This open-world RPG-shooter was this year’s Watch Dogs at E3: the big Ubisoft surprise no one saw coming. Swedish studio Ubisoft Massive worked on Far Cry 3’s multiplayer mode, but while that was a hived-off addition to Ubi Montreal’s tropical open-world game, The Division has been built from the ground up with multiplayer in mind.
The titular group is a government agency set up to deal with the fallout from a pandemic, based on a 2001 real-world study that revealed just how quickly America would fall apart. Years later, it comes to pass: an outbreak on Black Friday, the busiest US shopping day of the year, wreaks chaos within days. Players are dropped into New York City three weeks after the outbreak, and it’s in tatters. It’s still beautiful, Massive’s new Snowdrop engine helping create a recognisable, believable Big Apple in midwinter, with swirling snowflakes ticking the E3 particle-effects checkbox, and steam billowing out of vents and manhole covers. When we head indoors, the use of light and shadow is remarkable, powered by dynamic global illumination, a truly next-gen technique; current consoles have no problem lighting a static scene, but open a door and everything goes to pot. The tricks don’t end there, either. There’s no map screen – an augmented-reality overlay of the area appears beneath your feet. Menus, meanwhile, are a virtual pop-up from your agent’s wristwatch.
Mechanically, this is a tactical, thirdperson cover shooter that rewards teamwork – very much in the Clancy mould. Following the template set down by Assassin’s Creed’s viewpoints and Far Cry 3’s outposts, here you’re tasked with restoring a police station before you can begin work on the surrounding area. We free a couple of cops who have been locked up in their own cells, scavenge some food and water for ourselves, and head back outside.
Unusually for an online shooter, but appropriately for a nation in ruins, The Division has no class system. Instead players will pick specialisms and loadouts as they progress, but can change them at any time. The demo’s three characters take on the classic trinity setup – heavy, assault, support – but at one point switch roles on the fly.
If there’s one note of disappointment, it’s that The Division hasn’t yet been confirmed for PC, raising worrying questions about Ubisoft’s attitude to the platform. But while this year’s E3 hardly lacked open-world games, online shooters, or paranoid cautionary tales about the collapse of US society, The Division still stood out among them.