A closer look at the game's post-pandemic New York with its executive producer.
BY: TRISTAN OGILVIE
AUGUST 26, 2014
The vast metropolis of New York City is not a setting unfamiliar to gamers. We’ve swung around its skyline in Spider-Man’s suit several times over, explored streets inspired by the five boroughs in Rockstar’s Liberty City, and defended it from alien forces in the Crysis games to name just a few examples. But we’ve never experienced a Big Apple like the one featured in Massive Entertainment’s MMO-influenced shooter, The Division. Not only does it portray an eerily desolate Manhattan just weeks after the populace is largely wiped out by a weaponised virus, but it’s also set to feature an unprecedented amount of interiors to explore - from the towering heights of the city’s skyline down to a labyrinth of subterranean passages below.
We’ve set the bar so high visually, and we want the same level of detail and immersion everywhere, whether the player is outside or in an interior.
“It’s very dense,” explains executive producer, Fredrik Rundqvist. “We’ve set the bar so high visually, and we want the same level of detail and immersion everywhere, whether the player is outside or in an interior.”
“The underground of New York City is like Swiss cheese with subway tunnels, utility tunnels, and WWII bunkers. It’s just passages all over the place. They don’t even know exactly everything that’s down there! And you have people who go down there at night to explore the whole thing as though it was a cave system. We hooked up with one of those real life spelunkers and that was how we got the inspiration to open up this subterranean world.”
“So the environment in our game is kind of a juxtaposition between all the big tourist landmarks that everybody knows, and the underground New York City that nobody’s seen. And that’s a pretty exciting space to explore.”
There are comparisons to be made between The Division’s NYC and that of the setting in the Will Smith film, I Am Legend (a movie that Rundqvist claims he and his team have “probably watched more than ten times” during the game’s production). Unlike the film, which is set some three years after a virus outbreak, the landscape of The Division still feels lived in as its inhabitants have only just departed a few weeks earlier.
Accentuating this feeling of life despite the desolation is the game’s ECHO system. Using data mined from surveillance cameras, discarded smartphones and the like, the player’s smartwatch is able to project 3D holograms of prior moments frozen in time. It’s in these moments that the player is free to walk around and explore amid the digital ghosts - kind of like a wireframe version of one of Quantum Break’s ‘time stutters’.
“We didn’t want to use cutscenes to tell stories since our game is so co-op focused, and taking the camera control away from the players would have totally broken the immersion,” explains Rudqvist. “ECHO is a more emotional way for us to tell stories about how the collapse happened, how certain missions and events came to be what they are.”
“But we also use ECHOs for gameplay. We use them to show the player hidden loot, or access to hidden passages, and they can also provide clues to solving some of our missing person missions.”
ECHOs evoke some remnants of life in otherwise desolate areas.
This is not to say that all of the inhabitants of The Division’s Manhattan setting will be holograms. Throughout the city will be little pockets of the remnants of civilisation, as well as the rival factions and other human-controlled squads ready to team up with you, or take you down.
“We have a very dynamic, living world,” continues Rundqvist. “You need a world that’s exciting on its own even when the player is not really doing anything. So we have dynamically changing weather, a full day/night cycle, wildlife and civilians, and different archetypes within each faction. All of these systems interact with each other and react to each other.
“Imagine that you’re alone in Manhattan and the sun sets and it goes dark. You get shot at but you can’t see where the shot came from. You hear a big f###ing dog somewhere barking and closing in on you. You’re trying to get your scanner out to see where the threats are around you and you hear other people approaching you… It’s incredibly immersive, and it feels like a real living world.”
Or a real dying world, as the virus-stricken case may be. While Mammoth is yet to actually put the game in the hands of the media, the development team has assured us that The Division will be a very challenging experience. Apparently it will be more like Day-Z in terms of its heavy focus on survival and the scavenging of items from abandoned cars, businesses and homes for use in the game’s crafting system. Alleviating the oppressive focus on scrounging and player endurance are the game’s bases of operation, which are dedicated structures dotted around Manhattan that can be liberated by force and claimed as the player’s own.
“On a conceptual level, I like to explain the bases of operation as being your foothold in the wild; your safehouse,” explains Rundqvist. “But it’s a lot more than that. There are activities in the base of operations that will help you to further your own character, as well as progress the district itself. We divided the game’s New York City into different districts, and each district has a base of operations attached to it.”
An example of one of the game's bases of operation is the massive post office building opposite Madison Square Garden.
Once a base of operations has been acquired, players will be able to do trading there, socialise with other players, access an armoury and a medical clinic, as well as various other activities and features that the developer is not willing to discuss just yet.
Certainly there’s still a huge amount to learn about The Division; the team at Massive has kept its cards pretty close to its chest to date and information has leaked in a trickle rather than a flood. The game’s behind closed doors demos at both this year’s E3 and Gamescom were identical 20 minute chunks of the game, with the only difference being that the former was shown on PC and the latter on Xbox One (which incidentally, seemed to handle the game’s gorgeous Snowdrop engine remarkably well). With publisher Ubisoft's focus likely to lock in on its Christmas line-up for the remainder of the year, it's unknown when we'll next be able to check in with the progress of Massive's ambitious MMO shooter.
But if the team can pull it all together then The Division could well be a triumph, with the massive scale and high fidelity of its open world, suitably Tom Clancy-esque suite of techno-weaponry and second-screen drone support play, complex RPG systems and an approach to multiplayer that appears to blend PvE and PvP seamlessly rather than section them off in separate modes like Bungie’s Destiny. It will be in bridging all of these elements that will determine if this is a Division that can come together, and we’ll hopefully know more ahead of its arrival in 2015.
Sourced Via IGN