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LOS ANGELES (AP) — At the beginning of "Tom Clancy's The Division," players portraying top-secret operatives are dropped from a helicopter into a rendition of New York City that's been crippled by a terrorist attack.
Central Park is a mass graveyard. Madison Square Garden is a makeshift hospital under siege. The James A. Farley Post Office Building is being transformed into a base of military operations. The Lincoln Tunnel has devolved into a shooting gallery for looters and thugs.
This ain't the Mushroom Kingdom.
While maintaining its third-person shooter sensibilities, the ambitious new video game from Ubisoft is seeking to tackle such serious topics as viral outbreaks, police brutality and the breakdown of emergency services.
Is this supposed to be — gulp — fun?
"It's a dark and depressing scenario, but it's important that you can be the hero," said creative director Magnus Jansen after a demonstration of the "The Division," out March 8. "You can come in and make a difference. The important thing is that society has stumbled and it's hanging by a thread, but you can prevent it from complete collapse."
The developers are well aware that many players won't be interested in a shared-world shooter that meticulously envisions such a chilling scenario, but they're not apologizing for their gritty look at what they call a "mid-crisis."
"We have the greatest respect for (real-life) victims of anything that we touch on in the game, whether it's an outbreak, terrorist attack or anything like that," said Jansen. "We would never want to upset anyone with our work of art. That's the risk we run by working on something that's about a plausible clear and present danger. That's also part of what makes it compelling."
For decades, most military shooters sought to recreate real-life wars and weapons of the past and present. However, in recent years, franchises like "Call of Duty" and "Battlefield" have focused on depicting futures where fictional conflicts are fought with laser weapons and mechanical appendages.
The creators of "The Division" were more interested in crafting a realer-than-real interactive experience based on what might actually happen if a biological threat was unleashed across Manhattan on Black Friday. They were inspired by actual military simulations and responses to such disasters as Hurricane Katrina.
"My favorite part of working on the game was to look at New York and see how these landmark buildings would be transformed if a crisis happened," said associate creative director Julian Gerighty. "What was their original function and how would that change if the support systems in place fell? For example, we imagine a subway extension as a place to dump body bags because that could possibly keep disease from spreading."
The chaos extends to the game's approach to a multiplayer mode. While players can work together to rescue civilians and recapture landmarks, they can also enter a lawless Midtown territory dubbed "the dark zone," where online players can team up or double-cross each other while hunting for prized gear.
"When we were watching players in the alpha (test), I expected people to be much more aggressive, at least when they first started exploring the dark zone," said Gerighty. "However, people were really hesitant to turn on each other, which is very much the emotional experience we wanted. I think that will evolve even further once the game is released."