E3 2013: The Division previewed

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Once again, Ubisoft may have ended their press conference with the star of the show. Last year, it was the surprise Watch_Dogs. this year, that game is The Division, an online multiplayer RPG that has me questioning my own pledge to avoid MMO-styled games. I got to see a closed–door demo of the game today at E3 and it left me wanting so, so much more.

This Tom Clancy-branded game is based around two very real, real-world things; Dark Winter, a bio-terrorist attack simulation that the US conducted in 2001 and Directive 51, the government’s response to the realisation of that threat. The Division looks at what would happen if that did indeed happen; if some sort of epidemic brought the United States to its knees and the complex society, driven largely by money were to topple like the house of cards it is. “What would it take to save what remains?” asks the game’s trailer.

The answer to that, of course, is the Division, a group of elite agents who serve as the country’s last resort. Their job is to stop the spread of the viruses, containing the pandemic and mopping up the remnants of a broken and diseased society. So light, fluffy stuff then. Like many of this year’s E3 heavy hitters, it’s a persistent, open world game – and it’s redefining the RPG. By making it a shooter, mostly. There’s a pretty functional, cover-based shooter mechanic at work – made all the more engrossing by the familiar trappings of the RPG; loot and progression. There’s plenty of both of that. New guns and gears can be found, along with new skillsets that can be learned. There are no set classes, as the developers wanted to avoid alienating players who like experimenting by front loading their class choices.

What makes it interesting is the persistence of the world. Perform actions that might make the world better, and they’ll stick – and eventually the broken, mid-crisis New York might become a better place and have a real impact on the overall game world.

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What we did get to see in action today that wasn’t shown at Ubisoft’s conference is that tablet-based companion gaming will play a rather large part of the Division. Before you roll your eyes at the screen, hear me out; it’s actually incredibly well done. While a group of players could be trying to breach an building from the from its rooftops, another player could use a tablet to control an air-based drone, offering tactical support to those on the ground. The tablet player is given a real-time, isometric view of the battlefield and can help the others by marking hard to see targets, as well as provide buffs to damage, or even drop a health beacon. And all it requires is Wifi access – it doesn’t need to be through an ad-hoc connection with friend sitting near you.

I could, for example, join my friends’ game from the comfort of my own bed while they’re all playing on their own consoles, and my tablet-controlled drone – separate to my main account – gets its own new skills and sense of progression. And it’s entirely optional.

Once players have completed a mission, they’ll need to call in for extraction – and this is where it starts feeling a little like DayZ. Calling for extraction will alert other, real-life players who aren’t playing as the good guys of their intent and map location – making each and every extraction a challenging, frightening and deathly prospect. An MMO without pointy-eared elves that just feels like a great, squad-based tactical shooter? Yeah, consider me sold.

And as you’re already aware, the game is just beautiful. Built for next generation consoles using the developers brand new Snowdrop engine, it’s incredible detailed – with all of that “next gen” eye candy you’d expect, like global real-time illumination and procedurally-generated damage. It’s coming to PS4 and Xbox One – and is definitely something to look out for.

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Geoffrey Tim

I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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