For all the backlash against Microsoft's now-repealed online requirement for Xbox One, the games industry remains sold on online games, with broadband-dependent titles among the biggest on show at this year's E3.
The Division - a show-stealing surprise from Ubisoft - is one of them, an online role-playing game in which you play a member of the titular group, a Spec Ops force battling for control of a pandemic-stricken New York. As we revealed a few months back, the basics look a bit like Clancy stablemate Splinter Cell, but this is a shared world, seeming full of human opponents, and the main story is shaped by the encounters you have with other players.
"Players want big, open worlds, they want online to be meaningful," says game director Ryan Bernard. "Everyone's hitting those buttons with the games that are coming out now. So you've got to have your hook for your game, and how we're handling player-vs-player is ours." The game is built around player factions, who battle AI and each other in an attempt to reclaim the city.
You start out with only three days' worth of food and weaponry; to get more, you'll need to head out into the city to complete missions, scavenge for new kit, or even build your own - any similarities to Skyrim are, we're told, entirely intentional and, like Skyrim, you can play the whole main story single-player. But this is something designed to be played with and against others; you can broadcast you're looking for chums, hook up with groups you meet wandering the debris-choked streets, or find them in designated safe zones.
Once teamed up, you can choose which missions you want to do. The fancy wireframe map shows a city overflowing with potential disaster, along with what appear to be areas held by rival teams; the demo mission is an "emergent" encounter liberating a police station overrun by AI-controlled felons. It's conventional enough, save the human-powered drone popping into help, but once secured, another group of players attacks, forcing an impromptu firefight in the extraction zone.
Friend or foe?
Ubisoft is being purposely vague about how player factions work, citing the year and a half remaining before the game comes out, but it's clear that this is a game in which other players are both the biggest threat and your best chance of survival. "The way player versus player gets meaningful is you need to have something to lose - it's not just a scorecard in a multiplayer map," says Bernard. "Another part of very good PvP is not knowing where the threat is coming from, not knowing who is the threat. We really want to play with that to enhance the experience."
This sounds not unlike PC hit DayZ, in which AI zombies are a big threat but human players are invariably lethal, so it'll be interesting to see how Ubisoft pairs this with a territory-capture system reminiscent of another PC stalwart, PlanetSide. The police station, once liberated, becomes a safe zone on the map for you and your team-mates; bigger, story-based missions have a similar effect, permanently restoring that part of the city - but other factions will be able to flip other locations back to their side, and Bernard says these encounters will add a personal touch to the overall narrative.
"Story is very important in an RPG, but we want it be a little bit different in this game. We want more emergent storytelling, so as you're out in the world and fighting these events, there'll be stories attached to that, which may lead you in to the greater narrative. It's a more personalised story, which can feed into a greater storyline."