I owe somebody at Ubisoft an apology of sorts. When I saw the presentation for Tom Clancy's The Division at Ubisoft's pre-E3 conference, I thought it was a visually spectacular trailer in the service of what appeared to be Yet Another Cover-Based Shooter, starring yet another stubble-covered dude and his multiethnic posse as they fight through the apocalypse.
As it turns out, The Division has more in common with Borderlands than anything else. It's a third-person shooter/action-RPG with a heavy focus on its open world and co-op gameplay, and while you do spend a fair bit of time behind cover, it isn't quite what I expected when I saw Tom Clancy's name.
The Division's plot is reportedly inspired by various military simulations that were run to test the country's vulnerability to various forms of biological attack. It involves a man-made, deadly virus being released in New York City on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. Not even a week later, the United States falls apart at the seams. New York City is soon a half-empty hellhole that's occupied by looters, gangs, and participants in unspecified conspiracies.
You're an agent of the titular Division, a classified organization that was put in place for just such an occasion, trained to operate independently and under instructions from the President to restore order by any means necessary. Your opponents have numbers, territory, and all the guns they can pry out of what's left of the city, but you have a full arsenal of spy technology and your own personal drone buddy.
The Division was available behind closed doors at E3, where Ubisoft showed off a sample of live gameplay, as the player character assisted his ally Megan — who was apparently also a playable character — with a mission to investigate a warehouse that was occupied by an unspecified enemy. This involved a trip into an abandoned subway station, followed by an open confrontation on the deserted streets nearby with one of the opposing gangs. The gang in question, the Cleaners, also showed up in the trailer; their thing appears to be that they really enjoy using flamethrowers.
The next-gen horsepower in The Division is largely focused around building its version of New York. It features dynamic time and weather, which is synchronized across all the platforms on which the game is available, and the city itself is realistically messy and cluttered in the aftermath of the plague. One of your spy gadgets is built into a smartphone and lets you gather information from all nearby sources to build a 3-D image of the recent past. (It was hard to tell on the E3 show floor how long ago the outbreak was supposed to be, which made the phone's gathering software seem like some kind of bizarre magic spell. This particular ability makes a lot more sense when you know it's dealing with stuff that happened last week, rather than months or years ago.)
The city is split up into neighborhoods, which are ranked according to their security, contagion, and morale levels. When you manage to take over a new headquarters or area from enemies, you gain a new hideout where you can rest and upgrade your equipment.
Combat does involve a lot of tactics and taking cover, as one might expect from a Tom Clancy game, but like Borderlands, shooting a guy makes numbers fly out. As your character levels up, you can specialize in skills that allow you a greater degree of flexibility. They didn't show off too many options, but it included homing grenades, a pulse that lit up distant enemies in your HUD, medical abilities, and new functionality for land mines, like making a "bouncing betty" or flashbang.
You spend much of the game accompanied by a small unmanned drone, which can be used to drop grenades and gas bombs on enemy positions, illuminate enemies with a spotlight, or blind them outright with a strobe. If you have a friend with a tablet, he or she can use a synchronized app to control the drone and view the same fight through its camera from overhead, which adds another player to the co-op campaign.
We didn't actually get to play The Division at E3, so the jury's still out. There's a lot of potential in the concept, which mixes the tactical gunplay of a typical Tom Clancy game with the greater flexibility of an RPG and a large, detailed open world, but right now, all that can be reported on is that potential. If nothing else, though, it's interesting to see the Tom Clancy license expand into what's essentially a brand-new area.
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