PC, PS4, Xbox One
We could shoot The Division’s cars all day. Abandoned vehicles line the streets of this virus-stricken New York, but are more than mere set dressing: every yellow cab, police car and soccer-mom SUV is a potential showcase of Ubisoft Massive’s wonderful damage modelling, and we leave roadside after roadside in tatters. We pop the tyres first, causing a visible puff of air before the vehicle above slumps towards the damage. Then we take out the lights; the alarm might go off but never mind – we can shoot that out too. And then the windows. Oh, the windows. We empty our heavily modded assault rifle around the perimeter, and the pane holds firm until the last shard holding it in place shatters under gunfire, and the lot falls away. It’s hard to tear ourselves away to the real business of The Division: reclaiming New York City from the assorted ne’er-do-well factions that have moved in after a smallpox outbreak. Eventually our ammo supplies run dry and we’re left with no choice but to move on.
It’s just as well, because we really should get going. This, after all, is a long-overdue first proper hands-on with a game announced more than two-and-a-half years ago. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it demo at E3 last year and a brief Xbox One alpha in December. Here, finally, is The Division, playable almost from the start (the tutorial isn’t ready yet) in near-final form. It’s certainly been a long time coming. “There are so many new things,” Magnus
Jansen, creative director at The Division developer Ubisoft Massive, tells us by way of explanation for the delay in the game’s release. “We’re doing a new server structure – this seamless [multiplayer], no loading, no matchmaking, no lobbies. Then all the gameplay iteration, just trying to make it work. It’s an open world, with co-op: does it work not being guided? Doesn’t the group get split up? How do we solve that? There’s just so much, getting the tech right, and the game design; building a whole new engine; new platforms for Massive, too, with PS4 and Xbox One. It’s not really surprising that it’s taken some time.”
Ubisoft’s partnership with Microsoft means that our demo is on Xbox One, where the game runs at 900p and the remarkable capabilities of the Snowdrop engine Massive was so keen to show off when we visited its offices for E259’ s cover story have been necessarily reined in. But this is no Watch
Dogs- style downgrade scandal. Some of the sheen may have gone but the spirit of the thing remains, and what the Xbox One game lacks in pixel count and flashy effects is more than made up for by a wonderfully detailed, atmospheric world. The PS4 version will run in 1080p, while, mindful of its history on PC, Massive is at pains to stress the extra capabilities of the Windows version, playing up its multi-monitor support, advanced GPU effects and a fully customisable UI as evidence that it hasn’t simply taken the money and run.
Yet as Jansen says, The Division’s long road from E3 stage to store shelf has been about more than tech. This is a remarkably complex web of interlocking systems that, in a pleasant surprise, eschews much of the modern Ubisoft open-world template. Rather than follow its publisher’s house style, Massive has borrowed from elsewhere – chiefly, the lootobsessed MMOG – and welded it to triedand-tested, tactical Tom Clancy combat. Odd as it is at first to see damage numbers, rather than blood mist, when popping enemy heads in a contemporary military setting, it does work – although there’s a fundamental tension between the plausible modernity of
The Division’s setting and a set of RPG systems that are more readily associated with fantasy. An MMOG’s loot curve might see you abandon a bog-standard longsword for one that is twice as long, then ditch that for one that’s on fire. Here, you discard one assault rifle for another with a higher damage-persecond rating. It seems telling that DPS is measured in four figures from the word go; how else do you make modern military gear exciting in this context?
In a pleasant surprise, it eschews much of the modern Ubisoft open-world template
The answer, early on at least, is the gun mods, through which you can tweak a weapon to suit your playstyle with new sights, barrels, grips and magazines. You can stack stability mods to tame an unruly assault rifle, perhaps, or compensate for an LMG’s slow reload with a bigger clip and higher damage. Later, special bullets – causing fire or shock damage, say – will take you a little closer to the feel of a fantasy warrior’s flaming sword. And once you start using legendary gear, as we do when our character is bumped to level 20 and given some new toys, perks come into play. Our assault rifle has a 12.5 per cent chance to automatically refill its magazine after a kill; a sniper rifle’s crit chance increases for a few seconds when we use a skill.
“A flaming sword is impressive at a distance,” Jansen says, “but with the detail you have in a thirdperson shooter, you can get really close to a gun. There’s a tremendous amount of detail, with all the little dents and scratches, and the minutiae of changing the scope, the barrel and so on – we dive right into that. And in thirdperson you get so close, you really see your gun when you’re shooting. The guns are spectacular on a different axis than a flaming sword, I think.”
Mods aren’t bound to a single weapon type, but can be placed on anything you pick up. The stability build you had on your weedy assault rifle can go straight onto the powerful new machine gun you just got from a boss fight – if you really want to put a 3.5x zoom sniper scope on an SMG, you can. It’s a smart decision that gives you a measure of control over the loot curve, rather than forcing you to compromise on your desired playstyle for the sake of doing more damage.
It’s an ethos that extends to the skill system. The Division rejects the traditional class-based structure and lets you pick three abilities at a time from three separate trees, based on the holy MMOG trinity of healer (here called Medical), tank (Security) and damage-dealer (Tech), even when in combat. The final tier of each unlocks a Signature Skill, which offer tremendous benefits on a whopping 15-minute cooldown – though that can be reduced by killing enemies, with headshots bringing a bigger bonus.
They’re the equivalent of Destiny’s Supers, in other words, which proves to be just one of many similarities between Massive’s sharedworld shooter and Bungie’s, despite the vastly different set dressing. There’s a sense Destiny has laid some of the groundwork for The
Division: the console-owning shooter player has a far greater understanding of the inner workings of a loot game’s power curve, and how it translates to a gunfight, than it did when The Division was announced. But the comparison isn’t always a flattering one – movement here is stiff and unwieldy, a world apart from the Bungie game’s graceful flow – and elsewhere Massive repeats things Bungie has already acknowledged as mistakes. Bulletsponge enemies are introduced early on and get even stronger as you climb up the levels; it’s an understandable consequence of measuring a bullet’s damage output in five figures, but often seems at odds with the realistic setting. OK, that LMG-bearing enemy in the heavy armour is going to take some putting down, but why does that hooded sniper take minutes of sustained fire to send to the afterlife?
Massive’s marvellous remake of New York, and the intoxicating lure of more powerful toys, means we’re left wanting more, but how
much more is impossible to say. Just weeks before launch, Massive still won’t be drawn on what The Division’s endgame – the activities that will keep you in New York long after you hit the level cap of 30 – actually involves. All we know about for now is the Dark Zone, a central area that blends PVE and PVP in frightfully tense fashion and leads to powerful gear, providing you can stay alive and none of your allies decide to turn on you. Massive’s post-launch plans include free content and features, as well as paid DLC. Beyond that, though? “There’s obviously an endgame,” Jansen says. “Not only like other open-world singleplayer games, but also in a social, multiplayer context. It’s important that you have interesting and difficult-to-achieve goals that you and your friends can strive towards, but we’re not going into details about what those activities are.” Two-and-ahalf years on, with launch around the corner, the silence is puzzling, and a little concerning. We can’t shoot up cars forever, you know.
Magnus Jansen, The Division’s creative director, has been at Massive since 2005
In addition to guns and gear, you can acquire new items of clothing, but if personalisation’s the goal we’re going to need more from the final game than the drab coats and beanies we find during our demo