Opinion: The Division’s Gameplay Muddies Its Narrative

By | 7 months ago 

The Division may be a hugely successful hybrid of the MMO and third-person shooter, but one writer feels the loot and grind gameplay feels wrong for the game’s story and setting.

Although The Division only released at the beginning of March, the highly anticipated multiplayer shooter has already had a huge impact on 2016 in gaming. One of the most highly anticipated games of the year, the Ubisoft title promised to combine addictive third-person shooter gameplay with an atmospheric setting and strong MMO mechanics. The game has already proved incredibly popular, on the back of an extremely successful beta testing period.

In many ways, The Division easily delivers on its potential. The combat is extremely addictive, whilst playing the title with a group of friends truly makes the player feel like part of a huge gaming experience. Equally, the game has been built so that solo players can also find something very rewarding.

Surprisingly for a multiplayer-focused game, the location and story also hold up fairly well. The setting of New York City is wonderfully designed, while the plot, which revolves around an extremely dangerous virus, delivers a high level of tension. When compared to other titles in a similar ilk, such as Bungie’s Destiny, The Division’s attention to detail with regards to plot is very impressive.

The Division New York Skyline

That said, the game’s atmosphere comes at a price. As strong as the initial story kernel and as well crafted as The Division’s Midtown Manhattan location are, there is something a little bit jarring that Ubisoft could not quite shake off, and it comes down to a separation between mechanics and story. Unfortunately, the expected actions of the player character do not quite tie in with the gameplay that The Division provides.

As previously mentioned, a contagious virus has spread through New York City at an alarming rate. Initially contracted through infected bank notes during Black Friday, the Green Poison virus threatens to destroy civilization in the city. To make matters worse, a number of different groups are also aiming to control the game map, capitalizing on the eradication of the city’s infrastructure.

Division Critical Hit Gear

That’s where the player character arrives on the scene. The player is a Division operative, a secret government agent trained specifically for these rare and dangerous situations. The task of these Division recruits is to return order to New York, and if possible find some kind of cure or vaccine that can be used to perhaps save humanity itself.

It’s heavy stuff, and the kind of high-stakes action that gamers have been used to for decades. However, the player’s actions do not always line up with what one might expect of a government agent in a situation such as this. Rather than directly trying to restore order to the city, or reach the root cause of the situation that has been developed, instead the players find themselves needing to grind to progress, all the while farming for rare and valuable loot.

It’s an unfortunate separation between the gameplay that is expected of a MMO and the more elaborate story that Ubisoft has created. After all, the developer has tried to hold true to plenty of tried-and-tested MMO mechanics, all the while also attempting to freshen up some of the more traditional MMO gameplay staples. However, the end result may occasionally lead to the player questioning exactly why they have been searching so hard for exotic weapons when lives are on the line.

The Division LMB

It’s not something that gamers can necessarily avoid, either, which is shown by some of the player actions in The Division up to this point. Item drops and character builds have already become hugely important to players, rather than simply trying to find a vaccine and restore control to the city. Meanwhile, any chance to make use of a loot cave has been quickly exploited by users.

To the developer’s credit, Ubisoft has done its best to explain away some of the more jarring MMO mechanics within the story itself. Rather than the Division being a restrictive, well-oiled governmental organization, instead individual agents act either alone or as a team based on their own discretion, and are even responsible for finding their own supplies. Ubisoft has also given in-game context for some of the less savory actions of other players, stating that operatives can use tactics that are considered immoral, and can even be antagonistic towards other Division agents.

However, there is still a bit of a divide between player action and the plot itself, in spite of these explanations. Similar to how Fallout 4’s personal plot did not quite gel with the open world exploration mechanics, The Division also suffers from being at the mercy of how the player chooses to play the game. In Ubisoft’s version of New York, these well-trained operatives could spend countless hours hunting for a fancy new weapon, rather than devoting themselves to their mission.

The Division: Raid Details Coming Early Next Week - Division firefight

Even random acts of assistance within The Division tie the player to these reward mechanics. Civilians in need of assistance can be helped, either through gifting them some food supplies or a medkit. In return, the player can somewhat inexplicably receive a rare or useful item drop, granting a prize for what would otherwise simply be helping those in need.

The issue becomes more troublesome when some of the enemies that The Division throws at the player are compared to the operatives themselves. Different factions are vying for control of the game map, and it is the player’s mission to stop them. However, when some of the crimes that are being committed are the likes of mass violence and looting of materials, it has to be asked why it is then fine for Division operatives to do the exact same thing.

Even the virus itself takes on a tinge of irony when compared to the gameplay in question. It’s not a coincidence that Ubisoft chose to write Black Friday as the means by which the virus came to spread through the city’s population. Doctor Gordon Amherst, the creator of Green Poison, makes his reason for creating the virus all too clear over the course of the game, criticizing humanity for its role in dominion over nature and the constant use of resources, instead trying to return Earth to a level playing field.

Division Phoenix Credit Nerf

The choice of Black Friday, then, is more than just a convenient way to drop a deadly virus. Black Friday is a symbol of exactly what the scientist was trying to destroy, a metaphor for humanity’s power on a global scale. In the end, however, the Division operatives themselves are forced to continue this trend in order to progress through the game, using humanity’s ‘blight’ of destruction for useful material as a means to stop his heinous plan.

In the end, of course, The Division is a hugely impressive game, and it’s refreshing to see Ubisoft give an affective level of context to the player’s actions. All too often the urgency of a multiplayer game is taken entirely from gameplay, rather than from having some kind of tie to the setting or story. However, as The Division shows, sometimes this can lead to a few issues by itself.