Tom Clancy's The Division is exciting enough that I don't mind how dull it can sometimes be. It's fun enough that I can usually live with spending most of my time shooting virtual poor people. It's well enough made that I don't mind how clumsy and unbalanced it often is.
The Division is a shared-world, always online third-person shooter. It carries the "Tom Clancy's" imprimatur and all that that implies: Real-world setting, vaguely plausible narrative conceit, techno-feteshistic focus on guns and gear, polished mechanics, crummy politics. It's also a tentpole open-world game published by Ubisoft, and all that that implies: Vast open map covered in icons, progressive levelling and crafting system, silly amount of collectables, unusual competitive multiplayer, characters who dress like the coolest dudes your dad could imagine.
This time around you navigate the streets of an abandoned Manhattan, streets which have been painstakingly rendered down to the most subtly sodden garbage bag. You'll crouch behind cover, try to aim for the head, throw grenades, that kind of thing. You can team up or play solo, and will spend most of your time killing enemies and bosses while collecting random loot a la Destiny or Diablo.
Here in mid-March of 2016, The Division is one thing. Yet even now, it is different from what it was a week ago, and the week before that. Just today, a substantial new patch changed a lot of things. It will likely go through several more revisions by the end of the month, and again in the height of the summer, and again as autumn leaves start to fall. I have a good handle on what The Division currently is, even if part of that requires embracing my uncertainty about what it might be in the future.
I've enjoyed the fifty-odd hours I've spent with The Division. I've gradually leveled my character to the cap of 30 and begun to grind my way through the flawed but interesting "endgame" that takes place after the level cap. I've laughed at its sillier moments and groaned at its tougher missions, leaned into mindless farming exploits and greatly enjoyed following the granular debates and heated critiques of its already passionate fan base. I've explored its fascinating, frequently exhilarating Dark Zone, forming tenuous alliances with other players in pursuit of gear and glory. Any time I start playing I find myself losing hours to the pleasant repetition of grind and exploration; surely a promising sign.
In The Division, the city of New York has been evacuated in the aftermath of a deadly biological attack. Some nefarious individual or organisation infected a bunch of paper money with a genetically engineered version of the smallpox virus and fed those bills into circulation just in time for Black Friday. The resulting pandemic killed all but a small, immune percentage of the populace. It's not quite the apocalypse, but based on what I overheard on some in-game radio stations, other cities have been equally affected. We're not post-apocalypse, but we may be in the midst of one.
In the wake of the attack and the looming end times, the President has declared martial law and called in a secret government organisation called the Strategic Homeland Division -- The Division of the game's title -- which activated sleeper agents tucked all around the country. You're one of a second wave of Division agents sent to New York to clean up the streets, protect survivors and find out what happened to the first wave that preceded you.
Upon arrival, you set about exploring the game's open world, unlocking safe houses, clearing side missions and stopping the various factions of crazies and crooks who vie for control over the remains of New York. You quickly establish a Base of Operations on Pennsylvania Plaza, and most of your early missions involve securing the technology and personnel needed to upgrade your base and, in so doing, unlock new abilities and perks for your agent.
The game's developers at Ubisoft Massive have done a great job recreating The Empire City. The map is apparently a 1:1 recreation of midtown Manhattan, and its scope is often staggering. I've never seen anything quite like what this game conjures at its best: the empty streets and great yawning concrete canyons, the alleyways and apartment buildings and parking garages, abandoned but for the lingering, snow-dusted wreckage of a catastrophic event. The wall-art alone deserves accolades:
The enveloping real-world setting is one of The Division's greatest strengths, but it is also at the heart of the game's greatest weakness. Most games of this type spin stories in far away lands of fantasy and magic, where spaceships and spells whiz through the air. Anything seems possible. Due to constraints that I must assume come part and parcel with the Tom Clancy's brand, The Division operates within much more restrictive, real-world parameters.
The Division frequently invokes real-world issues that it lacks either the chops or willingness to handle, and never seems quite able to resolve its various internal conflicts. You're a government agent operating on behalf of a real-world government, in a real-world city during a plausible real-world disaster. Because of that, the people you're fighting are also based on real types of people, and that's where The Division stumbles.
The first enemies you fight make up a faction known only as "rioters," and appear to be civilians in hoodies using piddly firearms and baseball bats. The second faction is known as "The Cleaners" and is made up of a group of crazed city sanitation workers (!) who have decided to whip out their flamethrowers (!!) and purify the city of all survivors, thereby wiping out the plague. The third faction is called "The Rikers" and is an organised gang of men and women who escaped Rikers Island correctional facility and began sadistically killing everyone in their path.
To recap: the first three of the four total factions you fight in The Division consist of A) desperate and poorly-armed civilian looters, B) garbage men so moved by their pre-outbreak jobs that they have begun murdering innocent civilians and C) escaped Rikers inmates who have decided to unite in a murderous grab for power.
The real story of the prison on Rikers Island is as horrifying as anything conjured by The Division, but it is the men and women presiding over the facility who might just as easily be cast as villains. Over the course of the last ten years, Rikers has been exposed as one of the worst places in America. Independent reports from multiple publications have uncovered patterns of systemic abuse, horrifying stories of rape, and the nightmarish mistreatment of mentally ill inmates. Just last summer the New York Times published an editorial labelling the institution "New York's Guantánamo Bay" and calling for it to be shut down.
The Division is content to leave that almost entirely unexplored, preferring instead to present Rikers inmates as comically insane mad-dog killers who must be stopped at all costs. In the midst of your climactic battle against The Rikers' leader, a black woman named LaRae Bennett, she calls you an establishment lapdog sent to assassinate her. "Just one more dead black body on the pile, right?" she taunts.
Those words, and the "black bodies" Bennett invokes, must surely be no accident. But despite her evocative language, Bennett and her gang have arranged the preceding level as a bizarre, theatrical slaughterhouse that conjures the Joker and his Arkham goons, not Alicia Garza and Black Lives Matter.
The mission only ends one way: You and your fellow agents kill Bennett and all her followers in the name of law and order. It underlines The Division's muddled pastiche of the real and the ridiculous: We're in the real world, only we're not. These are real world issues, only they aren't.
On the flip side, incidental dialogue constantly reminds the player that you're on the side of good, that the main characters at your home base have personal ties to NYC and care greatly about saving it. They're New Yorkers who love their city, by gosh! I couldn't help but ask, aren't these people we're shooting New Yorkers, too?
At times The Division hesitantly edges up to actually saying something about the imbalanced conflict at its core. You'll watch digital reenactments of protesters asserting their rights as overwhelmed law enforcement officers try to control the situation. An in-game radio broadcaster looks askance at the constitutionality of martial law and mocks the Presidential directive that activated The Division in the first place. But most of it amounts to vague hand waving and offers little meaningful exploration of the issues at hand.
I don't expect a popcorn-y action game like The Division to give me a civics lesson or to double as a polemic. But if a video game is going to inject itself with the cultural and political conflicts of the real world, it would be nice if its writers grappled with those issues with some degree of diligence and sophistication. The Division invokes the issues of the day in order to give itself a sheen of relevance, but in the end is too cowardly to reckon with the moral questions those issues raise. This feckless approach to topical material frequently distracts from the things the game does well.
Eventually I found I could kind of just stop thinking about who I was shooting and focus on the shooting itself. (It's fun, once you stop giving a shit!) The narrative wrapper fades away and I'm left with a gallery full of targets, no different from Space Invaders or Doom or whatever else. The ease with which mechanics trump morality may be video gaming's most powerful and subversive quality.
Several years ago Spec Ops: The Line writer Walt Williams convincingly argued that a video game protagonist can only be as righteous as the game's central mechanic demands. It could be that the characters we play in shooting games like this are fundamentally immoral. Even if that's the case, The Division is enjoyable enough that I've been willing to compromise my morals for more than 50 hours. It's likely I'll compromise them for dozens more.
It's to The Division's enormous benefit that the moment-to-moment crouching, aiming, and shooting all work very well. It's been 10 years since Gears of War first popularised the "third person cover-shooter" as a concept, and The Division has learned much from that game and its predecessors. The controls are responsive and intuitive. Snapping to cover feels satisfying and well tuned, and when you're under incoming fire, it's clear where that fire is coming from. The "pop, snap, pop" rhythm of cover-shooting is satisfying, and there is a geometric joy to arranging yourself in formation with three teammates and perfectly suppressing an enemy onslaught.
The user interface is initially overwhelming but soon reveals itself to be a brilliant complement to all the shooting and the crouching and the popping. There's no pause menu; every menu and interface object exists as an augmented reality hologram within the game-world. Your agent is equipped with a high-tech watch and shoulder bag that project a detailed HUD onto the spaces and people around you.
One of your assignable abilities is a radar "pulse" that sends out a wave-like ping and highlights enemies near you. Foes are outlined in red, cover is indicated with button prompts, numbers fly off of your targets as you hit them, and the splash of a grenade douses the area-of-effect in a ring of red. Ubisoft's Tom Clancy games have long postulated that this is how the soldiers of the future will view their battlefields: more like a colourful video game and less like stone, steel and blood. It's fascinating, a little bit disconcerting, and immaculately realised -- a video game recreating the video-game future of real-world warfare.
While on the surface The Division's cover-shooting looks more or less like the cover shooting in many other video games, it's the tiny bits of tuning and attention to detail that makes it all work so well. Take the cover transition system. When you're crouching behind cover, you can aim your camera at any other piece of cover, then hold down the A button to transfer from one place to another.
As you hustle from spot to spot, a small orange ring encircles the button prompt, indicating to you how far you are on your roadie-run from one point to the other. If you let up on the A button mid-run, you'll pull up short and regain control. It works exceptionally well and is almost certainly the result of countless revisions. That level of mechanical polish permeates The Division's gunplay.
Levels are smartly designed to allow space for one to four players to tactically engage a larger enemy force; most areas have both elevated and lowered positions as well as plenty of room for flanking. But while the areas themselves are well-designed, the enemies that occupy those spaces leave something to be desired.
There are the usual shotgun guys, flamethrower guys, LMG guys, sniper guys (who are also sometimes sniper ladies), and so on. They're often arrayed on the battlefield in sensible ways, particularly as you go up against the game's difficult final faction. Snipers force you into heavy cover while ground troops mercilessly heave grenades and suppress your position, forcing supportive, defensive play.
Unfortunately, The Division lacks for ideas when it comes to increasing the challenge those enemies pose. On higher difficulty settings you'll go up against larger enemy forces who use more aggressive tactics, but that's not really where the challenge comes from. Instead, enemies have simply become much harder to kill. They're able to absorb increasingly ridiculous amounts of damage while doing increased damage themselves.
This somewhat undermines the game's promise of tactical action, and high-level encounters frequently devolve into surreal, degenerate gunfights as teams hose enemy after enemy with hundreds of bullets.
When I play stat-driven, replayable games like this, I often picture a series of knobs governing the numbers that drive the action. There's a knob for how much damage I do, a knob for how much damage enemies do, a knob for how many enemies there are, and so on. The Division's knobs aren't quite in the right place yet, though they certainly could get there. Whether I was playing as a level three scrub tackling the second story mission or a level 30 badass mopping up my seventh time through the hardest challenge mode, only rarely did the knobs feel perfectly dialed to a satisfying setting. The sweetest spot comes somewhere between level 15 and level 28 or so, but even then some enemies were far too hard to kill while others were far too easy.
If you solo a level-appropriate mission, you'll almost invariably end up taking on a ridiculous bullet-sponge boss who slowly follows you around the room while you tirelessly pick away at his health. But if you team up with others for the same mission, you'll blast through it in mere minutes. In fact, all four players will usually run up to the boss and hose him down like Ghostbusters would a Class Five Full-Roaming Vapour. (The best balance probably involves tackling missions with a single teammate, but the game generally defaults to teams of four.)
Replaying missions on their middle "hard" setting is no different. If your teammates have spent any time accumulating high-end gear, hard-mode missions are laughably easy. The game's many systems break down as players ignore cover and tactics, railroading even the toughest bosses with their mighty submachine guns.
The third and most difficult "challenge" setting has the opposite problem: it replaces every enemy in each mission with elite foes who have ridiculous amounts of health and unbelievably powerful guns. While these levels can be appropriately punishing even for high-level players, the knobs have been spun so hard to the right that the game begins to buckle under the strain. Most encounters devolve into a goofy clown show as nearly invincible enemies brainlessly march on your position, absorbing clip after clip after clip and forcing your team to exploit conservative strategies and cheap bottlenecks in order to win.
An ideal version of a difficult fight in a tactical cover-shooter like this involves players making full and complementary use of their various abilities in order to beat a wily opposing force. One player advances with a riot shield to draw the enemy forces out, two others stack up an ambush behind their mobile cover, and a sniper sets up in the back; that sort of thing. What I see in The Division, more often than not, are a bunch of players sporting the same abilities (radar, reinforced cover, health kits) and the same weapons (assault rifle/submachine gun, marksman rifle) and utilising the same tactics (take cover near the room entrance and hose down every enemy as it charges).
Thing is, those tactics work. Given how absurdly punishing challenge missions are, it's hard to imagine why anyone would try to get more creative. You can learn a lot about a game like this by jacking up the difficulty and seeing if it cracks under the strain, and it's disappointing that The Division ends up with so many evident fractures.
If you're plunging into the endgame you have one more thing to occupy your time: You can return to the Dark Zone, fully plumbing the depths of its highest levels and most intense challenges. The Dark Zone is where The Division becomes more than just a well-designed shooter with a passably intriguing loot grind. This is where things get really interesting.
The Dark Zone is a hybrid of the regular game in which you fight computer-controlled enemies (PvE) and competitive gaming in which you fight other players (PvP). It's available to explore at any point in the game, but it's designed primarily for players who have reached level 30 and want a real challenge.
In The Division's fiction, the Dark Zone is a walled-off part of the city near the Empire State Building and Bryant Park that is even more lawless than the surrounding map. Here, you'll finally see other players running around in the world. You can even shoot them.
The Dark Zone combines the violent "shall I trust this stranger" maneuverings of PC games like DayZ and Rust with the risks and rewards of Dark Souls for something that stands apart from your average console game. In addition to other players, you'll find tough-as-nails, high-level enemies who drop really good guns and other loot. If you take down a Dark Zone boss and grab his loot, you don't get to keep it right away. Your agent puts it in a special yellow fanny pack and carries it to a designated extraction zone, where you can call in a helicopter to secure it for you to use in the future.
This is where the PvP part of the Dark Zone comes in: If you attack and kill another player you see toting one of those yellow fanny packs, you'll be able to grab whatever loot they were hoping to extract. The moment you get anything worth keeping in the Dark Zone, you effectively paint a big target on your back. For this reason, it is definitely advisable to bring friends into the Dark Zone -- you're much less likely to be attacked if you have backup.
My experiences in the Dark Zone so far have ranged from harrowing and frustrating to fascinating and exhilarating. I'll sometimes come upon pairs of other players who will kill me just for sport, particularly when I'm playing solo. Other times I've fought alongside strangers and we've each helped one another achieve our goals. One memorable evening I waved at a stranger who then sent me a group invite; we spent the rest of the night merrily adventuring in the Dark Zone and later added one another to our friends lists. (Hi, BobLoblaw!) Few bonds are stronger than those formed with the guy who watched your back while you extracted some sweet armour.
The Dark Zone has its own economy of XP and currency -- you have a separate Dark Zone level and a separate bank of funds that you can only use at Dark Zone vendors. It's also a good place to earn the high level loot and currencies that become a player's primary motivation after reaching the level cap. As with the rest of The Division, the knobs on the Dark Zone rewards aren't quite dialed in yet, though a series of planned patches seems like it could go some ways toward fixing that.
Whatever its current state, the Dark Zone is easily The Division's best and most interesting idea, and the place where the most compelling and human stories come to pass. It's well designed for creative teamwork and equally well designed for creative antagonism, and I hope to see Ubisoft Massive iterating upon and improving it over the months to come.
The Division will soon get its first of several Incursions, as well, which should further expand its endgame. Incursions are billed as raid-like high-level missions that will test even the toughest players. One can hope that those missions won't simply sharpie another couple of notches onto the game's HP and damage knobs before twisting them yet further, but rather will include the sorts of positional challenges (Reprogram those turrets! Look out for that helicopter! Figure out how to hack this server!) that briefly appear in some of the current game's later missions. Without a more thoughtful collection of high-level cooperative challenges to accompany the merry mayhem of the Dark Zone, my interest in The Division will wane.
Unlike so many big-budget action games, The Division is persistent. This game isn't going anywhere, and your character and your progress are yours to keep. The hours you put into it won't be undone once you complete the game, and each weapon you unlock will be yours through expansions and hopefully even sequels. It's is one of the game's most appealing aspects.
That persistence is inextricably tied to my enjoyment of the game, as well as to my conception of its future. After all, what good is persistent progress if the game itself doesn't last? While The Division may be built to last, when I look to its imagined future, I feel constrained by the name of the author attached.
This is Clancy's world, a place where the good guys are ultimately righteous and the bad guys are ultimately just terrorists, where an H&K UMP 45 can use an extended clip and a silencer, where everyone maintains trigger finger discipline and the wildest outfit you can wear involves a turquoise scarf matched with a purple jacket. Clancy's world is meticulous and consistent, but it isn't particularly imaginative.
The future of The Division will almost certainly be limited by what is possible in this kind of a world. Perhaps we will combat a biological attack in some other real-world location. Doubtless we will get yet more semi-realistic weaponry, or fight terrorists who wear slightly different shades of ski mask. But we won't be fighting unnatural, unpredictable enemies anytime soon. We won't take on shambling zombies or towering beasts. We won't be getting space weaponry or teleportation skills or the ability to leap tall buildings. We'll just keep getting slightly better muzzle suppressors and quicker quick-eject mags and stronger body armour.
It's a shame that such a promising, soundly designed game could feel so unchangeably limited out of the gate. The Division's mechanical underpinnings are sturdy enough to make me forget how much of a bummer its story can be; its shooting and looting are slick enough to make me wonder if it still might evolve into something more inspired.
It's enough for now, I suppose. I'll certainly be playing for many hours to come. But if you asked a group of Division players to imagine a sillier, wilder version of the game, their suggestions would doubtless pour out amid a cascade of grins and chuckles. Put a Cloverfield monster in Central Park! Have a mad scientist mind-control a bunch of Division agents! Make us fight an infestation of sewer crocs underneath Queens! Bring the Bullet King back from the dead on a quest for revenge!
Given how effortlessly our imaginations float beyond the stern ramparts of Mr. Clancy's literary world, it's hard not to wish this finely honed contraption could be granted the lightness of spirit it needs to truly thrive. Given how expertly much of The Division has been assembled, it's hard not to hope that such a wonder might still come to pass.