Call it the biggest Ubisoft surprise at this year’s very big E3 show. Toward the end of the pre-E3 media briefing, Ubisoft’s CEO stepped back onto stage for a final time to announce just one more game: Tom Clancy’s The Division. Cue thunderous applause, followed by lines wrapped around the booth for the next three days, all to get a fleeting glimpse at The Division in action.
We’ve walked you through the gameplay (Tom Clancy’s The Division – First Look at Genre Redefining Action RPG) and showed you the game in action (The Division – E3 Gameplay Video). But there’s so much more to this innovative next-gen open-world action-RPG. So we did what any gamer with an all-access E3 pass would: We infiltrated and interrogated the dev team – and we’re back with some intense new intel on what’s shaping up to be one of the most thrilling games of 2014. Our findings below…
World in Mid-Crisis
Despite being hit with a bio-terror attack… despite having a city in lockdown… despite calling in the big guns to take back New York, there’s hope. “A big part of the game will be restoring the infrastructure of New York,” says Game Director Ryan Barnard. “So the players will actually see the impact of what they do in the game. They’ll fix New York, which is in this ‘mid-crisis situation’ where communication, law enforcement, power and water are all failing.”
That term – mid-crisis – is key to the game’s setting. Things are bad, but they can come back. In that way, The Division’s New York is both familiar and alien: familiar because it’s set in an iconic and recognizable city in the very near future; alien because of the crisis – but New York is never so far gone that players don’t feel like they can turn it all around. “You’ll be able to see how you basically reconnect areas of New York that have lost power or lost water back to the grid and get them functioning,” Barnard says. In the E3 demo, for example, we witnessed once such event: securing the police station. In The Division, these events chain together to help the city come back alive.
“We’re not a post-apocalyptic game but we’re also not stopping something before it happens,” Barnard continues. “The virus that started the downfall has already happened. It’s a new way to experience the world: while it’s in collapse. I haven’t seen a lot of games tackle this kind of mid-crisis setting.”
Although the E3 demo shows the players adhering to general RPG archetypes – Nick is the damage-dealer, Bronson is the heavy, Megan is support – we also catch a moment when the team literally switches up skills on the fly. This is a key pillar of The Division. “We don’t have hard archetypes in our game,” Barnard explains. “If you play RPGs, you know a lot of time there will be a healer, DPS and tank. We want that trinity, and that holy trinity is important for any RPG in general. But the way we are doing ‘classes’ is different.”
As you play the game, you’ll level up and acquire points you can spend. You can then use those points to basically spec yourself into a role, but those choices are totally open, totally up to each player, and totally changeable. “So in the first 15 minutes of the game, we’re not asking you to choose what you are and how you want to play The Division. You’ll discover how you want to play while playing the game.”
Communication and teamwork are key, as showcased in the E3 demo. Barnard points to the moment when Nick changed his specs to do more damage, after Megan told her fellow agents that she just loaded up her group healing. It’s all about synergy, Barnard says. “How your Division agent and mine work together is very important. Being open and not being class-locked will allow you to go back to your skills and talents and make adjustments.”
First-Class Second Screen
Like many next-gen games, The Division has a robust companion app. This one, however, promises to go far beyond what we’ve seen so far in a second-screen experience. “It’s something we’re really, really proud of,” Barnard beams. “It’s where we’re really setting the bar for next-gen games. Our companion gaming is real-time simultaneous gameplay on the tablet. You will be able to play as a drone and join a group, just as if you’re another player. You have your own persistence within the drone and have progression and skills and talents, a lot like the main game. So it’s not just a fluffy armory or an application. It’s a real game client that you can use to interact with the game itself.”
In a behind-closed-doors demo at E3, we saw the app in action. Not only did the drone serve as an eye in the sky – spotting and tagging hard-to-see foes – but it was able to buff allies (increasing their offensive damage) and debuff enemies (decreasing their shields). And heal, of course. Through its actions, the drone can also build up a resource meter, represented in this demo by an orange bar – and when the bar was full, the drone was able to launch a devastating missile strike from above.
The companion app is fully real-time and can be played anywhere there’s an internet connection.
Together or Alone
First, it’s important to note that The Division is fully playable solo. (“It’s a wonderful single-player game!” Barnard promises.) So you lonely types, go on… play it as you like. But for the rest of us, The Division promises a rich, varied and seamless multiplayer experience that includes co-operative tactical action, factional conflicts, and full-on player-vs-player (PvP). “What a lot of games do in this genre is split it,” Barnard says. “So I play my single-player experience and then I’m kind of done with that part of the game. Or I go play multiplayer or PvP. We want to approach this differently. We want to make it part of the journey and make it part of the main experience for the game.”
A few examples from the E3 demo: When the Division agents peer down into those underground tunnels, they’re noticing a group event they can join. However, securing the nearby police station is more “critical,” so they ignore the event for now. Also, after securing the police station, the agents need to complete the sequence with what’s called an extraction. This begins after they exit the station via the back door and Megan shoots a flare in the air. A countdown begins… but the flare draws the attention of other nearby players, who rush to the area to (we’re guessing) snag the goodies the Agents earned during the event. This is one example of the PvP that can happen on the fly in the game. And while we’re told you can’t play as an unfriendly faction, we do know faction gameplay is huge in The Division – and we can’t wait to learn more about how it unfolds both competitively and cooperatively.
Finally, the game will have a fully functional black-market economy. “You’ll be able to craft new weapons and items for yourself or your fellow agents, or put it on the market,” Barnard says. “The market will take a cut of it, of course. But having a very deep economy is important, so players have activities that aren’t always just about fighting.”
“There is an end game,” Barnard promises. However, The Division will continue to be playable beyond the story’s ending. The team isn’t talking about any of that just yet, but the opportunity to extend this game beyond the finale or outside of New York is entirely possible.