If you haven't yet played Tom Clancy's The Division, you're missing out. It's too early to tell how long it will last, but The Division has been a good deal of fun so far. Its vision for a post-apocalyptic Manhattan is amazingly realized, and the sobering sense of wonder you'll feel wandering its snowy, abandoned streets is gripping. But I can't help but feel disappointed with how carelessly The Division treats that lovingly crafted world.
With Destiny, The Division, and a huge host of multiplayer-centric titles borrowing common elements popularized by MMORPGs, it's a problem that seems to becoming worse and worse. Video games are stealing basic formulas wholesale and then stitching them on without giving much thought to how that formula blends with the rest of the game. And The Division is bursting with borrowed ideas. Chris Coke, earlier today, listed out some of the good things The Division can teach RPGs, and he's not wrong. But here, I'll list some things I don't think are quite right.
Iteration is an important aspect of game design. It's that replication and refinement of ideas that made World of Warcraft so amazing when it first launched, and it continues to shape popular video games, turning rough ideas into shining and memorable features. But where the somber tones of The Division begin to feel muddled is when blending its vision for a post-apocalyptic shooter with an RPG progression system in order to add more depth. I like the idea a lot, but The Division proves there's plenty room to improve.
For one, by incorporating basic RPG mechanics, The Division feels like it is constantly tearing down any sense of world building it is trying to establish. That unwillingness to adapt to what would best suit its needs aren't massive problems in the moment to moment gunplay, but they add up over time to create an experience that can really struggle with feeling coherent.
A great example of the ways in which The Division just can't seem to make up its mind is with the gear vendors who populate each of the social areas and safe houses you can discover. In a video game about how money was the catalyst for a devastating plague, The Division seems totally unaware of how out of place that kind of basic economy seems. The themes of the story and the nature of the game are continually at odds with one another. If I'm some government agent meant to save Manhattan from chaos, why in god's name do I have to pay for my weapons? What possible use could that vendor have for my money, especially when I'm the one that's going to help that guy get home to his kids when all this is over?
But the tensions between The Division's world building and gameplay don't stop there, and all of it is a symptom of Ubisoft wanting to create a game that feels so realistic while carelessly bolting on systems that actively work to deconstruct that sense of realism. When you're watching a dashcam of two police officers being ambushed by Cleaners, The Division can feel alarmingly real. But when I found someone on the street needing some food and in exchange they gave me a shotgun more powerful than anything I had found on my own (or bought), it was hard to take The Division seriously. It felt like just a game.
The Division has me convinced that the bigger a game aspires to be, the harder it can be to create an experience that is complemented by all of its components. It's a problem that so many open world games have, as they can't possibly account for all of the freedom players are allowed. It creates a feeling of dissonance, from the bullet-sponge enemies wearing nothing more than a track jacket, to the fact that civilians are magically invincible to your bullets (but dogs aren't?).
It's a shame too, because The Division is a still a good—maybe even great—game, but it can't go two feet without having an internal conflict between its need to portray a devastated Manhattan and be a good RPG, and I get the feeling that Ubisoft didn't even try to make those two aspects get along. While I'm enjoying so much of it, I'm disappointed how often I have to shrug off even the most basic of questions about what the game is telling me. If Lau and I are the last agents of The Division, why is every safe house I enter swarming with other players who are also agents? This has been a problem with MMORPGs since the dawn of time: They tell you you're "the chosen one" without acknowledging the thousands of other "chosen ones" running around alongside you. The Division paints you as Manhattan's last hope, and then straight up refuses to acknowledge every other player you meet.
That lack of self-awareness is disappointing. It's also something that I suspect will be ignored by a large portion of players who are fixated on getting the next gun. And all I can think about is how troubling it is that The Division can't recognize the irony that you're a military agent incapable of non-lethal engagements with civilians ravaged by desperation.
These complaints might deal with problems that are subtle in nature, but they're also crucial in pushing video games towards treating the balance of their themes and design with more tact and care—especially when they're trying to hold a mirror up to our own society. It's what gives Borderlands and Grand Theft Auto a get out of jail free card, in a sense. When they lack coherent design that complements the story and world building, they can shrug it off with a sly joke. But The Division's attempt to explore the brutality of humanity at the end of its rope feels deflated by its own unwillingness to commit by building a game that supports that vision.