I still remember Christmas morning of 1987 getting my first toy Hess Truck. It’s to this day a perennial present for many boys throughout the northeast where the oil conglomerate is centered, any of whom could identify the iconic bold font and green-and-white color scheme of the company’s logo. It’s a company closely connected to the city. It has its headquarters in the real Manhattan, right on 6th Avenue, and the skyline is visible from many of Hess’ former terminals in the surrounding harbors, including two my father used to manage in Bayonne and Brooklyn, as well as the one across from Staten Island where I first got my start in the industry. One of the earliest missions in Tom Clancy’s The Division had my character plant plastic explosives to one of the green and white “HS Fuels” trucks ubiquitous throughout the game. The allusion was clear, even if my feelings on blowing up a beloved childhood toy/symbol of my former employer were not.
Still, the presence of the HS trucks and gas stations spoke to the earnest with which developer Massive approached recreating New York City. It’s not one-for-one. I don’t recall coming across HS Fuel’s corporate headquarters on the Avenue of the Americas, nor Midtown Comics (a requisite pilgrimage for any visit to Gotham) on the walk from Penn Station to Times Square, but nonetheless, the fidelity with which the city and its many landmarks are rendered render The Division as the most beautiful game world yet seen. It is nothing short of transportational. My apartment is three blocks from a train station, a forty-five minute ride which will place me right on 32nd Street, as it has innumerable times. Or I can boot up my copy of the game file and in less than sixty seconds I’m there. Especially at max setting (playing on PC, running a GTX 980 Ti with 16 GB of RAM and a SSD) at 3440×1440 resolution, there no difference between a screenshot of the game and a photograph of the city. It’s hardly hyperbole to say that the New York City in The Division is New York City.
But much like midtown Manhattan in the game’s fiction, Tom Clancy’s The Division is a vibrant and robust play space contaminated throughout by a singular disease. And as New York City is one of the most majestic modern metropolises, The Division is one of the most compelling and immersive third-person shooters in recent memory, making the infection all the more tragic.
Publisher Ubisoft describes The Division as a persistent online game. Such is a misnomer. The Division is a traditional shooter/role-playing hybrid in the vein of BioShock and Mass Effect with an invasive Digital Rights Management (DRM) that renders the game utterly unplayable when not constantly connected to the Ubisoft servers. As with other online games, servers go down on a regular basis for maintenance, the next Xbox Live and PlayStation Network outages are at the whims of hackers beyond Ubisoft’s purview, and from before launch the permanent night that will one day befall the city when the servers are forever shut down already looms large. It happened to The Matrix Online. It happened to Star Wars Galaxies. It will happen to The Division. It’s only a matter of when.
Such reduces the fully-priced game to a (hopefully long-term) rental. Ubisoft calls this “games as a service.” Such is a disservice. The player is in no way served by not having ownership over the product for which he paid, free to play when he wants and modify how he wants. In interviews such as the one linked above, Ubisoft conflates the concepts of constant connectivity with post-release content. Innumerable games have had season passes and other scheduled downloadable content without the added DRM with which Ubisoft has infected The Division. This DRM is nothing short of malware, a computer virus which weakens the game, digitally designed just as the Smallpox stain in the game’s story; like the presence of the Ubisoft office in the game itself, such is certainly meta, though in the case of the former inappropriately so.
Moreover, this one design decision worsened many other aspects of the game compared to its offline brethren of the same genre. For a role-playing game, the role you play is incredibly shallow, bereft of any meaningful or even interesting choices. You play as an agent of the titular Division, presumably named “Agent,” as that is the only name the various non-player characters will ever address you by, and the character creation menu has no field in which to create a name. Whether you’re canonically mute-and-dumb is never outright established, though such is left to the player to infer as his avatar has no dialogue, either voiced or text even. The customization options for Agent’s visual appearance are likewise anemic, though at least given the limited toolset I was able to construct a suitably hipster avatar befitting the game’s Brooklyn beginning.
The above shortcomings, all aberrations in the role-playing genre, are directly the result of the game being designed around online cooperative multiplayer. The lack of narrative choices is in part to prevent players from creating contradictory game worlds from one another, partially because Ubisoft is counting on the open world to create an emergent narrative for the player to find, and mostly because Ubisoft envisions The Division as a social experience over and against a narrative one.
I put such to the test on launch day, playing the Lincoln Tunnel mission with my old college roommate. We discussed my recent birthday party (the greatest which Hub City has ever seen!) and his upcoming bachelor party (Vegas!), but it was socialization while playing the game, not socialization through playing the game. Catching up was something he and I were doing while sitting at our computers; our characters were merely speaking out-of-character, breaking the immersion instead of adding to it. Perhaps we could have made an effort to role-play, but the game offered no tools to encourage or enable such. (Which was a shame, because I had a great idea for Agent Mathieu, a faux-French fashionista more concerned with looting haute couture clothes than stopping the outbreak and restoring order.)
The customization is likewise limited by the game’s need to process the potential permutation of every player’s avatar. Whereas Dragon Age: Inquisition or Fallout 4 could have an extensive array of sliders for every facial feature imaginable, the presence of other players prohibits such a key feature of the role-playing experience. The options afforded the player are passable, but hardly praiseworthy.
Such negativity belies the overwhelmingly positive experience I’ve had with the game thus far (I’m 39 hours in, having hit max level, unlocked every base upgrade, beaten every story mission, and spent some time in the Dark Zone), but the problematic nature of Ubisoft’s design directives bore mentioning. Other than the Dark Zone, every part of this game could have been offline and be better for it. But if I’m frustrated by this flaw, it’s only because this is a game for which I have such love otherwise. 2016 has been a particularly rich year for gaming thus far (Oxenfree, XCOM 2, major expansions to Smash Bros. and Mortal Kombat X, and I personally just got to Pokémon Omega Ruby), and yet The Division is far and away the best thus far.
This is the game I’ve most been looking forward to since E3 2013, and it absolutely delivers. The experience promised in that first cinematic trailer and pre-alpha footage is nearly exactly the same as the final product. I wish I could rhapsody on all the things this game does right, from smartly designed environments and the tactile feel of traversing such to the quirky quest givers, each brimming with as much personality as the neighborhoods they inhabit. Or the graphical user-interface, among the most undervalued features in any game, and never so gorgeously implemented as in this game. Each of these and more deserve multiple paragraphs of praise, but I haven’t the time to write; I’m too eager to get back to playing The Division. And for all my misgivings, I have to recommend you play it as well.