In all likelihood, though, my prejudices fogged my perception. Since its gameplay reveal at last year’s E3, I’ve sensed that “The Division” would be one of those games that was completely knowable before you played it: a cover-based shooter à la “Gears of War” blended with the multiplayer, RPG elements of “Destiny.” I would not revise that judgment even after sinking over fifty hours into completing its story and many of its side missions. But its hyper-detailed theaters of combat strung me along like a hooked trout.
Ubisoft purchased the Tom Clancy trademark in 2008. As a prefix, it signals that the “The Division” is a game about covert operatives drenched in the paranoid style of American politics that Richard Hofstadter identified in 1964. In his Harper’s essay, Hofstadter wrote, “I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.” In the conspiratorial fantasy of “The Division,” a guy on the radio is irate that the government has sleeper cells in our country and cops are slaughtered by self-righteous criminals.
You’re part of a second wave of secret agents to be activated after a weaponized version of smallpox was unleashed on the populace of New York during the height of the holiday season. The first wave of agents slipped off the radar after they were sent to investigate the situation on the ground. On the mostly deserted streets of Manhattan, vehicles lie about like metallic husks serving as bulwarks for urban combat. Gun-toting cliques and escapees from Rikers Island fight against you in their bid for territory. The few civilians you encounter wander around in a state of shock. At times, they scrap with each other over resources. About the only way you can interact with them is to give them something from your kit, such as a bottle of water. Generosity like this can earn you experience points. But in the game, a bottle of water is no trifle. After you consume one you do more damage to elite enemies.
This RPG’s path towards empowerment is tied to the civilian good — links between violence and idealism are made throughout the campaign. Specific combat opportunities allow you to acquire supplies to upgrade a base of operations. Medical, tech, and security wings can be set up to unlock different perks. Spend your medical supplies on an intensive care unit and you’ll unlock a perk that will allow you to revive downed allies; spend your tech supplies on a backup water purification rig and you’ll get access to mods for a deployable turret.
While missions can be ventured solo, the game favors co-op play. The more people you play with, the more enemies you face, the more opportunity for item drops and experience points. I found prowling the mostly barren streets of Manhattan much more enjoyable in the company of genial people. Our chatter helped fill the vacuum of exploring the cationic city. Group dynamics are vital to success. If your teammates are oblivious to reviving their downed fellows, chances are your group will face a number of retries especially when attempting a story mission on Hard.
“The Division” rewards tactical thinking. One memory I retain from my week with the game involved running up and crouching behind a concrete abutment, while on the other side an enemy was shooting. I tossed a health station behind me to regenerate my health then tossed a turret behind the armored gunner. As he staggered from the turret, I popped up from behind cover and eliminated him.
Sealed off from the rest of the city because of its high contamination levels, The Dark Zone is the game’s pvp (player vs. player) area. As someone who is usually indifferent to multiplayer (unless it’s “Splatoon”), I found the The Dark Zone’s take on pvp interesting insofar as it’s optional. The Dark Zone is filled with high-level enemies. It’s as possible another player could come to your aid as it is that they might try to pluck you off and steal whatever loot you’ve found in the Dark Zone. Aside from the painstaking care that has gone into recreating the city as an elaborate background, the game’s allowance for this sort of ambiguity may be its greatest strength.
I liked the variety of interiors that can be found throughout the city, which reduces the feeling that one is in a Potemkin village. The shootout in the U.N.’s General Assembly was one of a number of primal, sensory-rattling moments that held my attention. For all of its blunt narrative exposition, the game efficiently propels the action from beat to beat. If “Destiny” is the metric of comparison, I’d say “The Division” does it better. Whether that’s enough for you, I suspect you already know.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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