The premise of Tom Clancy’s The Division is, like so many other Tom Clancy games, pretty simple and pulled from reality. The basis of Ubisoft’s latest takes its inspiration from something called Operation Dark Winter.

Operation Dark Winter was a simulation run back in the summer of 2001 meant to investigate what the effects would be of a biochemical attack. The short version: it doesn’t go well. Everything falls apart, like that song from the 90s, but less catchy.

The slightly longer version is that our healthcare system, whatever your politics might be, isn’t suited to handle a mass outbreak, and things quickly spiral out of control. As the healthcare system bursts, government infrastructure begins to fail. People start to lose confidence in the government and mob violence breaks out. Media has a difficult time delivering information to the public as well  – just look at the recent ebola scares to see how that was handled.

The Division spawns from this idea. Society breaks down. What happens from there? This is where Ubisoft’s fiction begins. A group called the Strategic Homeland Division, or just “The Division,” as you might have guessed, takes over. These are sleeper agents trained to act independently in the interest of restoring order after a mass event like the smallpox outbreaks depicted in Operation Dark Winter and The Division.

The unrest that results from the breakdown makes up a lot of the moment to moment action in the game. We witnessed, through a combination of recorded and hands-on gameplay, three factions we’ll be going up against over the course of the game. There are more than three factions, though word on just how many was sparse.

The three we witnessed were the Rioters, the Rikers, and the Cleaners. The Rioters are exactly what you’d expect. Jerks in with guns, simply taking advantage of the chaos. The Rikers are prisoners who’ve escaped from the Rikers Island prison. Murderers, gang members, and others both ready for violence and willing to organize. The Cleaners are probably my favorite, at least conceptually, of those we witnessed. The Cleaners are blue collar workers – garbage men, construction workers, and the like, that have decided to take virus cleanup into their own hands. They wear intimidating gas masks, roll around in construction vehicles, and often wield flamethrowers. The other guys are just assholes, but the cleaners are almost creepy, and that in itself makes them more interesting.

As I consider the source of these ideas, it’s easy to imagine some of the other factions. The terrorists that orchestrated the attack will most certainly surface. Doomsday preppers and apocalyptic cults seem inevitable as well. Military shards acting independently and going native, Apocalypse Now-style, could be a real threat as well.

One element I was a bit disappointed by in all this was the role of the virus itself. In both Operation Dark Winter and in The Division, a smallpox outbreak is the source of the breakdown. In the game, it results in massive casualties, rationing of food and treatment, and quarantines.

At the center of the section of New York the game takes place in is the Dark Zone, an area essentially abandoned as un-fixable by military and support operations. In this area, there are sub-sections that require better and better gear – specifically in the form of masks to keep you safe from the virus.

This, it seems, is the primary use of the virus, aside from as a fictional impetus for the story.

I would love to see the virus play a role in moment to moment gameplay – a shot or melee attack to someone’s mask in one of those zones resulting in potential infection, infected corpses as a dangerous trap. That unfortunately isn’t the case.

Even so, the whole basis for the game is a very real and scary idea, and it’s easy to see why the team picked up on it as a source.

The Divsion is set to release for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on March 8. Stay tuned early next week for more coverage. In the meantime, check out what we thought about the game’s tactics and combat and the intense Dark Zone.

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Note: Our time with The Division was spent at an official preview event hosted by Ubisoft. All footage was acquired through live gameplay recorded on Xbox One.

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