The Division review

March 18, 2016 by Heather Alexandra

Sad, cynical politics ruin The Division's chances at being a smarter, deeper MMO experience.

The Division is a mess. It is a grindy, ill conceived, and politically repugnant mess buoyed only by a minimally sufficient core loop of gameplay and a few cogent design decisions. Ubisoft’s latest tango with Tom Clancy’s particular brand of paranoia is an unholy marriage, providing a gorgeous and haunting game world where the only thing you can do is kill, get more guns, and kill some more.

Any aspirations besides holding shiny loot in front of the player and offering them free reign to be the worst type of “hero” were apparently tossed out of the window alongside any employee who suggested the game dare to live up to the ambitions of its setting.

Set in Manhattan after a massive biological terrorist attack on Black Friday, players take on the role of agents of the titular Division, a government initiative of embedded agents who are only activated in the most dire of circumstances. They are our neighbors, they are our teachers. They could be anyone and isn’t it just so damn cool that you’re one of them? The conceit finds root in the real Executive Directive 51 signed during the George W. Bush administration, which is meant to preserve continuity of the government in event of an emergency.

In real life, the order is a controversial measure, with opponents fearing it would dangerously over-empower the government. In The Division, it’s enacted without irony. Submachine gun and pistol in hand, you trudge off to uncover the mystery of who was behind the attack while trying to restore order. Which mostly means shooting everything and everyone. A lot.

Functionally, The Division is an open world third person cover shooter with RPG elements. Everything plays competently: moving from cover to cover is as simple as the press of a button, shooting is bombastic and there is a sly satisfaction to learning a gun’s recoil. Navigating the sprawling, crumbling ruins of post societal Manhattan is eased along by a fairly well-implemented UI.

However, the contrast between the shooting and RPG elements offers a fundamental tension that might frustrate players expecting a more realistic experience given the setting. Don’t expect to be rewarded with clean kills for headshots. Rather, expect a stream of numbers and a slightly weakened enemy. If you’re familiar with MMORPG conventions, you’ll feel right at home, but if not, the difference between what you think will happen and what all your stats actually make happen creates a frustrating initial experience as you adjust to the game’s rules and systems.

In terms of providing a passable model for an MMOFPS like Destiny, The Division hits the right beats. The name of the game is loot and acquisition. Exploring for crates, defeating difficult enemies, or playing through missions will reward you with various rifles, pistols, tactical armor, and modifications. A high point for The Division, on a pure mechanical level, is how it manages this loop. Building a character is a real joy and there is a sense that you truly are scrounging through the city. The presence of cosmetic items like jackets, hats, and scarfs also provides a nice addition. Managing your character is a highlight for the game and, when accompanied by small bursts of the main gameplay loop of “go here, shoot these people, complete this mission”, the process can be invigorating and rewarding.

Building on this is a loose skill tree that basically follows the traditional trinity of Damage-dealing, Healing, and Tanking. Medical skills include a useful pulse detection that marks all enemies in range and a portable healing station that provides health over time and can be used by downed teammates to revive themselves from the brink of death.

The Tech tree gives various ways to dominate the battlefield. Sticky bombs and auto turrets provide tactical options that are often crucial to turning the tide of battle. Security skills are all about defense, offering riot shields and portable cover for teammates. It mixes together very well and allows players to find small affectations to the rote shooting mechanics that can make things feel a little less boring. These abilities can also be modified to combine effects. You can have a turret that marks shot enemies or a piece of portable cover that generates health. These modifications are crucial as you move into the endgame and help keep things fresh, although extended play consistently becomes a slog even with these flourishes.

For a social game, The Division is very empty. Manhattan’s environmental design goes a long way to making you feel the isolation, and there are moments of genuine beauty to be found in the dying city. But the lack of other players outside any premade group of squadmates was disappointing.

Said squadmates are essential for experiencing The Division to its fullest. The game is a mediocre shooter but a great social experience. It’s a good time to spend with friends, and hard mode missions demand a great deal of teamwork and coordination, offering some of the game’s best moments. If you’re a lone wolf, you’re going to be missing out considerably.

The one major exception is the Dark Zone. Here, players are free to run into each other, help in emergent gun battles, search for high quality loot, and even go rogue to engage in player versus player content. It functions like a lighter version of DayZ or Rust and while I understand the decision to keep it separate from the main map, it is the only place where you’re likely to find any real dynamism in the game world.

If this was the entire game, I’d be effusive with praise. As it stands, it’s just a reminder of how utterly barren the game is. For a title that always needs to be online, The Division doesn’t really take advantage of that infrastructure in any useful way. What could have been a city full of strange encounters and experiences with other players is left as little more than a massive wasteland. Thematically, it fits and can be affecting -- but on a practical level? It drags the game down, making it feel too lifeless.

All of this is largely secondary to the fact that The Division is a reprehensible political object. My first ten levels were spent shooting generic rioters, the majority of them black men in hoodies. The tone is clear. The game is saying: “Don’t worry, they sell drugs and take hostages! It’s all right to shoot them all in the head!” Give me a break.

It’s all so forced and ugly; this is a game about social downfall and what happens when structures break down and a massive part of the experience is shooting other looters in order to get your own loot. It reaches the realm of unintended satire and almost becomes actual social commentary.

From the crisis scenario finding roots in the consumerism of Black Friday to the process of constantly acquiring loot in an endless cycle of state endorsed violence, the game comes close to saying something before cowering away to double down unironically on the power fantasy. The world of The Division is a libertarian hellscape of selfish individualism. The only reason for setting things after the fall of society is to provide further justification for gross, unimpugnable violence. It’s not just a banal player empowerment exercise; it is a crowning achievement of gaming solipsism.

Any lip service paid to restoring society is utterly hollow and dishonest. While the game does provide a central base that you improve with purchased upgrades -- a medical ward, power substations, and other services -- it doesn’t really want you to restore anything. Bringing back order to the setting would mean an end to the fetishized violence. It would mean an end to the game’s romanticization of the dangerous, distinctly American idea of grabbing the gun off your mantel when things go awry and walking into the chaos to dispense modern frontier justice against hoodlums and thugs.

I can’t say it enough: this game is ideologically ugly as sin. The core experience is passable if you isolate the gameplay and systems from their context, placing it back into the game’s scenario leaves little more than the crudest of politics. It buys into the vile lie that all you need to do to be a hero is fire enough bullets and leave enough corpses on the ground.

In the rare moments when the game does examine things with something approaching nuance, for instance examining the use of a private military company by Wall Street executives in the face of mounting social violence or offering an enemy faction of service workers turned into a secular death cult, there is the glimmer of something insightful and worthwhile. Such moments are few and far between, leaving a game that is just uncomfortable to play when examined outside of the mindless gunplay and government sanctioned murder.

If you have some friends and don’t concern yourself with games as political objects, The Division can be enjoyable. I lost myself in the excitement of boss battles and tactically charged firefights and I could play in the Dark Zone all day. But a game is more than the systems and more than the play; games are texts and The Division is among the most loathsome I’ve ever played. Answer the call only if you’re looking for a good way to pass time with your pals and be wary even then.

Verdict: No