It's not without a certain sense of déjà vu that we include Massive's The Division in our selection for 2015's most anticipated games. The extremely ambitious game was among a long string of high profile titles that were pushed back and realistically we won't see The Division until the end of 2015.
During 2014 we learned more about what Massive are trying to achieve with The Division. We learned of how an area transforms as a result of the dynamic day and night cycle and the procedurally generated content. We learned more about the PvP component of the game. Most importantly the developer spent the year really fleshing out the content and building on the stunning foundation their new Snowdrop Engine offers.
There are many pillars that hold up the concept. There is the city - New York - the scene for many games, but we've never seen it quite like this, a few days on from a major world event and fast descending into a state of anarchy. The designer sees it as a city of three levels - below group (subways, maintenance tunnels), ground level (with streets and parks, inside buildings), and up top in the many towering buildings that make up the iconic skyline. There is the idea of co-operating in small groups assigned to try and bring back order to the city. There is the fantastic display of details and technical delights - effects and neat tricks we've barely seen in cinematic single-player experiences, let alone in expansive multiplayer offerings. There's Tom Clancy. Something we often forget when talking about this game, but the Tom Clancy universe offers a lot and while the scenario is new, there's still a sense of familiarity here.
As you'd expect from a massive AAA release like The Division that was announced in 2013, there was plenty of media and interview opportunities during the calendar year. At E3 we were privy to a "Manhattan Gameplay Demo" (see below) where the meat and potatoes of The Division's mission structure was laid bare.
Also at E3, we ran into game director Ryan Bernard who said they wanted to avoid the feeling of "Groundhog Day" you often find in MMO titles, nothing ever changes and moving across the same area over and over becomes overly repetitive.
"I can't go into super detail on that," Bernard told us. "Think of it more, of course you want to see your effect as you're taking back New York and restoring the city, but also we are taking great pains to make sure the game doesn't feel like groundhog day."
"In open world games you spend a lot of time moving back and forth through the same areas, especially in games where you level to a maximum level, and so creating systems where that content can be changing - based on time of day, based on weather, based on your location - having that variety is really important replay value, for having it feel different from session to session."
For the Gamescom demo (played on Xbox One) Massive wanted to show off how very different the same area (seen at E3) appeared at night (and a bit earlier on in the game). We talked to executive producer Fredrik Rundqvist about that and much more.
"We don't want the game to necessarily be your traditional linear story-driven game, but rather a full open world that you can explore as you want. And for that to be exciting you really need the world to be dynamic. Things are going on even if you're not around. So it's not like a scene starts to play when you turn the corner. You actually have different factions in the city. You have wild-life. You have weather. You have time of day. Everything is interacting the whole time and you're kind of just inserting yourself into that living world. We think that brings the game to a whole new realistic level and I don't think you can really fake that it really has to be dynamic systems that plays out as real as possible."
In some ways The Division is unique in its genre mix, but that's not to say there isn't competition out there. There is, naturally, Rainbox Six: Siege in the "Tom Clancy space", even if it offers a very different experience. This comeback appears to be an attempt to both bring back some of the fundamentals of the tactical shooter series, while naturally also progressing it. So far, we've mainly seen multiplayer so it's difficult to say just how closely (if it all) the mission to mission gameplay will resemble that of The Division.
Another way of looking at The Division's competition would be to look at things like Rust, DayZ and H1Z1 - sandbox survival open-world online experiences. But while there are some elements in common with The Division - it's not like they can easily be compared side by side. In many ways, if Massive delivers on the great promise that is The Division, it's fair to say it's a game that will carve out a niche of its own.