I've had my eye on Ubisoft's latest Tom Clancy game, The Division, for some time now. Development of this title started in 2012, and a short demo of the game was shown at E3 2013, which looked very promising indeed.
Since then, the game has been showcased at subsequent E3's, but its release date has been repeatedly pushed back to give its quartet of developers, Ubisoft Massive, Ubisoft Reflections, Red Storm Entertainment, and Ubisoft Annecy more time to work on it. However, after almost two years of delays, The Division is finally ready for launch on March 8th, and I got the chance to play through its first three or so hours on Xbox One.
Taking things from the top, The Division is a third-person cover shooter that's set within the framework of a massively multiplayer online action RPG. Its plot is depressingly and terrifyingly dystopian. A weaponized virus has been unleashed in New York, causing a deadly plague of biblical proportions. Millions die, and as the pandemic spreads across the country, and basic services like electricity and water begin to fail, society collapses into chaos. Looters run riot, and the populace fight one another over scant resources.
That's where you come in. As a member of the Strategic Homeland Division – an elite group of sleeper agents who lead ordinary lives, but are trained to mobilize during times of dire emergency – it's your job to head out into the streets of New York and attempt to restore order.
Before the action begins proper, you create a character in typical MMORPG style. You can choose to be either male or female, and there's a reasonable selection of faces, hairstyles, and accessories to help you come up with an individual look. Once you've created your avatar, you're dropped into the game's starting zone, where a snow-covered, open world New York awaits.
Being an MMO, the game can either be played single-player, or you can team up with friends and other players and tackle the game as a group. For the purposes of the demo, I grouped with two other people – one of whom was a member of the development team – and under his expert guidance we headed to the first main mission, which required us to take out a group of individuals who were holding civilians hostage. What transpired was a quite straightforward firefight where I was able to use a basic assault rifle to take out the hostiles. The cover system is quite intuitive, and it didn't take long to get a good feel of how the shooting mechanics work in the game.
Once we'd dealt with the threat, we were able to enter the base of operations, which is ostensibly the game's central hub. While there are a few vendors and quest-givers present when you first arrive, it's clear that the place is in complete disarray, and it's up to you to get it up and running – which requires completing three missions to rescue individuals who are able to head up the base's three wings: Tech, Medical and Security. The base of operations plays an important role in the game, and as you progress, it gets increasingly built out with NPCs, services and other benefits.
While exploring the base of operations, I also got the chance to check out my character a little more in-depth. There's a basic skill system in place that enables you to choose different abilities for your avatar. I went the medic route, and selected a pulse effect skill that enabled me to scan the environment and tag enemies to receive a temporary critical damage bonus. Later on in the session, I was able to take a second skill, which was an AOE healing effect that worked on myself and other members of my team – and turned out to be quite useful in the heat of battle. Other trees available include a more defensive-oriented set of skills, as well as offensive abilities.
After we'd finished checking out the base of operations, we ran three missions to rescue the personnel required to get the place running at a basic level. These all played out in the same fashion, requiring us to head to a specific location and eliminate groups of enemies to liberate each of the three members of the base of operations team. As we progressed through the missions, we earned experience from downed hostiles, and our characters began to level up. We also collected loot along the way, and I was able to swap out my basic assault rifle for a higher-damage machine gun, and also a fairly useful shotgun, which is devastating at close range, but less useful over distance.
Generally speaking, the gunplay feels pretty solid, and firefights are quite exciting. Cover plays an important role, and you need to stay on your toes to prevent yourself being flanked and overrun by enemy forces. The end result is quite dynamic-feeling action where you're moving from cover to cover, essentially playing cat-and-mouse with the enemies. I'm interested to see how this action varies as the game progresses - and whether there are any other kinds of missions other than just shoot-outs.
What struck me as we traveled from mission to mission is the incredible quality of the game's environment. The Division's New York is astonishingly realistic, and really conveys the feeling of a city gone to ruin. There are abandoned cars and piles of garbage everywhere, and the whole environment feels very natural and organic. It's quite an achievement, and even though the game did have some texture resolution pop-in, it still looks quite amazing. There's a day/night cycle, and dynamic weather, which we experienced in the form of a blizzard that restricted visibility.
I was also impressed with the sheer volume of missions available to play. There's a definite "golden path" through the game, with main story missions that essentially advance the plot, but there seems to be a myriad of side missions to also tackle, some of which award interesting and useful items for your character. Quite how much game time these all add up to is not clear, but so far it looks like The Division has a tremendous amount of depth.
One of The Division's more interesting aspects is its PvP. This takes place in the game's Dark Zone – a free-for-all area that players can enter to fight one another for loot, and also develop their character through the unique PvP progression system (which is different to the main game's progression). As you kill other players, you level up, but if you're killed, your ranking can also drop. Players also lose items when they die, which can be looted by other players. My team entered the Dark Zone to check it out, and it was pretty crazy. We got involved in a protracted firefight with several other teams of players. I managed to get a few kills in, and received some nice-looking loot that I then dropped when I was eventually killed. Apparently, if I'd made it to a Dark Zone extraction point before that happened, those items would have become bound to my character, which makes PvP a very interesting, if somewhat brutal-sounding prospect.
As we headed back into the Dark Zone for a second round of PvP, time was called on our demo, and I was left to reflect upon my initial experiences with The Division. While three hours seems like quite some time to spend with a game, I felt I barely scratched its surface. I'm interested to learn more about the skills and abilities available to my character, there's a crafting system I didn't even get to try out, and, of course, I'd like to know how missions vary as you get deeper into the game.
I'm looking forward to finding out the answers to these questions – and more – when we review the game in early March.