The headline “Why The Division isn’t Destiny for the PC” edrew hollow chuckles from me when I read it the other day. Because it is. It totally is, and trying to pretend otherwise by implementing some nebulously misguided quality standards as a bar separating the two is simple overcontortion of an argument to generate inevitably clickbait-y column inches.
I have a somewhat lower opinion of Destiny than the author of that article, which I suspect is why from my point of view Destiny and The Division sit side by side so comfortably. Given how long these games take to make (both of them were in development for half a decade or so) it’d be unfair to accuse The Division of ripping off Destiny entirely, but I’m sure Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment were very much paying attention to the success of Destiny’s MMO-lite metagame trappings that kept players coming back month after month. It may be bolted to a different genre – the third-person shooter, which very much plays to Ubisoft’s strengths since it seems like every damn game they release is a third-person game — but The Division’s metagame is driven almost solely by that drive to do missions and kill bosses to acquire better, shinier loot that’s been the hallmark of the MMO since time immemorial. In terms of implementation it’s a perfectly adequate system, if a little more unpolished and limited than Destiny’s thanks to The Division being a year and a half behind on the development curve. Where The Division falls down, however, is that this system of shooting hordes of generic mooks to get bigger guns makes absolutely no goddamn sense when you transplant the setting from Magic Future-Earth to modern-day NYC — and worse, actually gets more than a little uncomfortable if you stop to think about it for more than a couple of seconds.
This being a Tom Clancy game, The Division has precisely the sort of right-wing nightmare/masturbatory fantasy for its backstory (delete as appropriate based on your politics) that you’d expect from the dearly-departed master of brick-thick “US Kills Everyone Without Even Trying” potboilers. Somebody has dosed New York with a supercharged variant of anthrax called the Green Poison which promptly spreads out of control, killing thousands and causing an unrealistically rapid breakdown of law and order to the point where the city has been quarantined and the denizens left to fend for themselves. Gangs and other armed groups are running rampant, and the only semblance of government influence left in the city — aside from the scattered (and utterly useless) NPC forces of the National Guard-esque Joint Task Force patrols — are the paramilitary secret agents of the eponymous Division. These guys have carte blanche to shoot as many people as they want in the name of restoring order, so obviously you’re a member since that’s what you spend 70% of your time in this game doing.
One big difference from Destiny is that The Division takes place in one single moderately large map of New York City rather than being split up over 6-7 planets and other areas, and you seamlessly transition between safe areas, the free-roam environment of the city and the scripted mission areas. This means you spend less of your time sitting in loading screens (there’s just one hefty single one when you first load the game, plus a wait whenever you fast travel), which is good because my memories of Destiny are mostly watching my ship fly through a loading screen1. Unfortunately a natural consequence of there not being any equivalent of the Destiny Sparrow hoverbike in the game is that those loading screens have been necessarily replaced by the questionable experience of having to slog your way from point A to point B on foot – this is what you spend the other 30% of your time on in The Division. On the one hand this provides more scope for emergent gun battles with roving patrols of mooks; on the other these get old roughly three hours into the game and end up being annoyances more than anything else, especially since shooting people is what I’m probably going to be doing once I get to my destination anyway. Exploring for its own sake is out of the question; the New York environment is technically very pretty, but there’s practically zero variation from area to area. This is to be expected since it’s trying to render a real place and you can’t really find the scope for fitting, say, a swamp zone, a desert zone and a volcano zone inside a modern-day city. One side of the map looks indistinguishable from the other, and these unchanging visuals are rendered even more bland by that perennial blight of the third-person shooter: a vast, vast quantity of box-shaped waist-high cover that ensures that even when you get down to street level everything looks the goddamn same2..
Speaking of cover, I should say a word about the shooting mechanics, which are as polished as you’ll find in any other title currently on the market — but which don’t do anything outside of currently-accepted genre norms. You crouch behind cover and you headshot the baddies, and if you’re in a group you can think about having one player tank with a shield special ability while the others flank or heal or whatever, and that is how every single encounter with The Division’s walking bullet sponges will go. I did like the system for moving from cover to cover, where there’s a line showing your projected route and holding the spacebar will make your scramble to your target point while pathing around/over any obstacles fairly organically, and I also appreciated that it was possible to suppress enemies by firing half a box magazine of LMG ammo over their heads; suppressed enemies can’t do anything but crouch behind cover, making this a good tactic in a group when you have friends who can take advantage of that to flank them, and otherwise useless because once you stop shooting they recover from being suppressed very quickly. On the flipside the cover system can be more than a little bit finicky in what it does and does not consider to be cover, with the player avatar often refusing to hide behind a seemingly-solid piece of wall because it is too “short” and subsequently getting shot full of holes – this is a cover shooter, after all, and if you’re not physically attached to cover you die very quickly.
The weapons themselves are fine for what they are. There’s a decent selection of shotguns, SMGs, sniper rifles etc. on offer, and they all sound great and handle well (there’s a particularly satisfying headshot sound effect). This effort is unfortunately muted somewhat by the actual effect your weapons have in-game, with even regular mook enemies often taking most of a clip of assault rifle ammunition to put down. If you’re in a group fighting purple or gold enemies (i.e. the standard MMO/ARPG colour-coding for elite and champion goons) then you can pump a hundred rounds of 7.62mm ammo into them and it’ll shave off maybe two thirds of their health bar – and that’s if you were aiming for the head. It’s still possible to do significant amounts of damage to non-boss enemies with headshots from a slow-firing sniper rifle — all weapons of the same type, quality and level will do roughly the same amount of DPS, but a rifle that fires less often will do more damage per shot and thus gets more out of the headshot crit bonus, as well as using less ammo overall — but otherwise your weapons appear to be dismayingly weak and that robs a lot of the satisfaction of using them.
This brings me on to possibly the biggest non-thematic problem I have with The Division, and it loops back around to the “makes sod-all sense” problem I mentioned at the start of the review, and which the rest of it is going to focus on. The weapons appear weak because the enemies are tough. The enemies are tough because The Division is a quasi-MMO, and tough enemies are basically necessary in order to provide the player with a suitably grindy challenge. This is acceptable – or at least doesn’t break suspension of disbelief all that hard – when your enemies are heavily-armoured aliens or frothing orc berserkers, as these are fantastic creatures that might have a similarly fantastic level of durability. It’s less acceptable when they’re just people. People do not get back up after being shot in the head by a heavy-calibre sniper rifle. People are not merely staggered by a full box magazine of M60 ammo. It’s the same problem I have with playing CoD on hard mode multiplied by a hundred; The Division has made a conscious choice to have a modern-day setting, but it can’t reconcile that with its mechanics and this throws the gamey nature of it into sharp relief. And because The Division wants to be an MMO, it’s super gamey.
Take the guns, again. I got my first M60 at around level 8. It was a nice gun for the level, and with some modifications I was able to give it a 120 round clip that basically let me shoot for ever. At this point I wasn’t regularly fighting purple enemies so those 120 round woulds put down, oh, three or four guys if I was shooting straight – still unreasonably tough, but I could kill them quickly enough that it didn’t feel like too much of an issue. As I levelled further the damage of the M60 started to drop off in comparison to the health of the bad guys, and this is the point where an MMO would usually throw a different fictional sword or laser gun at you with the argument that it does more damage because it’s enchanted or comes from a different manufacturer or something. Not The Division, though. The Division’s approach was to offer me another M60, this time at level 15. It looked the same as the old M60. It was the same quality as the old M60. It just happened to do 50% more damage because it was a level 15 gun as opposed to a level 8 gun. Weapons are constantly recycled in this fashion, with damage being determined by their level rather than what the weapon is — not only does this make no sense, but it also contributes to that problem with sameiness that I talked about earlier, as the weapons you are using at level 10 are the same as the ones you are using at level 30. They just do more damage now, is all.
This is an issue that extends to the enemies, who are members of one of four factions. One of them is the Last Man Standing PMC, who are edging their way into becoming the fourth member of the Universally Acceptable Enemies club (the first three being Nazis, zombies and aliens). They don’t show up until the end game, though, and their introduction is the first thing to shake the game up in a good long while since they like to fight using a lot of grenades fired from underbarrel launchers. For the first fifteen hours of the game, though, you’re fighting one of the first three groups of enemies. You’ve got your basic faction of “rioters” that The Division conflates with criminal gangs and whose just reward is to be shot on sight. Then you’ve got a group of escaped prisoners called the Rikers; if you maybe feel a little conflicted about indiscriminately murdering these less-advantaged segments of society the game justifies it by showing you flashbacks of them all turning into deranged axe murderers the moment the quarantine went into effect, which I think says rather more about The Division’s writers and designers than they possibly intended. The same is true for the Cleaners, who are basically a bunch of blue-collar workers — the city’s garbage men, in effect — who have inexplicably decided to try to cleanse the infection by burning everyone who has it. Alive.
Once again, not only does it make precisely zero sense that society would break down to the point where you have binmen roaming the streets with flamethrowers to roast people inside their cars, but since all of these groups are introduced in the first two hours of the game (and the mechanical difference between them is so small anyway) you’re effectively fighting the same baddies throughout the entire thing. For twenty hours. The only difference between a level 5 enemy and a level 30 enemy is the size of their healthbar and their damage output. The same goes for the quests and side missions you undertake in each area of the game; after you unlock the main hub area you get a mission to go to a safe house that’s a brisk couple of minutes’ walk away. Once you’re there, you get 1-2 “main” missions (think Strikes or dungeon runs; these are scripted experiences but every single one of them is just “shoot a bunch of dudes”) and 5-6 side missions. The side missions come in one of about seven types, but five of them (bounties, disrupt the arms deal, defend the supplies, defend the JTF officer, rescue the hostages) are completed by shooting people and so are functionally identical with minor variations. Again, though, you’ll see all of them in your first two hours with The Division, and I really hope you like them because that’s all the game has to offer for the next eighteen. Well, that and the Dark Zone.
Somewhat paradoxically the Dark Zone is the single shining point of light in The Division’s otherwise bleak MMO-esque landscape. You see, The Division goes a little light on the “massively” part of the descriptor as the entire game world is instanced rather than sharded. I’d occasionally see other players running around in Destiny finishing their own quests and in one case even randomly ran into a few high-level friends who were completing some dailies, but there’s naff all chance of that happening in The Division because the only place where you can even see other players are the insides of the safe houses. Once you go out of the safe house door you’re into the instanced portion of the game that’s shared only by you and whoever you happen to be partied with. This makes the vast majority of The Division more of a co-op game with an overelaborate loot/crafting system than it is even a pseudo-MMO.
(Personally I think the descriptor is still accurate considering how many of the MMO mechanics it steals; it just forgets to include the other players for the most part.)
Anyway, the only place you can encounter other players who are actually playing the game is in a walled-off area in the centre of the map called the Dark Zone. This area has been completely abandoned by the authorities; there are no quests and no JTF presence. The only inhabitants of the Dark Zone are groups of very tough purple and gold enemies who drop better-quality loot than non-Dark Zone enemies. If you succeed in downing one of these groups and picking up a nice epic-level machine gun, you’ll find you have two obstacles to overcome before you can actually use it. The first is that the Dark Zone is the area of the city where the virus infection is at its most severe; anything you pick up inside it is heavily contaminated and can’t be taken out through the ground-level checkpoints. Instead you have to call for a special extraction helicopter to remove those items and (presumably) take them to some sort of lab where they can be disinfected. Dark Zone items are kept in a special section of your inventory with a very limited number of slots, so it’s likely that even if you’re being selective you’ll have filled it up within twenty minutes or so and you’ll have to call for an extraction. And this is where things get interesting, because:
- Calling for an extraction helicopter sends out an alert to any nearby players with your location and the amount of time remaining before the helicopter arrives.
- Because the Dark Zone is also The Division’s PvP area, those nearby players can come and shoot you.
- And because you drop your Dark Zone inventory on death, they can then steal your items and extract them using your extraction helicopter.
This is a setup that’s supposed to promote paranoia and infighting amongst the various groups of players scavenging the Dark Zone for items. You’re always supposed to be watching your back in case any opportunistic bandits come along and decide they want your stuff. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work that way; if you shoot another player you get marked on everyone’s map as a Rogue Agent and become fair game to be killed yourself without any repercussions, and in my experience (from the other side) this will result in a constant stream of law-abiding players trying to storm your location and collect the sizeable bounty on your head. This makes it highly unlikely that you’ll be able to extract with your ill-gotten gains, and so most people don’t go Rogue since it isn’t worth the risk; the Dark Zone is for the most part a pretty well-mannered area where the players actually help each other out (since you’ll get a loot drop if you cause some damage to a named baddie even if it’s being shot by five other people at the same time) instead of killing each other. However, there is a minority of players that will try it on just for fun, and the experience of being cold-cocked from behind while you were engaged with an elite group of mobs does lend future ventures into the Dark Zone a certain nervous thrill that the rest of the game is sorely lacking.
The Dark Zone is accessible from level 10 (so about four hours in) which is one of the rare good decisions The Division makes; it’s the sort of thing I’d usually expect to be locked off for the endgame, and the fact that I can split my time between scavenger hunts in the Dark Zone and more braindead mashing of the fire button in the regular game is refreshing – and necessary. Outside of the Dark Zone The Division is nothing more than a mishmash of mechanics and features that might be individually well-executed but which are tied together by a nonsensical metagame that doesn’t even try to adapt itself to its setting3. As for that setting, it is remarkably dull with a backstory that has more than a few questionable overtones (the last time I played a game this unpleasant was Splinter Cell: Blacklist, but that at least had the saving grace of otherwise being an excellent stealth game) and a main plot that might as well be nonexistent. I wasn’t too impressed with Destiny when I played it, but The Division’s mistakes rather ironically demonstrate how much Bungie got right and my opinion of it has retroactively improved just a little bit. And that’s about the best thing I’m going to take away from it since I’m deleting it from my hard drive now and I’m not looking back. Adios, The Division.
- The parts that aren’t are some great shootouts with the Vex on Venus. Destiny wasn’t the best of games, but it certainly had the FPS mechanics and the scenery nailed down tight. ↩
- An impression not helped by the UI, which is the same AR horseshit you’ll find in every other Ubisoft game. ↩
- This is another reason why the Dark Zone is good: it is the only place in the game that takes the theme of a virus infection and incorporates it into the gameplay. ↩