by Adi Stein
As I’m wandering through an abandoned, dying New York I stumble across a small group of people. It’s a pair, actually, huddled over what looks like a dead body. They seem to be trying to scavenge anything they can from it. They need supplies. Fair. This is the apocalypse and you need to do what it takes to survive. After all, he’s dead. He’s not gonna miss the stuff.
Then I hear them start talking to each other. They’re talking about bringing supplies back for their group. Okay. They’re helping people. That’s good. But then things change.
A red health bar appears over their heads. A grenade icon is on the left of one of their health bars and a gun icon is on the left of the other’s. These are some bad dudes. I know it because if they weren’t bad dudes, no health bar or iconography would pop up. That’s just how morality in The Division works.
So what do I do? I take out my sniper rifle and pop one of them in the head. He doesn’t go down and now both of them know I’m here. I do it again. Another clear headshot. He still doesn’t go down. Now they’re in cover and taking shots at me. One of them lobs a grenade as I put one more bullet into his friend’s skull. The friend goes down with a satisfying zip and the other guy takes off running. I take out an assault rifle and mow him down as he tries to escape. I see that they’ve both dropped some clothes and weapons. I run over to their bodies, bend down, and retrieve their supplies. Thank goodness I was there to stop these two villains.
Now you probably read that small story and thought to yourself, “Wait wait wait. This makes no sense.” That’s a totally fair assessment of the situation. In fact, what’d I say is response would be, “Welcome to The Division.”
See, The Division is a game filled with those exact types of contradictions. Set in a gritty, devastated, and “real” New York, The Division casts you in the role of a super secret government agent tasked with restoring order... through massive amounts of violence and bloodshed. What does this actually mean from a gameplay perspective? It means that The Division is a loot driven third-person shooter with a structure placed somewhere between Assassin’s Creed and Destiny.
Now I recognize that for some people, hearing Assassin’s Creed and Destiny in the same sentence is an instant turnoff. That’s fair. Those are two franchises whose histories are bogged down by intense mediocrity. A mediocrity that The Division fails to escape. And yet I love The Division all the same.
Currently my character (Shirley Graham, if you must know) is level 15. I’ve invested probably about 5-10 hours in the game, and I’m having a blast. Admittedly, I am a sucker for loot games. I love Diablo and Borderlands and I used to be one of those self-hating Destiny players (“used to be” in that I haven’t played Destiny in months). But there is something more to the loop of this game.
A large part of it is how easygoing the game is. It doesn’t demand a lot of your time. It only demands as much of your time as you want to give it at any given moment. The missions, while repetitive and limited in scope, do offer a range of options when it comes to time required to complete them. The map is littered with smaller, 5 minutes tasks to complete while more substantive missions exist if you have a few hours. What’s important about all of this, though, is that it means there’s always something to do. I never feel like I’m wasting my time in the game. Whether I have 15 minutes before I need to go somewhere or I have the afternoon free, I can complete and accomplish something in this game. I can build and forward my character in some way.
That character building is the central part of the feedback loop that has me really enjoying on this game. The moment to moment gameplay is fine. It’s far from the best gunplay in gaming, but it gets the job done and it’s satisfying to nail those headshots. All of that plays into rebuilding your base, which expands in surprising and satisfying ways that make you feel like you’ve really accomplished something when it comes to restoring some sense of peace and order to this war-torn city. And on a more personal, individual level, every new piece of gear or clothing that I find, makes me feel like I’m building my character in some meaningful way. She’s becoming more prepared to take on my favorite part of the game: The Dark Zone.
The Dark Zone is the closest thing to competitive multiplayer that The Division has. It’s an open area in the game where enemies drop the best loot. You then have to collect that loot and get it extracted via helicopter. The trick is that other players can see that you have loot and they can decide to “go rogue” and kill you for it. This has lead to some incredibly tense moments in which I’ve backed away from people who have helped me or attacked those who look weak. It’s kill or be killed or run for your life and it’s thrilling.
But it’s also not all that demanding. You don’t need to spend hours upon hours playing in The Dark Zone to get good. It’s the same gameplay as the rest of the game. You know what you’re getting into. The problem with Destiny’s multiplayer was that fact that it could be perfected. There were certain load outs for specific character that lead to guaranteed victories for those players. It was a nightmare to play against. But in The Dark Zone you never know what is going to happen. At any given moment someone could come along and save or annihilate you. It’s incredibly exciting and just as lengthy and involved as you want it to be.
In fact, that’s probably the highest praise I have for The Division as a whole: you only need to engage with it as much as you want. Right now, in my life, I have very little time to myself to play games. I’m still powering through The Witness and the Bloodborne DLC, but those games require 100% of my time and concentration when I’m playing them. It’s nice to have a game like The Division, in which I can hop in with some friends, shoot a few enemies, get some better guns, and be done for that moment. Does the world of The Division make sense? No. Am I emotionally invested in the arcs of any of the NPCs? Certainly not. This is no The Last of Us. It’s not even a God of War in terms of story and story telling. But it is a lot of fun. It is mindless excitement and it is filled with thrilling instances of tension and accomplishment. Is it the best game I’ve ever played? God no. It’s not even the best game I’ve played this year. But it is a blast and everything I need from my gaming right now, and that’s good enough for me.