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    The Division: Unravelling Ubisoft’s ambitious MMO shooter.

    First appearances put The Division in a similar space to games such as Destiny or Borderlands, in its attempts  to mix shooter and MMO elements within a loose, sandbox structure but there’s also a persistent ‘New York on the brink of destruction’ theme, and some semblance of storytelling that’s conceptually in a single player space.

    Play takes place in Manhattan in the aftermath of a virus spread via banknotes during Black Friday, the US’s huge Thanksgiving shopping period. (And, apparently, the UK’s now, although we do it without offering thanks for anything.) The titular Division is a class of soldier designed to fit in among ordinary citizens and track down those responsible for the virus.

    In practical terms,  The Division  is an MMO shooter set in a realistic Manhattan, featuring extensive customisation options, day/night and weather cycles that affect enemy behaviour, as well as permanent changes to the world. It’s ambitious and despite the presence of hotspots that you can liberate looks like a step above Ubi’s recent fare.

    A few months ago, I met the developer’s senior brand art director, Rodrigo Cortes, and he discussed the challenges of creating an interactive New York of unprecedented detail. “The fidelity, the size, the streets, the variety, the mood there are so many things that make New York exciting,” he told me. “But we’re trying to stay 1:1. When it’s not 1:1, it’s for gaming reasons; when it becomes boring to have it [look] the same. The second challenge is the legal aspect;  in the US, almost all of the buildings are copyrighted, so we need to do similar versions of them.” GTA IV managed it mostly with jokes but since  The Division  is a Tom Clancy game, this is set in some approximation of the real-world (one where military might will solve everything).

    Most of what I’ve seen so far is liberating strongholds in the midst of the open world, the idea being that the city becomes safer once they’re cleared out. Several of the aforementioned factors play into that. Cortes explained, “First of all, your exact experience is going to be different just by how you experience it. Going into a street that’s dark, you’ll experience it differently to when it’s light. But then we have the weather system, where it could be snow or a storm, and that again will affect the game. But it’s not just going to affect it visually or in the mood, but in enemy patterns.” Cortes mentioned that there might be more dogs on the streets in certain situations, for example, and at E3 we were shown how enemy setups will be different depending on the time of day. “All the parameters put together creates unique experiences every time.”

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around permanence and how it works in the game, but it sounds like there will be options for both your story playthrough and a group playthrough with repeatable events with the transition between ‘single’ and multiplayer being seamless. Said Cortes, “There are two ways [we do it]: one, which is that the world affects everyone, or the world affects you. Looking at many online games, there is an epic event. You see it, and then it resets for the next guy, and for a hundred others that are also going to change the world. That’s one way of doing it. The other is putting all the progression on the player, and the persistency on him, so it’s his experience of what’s going on.
    I expect this to be Ubisoft’s big Watch Dogs-scale title for the end of 2015
    “So we do change the world and we have things happening, but when you start a game and people join, it’s your version that the others will see. Or if you’re in a group, it’s going to be the group version... That was the main thing for us we didn’t want  to have people destroying your immersion.” 

    It sounds like they’re targeting giving players both a single player-like story arc of liberating New York and a repeatable MMO at the same time, with the option to switch between them the practicality of how this will work will no doubt be revealed soon, and I expect to get hands-on with The Division  during this E3. Likewise, early  in 2014, Ubisoft revealed that you can have group co-op with optional PvP elements as well, which sounds like it’s letting players set the limits of how the world is populated.

    The eventual aim of the open-world systems is that players will know if they should avoid a certain area. I suggested an example to Cortes that players might say to each other “Let’s avoid Central Park” because they know it’s dangerous. He agreed: “The perfect scenario is when people themselves, by experience, or by just looking at things, [say] ‘Let’s not go there.’”

    The scaling strength of enemies when you move into territories as a group is still being balanced, but I like the idea of real-world locations being hot spots for enemy territory that you actively avoid.

    I expect this to be Ubisoft’s big Watch Dogs -scale title for the end of 2015. A far grander idea than  Assassin’s Creed , Far Cry or any other Ubi game that requires syncing up with towers and tackling loads of icons on a map screen,  The Division   is the developer’s version of a full-scale MMO minus the subscription fee.

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