It's clear the developers of The Division 2 have a long list of the grievances people had with first game, even though many of those problems were patched out during the game's radical post-launch improvement.
That wasn't enough, and now they're really pouring on the charm while making a sequel that is impressive to play here at E3.
Here's the E3 demo in action with me at the controls. We're playing a "control point" mission in which we clear an area so that civilians can set up camp.
The last Division was a drab shared-world cover-based shooter. This game is colourful shared-world cover-based shooter.
The last game launched with a disappointing end-game. For this one, the developers from the game's main studio, Sweden-based Massive, and partner studios such as North-Carolina-based Red Storm, are telling people during E3 briefings that they are putting "end-game first".
The last game had three paid expansions of questionable value that added new modes but didn't expand the story. The new game, Ubisoft promises, will have three free episodes in its first year that expand on the game's story and add more activities. Each will be preceded by title updates and world events.
The last game's enemies were bullet sponges. This game has heavies whose yellow health bars are initially obscured by a white grid, indicating they are wearing armour that can be gradually shot off to help players discern that they are making progress.
Here's a batch of promises that the game's associate creative director, Chadi El-Zibaoui, rattled off during a demo of the game this morning:
- "Our end-game for The Division is going to be an accessible, deep and varied gear game," he said.
- "Of course we can experience the whole game in solo. But it really starts shining when you play with a group of players."
- "We want the activities to always be rewarding. So we will always acknowledge the time that you spent on an activity and will reward you accordingly. Those activities will have clear goals."
- "We want you to be able to identify what activities you should jump in in order to progress as you want."
- "The endgame, people sometimes think is just for hardcore players, but we're committed to deliver on day one content for all of our players."
- "And when you complete the content we're saving an inventory slot for you to be able to showcase your greatest feats in the games to other players."
The big sequel, slated for release next March, moves the series storyline ahead seven months, from the winter in New York City right after a chemical weapons attack to the summer in Washington DC. It's hot and the city is both battered by factional strife and wracked by bad weather. Some parts are overgrown with vegetation while a heat wave smears the city.
New to the game are specialisation, special weapon-based classes of a sort that unlock after hitting the level-30 cap. I played as a sharpshooter, a specialisation unlocked after hitting the level 30 cap. That gave me a special sniper rifle. I also have an attack drone. Other players have other special weapons and gear, including the ability to create gas clouds that can be set on fire if you shoot them. Players can re-spec and aren't stuck with one specialisation forever.
"There's blistering hot east coast weather, I mean, come on," Terry Spier, one of the game's creative directors atRed Storm Entertainment told me. "Storms. Lightning. Thunder. Rain." That's all in there? "Oh yeah!"
(A note about Spier, by the way. The man was very excited when we chatted. I praised the game's big post-release improvements, specifically the recent 1.8 patch and he thrust his arms in the air, doing the heavy metal devil horns hand thing. He's an excitable guy.)
The map is bigger than the first game's by about 20 per cent according to El-Zibaoui. He said the game will have several types of environments or biomes - commercial areas and residential areas like the first game had, but also overgrown jungle-like areas, governmental areas, the suburbs of Georgetown, and the Washington Mall.
"It's an almost one-to-one recreation of a city using real data," El-Zibaoui said. "If you know the city, you'll be able to find your bearings."
Fan-pleasing only goes so far, so right now the developers don't want to say much about story. I asked about the first game's nemesis, Aaron Keener. "I love that guy," Spier said. Is our old mentor character from the first game, Faye Lau, out of the sling? "Poor Faye," he said.
Then he added: "We are telling a new story this time, right? It is seven months after the green poison. You are an agent activated before the time of Division 2. From a narrative standpoint you are not a noob. You've been through some shit. You get the call from DC. 'SOS!' You go there and find DC, and bad things are happening there.
"I won't give you the whole storyline, OK. DC is on the verge of collapse. You find factions all over the place and they're all fighting for control over DC and fighting for resources that are left there. And they're preying on the civilians, so that's the first thing you need to take care of."
Civilians are more than the shuffling survivors asking for bottles of water that they were in the first game. The Division 2's DC appears to be filled with civilian encampments, and the player is apparently encouraged to help them.
"The living world is a big aspect of it," Spier said. "There are settlements of civilians and they all have needs. As you assist them, as they progress toward recovery, you'll see that represented in the world, their recovery." Would structures change? "You will definitely see changes in the world," he said, going no further.
The game's E3 demo is set up in an area near the crashed Air Force One. That zone is considered a "control point", an area enemies will initially hold but that can be seized by players. As players do that, civilians will come in to assist. If a special civilian survives then they take up position and request supplies. Give them supplies and that somehow affects the rebuilding.
A glimpse of the game at yesterday's Xbox press conference included a mention of "theatre resources", but Spier didn't want to elaborate on that or anything else players might be rebuilding.
Control points that players free for civilians can still be overrun by enemies again, shades of those bases in Far Cry that players could never quite keep cleared. Could that be frustrating?
"The impact of what happens will vary based on the activity," he said. "You will see lasting changes based on your actions, and in some cases those changes can be reverted by the enemy factions."
There is a PvE/PvP Dark Zone in the new game. Spier wouldn't talk much about it. "Secrets!" he said in a whisper.
Oh, but is there a player base of operations as there was in the first game? Sure, Spier said. Will it be a landmark? "Secrets!"
Will there be more great audio logs? "The storytelling in the game will definitely be present."
The first game's excellent, free 1.8 update late last year introduced a new way for PvE to work in that game, generating new missions for solo players repeatedly to keep them entertained. It seemed like a preview of what was to come, and Spier confirmed that it would carry into the new game.
"If PvE is your focus, there's going to be a lot of that dynamic happening in the whole world."
To be more serious for a moment, Spier and I talked about the series' politics. The first game clearly presents the player as a good guy, one of many American sleeper agents activated to keep the peace in the event of a national disaster.
Some of the enemies in the game are unambiguously evil, though others seem like they're just trying to survive and are looting their way through the city to do so. They may not be angels, but maybe they're not people to shoot first with no due process. I wondered if Spier had heard this feedback and whether it informed the political vibe and approach to the enemies in the new game.
"I think it's important to remember that it's a Clancy game and Clancy is always predicated on clear and present danger," Spier said.
"Not the specific book but just that premise. Once you're past that and step into the fiction of, OK, now what are we pretending? Green poison is what we were pretending. So, the goal isn't to make a political statement. It's not to reflect on any of the things that are happening in the current world, in the live world. It's truly: You are here to rebuild."
But if some players felt weird about the kind of enemies they were fighting in the first game, could the developers sympathise with that point of view and apply a different design to the enemies in the second game?
"The goal is definitely to unite," Spier said. "And build DC. We're working hard to make sure that factions feel like enemies and good guys feel like good guys and bring everybody together and bring this sort of tyranny these factions are holding over DC - they're all locked in a power struggle, because they all want it. You'll be able to feel that.
There does seem to be more attention paid to the idea of rebuilding society in the game. We'll see how it shapes up. The themes may be tricky. The mechanics, however, are already in good shape.
What's at E3 is fun to play, and what's mapped for the future seems engaging for this Destiny kind of game. The plan this time around is better. The execution begins next March.