The Division: An RPG In Shooter’s Clothing

I’ll be honest, I hadn’t been paying all that much attention to The Division before E3 this year. I’d seen a couple of video clips and skimmed through a few early previews after its announcement and I’d decided that it could be safely filed away as “another third person, cover-based shooter”, so that I didn’t have to think about it too much until closer to the release date. I was wrong.

The Division is ostensibly a third person cover-based shooter but it’s actually so much more than that. It’s a proper Action RPG. Not just in the way many shooters have dabbled in upgrading skills and choosing classes, either. The Division is a proper RPG, dressed in a shooter’s clothes. It has complex skill trees and points for specific play styles that allow you to progress your character’s skills. It was much more in depth than I expected and even a little too complex to get a complete picture within a brief demonstration.

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This genre-stretching game is set in New York City following the outbreak and spread of a disease that has brought the entire US crashing to a post-apocalyptic halt. You play as one member of the eponymous Division, a government task force with the presidential mandate to salvage what they can of the crashing civilisation, by any means possible.

The scale of the game was one of the most impressive things during the hands-off demo we were guided through. Being New York, there’s plenty of verticality to make use of and the developers were keen to point out that the gameplay areas go from rooftops to the underground, with plenty of choice in what route to take and multiple paths through areas. Some of those areas might still be contaminated too, so there’s the added element of needing specific equipment – a gas mask in this case – to make it through particular areas.

Each area has a status based on its security, contagion and morale levels that you should be aiming to counteract in order to liberate an area of the map and make it safer for you to travel through, or yield some kind of benefit to your team, such as the base of operations that was unlocked in this demo.

There’s a nifty Echo ability that allows you to ping up a wireframe memory of events in an area, complete with audio. The instance we were shown was a subway train platform packed with refugees attempting to flee the city, all rendered in orange vectors. It looks impressive enough in itself but the extra depth this little slice of recent history can add to your empathy for the dying city and the citizens who fled it – or died trying – might end up being a very powerful narrative tool too.

The combat on show was quite tactical, squad based fare. There was an emphasis on the four-player cooperative side of things, with plenty of coordination taking place that saw players flanking and providing covering or distracting fire for each other (and AI doing a really impressive job of trying to tactically repel the attack, too). The four players were taking cover and moving up between tactical points as the enemies called in reinforcements and an extra player used the companion app to control a drone that could fire tear gas and tag targets for the ground troops.

Once the base of operations is liberated and you have taken control, it becomes possible to add modules to it – in much the same as in the recent XCOM games – that give you particular bonuses and benefits. Restoring power to buildings yields plenty of loot for your squad but upgrading a base seems like it will provide a much more solid foundation from which to continue your overall quest of bringing the city back to order.

There were some great visual effects on show too – the fire was particularly satisfying and the smoke and gas effects looked impressive too. This is all part of the package for those of us who yearn for something to really show off our latest generation consoles or high end PCs, but even in terms of gameplay the fancy visual effects add an extra layer of satisfaction to the use of the game’s interesting, near-future weaponry.

Auto-turrets that shoot fire at the enemy to distract them and seeker mines that scurry towards an enemy before exploding into a shower of smaller explosives don’t just do a good job of showing that there will be plenty of eye candy while you play, but also that there will be a range of options open to you when tackling your objectives.

So, The Division was a surprise to me, not simply because it showed a bit more than the average squad-based, third person cover shooter, but because its developers have clearly used the familiar setting and the liberty of a near-future timeframe to build an engaging and interesting world that offers you plenty of freedom in how you approach it.

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14 Comments

  1. Interesting to see how this has morphed our perceptions of a game where we go in thinking one thing and leave thinking another.

    Still very excited by this title and your insight only offers further proof that this is shaping up to be a corker of a game. Cheers, Peter. :-)

  2. Sounds excellent, like Peter I hadn’t paid much attention to this but now it’s well and truly on my radar. I do think these articles often miss a little info box though that shows devs, publishers, platforms etc. Sorry it’s one of those things I just keep going on about but it’s information on one little place people would find interesting.

    • Like the one at the top right or more info in that box?

      • Ah, I view tsa on my phone 99.99% of the time so perhaps it’s there on full Web browser view but not on mobile view?

      • Ah, bugger. T’would be nice to see it (as a small panel) just before you dive into the proper text so you know whether to continue or not. A fine point.

      • Tony, it’s below the advert, below the comments, on mobiles.

        Love this article because this is exactly what I was hoping the division would be. Something I can lose hours to without becoming bored. Only a year and a bit to wait… :(

      • Omg cnutard you’re absolutely right! You know I’ve never scrolled that far down before? Lol. Brilliant idea including that info box, whose brainwave was that?

      • I think you lot complained about it often enough that we had to add it. ;)

      • It’s as if you guys actually listen to us! :-P

  3. Have followed this game from the beginning. I love that fact that you can come across an area in a different state of decay than another player, depending on when you both visit it.

    My only concern is that the visuals might end up being toned down (as with Watch_Dogs) by the time it is released.

    • I think they’ve already said it wont look as food as the trailers/demos they’ve previously shown. Wish I could remember where I saw that, don’t think it was on TSA.

      I know they’ve said the PC version will be restricted (just like watch underscore dogs was) so it’s impossible for the PC version to look better than the consoles. Very annoying.

      • Mmmmmm, food. (“good”, obviously)

      • Seems odd. And very disappointing they tease us with these version that’ll never look as good :(

  4. This was one of the biggest games for me after last years E3 (jeez, was it that long ago?) and while it’s good to hear it being fleshed out, my enthusiasm for it has reduced to safely filed away as “another Ubisoft open world game”, so that I don’t have to think about it too much until closer to the release date.

    My biggest fear, apart from the graphics being toned down is that it will be crammed into the standard Ubisoft template, like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Watch Dogs were. If there are towers or buildings dotted around the city that have to be scaled or hacked or captured, whatever, in order to unlock collectibles and side missions in the area, then I’m out. It almost ruined Watch Dogs for me.

    I can see the formula now and it’s all the same.

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