Tom Clancy’s The Division – Preview

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t began with huge a movement of people through the streets. Then came reports of violence; stampeding crowds. Several people caught in the rush suffer horrible injuries – some even die – but the crowds continue; an uncaring, unstoppable surge.

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These are the stories we hear every year when Black Friday rolls around. It was perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, then, that Ubisoft chose to set Tom Clancy’s The Division in the aftermath of a viral outbreak that began on this disturbing celebration of retail. Due for release on 8 March, Ubisoft ran a closed beta test of at the end of January, and I was lucky enough to be invited.

The Division is an online-only open-world role-playing third-person cover-based shooter *gasp* with survival elements (If that’s just gobbledegook to you, think Fallout meets Day Z). You play as a member of The Division: a group of specially-trained sleeper agents trained for disaster response. Your task is to set about restoring peace and order to the city of New York, which has sunk into chaos and is ruled by marauding thugs.

Being honest, I wasn’t inspired by what I had heard about The Division; cover based shooters hold little appeal to me. The brilliance of Spec Ops: The Line was only diminished by its sketchy gameplay mechanics, and online-only games will always face population issues sooner or later. Also, the trailer freely interchanges “New York” and “human- kind” when discussing the spread of the virus. However, RPG shooters have been a happy hunting ground to high quality titles – most notably in Fallout, The Elder Scrolls and Far Cry – so there’s hope yet.

Being honest, I wasn’t inspired by what I had heard about The Division; cover based shooters hold little appeal to me. The brilliance of Spec Ops: The Line was only diminished by its sketchy gameplay mechanics, and online-only games will always face population issues sooner or later.

To keep some surprises back for full release, Ubisoft simplified character creation, and removed all but a couple of missions from the beta version. So it was that I was thrown into a helicopter with a gravely-injured but very professional colleague. She patched me up and gave a fairly emotionless speech about my job, before I was set loose in a safe zone near the edge of Manhattan. From there I ran to assist the base of operations, the central hub for the story, and then was sent on a couple of simple shoot-the-baddies missions. That was about it for available plot: it appears to be a case of recovering supplies, people and territory by shooting anyone in a balaclava.

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There was, however, ample opportunity to test out the open nature of the game. Encounters appear on your in-game map, and you can fight alongside fellow players to a combined end. The cover-mechanics are very well designed, but I do hope to be fighting something more threatening than a scrawny gangster with a baseball bat later in the game. The HUD is well executed, if a little crowded, and the simple colour schemes deployed for objectives help streamline your actions. The game world is very detailed – every environment is well filled and item-hunting quests may actually pose something of a challenge for once. The hardware requirements are pretty steep on a student budget, but the new Snowdrop game engine seems to handle the expansive environment well.

What caught me most by surprise was the inclusion of an echo recording in a small medical tent. Quite easy to overlook, the device activated a holographic recording of events near the start of the outbreak, and added some much needed intrigue to the experience, giving an insight into the slow collapse of order. It seems there may be more meat to the story than I was expecting.

The game world is very detailed – every environment is well filled and item-hunting quests may actually pose something of a challenge for once

For those of you who can only get off by killing other players, the city features a Dark Zone, home to multiplayer combat as well as the best loot. Getting out alive with anything to show for it promises to be near impossible; to extract items, you have to fire off a flare and then survive for 90 seconds as your helicopter comes to fetch you, holding off the local players who will no doubt be looking to take the best for themselves.

Overall I was impressed by what I saw of The Division. The gameplay seems solid, the mission tree is expansive and there are hints of another level of story beneath the surface, which might clarify the scale and depth of events taking place. Having been initially apathetic, I am now anxiously awaiting the full release, which could stake an early claim on Game of the Year. Only time will tell if the complexities of online only have been handled well, but The Division looks set to make waves.

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