8 Things We Just Learned from Playing The Division

12 minute read

There’s a maniac charging me with a bat, and I don’t know what to do. I’m fumbling with an Xbox controller, trying not to bungle my response and simultaneously transfixed by shrouds of falling snow. There’s my rifle and pistol, a clutch of grenades, a few med kits and a trove of other Bat-belt accessories. I still have only vague notions of what most of this stuff does.

Where’s the “riot shield” button? Oh right, it’s not a button, it’s a button hold. I bear down for a second on my gamepad’s right bumper until a giant protective slab made of who-knows-what materializes before me like a forcefield, repelling my assailant just in time. A few pistol shots later and he’s laid out. But now I’m caught gripping this shield like my other hand’s holding a live wire, trying to figure out how to let go. Where’s the “drop shield” button? Oh right, it’s not a button, it’s another button hold.

This is an early taste of The Division, Ubisoft’s newest open-world game for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One out Mar. 8. The Division is a third-person shooter in which you play as an army of one, trained to self-activate and grapple with the aftermath of a catastrophic bioterrorism attack. Imagine the smallpox virus interleaved with simple cash, a money plague that swiftly decimates the world population and leaves Manhattan—where the game takes place—reeling in the grip of chaotic factionalism.

I had a chance to take The Division for a spin on Feb. 3. It’s a beautiful post-crisis simulation, a high-fidelity realization of the island’s iconic midtown as seemingly vast as any of the experiences Ubisoft is known for. But it’s also stitched together by complex, tricky controls. If you’re playing with a gamepad, buttons can be tapped but also held down to summon a matrix of maneuvers that’ll require real finesse to master. That’s as intended, informed by the game’s elaborate roleplaying framework—yet another hero’s journey through a godforsaken urban apocalypse.

I had a chance to chat with Magnus Jansson, The Division‘s creative director, about some of that after playing the game. Here’s what he told me:

It’s definitely a roleplaying game

“For us it was always very natural, when we did a full-on new universe, almost, like a full new scenario, and we did this alternative reality, it felt very natural for us to create a new Clancy unit, which is a fictional unit just like the units in the Splinter Cell or Ghost Recon games. I think it’s more about what type of unit it was, and when doing a Clancy roleplaying game, the challenge is, okay, you start off rags to riches, you start off with nothing and you become more and more powerful, whereas normally these special forces units or these super-elite units, they have a super-functioning support system where they drop you down in a foreign country and you get all the best gear.

So in the universe of The Division resources are scarce and you’re just an everyday person without a helicopter filled with the best gear. And then you have to sort of live off the land and work and find things and scavenge. And that was a very nice fit with the roleplaying standards in video gaming where you start from nothing and then you have to find those things. It was a way to get the classical fantasy, the whole ‘I need to find magical swords hidden and craft things,’ which doesn’t make sense if you’re an elite unit that has a high-functioning support system. But if you’re an embedded person that’s cut off and has to fend for yourself, that really fits right into that roleplaying flow that you need in the game.”

And that genre, filtered through the Tom Clancy lens, defined the story and setting

“Usually gameplay comes first, and this is what happened in the case of this game. You go back to the start, and the idea was, can we do a roleplaying game, a real roleplaying game with a real power curve, where numbers matter and it’s not just that you unlock a few guns here and there? Can we do that in a plausible kind of Clancy environment? So that was the first thing, and we started working with the cover system, and said ‘Okay, yes, cover combat is definitely the way to get a tactical feel.’ And we started looking at the third-person and all those things.

So that came first, and then we started looking into what kind of world, what kind of universe, what kind of scenario would we be able to put this in. Very quickly, the realization came that we wanted something completely new. And then the idea of the pandemic, of the Black Friday event, and this aftermath situation, and how that was just a perfect setting for you to be this sheriff in the Wild West, and to really get that strong roleplaying hero feel going that’s so powerful in these games. So the setting came shortly after, but it was definitley a case of gameplay first.”

The studio worked deliberately to counter the “sterile” feel of so many online games

“What you just outlined is one of the biggest challenges I’ve tried to tackle with the game. If you have a fully online and shared game, there’s a tendency for it to have a Groundhog Day feel [referring to the 1993 Bill Murray film about a man forced to relive the same say endlessly], where nothing that you do matters, and you’re all in this public city, and everything looks exactly the same, it can’t move because it has to be the same for everyone.

We did a number of things. The biggest thing was that decision to make the base of operations such a huge part, and to make it personal to you. When you go into the base of operations, this is your space now, and it’s a reflection of your progress. So you walk in in the beginning, people are sick, they say ‘Ahh, Division agents, we’ve seen you before, you’re not going to survive long.’ And people are depressed and it’s dirty. And then as you start upgrading and helping them, the mood changes, the physical space changes, you get people watching movies, you get musicians in there, you get all the guys telling you you’re doing great work, Christmas decorations come in, and there’s an emotional, tangible proof of your achievements in taking back New York.

Another thing that we do, is when you’re in your world and running around, the civilians and people cheering you on, their mood and their attitude towards you, even the wildlife, even the dogs will behave slightly different towards the end when they’re more happy. So we tried to emphasize this feeling that when you’ve progressed in the campaign, the city is a little more whole, a little bit more forthcoming, and not as jittery or nervous as it was before.”

The story gets pretty dark

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, that’s one of the narrative themes, so you can take that any way you want. Another thing is, this kind of situation and this complete lawlessness does some very, very strange things to people. We’re not showing all the factions in the beta we just had or the build you’re playing. So there’s definitely some really, really dark places that some people go to, when basically all bets are off.

We’ve had a lot of fun with seeing what will man do, where in the dark heart of people when there’s no checks and balances from society, and it’s almost like… I constantly kept thinking of Leviathan. Without society, the law and the justice system, what happens to man, and we’ve taken that quite far, but you’ll have to play the full game to see for yourself.”

And it doesn’t shy from philosophical commentary

“We can always say ‘Well hey, it’s the bad guy that is making a comment and it’s not Ubisoft.’ But what shape do the riders of the apocalypse take? How will the end of the world come about? It’s something where you’re obviously making a statement when you’re picking that shape, whether it’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow man or whatever.

There are many, many interesting themes and sub-layers and subcontexts in the game. We talked a lot about Hobbes and about absolute power, and it’s one of the things that, yes, you can go in and you kill a lot of people for loot if you just want to frag it out, but if you want to go in and get into it, then obviously there’s a subtext.”

The game was delayed because of its complexity, but never rebooted

“The simple and boring answer [to a question about the game’s delay], and it’s not propaganda, is that it just took this long to do what we set out to do. There haven’t been any reboots or starting over. Just doing a whole new universe with merging cooperative play and the open-world, merging that also with the Dark Zone [a player versus player zone that connects without load times to the broader game world], which is a whole new set of gameplay ideas and rules, and all of that with the technical challenges, getting that to run beautifully on three platforms with a brand new engine, it just took more time than we anticipated.

Yes, we thought we were going to ship it a year ago, and we didn’t. But there was no turmoil, there’s no huge drama behind the scenes, it just took that long to complete the vision. And I’m very proud that if you look at the announcement, the original concept, everything we said we were going to do is spot on with what we’re delivering. And I’m very happy that we were allowed to take the time to fully realize it in terms of the frame rate, the visuals, the balancing, the online stuff, the way that it’s just very polished in my own humble opinion.”

Lone wolf players need not fear the game’s online hooks

“You don’t have to meet a single person unless you want to. This is another thing that’s really important to me. We want people to play with other people and we think that’s a lot of fun, but we’re going to use carrot and not stick to make that happen. You come in and it’s a beautiful game with a great story that’s gripping, and all of the trapping of a great single-player game with the full-on narrative and open world and you can go in and have a tremendously good time as a solo player, where the only place you’ll bump into other players is in the non-hostile social spaces ,where you can just walk past them if you like.

We are, when you play missions, letting you know periodically that you can play with others, but we’re not forcing you. You know, when you’re ready. And some people might never be ready. And the Dark Zone, which is this player versus player enabled space, that is completely, 100 percent optional. You can play the full game up to level 30 and then continue playing and have the so-called endgame where there’s lots of challenges and activities and goals to aspire to, even when you hit max level, and you get all of that even without having to go into the Dark Zone. So if you’re a single-player, and if you’re a multiplayer skeptic, then we’ve definitely made that this game, we’re not forcing that on you. We want you to explore it at your own pace.”

Writer Alex Irvine’s tie-in book is a game unto itself

“When I heard that somebody was going to go out and get a book deal, and let’s make a book to go together with the game, it was a little bit like ‘Yeah, many games do that, many big triple-A games have a book that comes out at roughly the same time as the game, and it ties in, but loosely.’ So when the concept was pitched, just the concept of that dual layer was very cool.

So immediately it felt like, ‘Well alright, somebody’s giving it more thought with this dual survival guide that’s also the story of April.’ But then, when we had the delay, we said ‘What if we can put some of this stuff into the game? Let’s take this time, get some of those story elements in, let’s get April to show up in the game, let’s hide some stuff that you can only find if you decode it.’ We put these people together with our own content creators, the people that make the missions, the people that make the narrative elements and micro-stories and rewards. It was a very simple thing to do, and I don’t want to give the competition any ideas, but it’s not a difficult thing to do. It’s a very natural thing to do.

Why did it happen? Because somebody thought to pick up the phone and ask. I think the reason you haven’t seen it before, is that these things are normally happened by some marketing or publishing department, and they’re silo’d. And here, because everybody loved the idea, the ear of the directors on the game were already involved in the book. So the connections were there, and that’s what enabled it to happen.”

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com