A tote hangs from our backpacks, filled with an assortment of guns, mods and scarves. Each has a trace of the virus that was spread throughout the city of New York, but a thorough wash, rinse and dry and they’ll each be fit for purpose. All that stands between now and that crisp lavender fresh feel, is a few mean streets worth of trigger happy bad guys.
I’m not alone. While there are many others like me, fortune seekers desperate to find something of worth in the forsaken spread of city blocks known as the dark zone, in a more direct sense, I have an ally. A friend – a veritable sibling in arms who has my back, and I, theirs.
We avoid the gang, criss-crossing through alleys and arcades, in the hopes of getting to an extraction point. We’ve got enemies behind us and the path ahead has a group moving our way.
We jut out through a corridor, scamper toward the main part of the street, and swing back across. We come out on the flank of our foe. With surprise on our side, we drop them with ease, then do the same to them that were in pursuit. The way now clear, we head on.
The story repeats with another comrade, facing the best of the LMB, Rikers or others. There it’s an unspoken bond, and even without words we take on the worst of what the city has left, reclaiming it borough by borough. We help those seeking need, break up fights between civilians and do our part to bring order back.
The Division is a game of stories. There are ones like those above, the ones formed in play, experiences forged in combat. Then there’s the ones that the developer, Massive Entertainment, wants to tell. Not just the ones that emerge out of the gameplay, but those that we uncover. Abandoned phones, situation reports and echoes flesh out the lives of New York’s people, many now dead, as well as the events that took place. Yes, some of the pick-ups and side-missions will tell of heartaches, and touch on issues of inclusivity and diversity.
While there is a huge amount of world-building hidden behind the plethora of collectibles, where the Division best shows the untold is in the environments. Many of the explorable buildings are set up with barricades, one-time sanctuaries complemented with a creche, triage and fortification. These empty places reveal lore without words, one about the early days of the dollar flu, or about the first wave of Division agents that entered New York, or that time when the JTF tried to keep things running up until things did what they always do, and broke down.
Everything about the environments adds to the story, and while there are the expected cutscenes to paint the picture, their focus is on the ensemble that head each wing of your operation. They spend less on explaining the story behind the game, choosing instead to round out the personality of characters. It’s a different approach to the staple of game writing, and does leave the game story a little lighter on narrative.
It’s still there, but it’s not so much a story of the player in the thick of it, but of uncovering the story that came before – Bliss, Keener, the first wave, the origins of the green poison virus, and exactly what happened to New York to begin with.
The Division also has some ambition when it comes to theme, but doesn’t reach a point of satisfaction. It’s one thing to have a character in the game raise a question about the dangers of an organisation like the Strategic Homeland Division (SHD) and Directive 51, but this the execution is only an acknowledgement, and not an address. With content in the wings and the rogue agent that encapsulates where the story of the player could go, it’s not as though there’s a tightly-wrapped end to gauge, but the game is in the state it is. As with many Ubisoft games, The Division does the understory well.
Even the way that Lau overrides mission objectives while they’re in motion pushes the theme and places the pieces on the board, but never starts moving them around. There’s no test of the premise, no challenge between the merits or pitfalls that aren’t played out by the game. We miss out on this because it’s happened already, without drawing a conclusion beyond the SHD entity being problematic.
It unquestionably strives to be more than it is, but where other games might be sure of their statement, The Division has not chosen one. Many games reaching for an exploration of philosophical concepts often do so with their conclusion decided upon, hopeful that it will explore enough of the defining question to prove their stance beyond doubt. The Division does avoid this, but because it shies away from both the exploration and a conclusion.
It would have good to explore this with more conviction, but its in-world realisation of themes is limited to the stories around the first wave, at least for now. There are hints that future content might play out those same stories, but whether this is scene-setting or mere allusion to making questionable actions in the Dark Zone, it isn’t clear.
There are some other leaps forward with the game. The implementation of the dark zone, simultaneously pitting players against NPCs and other players is enticing. The threat of both means there’s no sense of security, and as betrayal comes purely at the whim of other gamers, it brings additional tension through uncertainty. It isn’t enough to clear an area ahead of an extraction, because your fate might be in the hands of those beside you. This gives it a different atmosphere, as there’s no way of telling if someone that fought alongside you for the last hour isn’t eyeing off your tote of goodies.
The rest of the staples fall into line with standard AAA fare – solid gameplay, enthralling visuals, harmonious sound and convincing voices. It’s not a surprise that these feel right, though Brandon Keener feels wasted as the voice of your digital assistant ISAC. Enemy armour still has its moments of imperviousness, but the tough wear-down is just the surface challenge – the various enemies will work as a team, employing smarter tactics to dislodge your sturdy hole in the wall.
It’s possible to run through the bulk of the game on your own, but everything is better with a squad. The match-making is quick, though it’s unlikely you’ll want to head into the dark zone with a random pick-up-group. That’s reserved for friends, but if you’re at significantly different levels, one of you will die a lot more than the other. The same scaling issues are found in other missions, as the level of enemies you face is based upon the overall group level.
For a game with such a focus on multiplayer (even if you aren’t heading to the dark zone, you will see other players at safe houses and can join randoms on missions), one of the clear gaps in The Division is the choices available to customise characters. There is a lack of choice when creating your character, with minimal face and hair choices on offer – if you do happen to kit your agent out with a pair of sunglasses, you’re stuck with them. It would be great to see more options here, as well as the ability to tweak this after the fact.
The wealth of choices are there at least when it comes to the variety of clothing you can kit your agent out with, but the UI and organisation here isn’t good enough, especially as it’s possible to have over sixty jackets, no preview, and a very slow scroll through. It needs improvement. Equipment, weapons and skills are the other means to make a point of distinction. Progression through the restoration of your base will provide you with short term choice on customisation, but the end result will be a base identical to that of another’s fully restored headquarters.
The shape of the end-game content is still up in the air, with it so far being put to a free mission that’s on the way, the shape of whatever the seasonal content is, and a split between dailies and the dark zone. Yes you can replay missions at a harder level, but it isn’t enough to keep people playing, and that means it’s harder to play with your friends as they’re less likely to stick around. Destiny has gone through periods of this too.
The Division isn’t perfect, but one telling thing about the game is that I’ve noticed myself wanting to talk about it, write about it, and basically reference it when I’m not able to play it. Take that as you will, but I’d suggest that says enough about my estimation of the game.