The Division: inside Ubisoft's ambitious online shooter

Tom Clancy's The Divison

The city that never sleeps is now a slumbering wasteland of abandoned cars and scattered rubbish.

Occasionally, a stray dog pads past, while rats scurry in the darkened alleyways. Manhattan’s iconic buildings have become gravestones, covered in graffiti and deathly silent. As a vision of the post-human New York, The Division is pretty arresting.

Like Bungie’s epic space opera Destiny, this is a game of interconnected parts where single-player, co-op and online multiplayer merge seamlessly together. But it’s not a fantasy or sci-fi adventure – instead, the action takes place several days after the release of a deadly new strain of smallpox into the city. Most civilians have died or fled, leaving gangs of looters fighting to control the boroughs. But the government needs to regain control, and to do this, it activates a secret protocol, based on the real-life Directive 51, to send specially trained highly autonomous divisions into the city to flush it out.

Recently, Ubisoft hosted a press event in New York, revealing new missions and content. Here’s what we took away.

There’s a mission-based campaign at the core

For all the talk of structural innovation, The Division seems to be based around a fairly traditional narrative campaign mode. You arrive on Manhattan as a new Division operative, looking to establish a base of operations in the post office building near Madison Square Gardens before heading out to restore some order to the devastated city. These story missions can be attempted alone, or with up to three friends – although its the latter scenario that Ubisoft really, really wants to encourage.

Your base is essentially the hub from which you take on new tasks, and early missions involve rescuing key personnel so that you can set up three specialist wings: medical, technical and security. The mission featured in the game’s recent beta test, for example, had players heading over to a nearby fast food restaurant to rescue medical researcher Jessica Kendall, who may be able to track down the origins of the pandemic. Once these early base-building quests are done, however, the whole map opens and everything else can be attempted in any order you like – which does at least represent a move away from the linearity of the traditional campaign mode.

During our demo, we played a later mission, set in the Lincoln Center where a group of joint strike-force operatives have been taken hostage by an armed gang. Here, you and your squad blast your way through the building, clearing out each floor before moving to the next storey. After a rooftop battle, you head back inside to face a machine gun-toting boss in the building’s huge concert hall. It’s a decent challenge, which brings in a few smarter enemies exhibiting basic flanking skills and a few “tanks” with serious body armour and major weaponry. The plush interior of the Lincoln Centre – with ornate furniture everywhere, and the scarlet walls covered in paintings – also contrasts well with the chaos on the streets, adding much needed visual diversity.

During missions you can also stumble into optional mini-quests, or “encounters”, which may involve a civilian who needs help, or some kind of inter-gang arms deal that you can bust up. But whatever you do in this city, you’re looking to take down enemies then loot them for weapons or gear.

Combat is intense but spongy

Fighting your way through the wrecked streets of Manhattan against both gun and baseball bat-wielding enemies is certainly fun, especially with friends. Burned out cars make good cover points, while utilising alleys and fire escapes as escape routes really brings the city alive as a shooter environment. However, it’s true that, with the basic armoury at least, there’s little real feel to the weapons – it’s not like Gears of War where, every time you pull the trigger, it looks and sounds like the whole planet is being sawn in half.

Also, in true RPG style, the time-to-kill ratio is much longer than conventional shooters so you’ll need several hits to take down a single enemy. This feels a little strange out of the context of a sci-fi or fantasy landscape: New York looks real so we expect someone in a hoodie to pretty much go down after one shot.

For a lot of players then, there’s going to be a period of transition where they come to terms with the fact that this isn’t Battlefield, it’s not even Borderlands, a game that expertly infused its central shooter gameplay with roleplaying elements. The Division is an action RPG, with all the genre conventions and mechanics that entails. We’re just hoping some of the later weapons and upgrades add at least some raw intensity to that gun feel.

The upgrade system is huge

Make no mistake, the Division may look and play like a shooter, but at heart it is an RPG with a pretty complex character management, levelling and upgrade system. When you start out, you create your own custom Division operative, selecting from a range of physical features. However, there are no pre-defined character classes - everything is configurable on the fly; it’s an important contrast to Destiny, where you need to choose how to specialise before you even play. The Division is very much a game about improvisation – this is the end of civilisation after all.

Character upgrades are managed in an abilities menu that’s split into three types: skills, talents and perks. Your skill tree is visually represented in the game by those Technical, Security and Medical wings, and adding to them (using resources earned during missions) opens new possibilities. Go down the Medical route and you can unlock the ability to heal yourself and co-op allies; Tech skills let you unlock useful weapons like automated gun turrets and seeker mines that home in on enemies. Security skills, meanwhile, let you set up your own cover points in the war zone, giving your team vital moments of protection. As you level up, you open an extra skill slot so you can use two at once. Plus, all of these skills can also be upgraded over time, so the automatic turret can be switched from a gun to a flamethrower unit (shorter range but devastating damage), while your remote-operated mine can become a proximity mine, making it useful for establishing parameters.

All of these are operated using the shoulder buttons and last a certain amount of time before a cool-off period. Each character can also select a powerful signature skill, instigated by hitting both buttons together, which may, for example, make all your team’s weapons more deadly for a set period of time. So yes, they’re like the super abilities in Destiny – and when co-op players synchronise their use they can be catastrophically effective.

Talents, meanwhile, are additional abilities (again split into the medical, security and tech archetypes) that constantly run in the background as you play. Unlock a cover talent, for example, and every time you seamlessly move from one cover point to another you get improved weapon damage for 10 seconds; another talent may give you a 25% chance of auto refilling all your ammo every time you kill an enemy. Finally, Perks are little additions to your inventory, allowing you to, say, carry more med kits.

All of this is managed through a vast menu interface loaded with stats, icons and subcategories. It takes a long time to figure it all out, but the key thing is it’s designed to enhance strategically-minded co-op play through specialised roles. The Division is not designed for creating a Rambo-like super soldier then blasting through the campaign alone.

The major question is whether Ubisoft has created missions and enemies that are complex enough to demand this kind of planning and co-operation. In our demo, we were able to beat major set-piece encounters on Hard mode mostly by flooding enemy spawn points with grenades and mines, then picking off survivors. We’re not exactly talking Rainbow Six: Siege levels of planning and integration here. But of course, we’ve only seen a couple of missions and Ubisoft says it has plenty of as-yet unseen locations and enemy types to throw at us. I guess we’ll see.

It’s all about loot – and talent

You start the Division with a minimal selection of weapons and basic combat attire, and you need to build on this arsenal by getting out there and looting. The basic categories are familiar: handguns, assault rifles, sub-machine guns, light machine guns, sniper rifles, etc. You’re able to carry two main weapons, one sidearm and an array of projectiles like sticky bombs and inc. Every weapon can be modified with better scopes and mag capacity etc, but as you explore the world, kill enemies and pick up loot, you’ll also discover that certain guns come with extra icons known as Talents, which denote particular characteristics and abilities.

You may, for example, find a rifle with the Adept talent, which increases your critical damage while using a skill, or the Ferocious talent which boosts damage against elite enemies and bosses. Each talent has a set of stamina, firearms and electronics requirements that players have to reach before they come into play, and according to one of the game designers we spoke to, tuning all of these stats becomes a vital element at higher ranks.

It’s also going to be possible to break up weapons and craft new ones. Ubisoft has not revealed much of its crafting system just yet, but we know that there will be blueprints hidden around the map, especially in the Dark Zone, which provide instructions on creating especially powerful new weaponry.

As in Destiny, any looted weapons and gear you find is colour coded for quality and rarity. The developer has promised plenty of super exotic stuff that goes far beyond the basic rifles, knee pads and puffer jackets most people hauled during the beta. This is going to be vitally important to a game so heavily based around the looting mechanic.

One thing we’re really not getting is that sense of desperation that the post-pandemic scenario suggests. You can loot food but will you starve if you don’t get enough? Society has crumbled, but this feels very much like a military rather than survival exercise. In short, The Division is no DayZ.

The Dark Zone is a tense arena of multiplayer chaos

Like Destiny, The Division has partitioned its competitive multiplayer (or PvsP) component into a separate area – but it’s done it in a much more subtle, seamless way than the Crucible. The Dark Zone is a whole chunk of mid-town New York that, in the game’s fiction, was quarantined off when the military started losing control. There’s no lobby and no matchmaking; when you enter, you and your co-op team will run into other players (as well as the usual NPC gangs), and if you shoot at any, you’ll be temporarily declared a rogue force, giving every other group in the are permission to hunt you down.

So why would you shoot at other players? Well, the Dark Zone is the place you’ll find all the best, most rare loot – but once you’ve discovered it, it’s not safely yours until you get it to an extraction site, then defend it until a chopper comes and takes it to your base. In that crucial minute, any other other team on your server can steal it and claim the prize. The result is an entertainingly frenzied PvP Horde mode, as you and your squad defend the extraction area against waves of would-be thieves.

It doesn’t have to play out like this, though. Groups of players will also be able to chat over the proximity-based voip system, arranging to coordinate attacks on NPCs and sharing the spoils. Like DayZ, this should lead to some interesting standoffs and uneasy truces as players decide whether they can trust each other. But again, Ubisoft is going to have to ensure that the spoils are worthwhile. We’ll need to see a regularly rejuvenated selection of exotic wares in order to keep the stakes high and the rewards seductive. That’ll mean a packed agenda of weekly and monthly events – the sort of stuff Destiny has seduced gamers with for the last year.

There’s a lot more to find out

The beta offered a small slice of gameplay, and the New York press event revealed a little more. But some big questions remain. Can this admittedly well-realised environment provide the diversity of enemies and experiences that a long-running online RPG will need? Fantasy and sci-fi titles are able to disguise level grind behind multiple hugely diverse mythical and alien enemy types and extravagant outlandish environments: The Division can’t do that. Instead we have looters in hoodies and the odd armoured machine gunner.

Most importantly, if this is a shoot-and-loot adventure, the shooting has to be compelling and the loot has to be worth the effort. That means weapons of increasing power and brutality, and weird exotic weapons to discover and show off.

The Division, for now, remains the interesting yet elusive prospect it has been for several months – albeit with some solid meat to its bones. New York is a city that promises a lot but always delivers more. That’s a lot to live up to.

Keith Stuart attended a press trip to New York with other journalists. Travel and accommodation costs were met by Ubisoft.

Powered by article was written by Keith Stuart, for on Tuesday 9th February 2016 07.00 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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