The game hasn’t even started; I’m sitting through a presentation style tutorial, when Hamish Bode ‘one of the community developers’ drops a line that sets an alarm bell chiming in my head; “Our game is an RPG” he begins with no shortage of redundancy “and as such, skills will make all the difference in combat”. Oh Hamish, it would seem we’re diametrically opposed here; to me, in combat SKILL should make all the difference, it a very small distinction, just an ‘s’, but in the gaming vernacular it means a lot.
So immediately I’m on the back foot, but I try not to jump to conclusions, the game hasn’t even started yet after all, let’s see how the situation develops. At length I get to it, a randomised character selection and standard opening cinematic later, I’m dropped into a snowy Manhattan and commence following an orange line; there’s a person speaking at me from my TV and my Dualshock, spooling off information about Quartermasters and HQ’s, but with the floating line indicating my exact path to progression they’re both rendered extraneous.
On reflection this highlights one of the problems I had with The Division; it doesn’t take a particularly keen eye to notice the attention to detail put into the visuals, the atmospherics and amount of minutia are both impressive, the world feels very legitimate, but all of that is unfortunately undercut by mechanics that tell you exactly where to go, and highlight any usable items very plainly. As such, for all its rich detail, the game doesn’t require you to interact with it, seems like a waste to me, a removal of extremely overt way-pointing and an added emphasis on exploration and attention to detail would have played perfectly into the design.
It didn’t take long for me to amble into a gunfight at a check point, and here’s where things became very clear, and my inevitable disappointment set in. I say inevitable, not because I’m a gluttonous pessimist, but because I’ve been keeping an eye on the game and had taken an educated guess that it wouldn’t be for me. Suffice to say, when I entered into the gunfight, set my sights on a mook and let off a gratifyingly kicky burst from my M4, the explosions of numbers that erupted from him added ten fold to the already creeping ludonarrative dissonance. You have to forgive my use of that term, I know it was bandied around fairly freely by gaming press; but it really does fit The Division; let me explain.
As mentioned already; the world is very well realised, so is the movement and cover implementation; weapon handling is also well simulated; all in all, the game adheres to the Clancy legacy of realism. In that way it’s all the more jarring when numbers fly out of shot enemies, and the aforementioned gratifying M4 burst that peppers chest to head, has to be repeated four times to drop a guy in a hoodie. The genres don’t really meld, in fact it feels like a promising tactical shooter has been high-jacked by the kind of content you encounter in lazy, repetitive MMORPGs (i.e. all of them). Quickly the game became boring; the same old routine, go here, seek cover, shoot it out with a few waves of chumps, then two or three higher level chumps, distinguished only by being higher capacity bullet sponges. When I think about the games contemporaries, perhaps Destiny, or Borderlands, both those games had an abstraction from reality that made the number chipping combat a better fit, if nonetheless repetitive in my opinion. I suppose The Division could be the game that certain people have been waiting for, being that it is the first of the shooter RPG’s to have a realistic aesthetic, but for me, the term shooter RPG itself will be oxymoronic as long as devs cling to the number based health bar system. To return to it, I want my ‘skill’ to decide the fight, not my ‘skills’. Though I must add, even though it destroys my previous statement! It’s only fair to say that the skills I encountered in the beta were fairly well thought out and didn’t include anything that further jarred with the setting, that was more of a general RPG swipe!
Ultimately, The Division is a well made game and if this genre is your thing; it’ll certainly deliver. Alas the genre definitely isn’t my thing, but I’m fine with that, there are other lands beyond the horizon; wildlands.