The Division E3 preview

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Written by Scott Butterworth

Following Monday’s gauntlet of publisher press conferences, Ubisoft capped the day with a private event further showcasing its 2014 lineup—including the open world online shooter-RPG The Division. The hands-off presentation featured the same gameplay segment seen at Microsoft’s presser earlier in the day but at a slower pace and with considerably more detail from the development team, starting with a bit of narrative context.

In case the cheery holiday soundtrack didn’t give it away, The Division takes place just a few weeks after a contagion sweeps through New York City on Black Friday. While it’s not clear if this is a biological attack or merely a tragic accident, the auspicious timing certainly has us leaning towards the former. Either way, the city quickly crumbles under the weight of this pandemic, which leads the government to activate members of the eponymous Division, a cadre of incredibly well-trained and well-equipped soldiers who exist as a last resort in catastrophic containment situations such as these.

As the demo opens and the camera pans down from the snowy skyline, the presenter comments that everything from the rooftops to building interiors to the street and even the tunnels and sewers beneath the surface will all be open for exploration. This particular demo begins in the ruins of a subway station with a Division member examining his “Mega Map,” a hologram of the surrounding environment that serves not only as a map but also as a means of monitoring the area’s security, contamination, and morale levels. As you progress through the world, these stats will fluctuate to reflect the impact of your actions.

After closing the map, the squad begins to move through the station, where we see the Echo in action. The Echo device draws data from surrounding technology such as security cameras to reconstruct past events, almost like an Arkham series detective sequence. While the recreated scenes will often provide crucial tactical information, they might also just give you an emotional glimpse into the panic and desperation that gripped the city during the early days of the outbreak. In essence, it’s something of a do-all narrative device, but hey, I’m not complaining.

Eventually the squad tiptoes through a field of tarp-covered corpses and emerges from the subway to find a some enemies waiting. As in the Microsoft demo, the squad adjusts its “skills,” a collection of moddable abilities usually linked to a specialized piece of gear. Skills range from mini-drones and auto-turrets to cloaking devices and stimpacks, all of which can be modified on the fly. The turret, for example, can deal damage or it can function as a flying flashbang, strobing enemies into blindness and disorientation. The game didn’t seem to pause as the presenters flipped through the circular upgrade menu, but the process seemed simple and painless nonetheless.

With their equipment adjusted for the occasion, the squad makes quick work of the bad guys in some heavily covered-based combat (note the destructibility of the environment in the video, as well as the ever-present floating HUD attached to the player character) before squaring off against an “Elite.” The Division is an RPG, after all, so a higher level boss character seems only appropriate, right? Once he falls, the team saunters into a massive museum, which will serve as a strategic foothold in the Division’s battle to restore the city.

The presenters, unfortunately, don’t comment on how strongholds like this will actually impact the gameplay experience, but they did actually fire up the same demo again to demonstrate how missions differ depending on factors like time of day, weather, and progression level of the squad. The mission mostly plays out the same on the second go, though this time there’s no Elite since the squad is set to a lower XP level and another player aids the squad by highlighting enemies using the game’s companion app to pilot a spy drone in real-time. The crew also recovers a “tactical backpack” which increases one member’s carrying capacity. So yes, loot will very much be a focus in The Division.

The presentation ends with one final unfriendly encounter: a group of flamethrower-wielding vigilantes—members of a group who will stop at nothing to see the virus stamped out even if that means burning supplies and murdering civilians—laying siege to a supermarket in a contaminated zone. If the squad didn’t have the right gear (i.e. serious gas masks) they actually wouldn’t be able to pass the HUD’s warning and enter the area. Fortunately, they’ve come prepared and automatically don their life-saving headgear as they cross the boundary and lay waste to the enemy faction (whose fire effects look pretty darn stunning) while racking up some serious XP.

The Division’s RPG-trappings, squad-based shooter structure, and optional PvP public spaces (which we're dying to know more about) make the game seem much deeper than your average cooperative shooter. Look forward to more coverage as we get closer to The Division's new 2015 release date.