I love video games, but it’s rare for me to play them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me a somewhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game. I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that I’ve been meaning to play and it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to start chipping away at the list. With that in mind, I’ve created a new series of posts called Late to the Party, wherein I discuss the games that came out in the preceding years that I’m finally getting around to experiencing. Today’s entry in the series is Tom Clancy’s The Division, referred to hereafter as just The Division. There will be minor spoilers in this commentary, but nothing too big.
Before you start playing The Division, you’re treated to a short opening movie that sets up the world and gives you some context to what is going on. Not everything is clearly stated, but the movie has enough details in it for the player to piece together the story so far. America has suffered its first large-scale bioterrorism attack, which has brought New York City to its knees. Just before Black Friday, someone managed to engineer a deadlier version of a previously unknown strain of the smallpox virus, laced a large batch of dollar bills with it, and then got those bills into circulation throughout the city. During the mass commercialism of Black Friday, the money changed hands countless times, and with each transaction the citizens of New York unknowingly spread the disease. Over the next several weeks everything went to hell as people started getting sick and no one could figure out what the infection was or how to cure it. As more and more people died from what became known as the Green Virus, the people of New York panicked. Social order broke down and the city was eventually cordoned off when the government authorities lost control. Rioters, thugs, and other miscreants stepped into the power vacuum, claiming different sections of the city and terrorizing the civilians who were not able to escape before New York was quarantined. It is now sometime around Christmas, and your character, an agent for a government organization called the Division, has been called to action. You are part of the second wave of Division agents being sent into New York to investigate the virus and restore order, and after creating your character you start the game in Brooklyn. Once the tutorial missions wrap up you enter Manhattan and help rebuild the operations of the Joint Task Force, (JTF) a combined military and civilian command that is trying to protect what’s left of the city and its people. New York’s problems have continued to multiply, and when multiplication is the problem, who better to fix it than the Division? That just might be one of the worst jokes I’ve every made, please forgive me.
When thinking about the story of The Division, the comparison that I kept coming back to was the story of Destiny. Both games have a dramatic set up for their respective stories, but then leave a gaping hole between the origin of the story and the start of your part story that you assume will be filled in as you play. The difference between them is that with The Division, I felt like I actually got a cohesive, though still fragmented, knowledge of events in the world it created, whereas with Destiny that plot hole was still mostly empty when I got to the end of the game. Granted, Destiny’s story is much bigger and a good chunk of The Division’s backstory requires you to complete side missions and pick up collectibles found throughout New York, but unlike Destiny it is actually possible to figure it out. Because of this, The Division’s backstory can be thought of as a mystery for you to unravel, and I’m quite fine when a game asks me to figure some things out on my own, rather than directly telling me everything through the main story campaign. Of course, probably the biggest mystery to solve relates to your character’s status. You’re told at the start of the game that you’re part of the second wave of Division agents, which immediately raises the question of what happened to the first wave. Combined with the events of the main story missions, the details you gather from side missions and collectibles indicate that the first wave essentially failed. Some of them were killed by the gangs, some are missing in action, and, more menacingly, some went rogue. There’s even the indication from one of the pieces of intelligence you gather that at least one of the first wave agents was abandoned and left to die when he tried to rescue civilians but got surrounded by rioters. The Division’s story is fairly dark and grim, as you might expect from a game with bioterrorism, secret government agencies, and civil unrest. Though it’s not anything that could be called deep and it’s not going to win any awards, the story works fine and I was invested enough in it to get me through all the way to the end.
Patrolling Manhattan and unlocking a safe house
With the exception of the game’s first few tutorial missions, which are set in Brooklyn, the entirety of The Division takes place in Manhattan, specifically the Midtown area. The Chelsea and Gramercy communities form the south end of the map and in the north the playable area stops a few blocks short of Central Park. Much like how Chicago was the true star of Watch Dogs, Manhattan is the true star of The Division. Though the Manhattan in The Division is not an exact 1:1 recreation of its real counterpart, it’s so close to the real thing that what we get is probably the best rendition of Manhattan that’s been done so far in a video game. Running around virtual Manhattan, I felt like I was just as much a tourist as a secret agent, stopping to take in the sights and marvel at the city, decaying as it may be. Abandoned vehicles, deserted JTF checkpoints, empty apartments, Christmas decorations that were left up, wild dogs roaming the streets, and a myriad number of other details capture the look and feel of a city that people fled in a disorganized hurry. I’ve never been to New York in real life, and hopefully I’ll never go through a bioterrorism attack, but the world of The Division has been so well realized that after playing the game I wonder, should I visit the city in the future, if I’ll get the strange feeling of having already been there (I got a similar feeling when I visited Venice, after playing Assassin’s Creed 2).
When you play The Division, you’ll find it similar to other third person, cover-based shooters, but with a few tricks up its sleeve. As a Division Agent, you have access to a number of fancy gadgets, such as a seeker mine, an auto turret, mobile cover, and a radar pulse that temporarily marks enemies. You can further augment your agent with perks to give him or her special abilities tailored to how you like to play the game. Six different classes of guns, a variety of grenades, and special ammunition round out your arsenal, and you’ll need to make good use of your weapons and tactics, as the enemies in The Division are decently smart and take more bullets to kill than you might be used to in this sort of game. While you can play any way you choose, a slower, more calculated style of play is normally best, making full use of the handy cover-to-cover mechanic during firefights. Standing out in the open while being shot at, or emulating Master Chief (or Leroy Jenkins) and running straight into a group of enemies will be met with a very quick death. The gear and weapons you equip your agent with will be changing continually throughout the game, as there is loot all across Manhattan, both to be found and to be taken from fallen enemies. Consequently a small share of your gameplay time has to be dedicated to inventory management. From my experience with The Division, I would say the loot system is less intensive than Borderlands 2, but more so than Destiny. One important thing to keep in mind is that there is no way to actually pause the game, so even when you open up your inventory or another menu the game is still progressing around you, thus it’s best to finish a firefight before trying to change your gear. To get around Manhattan you have to walk or run everywhere, with the lone exception of safe houses, which serve as fast travel points and forward bases. Inside each safe house you can resupply, buy or sell items, and get the locations of nearby side missions. These side missions are broken into several distinct types, such as hostage rescue, supply protection, high value target hunt, virus research, encampment assault, and infrastructure repair. Though the specifics of each mission may vary, all the missions within their respective category are effectively the same and will bleed together in your mind after awhile. Thankfully, the map isn’t so cluttered with side missions that it doesn’t feel like you’re making progress as you complete them. Although it can be tedious, playing through the side missions is highly recommended, both for getting better loot and for gaining you the experience points to quickly level up your character and hit the level cap sooner. Main missions, side missions, and free-roaming around Manhattan can be done solo or with other people via The Division’s online functionality. I didn’t have any friends who were playing The Division at the same time as I was, so the few times I partnered up with other people it was via the game’s matchmaking service. Playing cooperatively with random people was a fun, if chaotic experience, with bullets flying everywhere and no coordination to what we were all doing. As a side note, during missions and while running around Manhattan, you’ll also get fed status reports and other useful information from ISAC, your agent’s virtual intelligence program. ISAC’s voice comes out of your controller, which I guess is meant to mimic how your agent would hear things through his/her communicator. Some people might find this feature creepy, but in my case I was fine with it, because ISAC is voiced by the same actor who played Garrus Vakarian, possibly my favorite character from the Mass Effect games.
Retaking the power plant
There is one final piece of The Division’s gameplay that I want to discuss separately from the others, and that is something called the Dark Zone, which is a section of Manhattan located in the middle of the map. In the story of The Division, the Dark Zone is where the virus hit the hardest, and it was walled off from the rest of the city in a failed attempt to contain the outbreak. Now it is the most lawless and dangerous part of New York, and within it reside the toughest enemies in the game, but these enemies also drop the best loot. The bigger feature of the Dark Zone, however, is that it is where The Division’s player vs player (pvp) gameplay occurs. Inside the Dark Zone you will run into other agents, (The Division requires an online connection in order to play it) and you have the option of attacking them in order to steal their loot, gain Dark Zone experience points, or just to antagonize them. If you attack another player you are labeled as a rogue agent, and other players are informed of your treachery and will get points for taking you down. It’s surprisingly easy to go rogue unintentionally, as all it takes is a few bullets fired into another player to trigger rogue status. I went rogue on accident one time when I was shooting at an enemy, another player crossed my line of fire, and since I was using an automatic weapon I had already pumped enough bullets into that player to trigger rogue status before I could lift my finger off the fire button. There were three other players nearby, and I was dead before I could even apologize. Rogue agents are the ultimate wild card in the Dark Zone, especially when it is time to get the loot you collected back to your stash. Because all of the loot in the Dark Zone is contaminated, you can’t just walk out of the Dark Zone with it. Instead, you have to get to an extraction point and signal a helicopter to pick it up. It takes a short while for the helicopter to arrive, and all nearby players are alerted to your actions, so you may soon have other players bearing down upon you, perhaps to also extract their own loot, or perhaps to kill you and take yours. Entering the Dark Zone is a high risk, high reward gambit, and it’s definitely best to go in with friends who can back you up. Playing solo is a massive disadvantage, both for fighting the enemies and surviving rogue agents. While The Division gives you the ability to enter the Dark Zone fairly early in the game and it certainly won’t hurt to go in and take a quick look, I would suggest not attempting any extended forays until you’ve hit the level cap and have some powerful gear and weapons. The Dark Zone is meant to be The Division’s endgame anyway, so save it for after you’ve finished the main story campaign.
Visually, The Division has great environments and effects, but the characters don’t quite live up to the same standard. The city of New York looks fantastic, and as I mentioned earlier, Manhattan is an extremely detailed and lovingly created place. The city is complemented by some good weather effects that can completely changeup both the look and the gameplay of The Division. Heavy fog and blizzards pass through from time to time, severely reducing your visibility. Snowfall effects are outstanding, and I even noticed when I stopped to look that, at least during gentle snowfall, the snow falling from the sky is actual snowflakes, and not just white dots. Most people are not going to notice that sort of thing, but it means a lot to me that the developers didn’t fudge on even the tiniest of details. When the sun comes out and it’s a bright, clear day, the glass, steel, concrete, brick, and snow of wintertime Manhattan really shine. Even with the graphical downgrade from The Division’s early trailers that stirred up the typical internet temper tantrums, Manhattan is still a beautiful place to play in. The Division also impressively handles fire very well, which if you’ve played a lot of video games you know that it’s not common to get that in a game. While it still doesn’t quite look like real fire, The Division’s fire effects are some of the better ones I’ve experienced in a video game. With how strong The Division’s world is rendered, it’s a shame that its character models and facial animations often aren’t of the same quality. While most of the main characters are passable, the appearance of other characters often leaves something to be desired. A final visual item to mention is that while playing The Division I ran into texture pop-in a few times, and even saw character pop-in once, but these were rare occasions and didn’t hurt the overall experience of the game.
I’m not an audiophile, so I don’t have much to say about The Division’s sound design, but I will say that it nails the eerie silence of an abandoned city. New York is famously known as the city that never sleeps, so to be wandering around it and only hearing the distant barking of a dog, the howl of the wind, the sound of gunfire a block away, or the chatter of approaching enemies reinforces the feel of a city where everything normal has been thrown out the window. Music is used sparingly in the game, mostly just during certain sections of main story missions, but given the world that The Division is trying to create, the relative paucity of music is not a bad thing.
Overall I’m more positive than negative on The Division. The plot is thin, but, unlike Destiny, at least the backstory and the details of the world can be learned. Gameplay is generally good, though not outstanding, and has enough quirks, such as the Dark Zone, to distinguish The Division from similar games. New York has been beautifully recreated and is impressively detailed, which makes it easier to overlook some of the game’s visual shortcomings, and the audio of The Division complements the abandoned city. The Division succeeds in its goal of creating a believable post-bioterrorism New York and from the way the story ends its clear that the game is intended to one day get a sequel. While not perfect, foundation built by The Division has more strengths than weaknesses, and I look forward to seeing how any sequel builds upon it.