Tom Clancy's The Division is unsure of what it wants to be. Straddling the line between a hot garbage fire of social assertions and a soothing balm of competent game systems, Ubisoft's foray into the land of MMOlites is as much a thing of beauty as it is the stuff of nightmares. It is, in essence, the most modern video game of modern video games.
Set in a New York City ravaged by a viral contagion and quarantined off from the rest of the world, The Division at first, feels like a send off of old westerns. Your Agent, a nameless, voiceless protagonist is called into service by a little known government organization, the Strategic Homeland Defense Agency, or more simply “The Division.” Identified by the bright orange light of their Division-issued watch, an easy analogue to the sheriff's badge borne by the West's lone heroes, their status grants them a license to kill and the right to use it, doling out justice with the business end of a gun.
The Division's mission is a righteous one. With the city torn apart by disease and unable to heal because of a multitude of armed and organized malcontents, Agents are sent in to reestablish order and pave the way for government to move back in, all while trying to gather enough information for an eventual cure. So, in much the same way the Man with No Name scoured the West, your Agent finds him or herself nearly alone against the impossible.
Easily read on paper as a power fantasy, The Division tries to delve a little deeper, but in doing so, it reveals the truth about itself. See, in your standard power fantasy, the punishment you dole out is all towards some sort of goal, and it's you ability to reach that goal in spectacular, often exceptional fashion that makes it more fantasy then reality. The Division never reaches its goal though. Sure, you eventually find out the cause of the contagion, and are able to both meet, and kill, the leaders of the different factions that have come to rule Manhattan, but at the end of the day, nothing really ever comes of it. You're treated to tidbits of one-sided conversations where you are thanked for your service, where the merits of the information you have discovered are said to be helpful, but you never see that help come, you never see the streets clean, the city restored, or the government reestablished. In fact, life for a Division Agent is akin to the worst Groundhog's Day imaginable, wherein each and every dawn is greeted by bloodshed and snowfall, and the nights are spent staring into the shadows, wondering, much like Punxsutawney Phil, if seeing them truly means no end to the harsh cold.
There's no warmth accompanying the gameplay either, simply a cold, calculated efficiency that competently provides some measure of entertainment. Pleasure is there in spades at the beginning of your agent's journey, as you learn the ropes to patrolling the streets of The Big Apple. The loot grind is real as you make your way through missions, collecting various pieces of clothing and weaponry that bear the same common color language of MMOs everywhere. Safe houses are filled with other agents, each going about their own business, refilling their ammo stores, possibly purchasing better equipment; their existences hint at something almost resembling company, a feeling that is promptly lost upon exiting said safe house.
The lack of warmth is not indicative of a poor system, though. The third-person shooter aspects are both simple to enjoy and rewarding to master, and some of the later firefights, against foes meant to represent a well-oiled militia, feel harrowing and dangerous. The RPG systems in place, things like skills, perks and talents, are built around simplicity and manageability, and while a little more depth in the number of active skills available for use would be welcome, there's enough present to offer options depending on whatever role you like to assume during combat. There's also a vast array of non-combat character customization choices, like jackets and hats, that do a real great job of making your agent feel different then the others in your group. This is something that a game like Destiny was really lacking, especially during its first year, and The Division seems to have really taken this to heart.
I'm resisting making other examples in relation to these two games though, because The Division really is a different beast. Outside of matchmaking into a group, or forming one with your friends, there is very little interaction with the other agents who may be enjoying the game along side you. Each game is instanced off, so my comparison earlier to Clint Eastwood's western tough doing things by his lonesome isn't to far off. There's not enough depth to pit one side against the other, like the rival families in San Miguel, but you do often feel like a quick draw expert, drawing on and killing as many ruffians as you can before their numbers can go to work on you. The lack of depth also makes most of the random encounters along New York's ruined boulevards feel very one note, and the identification of said enemies, like Rioters to signify just people out looting, or Rikers as the moniker of the escaped convicts from Rikers Island, make it feel like you are really raining down justice on people who didn't have any other choice.
In fact, it's that The Division attempts to flesh out these groups that really adds to the sense that you may be less savior and more of simply the heavy hand of the establishment sent to hand power back to those “in charge.” Like any Ubisoft game, the map is littered with collectibles, with the majority taking the form of forgotten cell phones with audio log type messages. A number of these show just how broken the citizenry has become, and there are more then a few that deal with the prisoners from Rikers, who were basically left for dead in the prison when the warden and guards decided to evacuate. The logs show that there were dissenting voices, people in the background pointing out that not everyone in prison is a rapist or murderer, but they're quickly drowned out by others wielding the “fear of the masses.” One in fact even calls this out, saying that if it were placed to a public vote, the public themselves would have no qualms about leaving the criminals where they were, locked in their cells, awaiting the outbreak, while the employees left to go find their families.
Does this have any affect on the game play? No, but it still shows that thought and choice went into the framing of these events, and to simply ignore them in favor of the “well it's just a game” argument does a disservice to this game's creators. I would have loved to have had more options then just shoot, loved to have been able to explore in some real ways Manhattan's shattered skyline, its razed soul. But they are simply not there, and I am left playing a game that makes me feel horrible while simultaneously calling me a hero. What I am doing at no point feels heroic, and there are points, especially during portions of the thin story that is presented, that I have to question the unchecked power The Division was granted.
There are, however, small pockets of The Division that do make me feel like I am getting something done. One of the first things you do in game is take over the main post office and set it as a forward operating base. Different wings are established to house security, medical, and technical professionals, all focused around providing help for the people of New York. By completing missions throughout the game, both smaller side quests and the larger set piece instances, you collect resources that help you build out your base, offering more and more services to the needy populace. There are more then enough points scattered throughout the game that no real choice has to be made as to whether or not to expand a section; you will eventually build out everything, but the NPCs that are present do a fair job of reacting to the changes well. That's not to say that they ever acknowledge you, as your stoic silence and fabulous orange watch create a true distance between your agent and them ever feeling like part of a community, no matter how temporary it might be, but it is nice to imagine that these folks, huddled in the newly created warmth of the rebuilt central heating unit, are maybe on their way back.
While the near whole of The Division's content can be played by yourself, a fact that I used to my advantage until I was nearly done leveling, the end game goes in the opposite direction. Separating itself into two distinct, yet equally necessary paths, leveling beyond 30 means taking on grinding through instances you've done already, only on Hard or Challenging difficulty, or delving into the Dark Zone, a PVP area that manages to be both successful and depressing.
Taking up the center of the city, The Dark Zone was the hardest hit by the disease, and the first portion utterly abandoned. While you can travel through portions of the DZ at earlier levels, it doesn't become necessary till you have hit the level cap, when all the enemies inside are hard locked at 30 or above. Any and all loot dropped inside the DZ is kept separate from your normal inventory and needs to be extracted, or carried out by helicopter, in order to be used. The experience itself is quiet different then anything else in the game, and the time it takes for the helicopter to arrive at the well marked extraction zones is fraught with conflict, as the flare you fire to signal the copter is also a signal for the elite denizens of the Dark Zone to attack in mass.
Not only do you have to contend with those often elite enemies, but the Dark Zone also allows other agents to go rogue, choosing to attack instead of helping. Running into an extraction zone where other agents are present becomes this tense stand off between helpful kindness or heartbreaking betrayal, and while I admire the systems in place that make this one of the most harrowing areas in gaming, I loathe having to participate in the stressful mental encounters. More then once, I have been met by hostility for no reason other then simply being there, and while I choose to not be “that guy,” my benevolence has also forced me to strike down my fellow agents simply to keep going. The back and forth is not even acknowledged outside of the walls of the Dark Zone; like some sort of weird version of Las Vegas, what happens in the Dark Zone, stays in the Dark Zone. It is easily the most “game” portion of The Division, and one I would love to just ignore, especially when other games that have approached similar end game options to an MMO have been able to offer equal advancement for those that want the competition, and those that don't.
My gripes with advancement aside, The Division feels like a game caught between wanting to say something and not caring enough to finish out its thought. It builds a strong foundation on the gameplay front, offering up rewarding combat and simple skills, but doesn't follow that with anything substantial, being content to let the standard end game grind and excellent-yet-stressful PVP try to cover all the questions its writing leaves you with. Whether or not this strategy pays off is solely up to the player themselves, but for me, the reliance on convention rather then tackling the subjects raised makes me question whether or not I will continue to explore the world Ubisoft is allowing us to play in.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!