The Division-Cognitive Dissonance Laid Bare

Joe Kohlburn  joe profile


 

Tom Clancy would probably vote for John Kasich in the Republican Primaries. Playing The Division over Super Tuesday, I couldn’t help wonder what the late spec-ops porn author would make of Donald Trump. In some odd ways, the game reflects the ongoing turmoil between differing factions in our country. For instance, the various gangs I’ve encountered each express some nihilistic quasi-anarchic/ blue-color populist outrage. The cleaners, much like tea party republicans, want to just burn everything and start again. Who can blame them, really, dystopian New York is a shithole- stray dogs, people in abject poverty, struggling against a corrupt police state…Ok, so let’s call it a change in tone, if not content.  The premise, essentially, is that a group of terrorists laced a large quantity of currency with a biological weapon, the so-called ‘dollar flu’ that basically brought about the end of the world as we know it. For some reason, survivors included not only the fittest and most crafty, but also…well…commodity culture. So weird you guys, but more on that later.

I feel compelled to make a case for this game, because I am ultimately selfish and would love to convince my friends to play this with me (don’t worry, Tom Clancy is dead, he can’t write any more books). To that end, the gameplay is engaging, if slightly repetitive. You spend most of your time noodling around with equipment screens (like every other mmo you’ve ever played), and ducking between cover. Yet there is something unique about this venture. Could it be the soaring beautiful environments, the innovative skill system, or the deep customization?  Maybe, but when I say ‘unique’ I don’t necessarily mean good. It has been variously referred to elsewhere that a dissonance exists between world and what you can actually affect vis-a-vis said world. This painstakingly-rendered environment and the fact that you can’t, for instance, sit in a chair or talk to civilians. It’s like someone who usually just makes shooters decided, what the hell, how hard can making an mmo be?

This is a bit like comparing Doom 3 to Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, but bear with me… What other MMOs like Elder Scrolls Online, for example, get right is not just a gorgeous environment, but a profound connection between that environment and the player. The Division sets up a deep customization system, and the aforementioned luminous environment, but really fails to make any connection between the two. It makes one feel a bit like the Bubble Boy. A thin invisible membrane between you and the world, and the only way to affect the scene is with ponderous space-suit arms that are really only good for a couple of things- in the case of The Division, killing and climbing on rooftops.. I spent the entire first 15 levels not grouping with a damn person, because that’s how I roll in shooters, particularly when my potentials group mates have handles like ‘LoHwang69’ and ‘Mr_Rodgers’. The experience is clearly intended for groups, but single player still feels doable, (much the same as ‘lone wolf’ mode in any other Tom Clancy game might). Outside of the DZ, there is no real penalty to dying- so far as I can tell.

 

Untitled
Your username deserves a condescending golf-clap.
dogs
Also no penalty for shooting dogs, so far as I can tell. I plan to find out if there are dogs in the DZ so I can just go around avenging my furry friends from rogue agents.

 

I’m not fanboy gung-ho about this game, so why am I shilling for these fucks? Well, I don’t need a game to be perfect, first of all. Secondly, I think this game is a step toward what I want MMOs to be. There are real settings, and real ideas at work here. We are not traversing the dunes of Tatooine, or in the greater forests of Norath, The Division  takes place in dystopian New York. This is something new-ish and somewhat brave. A terrorist-enduced future in the big apple?! Can you imagine this shit happening in the early 00’s?I would go so far as to say the grind is enjoyable, for what it is. If you are someone who doesn’t need your game to be all things at once, and can get behind a shooter-looter (thanks for that one TotalBiscuit) with good mechanics (and an admittedly feeble story- blame, Clancy plz), I suspect you will be able to sink your teeth into this one. The gun combat feels authentic, honestly, all bullet-sponge bitching aside- if you get a sniper rifle, or a shotgun, you can absolutely one-shot most enemies (aside from bosses). Customization of skill trees is almost metaphysical- you’re upgrading a base that in turn, upgrades your skills and provides you with more advantages. As you build, the npcs (most of whom you can’t talk to, of course) become more organized and less restless. You can build a shooting range to test new weapons, an appearance merchants to grab that trendy neckwarmer (actual item name), and even a war room to coordinate your missions.

 

That said, I have some serious post-apocalyptic bones to pick with this one. First, Commodity Culture- are we so entrenched in our drive toward consumption that even a mutant biophage can’t snap us out of it? When I’m fleeing murderous zealots with flame throwers, do I really need to duck into a blown-out H&M to grab a new scarf? Is the ultimate reward for murdering thousands upon thousands of desperate survivor gang-members just slightly better kneepads, and a new MP5? Really? I feel like one of the writers for this game was really trying to say something interesting and profound, except he clearly wasn’t the head writer, and so had to resort to subtle cues and culture context toilet stall-wall style. It’s even worked into a sort of direct-reward morality system. When you see a person wondering about, zombie-like, through the wreckage of Chelsea, you can hand her an energy bar, and she will literally give you a parka (you also net ~200 xp). Perhaps a more robust story outside the main missions you get to do every 2-5 levels would enable simply completing the objectives to feel like reward enough? Another gripe would be the socio-political ‘Tom Clancy’ obliviousness I allude to above (which I ramble about in the videos), but I will spare you in text from this tirade.

If you watch either of the let’s plays posted throughout, you’ll see there are a lot of things you might glean from this game,  numerous benefits you might derive- let me put it this way: In one of the safehouses, there’s a sign that says ‘take what you need’ next to a pile of guns, guitars, and ammo. I think this is an apt metaphor for the entire experience. If you are willing to approach this game for what it is- think Farcry meets Hellscape-London in third person- you can definitely use your imagination to project yourself into the silent protagonist. Since the physical characterization (aside from winter fashion choices) is so bland, you do get an opportunity to actually imagine what your character is thinking and feeling, rather than simply being told.

High-points

  • Immersive, beautiful environments
  • Grind is enjoyable
  • Darkzone is fairly different than PVE
  • Customization is interesting, base building is a nice touch
  • Gun combat feels good

Lows

  • Bullet sponging (some)
  • Repetitive if you aren’t into online
  • Single-player is enjoyable, but it’s clear this game was designed for multiplayer
  • Weird superficial gang interaction
  • Bosses are faceless, and many you never actually see close-up
  • Melee combat is terrible
  • Traversal is limited. It’s like they were too ambitious and had to scale back some parts.

 

So many guitars you guys!
If ever the abundance of acoustic guitars were warranted, it’s in this game.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s