We've seen a surge in persistent-world games recently, with Destiny, The Crew and Dead Island 2 all blending singeplayer action with massively multiplayer online elements. Another title taking a similar approach is Ubisoft Massive's open world spy thriller Tom Clancy's The Division. I managed to track down art director Rodrigo Cortes at EGX last week to get the latest info on the post-apocalyptic shooter.
Strategy Informer: To start off, I was wondering why you chose to emulate so many aspects of the MMO genre with Tom Clancy's The Division?
Rodrigo Cortes: So we started this game many years ago, and now it's looking like a trend. But when we started, for us it was more the type of experiences we liked as gamers. All those shared moments, those water-cooler moments when you can talk about something cool that happened. Even now when I think about my favourite gaming moments, the best where those ones where I was with other people; things that weren't scripted, not cutscenes, just stuff that happened while we were playing together. So we wanted to have a game that had that, but at the same time we wanted a very tailored, cinematic, immersive experience. So the way we created the game was to take some parts from both – that's the reason we have four players in multiplayer, so you don't have loads and loads of people running around breaking your immersion. You don't want to be told that you're the special, chosen one and then see a bunch of other people running around. So that's the perfect mix for us, we love the online shared experience, but we want to immerse you in the world as well.
Strategy Informer: Is it difficult tying those emergent elements you mentioned in with a compelling story?
Rodrigo Cortes: It is tricky, but we've been working on different ways of telling the story. First of all, we don't want to take away the experience from the player. Many games you play someone else, you're controlling somebody else who might or might not do the things you want to do. In this game you create your character and it's your game, it's whoever you want to be and you play the way you want. Then we have narrative tools like the 'Echo' system which is like a recreation around you of a moment in time – instead of a cutscene you're always in the world, and you can look at things however you want, interact with things however you want, and it works very well for a multiplayer game. For example, if we were playing together and one of us goes in to a cinematic moment. What does everyone else do? Do you want to be teleported to a cutscene too? Or do you want to see someone just standing there, not doing anything while they're listening to the story? So we think we have the perfect balance for us, the perfect balance between immersion and telling a story.
Strategy Informer:The Division uses a classless system so that you can switch between setups when you need to. Can you also do that during missions?
Rodrigo Cortes: You can do it during missions, it's a little harder to do since there might be lots of people shooting at you, but you can do it. You might retreat a little bit, after you spot that your setup doesn't work for this encounter, and you can very quickly change things. The UI is very intuitive, so you can quickly change to a secondary set of skills to complete the challenge.
Strategy Informer: Any plans for a Call of Duty-style kit/outfit selection to make things easier?
Rodrigo Cortes: We're still working on some of the details of that, so I don't want to be too specific on how that's going to work.
Strategy Informer: If you're not set on multiplayer, how viable is it to play through The Division solo?
Rodrigo Cortes: The whole game can be played solo from beginning to end. You will see people at social hubs or PVP zones where there's a lot of people, but you can play through alone and you don't have to share that experience if you don't want to.
Strategy Informer: How does loot work in the game?
Rodrigo Cortes: So there is going to be loot, lots of it. You'll find them in stashes and from dead enemies, and it's a key component of the game. It's loot driven. Not to the extreme of something like Borderlands, but we want that nice thing where you go somewhere and you're hoping for this very special item that sometimes drops and sometimes doesn't, and you'll have all that.
Strategy Informer: Sometimes in games like this it's pretty pointless to group up with friends unless you make sure you're always at the exact same level, because you can't do any damage to higher-level enemies. How do you deal with that problem in The Division?
Rodrigo Cortes: There will be a level span, but... for example, since we're somewhat realistic in terms of the world in which the game is set, and the gameplay has realism in it, there's not going to be those moments in an MMORPG where you're standing next to someone shooting them in the head and nothing is happening. You can't shoot at them or do anything because they're too powerful and you're too low level. That won't happen in our game, you can still affect things and engage high-level players. It's going to be harder because you don't have those skills or gear, but you can do it.
Strategy Informer: I imagine there's a bunch of gadgets in the game. Can you give us any examples?
Rodrigo Cortes: Yeah, of course this being a Tom Clancy game, gadgets are very important. We did a lot of research on drones and modern technology, and we have all the stuff you'd expect like that, but we also have a wide variety of each of those items. So not only just guns, there's other things to find and use as well. All of these gadgets can be upgraded with different skills – for example we have the turret, and you can choose to use bullets like you saw in our first gameplay teaser, or a flame-thrower, which we showed off this year. That's just a couple of many different options you have.
Strategy Informer: Is there extensive cosmetic character customisation?
Rodrigo Cortes: There's going to be the initial character customisation, you can change how you look, what you're wearing, gender, race and so on. But on top of that there will be vanity items to find and buy, so you can make your character look the way you want to. Some will change your stats, and some will just be cosmetic items that change your look. We have plans to expand that, too.
Strategy Informer: What about mission variety? Will players have a wide range of different things to do?
Rodrigo Cortes: There is a wide range of things to do, I don't want to go into too much detail on those, but again you don’t want players to just be running around shooting guys all game. There will be many different things to do, and this being a world where civilians are mixed up in all this chaos along with soldiers and gangs, you've got a lot of things to think about.
Strategy Informer:The Division is largely set on Manhattan, but will we be heading anywhere else?
Rodrigo Cortes: Yes, the game is set in New York... we're not saying what else will happen, but it won't only be Manhattan. Most of it will take place there, but not all.
Strategy Informer: Will there be any world PvP in the game?
Rodrigo Cortes: There is open world PvP, but it's contained to certain areas. You know it's very clear when you're entering one of these areas, the game's going to warn you that you're actively entering these areas. It's not just PvP elements, you've got PvE elements too. Basically everything that happens outside these areas also happens within, but it's a lot harder and more dangerous, and you have PvP to worry about too.
Strategy Informer: Are there different factions involved in MP?
Rodrigo Cortes: We're waiting to tell some of the details of PvP later on, right now we're just hinting at it. There will be these areas I mentioned, and there are also areas calmed 'Dark Zones' in which you can take part in more PvP. But we don't want to say too much.
Strategy Informer: How about the various groups within the city? Can you tell us anything else about them?
Rodrigo Cortes: Again (laughs), I don't want to say too much. You've already seen the Cleaners, and there will be other groups and enemies for you to worry about. The game's set around about a month after this viral incident, and what we want to show is how quickly the collapse of society happens.
Strategy Informer: Because the game's based on a real-life theoretical exercise, Operation Dark Winter, right?
Rodrigo Cortes: Dark Winter, yeah. We took a look at a lot of the real-world examples, and this is only one of three or four simulations that have been done on how quickly the collapse can happen. So the timeframe, given how quickly the collapse can happen, is very realistic.
Strategy Informer: Okay, cool. How about endgame content? Will there be a lot for high-level players to do?
Rodrigo Cortes: There is going to be a lot of endgame content there for players, again I don't want to say too much on that, but we will be supporting the game heavily post-launch. So there's a lot of content coming to keep players happy.
Strategy Informer: How do you see The Division developing as a franchise? Is there a larger story to tell?
Rodrigo Cortes: This is only the first chapter in the story, it's not a one-off. Without wanting to give away too much, obviously, we want to expand on what we're making here. It's going to be very exciting to see where it goes.
Many thanks to Rodrgio Cortes for speaking to me. The Division was originally planned for release this year, but Ubisoft announced back in May that they'd pushed it back to 2015.