I’m absolutely loving The Division. And WOW, is there a lot wrong with The Division [official site]. Ubisoft’s obsessive-compulsive need to create games that feature maps designed for the obsessive-compulsive to clear may be becoming a little farcical at this point, but having spent many happy hours tidying up Far Cry Primal, I now find myself spending even more happy hours ticking off icons in their barely-an-MMO third-person shooter. And the reason is simple: the action is good. It’s fun to have gun fights while gliding between cover, picking out enemies with carefully placed headshots, then being told by passers-by that without you there’d be nothing to live for.
Despite being an online game, you can solo pretty much everything apart from the Dark Zone, the game scaling for teams of one – no need to have other people spoiling it for me. It’s endlessly rewarding to find a better gun, pair of gloves, mod for your jacket, or build your own, or buy one from a store. And it features checkpoints in extended quests, which is something I’ve never seen in an MMO before. So yes, lots of good reasons to be having a splendid time with Ubi’s phenomenally successful shooter. But oh good grief, it’s a bloody mess.
I’m going to stress again before I begin, because I’ve been so cheeky in the title, that this is my favourite game so far this year. It is, by a million miles, not the best game so far this year – it’s dumb as rocks that got held back at rock school, it’s repetitive, it’s… well, everything this article’s about. But the truth is, I’ve been finding spare time I didn’t think I had, giving up hours of sleep, and sneaking extra play into work time, because I’m absolutely hooked. At level 29, and about to play the final story mission, I’m in a fine position with plenty of experience to explain why it’s such a pile of crap, too. So let’s start with the reason I’m not playing the final mission right now:
Server Doesn’t Serve
As I write this, the servers are currently down. Down to suit US sleepyheads, and not UK rise-and-shiners like me. Down for THREE HOURS. And they’re down every single day. The game’s been out for two weeks today, and they’re still pulling the damned thing offline for huge chunks of the day, as if we’re still in the middle of a closed beta. Which is dreadful. And quite a boring complaint – sorry about that. But I want to be playing!
Tom Clancy’s The Division attempts a very serious tone. The corpse of the former best-selling person who put his name on the fronts of books other people wrote is apparently still propped up at a desk somewhere in Ubisoft’s HQ, ensuring that everything Is Very Important when it comes to running around and shooting pretend people. Super-small pox (which inexplicably isn’t called “Big Pox”) has killed most of the people in the world, Manhattan is overrun by rival groups of thugs and terrorists, and you’re trying to recover the city by, um, I dunno, collecting new vests I think. Characters are grimdark worry-lines with feet, imploring you to understand the severity of just how absolutely awful everything is, and how with your help things might become fractionally slightly less completely awful maybe a bit. And then when you get to a safe house, each quest-giving automaton (complete with repeated identical faces) is a HILARIOUS WACKY STEREOTYPE!
It’s so peculiarly incongruous to the tone the game works so po-faced to achieve, to have a sniffling simpering clot worrying about allergies and how things are too dirty, or a mumsy mum mummishly mumming about everyone getting home safe in time for tea. This one’s angry! This one’s a sycophant! This one’s a gun-lovin’ Southerner! Each is completely dreadful, a misguided attempt at humour that undermines the arc of the game, and isn’t in the least bit funny in the first place. Tom Clancy will be rolling in his office chair.
Press F To Space X
Clearly The Division was originally intended to be played on a controller, and that’s just fine. But I’m playing on PC, with all the added benefits of a mouse to aim, so my left hand is rested on a keyboard, with a set of controls designed by a deranged baboon. It’s hard to convey quite how bloody batshit it all is, so I’ll describe the set of keys necessary for modding a new scope onto your weapon, without laboriously clicking on all the written-out keyboard commands all over the screen:
‘I’ for inventory
‘Left click’ on the gun you want to mod
‘F’ to mod that highlighted weapon
‘Left click’ on the mod slot to change
‘Space’ to select that mod slot
‘Left click’ to choose the mod you want from a list bottom right
‘Space’ to use that mod
‘Esc’ to back out of weapon
‘Esc’ to back out of weapon type
‘Esc’ to back out of inventory (not ‘I’!)
‘Esc’ to back out of an entirely other menu that you didn’t click through to get here in the first place
The completely random assigning of Fs and Spaces and clicks is quite extraordinary. And wholly unintuitive. X strips a weapon of mods if you’re in the right screen, but you then have to press Space to confirm. It’s just so strange! G to compare your current weapon with a new one, but then sometimes it’s F to change which weapon is being compared, sometimes that doesn’t do anything at all. Different rules for shops and inventories. It’s like the person at Ubisoft carrying the keyboard controls to the game tripped up on the way, sent them cascading all over the floor, and realising no one was looking just picked them up in fistfuls and shoved them in.
May I See A Menu?
The inventory/modding screens are dreadful, but prove to be the highlight of The Division’s menus. Because by Odin’s armpits, they feel like an oasis of exquisite design when you’ve been at the crafting. Available only from one location in the entire game, crafting is done by gathering recipes for weapons and equipment, then “parts” gathered from buildings all over the city, then selecting them from a list… no, sorry, selecting them from two lists. The first list is a dummy list to trick you into thinking you’ve selected a particular type of crafting, while the second is a terrifying list that leaps from type to type without warning as you scroll. Find something you want to craft, and rather than telling you if it’ll be better than your current version of said item, it gives you a ballpark for what it might end up being. Craft it, by holding down Space for ages, and it’ll then have a set of statistics completely unrelated to anything it previously suggested, and be incomparable to your current weapons until you either equip it or Esc out of the – maybe – successfully created object.
Then there’s the perks, skills and talents, an absolute clusterfuck of a menu where things are listed by priority both horizontally and vertically within the same window, improvements are obfuscated by this confusion, it declares to you that new mods are available for skills when there aren’t, and it ends up feeling easier not to worry about changing what you’ve already got for fear of having to navigate it another time.
There are SO many menus, all of them contradictory, all of them requiring a juggling of keys and mice, none of them smartly laid out of instinctive to use. It’s… well, it’s impressive, really.
Manhattan isn’t an enormous play field, but it’s a heck of a slog to run long distances through it, not least because the streets are filled with angry men (and sniping women) trying to kill you all the time. So the game has Safe Houses, unlocked by discovering them, little hubs from which new side quests and encounters become available, and so-called “fast travel” points. This is not fast travel. I’ve no idea how much loading The Division does on the fly when I’m running around, but it must be a heck of a lot to make moving through the city as seamless as it is. Because bloody hell, it takes forever when you try to leap to a safe house. (Naturally by pressing X from the map, then press Space.) You may as well be laboriously flying there on a griffin for all the speed it adds to proceedings. Coupled with a lack of movement speed improvements (there’s one top-end skill that temporarily adds faster movement with a massive recharge time, but it’s designed for combat, not traversal), it means The Division is a pseudo-MMO that never lets you move any more quickly. Just those wheels in the bottom of shoes like the cool kids in the mall have would be something.
As you’ll have noticed, so much of what’s wrong with The Division is in how it communicates itself to the player. And I think the absolute nadir of this is radiation levels. There are zones on the map, marked in red, that are irradiated, and harmful if you don’t have the correct level of protection. It never in-narrative explains what protection levels are, or how you get them, but it does hide in the strangest place (the abilities menu, of all places) what your current level is. However, in randomly appearing pop-up hints both on screen in-game and in loading screens, it informs you it’s to do with the mask you’re presently wearing. It is, in no sense, to do with the mask you’re presently wearing.
I spent so long trying to work out how to find masks with a radiation protection level higher than 1. I went to vendors all over the map, scrutinised the (obviously) cluttered and unhelpful descriptions of all of them to see where it mentioned what level they protected against, whether it was a mod thing, whether I could change the level using the game’s dice-rolling reconstruction table, whether it was something I needed to craft, and eventually gave up assuming it was something that would become available to me later on. Weird, since it was giving me missions that required going into level 2 radiation at the time, but I ran out of options.
When nothing was coming along at the point where I was meeting level 3 radiation, I realised I had to be missing it. So I googled, found poorly written SEO articles designed to catch such searches, and eventually learned from one of these sites that it had nothing to do with the masks it so clearly stated it was to do with. And then finally learned for myself that improved protection against radiation comes from… upgrading the medical facility in your main base with features nothing to do with radiation that come with the perk of improved protection.
Even the game itself doesn’t know.
The Unkindness Of Strangers
A very strange little feature put in the game, and then I imagine sort of forgotten about, is your ability to help out random civilians in the streets by giving them some of your supplies. You’ll see them get scanned by the game’s daft use of orange squares and lines (I was going to give this its own entry, but this is already too long), and then if you press F on them for long enough, at the right distance, without them walking off, you’ll give them a bottle of water, can of soda, or at worst, a medkit. I have still yet to figure out what water and soda and energy bars are for – something about augmenting the effects of medkits or something – because the radial menus to select them (and indeed the other one for selecting special bullet types) is so astronomically broken that selecting them is near-impossible. So I give these away with gusto (I tend to say, “Please don’t want a medkit, please don’t want a medkit” as the information whirs its way onto screen, and then give one anyway because I feel too guilty). The response is not only effusive and ridiculous praise, but also always a dropped item. Every time. It’s not helping a stranger. It’s paying for a random drop. That drives me crazy.
What’s even more strange is when you don’t manage to F on them (ew) in time, they become irate with you, screaming abuse! Woe betide you take too long to hand over the bottle of water they’ve just asked for, and then try to give it to them three seconds later – you are SCUM!
This gets even more weird when strangers don’t want anything (which is most of them), who watch you run past and then when you’re clear of them, shout abuse at you for a thing you didn’t just do. “Woah, I’m not the enemy here!” they might cry as you run into the distance, not thinking about them. It’s a really odd game, no mistake.
A Little Stroll
Right, obviously everyone hates it when a game stops them from moving at top speed for any reason, and no publisher enjoys doing this to players more than Ubisoft. There are entire Assassin’s Creeds I’ll never play because I can’t bring myself to dawdle around the future silver rooms instead of running around stabbing strangers. The Division does this a little at the start, but then only in one particular place, and it’s just so flipping strange. It’s when you enter the main base. All the safe houses, when “fast” travelled to, plop you inside. Not so for the Base Of Operations, which deposits you just outside so you can, for no reason AT ALL, walk at the most extraordinary slow pace through its dull, featureless entrance tunnel. It’s presumably there to mask load times when entered from the open world but then why not at least put me directly inside after travelling via the map? Like every inexplicable decision in the game, I’m just left thinking, “How? How is this a thing in a game?” And you get to walk out just as slowly too! Just take a look at the view!
A Pox On Both Your Houses
It would be completely fair for me to write an alternative article entitled “Everything Right With The Division”, in which I celebrate why I enjoy the cover shooting so much, the smart use of Watch_Dog’s text-in-the-world, the pleasure of clearing its jam-packed map, and how much fun it is to shoot Cleaners in their fuel tanks, but it wouldn’t be as cathartic. The above may seem like nitpicking at times, but it’s crucial to understand how central to the experience every part of it is. This is a splendid game, buried beneath a series of amazingly stupid design decisions. I’m loving it despite itself.
I could have included great sections about how abysmal the writing is, the absolutely ludicrous plot which can be summarised as: Find a way to create a vaccine and for some reason then things will get better even though everyone’s already dead or immune. But, well, it’s an Ubisoft game, we expect the core story to be freshly shat from the bottom-hole of a donkey. I should have included a section, or perhaps an article dedicated solely, to the madness that is random lines of dialogue appearing written in text within the pre-rendered cutscenes about how small pox works, or enemy leaders. It’s so bloody funny, and certainly wasn’t intended to be.
But I’ll stop here, having had my cake and bloody gorging on it. I love The Division, even though it’s such a load of old bollocks. I think you might too.