In The Division, the delight is in the details

With Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 coming out in three weeks, I wanted to write something about how much the first game impressed me and what set it apart from the rest of the genre. Before I get started, I want to drop a couple caveats. First, for all the things it does well, it is still a loot shooter/looter shooter/shlooter. Like a Diablo or a Destiny or an Anthem, you are still repeating similar mechanics and content in order to get the colored loot that makes your numbers go up. Either that appeals to you or it doesn’t--and that’s fine! Second, even for those that do enjoy loot games, The Division fell short for them in various ways. Perhaps they don’t like third-person cover shooters, or felt the PvP was bad. Perhaps the lawlessness of the Dark Zone turned them off, or the endgame content simply fell short for them. While I have my opinions on what an “endgame” can or should be in a game with no subscription model and an already-lengthy campaign, I won’t get into that here.

Instead, I want to speak to what really shined to me, as both a player who is a sucker for worldbuilding and environmental storytelling (which has been done so poorly so often that it's hard to actually put that in writing), and as a QA engineer whose mind reels at the art, design, and QA work that had to be put in to make it polished. Originally this blog was going to be couched in the pessimism that surely they wouldn’t put in all that work a second time, but after having played a couple beta sessions of the sequel, I am happy to report that The Division 2--for the most part--continues the efforts put forth in its predecessor.

The debris, the chaff, and the trash

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In his preview coverage for The Division 2, Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo wrote “No one, just no one in video games renders a pile of trash bags like the people making The Division 2.” And it’s true, both in 1 and 2. The utmost care has been put into realizing the half-looted apartment, the overrun-then-abandoned hospital ward, or the hastily-built sanctuary in the subway tunnel. There’s beauty in the mundanity and the filth, and any one corner of it would be impressive on its own, but there’s that much detail put into every inch of four remarkably dense square miles of Manhattan. It’s practically unheard of outside of a few blockbuster studios, and definitely not in this genre. And all that trash is in service of the story--the staggering body count, the ways in which society broke down, or how soul-sucking corporate culture was before it all came crashing down.

That's...not trash
That's...not trash

NPCs that exist for their own sake, not yours

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I remember the first time I got to Camp Hudson after the tutorial missions in Brooklyn and feeling overwhelmed by the sadness facing me. Nearly every NPC you walk past is in a state of personal crisis, and they’re not even civilians. One woman is bent over a body bag, promising the health and safety of an unborn child. One Joint Task Force officer is talking another through a panic attack. Others are huddled around a makeshift memorial on which hangs an obscene number of dog tags.

The game is filled with these sort of “incidental” NPCs. They aren’t there to talk to the player, they aren’t related to some quest, and they aren’t loot pinatas. They simply exist to flesh out the world, to lend credence to a game’s setting. I think it’s possibly my favorite aspect of The Division, and the lack thereof my biggest criticism against other games. Too often online games feel too sterile, even in the social spaces. Where are the normal people? The children? What are their concerns and how are they dealing with the situation? The Division answers this without being inconsiderate of a player's time. How much work did they put towards rigging and animations just for this incident in the corner of a random safe house?

I think this woman was
I think this woman was "nerfed" into silence in a patch because the community got tired of hearing her cry while they were at a vendor

Audio logs

If you told me audio logs these days are overdone and rarely of import I would agree with you, but The Division has some great ones, expertly written and delivered, and--like NPCs--exist on the periphery instead of being a burden. Here’s a couple of my faves:

A daughter comes out to her mother, and the mother's response

A chunky Christmas

Rick Valassi

I love a game with a good radio personality and The Division’s resident conspiracy theorist Rick Valassi is no exception. Great delivery, great accent, and somehow a calming voice when you hear him crackle on in a safe house after some tense Dark Zone action.

Rick diving into weather control conspiracy

A living, evolving base

The Base of Operations is based on the James A Farley building in New York City, and at the beginning of the game it’s a complete mess. Watching the various aspects of it get cleaned up and come online throughout the campaign was one of my favorite parts of the game, and it becomes a primary source of the incidental NPCs I’ve mentioned above. A guitarist and pianist that you rescue in side missions show up to brighten the atmosphere, people begin to hang Christmas decorations, computers and servers hum and blink. The city is coming back from the brink thanks to you and the evolution of this post office proves it.

The base early in the game--dirty, empty, quiet

Some cleaning has started, some wings added, but place is still pretty empty

A walkthrough of a completed BoO


Okay, so this one isn’t really a small detail nor does it contribute to the game’s worldbuilding, but allow me this tangent at the end here because The Division’s music is remarkable and criminally underrated. Ola Strandh gave the game a rollercoaster of a soundtrack full of percussive, heart-pumping, synth-y goodness and I look forward to hearing what he’s got for us in the sequel.

Precinct Siege