Last year, Ubisoft hit it out of the park when they announced their latest project: Watch_Dogs. Not to be outdone by themselves, they've tried to replicate their own success by unveiling another big new title this year - The Division.
First shown at Ubisoft's press conference on Monday (Tuesday NZ time), the revelation foreshadowed a world on the brink of collapse. Apparently, in 2001 a simulated biohazard attack was conducted in the United States. From that attack arose "The Division;" a specialist group of secret agents ready to respond to disasters of climatic proportions. As it happens, in the twisted mind of Tom Clancy (on whose work the game is based) such an event did occur, and "The Division" is called into action to prowl the streets of New York City in a valiant attempt to stop the spread of the Black Friday pandemic.
It’s pretty clear that at its core, The Division is a perpetually online RPG style 3rd person shooter. But don't hold that against it. From the gameplay footage we have seen at E3 so far, it looks like it has depth, substance, and a decent bit of style.
At my behind closed doors session, I had a chance to sit down with Andre Tiwari of Massive Entertainment - the Project Coordinator for The Division. He told me that The Division has been designed from the ground up to be an online cooperative experience. This is a game that is supposed to be played with friends - or with other gamers through a matchmaking service that Massive are working on.
The gameplay appears to be fairly open and non-linear. There is an explorable world, and like most open online RPGs, gamers have the chance to decide what to do, and when to do it. However, this won’t be the kind of open world freedom that you'd expect from other post-apocalyptic titles like DayZ. Instead, gamers will be given the choice of finding new missions themselves, or completing major "critical" missions that the game presents to them. Completing these missions will secure the local area, progressing your group through the game. So you have the freedom to choose between choices, but not the freedom to invent those choices for yourself.
One of these critical missions is the shootout in front of the police station that was displayed at Ubisoft's press conference. Working together, a group of three players invaded a barracks and liberated the thin blue line imprisoned there. Andre took us through this combat demo in more depth, outlining the various roles that each player had. He emphasised that The Division is supposed to be a classless game. While it is built in the style of an online RPG, players are not expected to fit within specific genre stereotypes.
Instead, each player's style evolves organically according to the skills and buffs they select. Of course, those working in groups will want to ensure that they are complementing each other, but the game will not be forcing anyone to play in a specific type of way. For an online RPG style game, this is a welcome development.
Andre was also quick to point out the environment physics that Massive have built into the title. A special effort has been made to ensure that players really feel the world they are moving and fighting in. The first way this is done is through the greater fidelity that the next gen consoles are offering. The game looks amazing, and Andre specifically mentioned the ongoing work that Massive are doing to create an immersive and visually arresting world. Some of the lighting and particle effects he displayed up close were astonishing.
However, the second key fact he highlighted was Massive's attention to physical detail. The processing power of next gen consoles has enabled Massive to make realistic destructible environments a key part of the title's combat. For example, when battling bandits outside the police station, stray bullets sprayed into windshields created realistic and believable bullet holes - and not simple decals. These were crunching, shattering, splintering moments.
A second example was when your character blindly fired at an enemy hidden behind an aluminum billboard. Streams of light poured through the gaps you'd made giving the player the impression they'd really engaged. The true effect of this attention to graphical detail wasn't obvious in the press material that's made its way through the web - but up close and personal it’s incredibly impressive.
But what of the core gameplay? Massive Entertainment were not giving much away, and there was no actual playable code for us journalists to get our hands on. However, Massive are strongly emphasising the cooperative team-based play they expect gamers to embrace.
There is good reason for this - the post apocalyptic world of New York City presents a whole range of challenges. For example, in order to "save" your progress and the loot you find, each group of The Division will need to complete an "extraction". This is triggered by firing a flare into the air (and was the last scene from the footage Ubisoft streamed during its press conference.) However, this flare attracts more than just help - it also attracts other players around you who have just been alerted to your presence (and presumably the fact they you've got something awesome you want to keep to yourself). This will hopefully set off a game of cat and mouse between rival groups of players who have just discovered new gear and those that want to take it from them. It's an interesting new innovation in the online RPG genre. Hopefully it works and is enjoyable for gamers to fight through - and, as hinted, is a regular and perpetual occurrence in The Division's online world.
But what Andre really wanted to show off was not the lighting, the destructible environments, or even the new twist on online cooperative RPG gameplay. Instead it was the integration with Smartglass and the opportunities for tablet players to have an impact on your game.
While you and your friends are battling it out against NPCs or other players you can be supported by someone using Ubisoft's "Companion App". This app lets them join your game and help you out in sticky situations. This can happen from anywhere there is a reliable internet connection - in the living room next to your fellow players, across the street, or even on the bus on the way to work.
For example, in the footage we saw at Ubisoft's press conference a drone joins your attack on the police station and helps pick out dangerous enemies. What we didn't know was that the drone was controlled by a third person who joined the game on a tablet. Andre was at pains to stress that the integration of tablets through smartglass technology was not just a gimmick - it has a real impact on your game experience, and he demonstrated an impressive depth of combat to prove it.
In a further segment of the game that we hadn't seen before, three squaddies assaulted enemies on a roof and were joined by a drone doing air support. By viewing the game through a (reasonably accurate) representation of the console game, they were able to beam down healing buffs, damage enhancers, armour weakeners, and missiles. The drone tactical support to the troops on the ground was vital. And it was all done in real time, displaying the serious work that has gone into ensuring that the tablet and console experiences are seamlessly linked.
Overall The Division looks like an impressive new title from Ubisoft. It's clearly a flagship title, and it shares many similarities with Ubisoft's other flagship new IP: Watch_Dogs. Both have semi sci-fi storylines, both have smartglass integration through the companion app, and both feature impressive visuals with interesting combat.
Hopefully however, there is enough differentiation between the titles to give gamers two separate and distinct experiences. By situating itself in the perpetually online RPG world, it looks like The Division is taking the ambitious route.
From what I saw in my behind closed door session at E3 I'm excited - but also a little nervous. With Watch_Dogs last year and The Division this week, Ubisoft now have quite a few irons in the fire. We've seen some truly impressive gameplay over the last two days - but the jury is still out as to whether Ubisoft's headlong charge at the next generation of consoles will bear fruit worth eating. Here's hoping it will!