The Division: Divided we stand, united we fall

The end of the world has been foretold many times and in many different ways. Alien invasion, hyperactive weather systems, zombie apocalypse, the list of fantastical doom-bringers goes on and on, but what if the end were brought about by more mundane means? That’s the scenario that Ubisoft is exploring in Tom Clancy’s The Division , in which a particularly virulent strain of the common flu tears through the population, silently infecting millions of people before the first symptoms are
detected. As the death toll rises and panic mounts, society crumbles.

Your role, as a member of the Strategic Homeland Division, is to do whatever it takes to salvage what remains and prevent the last vestiges of civilisation from tearing itself apart. In more practical terms, this means maintaining order and stopping gangs of opportunists from exploiting the situation for their own gains. This has been portrayed to stunning effect in the highly stylised, hard hitting trailers so far released by Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment, which highlight not only clashes with AI opponents but also the dynamic nature of PvP encounters across the persistent online open-world.

Enthusiasm generated by snatches of gameplay is tempered by a healthy dose of scepticism concerning the ambitious scope of the project. Ubisoft’s attempts to introduce open-world elements to some of its most prominent franchises have resulted in some heavily formulaic approaches to both mechanics and structure, while gamers are still smarting from the perceived downgrade in quality
suffered by Watch Dogs between its initial E3 reveal and eventual release.

However, as brand art director Rodrigo Cortes highlights, The Division will benefit from a more specific focus and a higher technical baseline. “By being a new gen only game we haven’t had to scale all the way down to the lower spec machines. This has allowed us to do many things, including focusing on effects such as realistic lighting where you have light-bleed and reflective lights and for it to be all real-time.”
“Enthusiasm generated by snatches of gameplay is tempered by a healthy dose of scepticism concerning its ambitious scope”
Terrain deformation is another key feature that, like lighting, should have practical gameplay implications as well as contributing to The Division’s visual identity. Forcing opponents AI and human to abandon cover as bullets chew through sheet metal hoardings and explosives take apart vehicles is something that Xbox One can deliver where the 360 would falter. However, despite the action oriented nature of gameplay seen so  far, Massive is keen to emphasise  that The Division isn’t an open-world shooter  with RPG elements buta fully fledged, modern RPG in its own right in which  resource management, player collaboration and customisation are key. “One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t understand is that we’re actually doing a proper RPG,” says Cortes.  “Even  though it looks and feels like a shooter or an action title it’s a proper RPG complete with heavy customisation, loot, levelling and upgrade systems.”

These RPG elements are managed on the fly via The Division’s slick UI, which leverages the fiction of the modern setting with some impressive effects.

The RPG experience also extends to tablet via the companion app and while we’re all still waiting to be convinced by the tablet-based companion play that publishers seem so keen on, The Division appears to be at least trying to offer a viable method to connect with friends online when the TV is tied up.

So far, the connected, technology enhanced, forward looking experience being touted by The Division share Tom Clancy’s flare for depicting extreme circumstances grounded in a believably grim reality, as Cortes highlights, “Our heroes are normal civilians that have been hand-picked and trained for something like a pandemic; they’re not super-soldiers that can kill a crazy number of people. It’s
justa local New Yorker, who  steps  up  to tackle a problem.” We’ll find out if Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment succeed in overcoming their own pitfalls to deliver a dynamic online experience when Tom Clancy’s The Division launches next year.

The cinematic and gameplay trailers pack an emotional punch but they also hint at a large degree of cover-based shooting, something that could quickly suck the dynamism out of PvP match-ups. There’s a host of upgrades and nifty abilities to help flush opponents out of cover but here’s hoping that Massive ensures combat is kept constantly moving and tactical, rather than staid and sluggish.

Originally set for release this year, The Division has been delayed until at least Q2 2015 to focus on quality.

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