Two years ago at E3 at the end of Ubisoft's press conference - something of a tradition these days, to end with a bang - The Division was revealed and ever since then, the hype has been tremendous. It may have missed its first few suggested release windows, but as it approaches launch (early next year - fingers crossed) we've finally gotten some proper hands-on with the E3 build on Xbox One. And while the visuals may not be quite as crisp as they were during that very first showing back in 2013, Ubisoft's open-world MMO shooter still impresses.
The game has a very specific feel to it. It's like a more tactical, realistic and skill-based take on the cover-based RPG shooter (if you wanted a reference point, perhaps you could say Mass Effect). So while twitch skills definitely come into play, they're not essential here. In fact, it was underlined several times during the session that The Division is actually a standard shooter with a few MMO features added on top for good measure.
One of the few major questions hanging over The Division has been its PvP experience, and this is something that we're now a bit clearer about thanks to our hands-on time with the game. Ubisoft Massive talked about the prospect of the Dark Zone, a quarantined walled-in section of central Manhattan where law and order no longer exists. It's a place where anarchy reigns, but at the same time this is where the best loot can be found, and it's also where you might just run in to other agents, some of whom may or may not be your friends.
Until we actually got to see how it works in practice, this had an air of 'pie in the sky' about it. The basic idea is that you take out enemies in order to secure loot. Said loot then needs to be taken to an extraction point. Once you have the loot (appearing on your character as a glowing yellow canister underneath your backpack) you become an interesting target for any player agent inclined to go rogue (the original codename for the project). Once you make the decision to attack another fireteam you go rogue, and you're marked as such with a red skull that all other agents can then see.
This in turns means that there is no penalty for other agents - they can subsequently shoot you without risking going rogue themselves. There's a nice risk-reward system in play here, and we can also see some fireteams hanging back waiting for other teams to commit to extractions or going rogue to pounce on unsuspecting and weakened teams.
Another thing to note is that if you go rogue and die, you lose your loot, potentially hours worth of valuable, precious, hard-earned loot - so greed can certainly get you in trouble inside the Dark Zone. Then again, for the very best players, there's tremendous potential to go rogue, take out other agents and gain their loot, in the process potentially grabbing a whole load of goodies.
Before we got to this contested PvP part of the demo we fought 'Cleaners' and 'Rikers' - the latter is a faction that was revealed at E3, and they consist of former inmates from Rikers Island. As you'd expect in a cover-based shooter, much of the tactics here involved flanking and circling enemies so that you could take them out from behind, as some units carried volatile containers on their backs (baddies never learn, do they?).
Teaming up in fireteams of three players for the demo, we were given a choice from typical pre-made builds, offering us the option to assume the role of either a medic, an assault, or if you prefer to tackle your opponents with a bit more distance between you, a sniper. We weren't given the opportunity to customise our character with skills (of which you choose and equip two), weapons and gear, but naturally that's something that will allow you to customise a character that fits with your preferred playstyle or the specific objective you're going for.
Now when you read that there's a sniper build you may think that you'll be hanging back, find higher ground, and taking out enemies from a far, but that's not really how you'll play The Division. You'll want to stick together in your fireteam. Our sniper build also has the Seeker Mine as an ability, deployed to keep your back safe and take out any advancing threat, which is excellent defence if you find yourself in a well-placed but ultimately vulnerable position. The build also sported a sticky bomb that you could throw and detonate remotely. The other characters builds came with skills like healing and a pulse that allows you to scan your surroundings - fans of Ubisoft's military shooters will have an idea of what to expect before they even pick up a pad.
One thing to note is that due to the brief nature of the demo, something that didn't come into play all that much is the fact that ammunition is going to be a resource you'll need to manage very carefully. You can certainly run out of ammunition for your primary and secondary weapons. However, your sidearm will always offer you something to work with, so you'll never risk running completely empty.
The presentation and HUD in The Division are a story all on their own. Whether it's your holographic map overlay, your inventory, or simply enemy indicators, it all gives off this air of near-future augmented reality. It actually lends authenticity and believability for some strange reason, but that's likely just a testament to it being well implemented. It's certainly an elegant system that fits the premise and adds to the overall experience; another well-implemented HUD in Ubisoft shooter then.
The demo we were allowed to sample was obviously very condensed, and clearly scripted in a way that rogue agents (played by developers) popped up to showcase just how dangerous an extraction can be. But the beauty of the Dark Zone is going to lie in the unpredictable, organic nature of the threats you encounter. Maybe your fireteam will team up with other players to take out a common threat. Maybe you'll continue to have each other's backs. Or maybe you'll turn on them or they'll turn on you. Or maybe someone is just waiting for you to turn on each other...