Tom Clancy's The Division preview: co-op survival in post-virus New York

Written by Nathan Brown.

Even before we knew anything official about the next-gen consoles, we knew they would be based on PCs. We knew that their games would be developed on PCs. Why, then, was The Division only announced for next-gen consoles? The NYC-based online shooter is not only being made on PCs, for machines bearing an uncanny resemblance to PCs, but it's being made by Ubisoft Massive, a studio whose entire back catalogue has been released on PC.

“We'd always been talking about it,” executive producer Fredrik Rundqvist told me at Massive's Malmo offices. “We have lots of PC fans on the team. But this whole game was conceived and developed before we knew anything about next-gen consoles. Only in the last few months could we really see all the details of where consoles were going. Could we translate the experience onto PC, and give players a just as good or better experience? What would we need to adapt to make a meaningful PC version? That hasn't really been clear to us until the last couple of months. But we'd always been talking about it, dreaming about it. It's not an easy decision to make.”

That decision was made much easier by an online petition which collected over 140,000 signatures, proving once and for all to famously contentious publisher Ubisoft that a PC version would be worth the effort. “That's been incredible,” Rundqvist said. “We were extremely encouraged by all the fan feedback. If it's really 100,000-plus people signing that petition... it's really powerful stuff.”

Tom Clancy's The Division, then, is finally headed to PC, and that might just be its most natural home. This tactical, open-world, online RPG with- guns is being put together by a studio who made their name in the RTS genre with such games as World in Conflict and Ground Control. Prior to its E3 unveiling, the game was codenamed Rogue, a nod to World of Warcraft. Massive have spent the last three years steadily hiring people with MMO experience: heading the list is game director Ryan Barnard, who has spent almost his entire career working in the genre, with credits on games such as EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online.

Barnard isn't making an MMO, however, even though our conversation is peppered with vocabulary plucked from that genre's lexicon. Yes, The Division will have crafting and trading, PvP and PvE, skills and levelling, but it's clear that Massive's guiding principle isn't taking what works and trying to copy it, so much as looking at what doesn't and seeking to fix it. Take the skill system: Barnard is a fan of the MMO class trinity, but recognises it doesn't suit an online game that has been designed both for lone wolves and for squads of up to four. What if you partner up with three other Tanks?

Massive's solution is to make skills switchable on the fly. “The word we use internally is playstyles – we don't really talk about classes,” Barnard explains. “What it comes down to is a role: we want you to feel like you serve a purpose in the group. There are definite skill and talent directions that fit together, but none of them are locked in trees. You will be limited to how many you can purchase, and how many you can have loaded at a time, but you can swap them out at any time out of combat to change your role. By not forcing you to pick a class at the start, you get to figure out how you like to play, and you don't have to re-roll.”

This line of thinking runs through the development of The Division, though Barnard and team are being purposefully cagey about the finer details of a game the release of which is still a year away. He thinks PvP might be the game's 'silver bullet'; he won't go into specifics about crafting but says “[it's] a special concern for me personally. I always think it's crap. It's either so complex that one percent of the player base does it, or so easy or meaningless that there's no point in doing it anyway. WoW hit something of a middle ground and I think it can very easily be improved upon.”

Let's focus, then, on what we do know. The Division is set in New York City three weeks after a viral outbreak has brought about the collapse of civilised society. That three-week timeline is crucial, as it means the collapse is still ongoing, and reversible, as head of communications Martin Hultberg explains. “Clancy units traditionally stop the threat from happening,” he says. “We thought, well, why don't we take it a little bit further and enter a mid-crisis situation where something did happen, and nobody managed to stop it? Our world is still very much alive: there are people, there are things happening, there are lights on in the city. I wouldn't say the city was dying, but it's very sick. There's still hope.”

It's a setup that requires a different approach to world design. New York is in chaos, sure, but not in ruins; it has to be at once familiar and unrecognisable. It will also change over time depending on your actions, or lack of them. You might restore order in one part of the city, but an ignored area will deteriorate. That, Hultberg admits, has a knock-on effect on storytelling: how do you handle narrative when regions will be in different states when players reach them?

“We're not going at it with a linear approach,” he says. “The game is about exploration, investigation – in a more traditional sense, adventuring. You have to allow players to go wherever and do whatever in any order they want, so that also requires a different type of storytelling. We want everybody to be able to experience different things, and have their own The Division story.”

Barnard is no less enigmatic, speaking of “an emergent storytelling layer” that is told not through quests, but rather plot threads, which won't be delivered by NPCs but discovered by players. “It's about being able to have a major story arc that allows you to pick and choose where you go in New York, which tells different parts of the story but which has threads which are always leading you in a direction. Because it's an investigation.”

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