippling New York. When these zones became untenable the military and governmental staff evacuated sharpish, leaving behind weapons and equipment that you’ll likely find extremely useful.
But simply popping into one is something that needs to be carefully considered. Firstly, these are very highly radiated areas, and you need a specific type of gas mask in order to enter (presumably this will be an unlock tied to your character level). Secondly, the promise of legendary gear means you’re not the only one interested in taking a look around - you’ll find both nasty NPCs and other players in the Dark Zones.
Of course, bottling it isn’t really an option when you’re having a hands-on demo, so we enter the Dark Zone in Manhattan. What’s nice is that while these are walled-off areas, there’s no loading screen between them and the rest of the open world. In fact, you can peer into this one through a fence.
Once in we immediately spot a gang of thugs. These guys are Rikers - once-inmates at the prison island of the same name that have taken advantage of the pandemic to return to mainland New York to cause a bit of a stink. With little hesitation, we shoot the shackles out of them.
And here’s where I have a bit of a problem. This is an RPG at its core and that means all characters, AI enemies included, have levels and health bars and carry weapons with attack points and the like. You shoot a guy in the head and instead of killing him outright because he’s been shot in the freakin’ head, he loses a certain number of hit points dictated by the attack stat of your weapon and his defensive stats. You even see the amount of damage you’ve done represented by a number floating above the enemy.
Sure, the same approach worked just fine for the likes of Borderlands and Destiny, but here it seems jarring, probably due to the gritty realism of the setting and rest of the presentation. Maybe I’ll simply get used to it, but the approach rather shattered the illusion for me throughout the demo.
The Division Dark Zones hands-on
Anyway, Rikers dispatched, it’s loot-grabbing time, and each of us receives a nice (presumably randomly rolled) new weapon. Unfortunately, because said weapon has been sitting in the radiated Dark Zone for ages it’s more contaminated than Springfield’s three-eyed fish. That means not only can we not equip it now, we can’t carry it for long - the solution is to find an extraction point and request a chopper to come and collect the weapon.
We move towards said extraction point and spot to our right another squad of player-controlled agents engaged in a tête–à–tête with another bunch of NPC enemies. Now we have a decision - ignore the other agents, help them or shoot them. The result of killing other players in a Dark Zone is compelling - the fancy loot they’ve just picked up will become yours for the taking - so that’s just what we do.
Unfortunately we haven’t been paying enough attention, and a third squad of agents approaches from behind, turning this scavenger hunt into a chaotic three-way team battle, each team trying to kill the others and at the same time call in an extraction that takes 90 seconds to arrive.
And herein lies my real issue with The Division’s Dark Zone mechanic. The idea is that it’s tense and suspenseful - do you work with other players or do you betray them for their loot? But rather than the idealised play-through you see in the clearly heavily scripted video above, I find it hard to imagine these occasions ever not descending into carnage, and to me the combat currently feels a little too unrealistic and RPG-influenced to provide a truly satisfying player-versus-player experience.
Of course, this is only one aspect of an open-world game with apparently loads of different activities to throw yourself into. And the freshly confirmed release date of 8th March 2016 gives Ubisoft plenty of time to tweak features and mechanics. But I can’t help but feel just a little bit less excited about The Division than I previously was. Here’s hoping my next hands-on with it - which may well be the just-announced Xbox One exclusive beta in December - can get my excite-o-metre back on track.
Original story: Everything we know about The Division
Most Clancy offerings draw on the real world and this PS4, Xbox One, and PC title is no exception. The inspiration for The Division is Dark Winter, a real-life US government simulation that tested the impact a smallpox outbreak in Atlanta would have. Its terrifying conclusion was that the entire country would be in meltdown within five days as food, water and electricity ran out and everyone started shooting each other for tins of beans. Given how quickly things break down in the UK every time there's a light dusting of snow, that sounds pretty accurate.
The Division puts players into the shoes of a sleeper agent trying to deal with the chaos caused by a pandemic in a gritty recreation of New York. But it’s no solo adventure - instead The Division promises massively multiplayer action in an open-world that's more Skyrim-with-friends than World Of Warcraft-wannabe. It won't be out until the start of 2016, so many of the details are still to emerge, but here’s what we know so far.
One thing we do know already is that The Division is one hell of a good-looking game. Work on it might have started in 2008 but thanks to Snowdrop, Ubisoft’s whizzy new game engine, the crumbling New York streets shown so far are a great showcase for the current generation of consoles.
The grubby streets are impressively detailed and are set to be complemented by state-of-the-art weather effects that will include snow that later melts into slush. The Hollywood-inspired lighting system promises to take the visuals even further, with some uncannily realistic sunlight and indoor lighting effects.
And as we mention above, developers Ubisoft Massive are adding in plenty of in-game destruction, with bullets that smash, puncture, shatter and splinter materials such as wood, glass, brick and concrete just as they would in the real world.
“Never before has a video game reached this level of detail,” reckoned Ubisoft in its original press release, and while that’s a bold claim, based on what we’ve seen to date it’s hard to disagree.
The Division Preview
Most of us have probably spent more time roaming virtual post-apocalyptic New York than we have the real place, but The Division offers more than a chance to visit run-down recreations of the Big Apple’s tourist hotspots. The map is set to be huge, taking in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newark and Staten Island. But it doesn’t stop there.
Play Magazine reports that the action will also take place in the forests and beaches on the edge of the city. Although full details of the map and how fully it will recreate the five boroughs haven’t been revealed, the chance to battle on Rockaway Beach, the Brooklyn Bridge and beyond is an exciting prospect.
As well as being able to explore the streets and rooftops, The Division will also let players skulk about in the tunnels beneath the city, although we’ll have to wait to see if societal breakdown makes any noticeable difference to New York’s grubby subway system. We suspect not. The icing on the cake is that the in-game map is a super-cool holo-map that you access using your agent’s smartwatch.
The Division is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink game that weaves together MMO, RPG, cover-hugging third-person shooter and survival horror. Skyrim, reports OXM, is the big influence with plenty of missions, crafting and item scavenging to get on with. What’s more, the developers have promised that it'll be a grinding-free zone. Phew.
But while Skyrim is a solo experience, The Division is very much a multiplayer game. The emphasis is on working with others in teams to either fix or worsen the problems of New York. There will also be plenty of player-versus-player action, but these encounters will be about things that matter in the game world, like controlling territory, rather than simply chasing glory on a leaderboard. That said, it will still be possible to play solo - but you’ll have to play in a shared online world and there won’t be any AI companions covering your back.
On top of this is a strong survival element. At the start, players get a few days’ worth of supplies and after that making sure you have enough food, water and ammo will be vital to staying alive. To help you get by there will also be a black market where players can buy and sell items. Ubisoft Massive are also promising an emergent narrative that responds to the actions of players within the world. It’s not confirmed what the story entails, but the implication is that the fate of the entire city may depend on the actions of competing players.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Ubisoft Massive’s Ryan Bernard told OXM that the end of the story is not the end of the game and there will be “potentially limitless, unlimited gameplay”.
COMPANION APP AND DLC
Tom Clancy's The Division review
While most smartphone and tablet apps that act as companions to console games are gimmicks, The Division’s promises to raise the bar for second-screen gaming, and not just because of the promise of HD tablet eye candy. The app will let players take control of a drone that can help spot hidden enemies, provide health boosts and send in missile strikes, so even when you’re not at your console you can help your friends save the day.
As well as the companion app, there will be extra downloadable content for the game too. Ubisoft’s remaining tight-lipped on what that content will be, but it has confirmed that Xbox One owners will get some exclusive content that will be available before as well as after the game comes out.
Tom Clancy's The Division review
UPDATE 17/06/15: Ubisoft is still taking its sweet time with The Division, revealing this week that the game has slipped now has an official release date of 8th March 2016. Remember, the game was unveiled back at E3 2013, and it has been pushed back steadily since.
Then again, it's surely a massive undertaking, and you only get one chance to make a strong first impression. If taking extra time allows The Division to live up to its clearly huge potential, then we're all for a little springtime shooting next year. Stay tuned for more details as they come.
Additional words by Tristan Donovan