The Division is a game I should be incredibly cynical about.
I mean, it’s developed by Ubisoft, a studio that seems to call entire investor meetings just to figure out how to piss off their consumers, and its feature list reads like a marketing team went full bukkake on a development room whiteboard but… well, I love playing it. I really do. And not in a begrudging way like I did with Destiny (a game that The Division will draw no small amount of comparison from), but with all my sincerity. The Division is a great game. Who would have guessed?
No one that paid attention to its narrative, that’s for sure. Threadbare is the keyword here. New York City is attacked on Black Friday by a super mutated version of the smallpox virus seeded in our cash and distributed by our own greed. The city quickly goes to hell and the government steps in to enact marshall law and restore some semblance of order. Their tool of choice is The Division: a paramilitary group comprised of private citizens acting as sleeper agents who are activated during a crisis requiring the use of martial force to suppress it. You are a member of the second wave of activated agents as the first wave utterly failed to accomplish an objective that is never entirely made clear. Or perhaps it was and it was simply buried in the copious amount of supplementary material used to flesh out the story. This seems to be a common problem in modern massively multiplayer games. The developers want to tell a good story but they don’t want that to get in the way of the open nature of the genre so they let you find the story at your own pace, which means that there’s a good chance you won’t find it at all – or that it will have lost its resonance by the time you do.
Where The Division surprisingly makes up for this is in a strange, subtle self-awareness that I’m not even sure was intentional on the developer’s part. As a member of The Division, you are essentially the blunt instrument of draconian governmental overreach. The executive branch is never supposed to carry out military operations on US soil and certainly isn’t supposed to use the military against its own civilian populace. The Division would appear to act as a kind of loophole. It’s a government mandated militia that is used only in the direst circumstances to reestablish control and “ensure the continuity of government”. That’s not my quote, by the way, it’s taken directly from the game and it belies an understanding of its own premise that had me questioning my actions on more than one occasion.
I can’t tell you how many times I came upon a group of thugs patrolling the streets of post-pandemic New York and took less than the length of a shallow fart to think over my decision to open fire. How did I know they were my enemy? Well, they’re wearing hoodies, of course… Yeah. I have to assume that no artist is so detached from popular culture as to be entirely blind to the implication there. The amazing thing is that The Division never beats you over the head with it. It lets you be a badass paramilitary vigilante with a license to kill and it never intentionally tries to make you feel bad about it. I mean, all the people you can actually kill would try to kill you first if given the chance, but does that make it right? Am I killing them because they’re dangerous, or simply because I was ordered to? To discharge my responsibility to “ensure the continuity of government”? Or maybe I like it a little bit? I do. Obviously, I do. I think there’s a debate to be had but I’ll tell you this for certain: you’re not playing the good guy in The Divison. At the very best there are no good guys, just survivors.
It’s an interesting choice to set the game in an environment suffering the immediate effects of an apocalyptic event instead of years following the aftermath. The New York City that Ubisoft has constructed still feels like the New York City we know, only with less garbage piled up in the streets and fewer displays of detached indifference to the problems of crushing poverty and mental illness. Zing!
The streets are lined with barricades and strewn with corpses piled waist high in body bags. Buildings have been blockaded to keep out looters and rioters. Apartments feel as if their residents might return at any moment to claim their forgotten possessions. It’s a place lost to comfort though people are still trying to maintain the life they so recently knew. When you find a woman balling her eyes out in front of an austere memorial board in one of the many safe houses that litter the city, it’s affecting because you know these are still fresh wounds that will one day become deep scars. In those moments, all you want to do is find another asshole to shoot so that you don’t have to deal with it, which kind of makes you the biggest asshole of them all.
In addition to its well-constructed world, The Division also manages to be a technical beauty. Textures look great when they aren’t busy scaling up as they stream in. Particle effects are plentiful and there’s some impressive object deformity on display. If you duck behind a car to guard against a burst of gunfire you can see the wheels get shredded and the vehicle droop to the ground. The lighting is also fantastic with beautiful shafts illuminating the gloomy, snow covered streets and turning your camera towards one of the many spotlights strewed about the environment can nearly blind you if you aren’t careful.
Unfortunately, the art design doesn’t hold up so well. That is to say, there isn’t any. It’s all drab, desaturated colors, modern clothing, and realistic military tech. The most interesting part is probably the Dead Space-style HUD which attempts to squeeze an overwhelming amount of information into a series of augmented reality style holographic projections that are meant to draw your attention to the right bit of information at the right time. It works, for the most part, but is still far too busy to be praised.
The shooting is capable. Those hoping for something to rival Destiny in this department will be very disappointed. Everything is spongy, from the aiming to the enemies. I don’t exactly have the same problem that other reviewers have cited where the ability of a single mob in a thick winter coat to soak up a hand grenade and several clips of assault rifle ammunition and barely flinch broke my sense of immersion. It’s a video game and I don’t need it to maintain a sense realism at all times. That being said, I had the most fun when I was forced to think tactically, manoeuvre for effect, take an enemy down quick, and reposition myself and my team to deal with the next threat. Couple that with the relatively intelligent AI on display and I think Ubisoft missed an opportunity to build the first thinking man’s multiplayer shooter, something that could reward skill and precision with lightning fast encounters that are both challenging and highly rewarding. As it stands, it’s more like Borderlands in the sense that your first resort when approaching any spike in difficulty is to simply get those numbers higher.
The numbers don’t make a lot of sense though. I mentioned the busy HUD before and that comment goes double for the menu system. Stats, descriptions and tooltips seem to be tossed haphazardly about the screen in whatever space wasn’t occupied. Important and useful information, such as the effect that your three main stats (Firearms, Stamina and Electronics) have on your character, or your combined armor rating, are inexplicably hidden in a secondary menu within your inventory screen, making it a chore to see detailed information on how a change of load-out might affect your build. Also, things like transferring modifications to new weapons and equipment or combining crafting materials take too many steps. It’s a flipping mess and easily the least coherent part of The Division as a whole. Fortunately you seem to be able to mostly ignore it all and still remain competitive against the computer or even other players.
Yes, The Divison is the second entry in what Bungie has managed to convince everyone is a new sub-genre: the shared world shooter. In this case you roam the streets of New York mostly on your own except in safe houses which act as social hubs where you can meet and interact with other players. You can also choose to free-roam matchmake at any time from the overhead map, or place yourself in specific matchmaking pools to complete story missions or daily objectives. Here The Division shows its superiority over Destiny by allowing easy matchmaking for all events, which is good because every part of The Division plays better when you’re with a team of agents. There’s an exhilaration to the experience of running with a tight team of squaddies, ducking in and out of cover and falling into the roles you’ve defined for yourselves. I’ve yet to find a single match that required my team to verbalise in order to get the job done, and that is a precedent I unilaterally endorse. I love talking with my friends but complete strangers are too much of a crap shoot to justify the inevitable waste of time it takes to put together a team that communicates well.
The much-discussed Dark Zone is an interesting creature that has almost sold me on the idea of a persistent player-versus-player environment. The DZ is an area just east of Times Square where the virus hit the worst. Inside, your external radio transmissions are cut off and you’re on your own when it comes to dealing with the local threat. Enemies are deadlier, loot is of a higher grade, and if you run across another player they may just as soon cut you down for the loot you’re carrying as help you. Everything you collect here is contaminated with the dollar flu and must be contained and decontaminated before it can be used or sold. To do this you’ll need to call in an extraction to one of several landing areas in the Dark Zone which will alert everyone on the map to your presence. This usually leads to a tense waiting period where you fight off computer-controlled enemies and wait to see if a player or team will show up to challenge you for your precious cargo. I would ordinarily hate this sort of thing as enabling total dickholes to ply their trade on players that are just trying to enjoy themselves is a trend I’m not down with. But here those little jerks are severely penalised by being marked as rogue agents. A bounty is then placed on that player’s head for other agents to collect with impunity but if they manage to keep being an asshole and survive a significant waiting period the rogue agent can collect their own bounty. Usually this kind of behaviour will bring the whole server down on your head and I have yet to see a team of rogue agents survive for long which is exactly as it should be. In other words, while the Dark Zone is ostensibly a player-versus-player zone, if you decide to ruin someone’s day you have to be prepared to lose everything, and I’m willing to watch a griefer get destroyed by a well-organised group of concerned players all day long.
So, against all odds, I like The Division. A lot. Probably more than I have any right to. And the greatest compliment I can pay it is this: I’m currently on a working vacation and The Division is the only game I have ever bought a second copy of on a different system because I didn’t want to stop playing when I left Chicago, and I’m already 40 some odd hours into it and still willing to start over from scratch. If that’s not a ringing endorsement then I’m not sure what else I could say to convince you it’s worth your time and money.