At a Glance: Tom Clancy's The Division A Pixelated View

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Jun
11

At a Glance: Tom Clancy’s The Division

What if you woke up one day to the sudden realization that your once idealistic lifestyle had been irrevocably swept away? One that had been undone by something so small, so insignificant in its appearance as to be unseen by the naked eye; but something so potent that could render entire governments ineffective, entire civilizations extinct, and topple entire nations in days…… or even hours?

What if it happened tomorrow, or in the time it takes to read this article? What if it was happening right now, even as we speak? Would you be prepared to face that future? Would you know what to do to in order to survive? Would you hope and pray for the best; or would you use this event  to unleash anarchy that was pushing roughshod over the world you once knew?

What if you were one of the few designed to react and protect society against just such an event? Tasked with bringing order to chaos, law to the lawless, and steer civilization away from the inevitable apocalypse. A person who had the authority to do whatever was necessary to protect this way of life.

As much as I’d like to think that all of this would make for some fanciful tale in a book of fiction, the fact that our own government has just such a plan in place in the real world is less comforting, and more disturbing, than it should be.

Currently being worked on by Ubisoft, Tom Clancy’s The Division will allow players to experience a world in which past stalwart Clancy heroes, the Ghosts and Rainbow Six teams for example, fail to save the world from impending doom. Oddly, as much as that might make for exciting post apocalyptica-like fiction, the actual reality is that our own government has plans already in place for just such an event if it should ever comes to pass.

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“A couple of years ago the American government conducted an exercise called Dark Winter,” said Ubisoft Massive MD David Polfeldt. “[It] was an exercise where they simulated a pandemic in a city, and they asked the fire department, the law enforcement, and the hospitals etc. to play out the simulation and to see what would happen.

“To everybody’s horror…. they realized they have no chance to stop everything spiraling completely out of control. So within four or five days they would lose control over the normal infrastructure of society. And there would be no water in the taps, no electricity, no food in the stores, and then eventually people get desperate, everyone with a gun is a problem, and so on….We started to explore that theme, and as it turned out there’s a lot of reality behind it which makes it really interesting.”

The Division tasks you as a sleeper agent, ordered into service to help stabilize the city of Manhattan after a-still-unknown terrorist cell unleashes a viral pandemic on an unsuspecting populous; and in order to do the game justice on such a wide-ranging scale as they’re proposing, a new engine was implemented to help Ubisoft and Massive Ent. achieve that goal. That engine is called Snowdrop.

Created by Massive, the engine’s use of high res texturing for such mundane items as chipped door frames, half-destroyed cars, and in the way your character realistically interacts with the world around them, almost begins to blur the line between fantasy and reality. For example, in the early E3 demo, the engine showed your agent during an attack at police station where your agent takes cover behind a car.

As he moved along the perimeter of his makeshift cover, dodging potentially deadly gunfire from the upper windows of the overtaken station, he puts out his hand to close the still partially open door. It comes across at first as a tiny and meaningless detail, but cumulative with all the other little details that the engine adds in, this seemingly insignificant nuance adds almost immediately to the sense of personal immersion.

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One of the key themes of this new generation of gaming is its desire to blur the lines between single and multi-player gaming, and The Division seems to do so in a particularly elegant way, allowing you to choose the kind of experience you want based purely on where you go and what missions you take. But just so it’s made clear, the game can and will support solo gaming, which is something that many players might be confused about.

But if you ask Mr. Polfeldt, you’d be missing out on so much in what the game could offer you. “To me it’s like saying ‘can I play World of Warcraft offline?’, and I guess we could fill it with AI and it would be the same game, but it’s never the same game. I can’t think of any other meaningful way to play the game,” he says. “But it’s interesting that technically it wouldn’t have to be. To me, all the interesting things happen because you’re in a place with other players as well. I mean I loved Skyrim; it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. But I missed being able to play it with other people.

“That’s the only thing I missed with the game. I thought it was great, but my son was playing it on another floor on another PlayStation, and I was downstairs playing it, so we were both playing it at the same time and we could never do anything together. It just annoyed me, it’s just so stupid that it’s such a great game and you can never meet anybody else in that world. I think in my head that it’s the connection that makes the game really interesting.”

Another fascinating aspect of the game is that it’s being touted as an RPG, which is something that many players may not be familiar with, considering that past Clancy games have been deeply stylized military-centric shooters. “The Division is an RPG, so we really want the player to feel unique; there will be tons of possibilities to customize your agent (thousands of weapon types, skill combinations, gear and much more),” says Game Director Ryan Barnard.

“We are an RPG first and foremost. So the emphasis for the game is definitely on skill/talent synergies along with your weapon characteristics. We are a Clancy game, we are also an open-world game but really we’re an RPG first. Gear will be important, levels will be important, modifications to weapons will be important. Everything that makes a fantastic RPG will be important to the game.”

Early screenshots have also revealed some subtle, and not-so-subtle futuristic toys for your agent to play with; but both Barnard and Ubisoft have stated that they intend to try to keep it as realistic as possible. “We don’t specify a year [that the game happens in]“, Bernard says. “The setting is the ‘near future.’ It’s a Clancy game so it’s definitely grounded in reality, but we’re using all the wiggle room we can in order to try to create the world we want.

“For me I would say make sure you set the scope of the game correctly: It has to be big but also possible, and that’s a fine line to walk. Recently we announced the game for PC, so really the way we look at it now is that we have three games. We have an Xbox One, PS4 and PC game, each of which we are developing for. We can’t just port to PC; we are building all of these games simultaneously and it’s a huge undertaking. But having said that, we have a fantastic team at Massive and we’ll be working with some other studios at Ubisoft to get the job done.”

One of the key aspects that Ubisoft and Massive hope to seamlessly integrate into the core gameplay is its use of secondary tablets and devices for players to utilize and interact with the game in ways previously thought impossible. While many new gen games are trying their hand with implementing tablets or smartphones in some way, The Division’s ambitious ideal is to allow another player to join in a battle as a drone; one that can do any number of things such as buff players with stat upgrades, target enemies in their HUD and, once a meter has built up, call in missile strikes and other offensive abilities ingratiates the game in embracing the idea that the multi-player aspect is a boon rather than a bane.

True, in the strictest sense of the word it is (and might simply be) a one-off gimmick, but the fact that you don’t have to be anywhere near the console for it to work, all you need is an Internet connection, it opens up a new world of possibilities for Division gamers. And while this might give Wii-U owners a sense of future hope to cling to, sadly that’s not going to happen, according to Division Producer Fredrik Runnquist. “Will it run on Wii U? No. No,” he says.

“But I think this idea of having a second screen has been progressing for many, many years now and so we initially made this design two or three years back with a prototype from before we started doing this game. And we talked to our engineers back then and they went crazy, they said ‘it’s impossible, this will never run on a tablet!’….. We’ll just keep pushing the next gen, and I think what you’ll see next year will be much more impressive than anything this year.”

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Probably the one ho-hum aspect to the game is its setting; New York. Many players are already lamenting on the fact that this is the umpteenth game in a modern setting where New York is, once again, best by the woes of evil intent. “The thing is that when you do research there are very few iconic locations in the world generally, that when you test it on people they always recognize,” says Production Director Peter Mannerfelt. “And we also wanted one of the Western world’s icons of modern society, so you can have the contrast between the society that forms after the pandemic and what you know. We wanted that to be very strong. So if you took an unknown city or a virtual city the impact of the game would be a lot less clear for people, I think.”

Overall however, the developers want the game to stand as a testament to Tom Clancy’s legacy, one that the iconic writer unfortunately did not live to see come to fruition. Mr. Clancy passed away on October 1, 2013 at the age of 66. And the heart, the meat, of a good story takes precedence above everything else; beyond the talk of new engines, new gaming initiatives with new gen consoles, and the ability to interact with the world in newer and potentially greater ways. It is the story that matters the most to the team.

“The content is emergent and at the heart of the game it is about the player’s choice,” says Barnard. “The stories behind how each player develops and grows will always be different, which makes this quite unique. The storyline is the storyline, but how you unravel it and how you get there is really up to you. A lot of what we’re trying to do…. was hint at the idea of discovery; it’s hugely important to the game. We will probably never reveal in full how the game works before we release it because really at the core of the game is the idea of discovery and exploration.”

Tom Clancy’s The Division is currently on track for a mid-to-late 2015 release, and is slated for Windows, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

Plenty of time to prepare for the apocalypse, if you ask me.

About Marcus Lawshe'