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Why The Division's Dark Zone Is Broken And Beautiful

Shining a light

The Division has been infecting everyone at RPS one by one. And I am no exception. The Dark Zone of the game, however, is a strange beast. It is far less dangerous than its rough cast of heroes and miscreants want you to believe and many have complained that there is almost no incentive to kill the other human players who roam there. It is less a Dark Zone and more of a Slightly Gloomy Zone. But despite the problems, I still think it is the most interesting part of post-Bigpox Manhattan. Let me tell you why.

Firstly, it is so obviously the result of Ubisoft designers looking at DayZ, Rust, Ark: Survival Evolved and other anarchy-laden survival games, and saying: "How can we make our next blockbuster feel a bit like those?" This is a noble endevour, even if what is eventually implemented is a diluted bunch of compromise mechanics. The Division recognises the potential of anarchy and runs with it. This is something mainstream games, especially those also played on console, are too often afraid to do.

Of course, in doing so, it has made so many cuts and changes to the way 'anarchy' works that it has become its own hodge-podge of rules and customs. You can slowly see a culture growing around these rules, completely different to the culture in DayZ, for instance. In DayZ, you approach someone and ask if they're friendly, or you avoid them entirely. And even after they say they are friendly, you keep watching them at all times, like a paranoid owl. In the Dark Zone, you can safely assume everyone is friendly until proven otherwise. Specifically, until the game announces with a giant, unambiguous red skull that they are not nice people. They are 'rogues'.

The rogue system works like this: shoot somebody with more than a few bullets and you are marked as 'rogue'. You then have a timer counting down over your head. Outlive this timer and you'll be returned to your normal 'non-hostile' state and awarded your own bounty. Die as a rogue and you will lose a big chunk of XP, some money and (probably) your loot. The player who kills you will also get a bounty and a great injection of XP towards their DZ rank.

This is not anarchy. This is a justice system. It's clear from the amount of non-hostile players and the lack of rogues that vigilantes and law-abiders are rewarded more than those who embrace the Gloomy Side. Most of the rogues I have seen on my travels have only triggered the state by accidentally firing their AK-47 into the flank of a passing stranger. Their immediate reaction is to run and hide. I understand, I do the same thing when it happens to me - and it happens a lot.

Friendly fire is a problem here. A person stands to lose a lot through a simple error. What's more, if you are in a group, the entire team will be marked as rogue for the transgressions of one person. Meaning you also stand to lose a lot from another person's error. I love the possibility of human mistakes resulting in completely avoidable tragedies. Being chased because I accidentally popped some rounds into a man's kidney, shouting "I'm sorry! I didn't mean it!" as I run in vain down an alleyway, pleading with them when I hit a dead end, "please, can we talk about this?" I love that. That little storyboard of tragicomedy keeps me from feeling too annoyed about the game marking me out as an evildoer against my will. But the punishment - the big loss of XP and cash - feels absurd. And players have been so irate about it that the amount taxed from would-be murderers was recently lessened in a patch.

But this legal system also creates bizarre moments of forgiveness. I had an encounter with a man called 'dElementb', who ran into the white-hot blast of my errant incendiary grenade. This marked me as rogue and I prepared to scarper. Then I heard his voice: "Don't worry, dude," he said. "I'm not going to kill you. I know it was a mistake." Before I could question his sincerity, he shouted at me to "Run! Run!" There was another player coming towards us, undoubtedly to kill me, and the man I had just almost incinerated was now acting as my protector, telling me to get out of here, fast. I ran away and hid until my rogue timer disappeared.

The hunter who appeared turned out to be a hacker - flying speedily away when he saw there was no easy mark. dElementb and I reuinited, formed a group of two and explored the subway tunnels together for the remainder of the night. This kind of organic team building and co-operation is exactly what today's multiplayer blockbusters need more of and it is a small example of the DZ working, not exactly as intended, but in a way that brings to mind any of the random camaraderie of DayZ or Rust.

While the rogue system is almost obsolete, I have seen people (usually teams of four) going rogue with gusto and using every environmental niche to their advantage, eventually holding out on a particular roof that has only two entrances (two ropes up, leaving anyone who climbs either rope hugely exposed on arrival). Despite the obvious unfairness of this set up, I love it when it happens. The whole population of non-rogues gets together to launch multiple ill-fated assaults on the posse's hideout. But moments like this are rare. And what is possible in a co-ordinated team of four, with the help of impossibly fortified boltholes, is not so easily done alone or even as a pair of dastardly murderers. Besides, when a mob of un-grouped players starts roaming the DZ together, there is only one outcome - accidental rogue syndrome.

For instance, a crowd of "legitimate" rogues were holding out on the roof I've just mentioned, their counters high - indicating a massive body count. My group of four and another group of four converged on the criminals. Other neutral individuals started to appear and one by one they died as they reached the summit of the climbing ropes. The other group with us immediately went rogue by accident and scattered in various directions to wait out their timers and avoid death by us or other opportunists. The assault forces were in disarray and everyone was getting killed. Then someone in our group made the same mistake, shooting a neutral player in the back, and we ran. I turned a corner down the street only to be met by a stranger arriving on the scene for the first time. He shot me in the head. The whole thing was a farce.

So here's the question. If it is so farcical, why have a rogue system at all? Why not just make loot more scarce, and make the quality of that loot much better? This way people will naturally get into fights for it. Well, this creates a design conundrum. How do you balance scarcity? Make loot more scarce and you have more natural fights, without the need for rogue timers, red crosshairs and radar warnings. But it would also likely mean fewer people would bother entering the Dark Zone at all. It might risk turning the whole place into a battle royale with no hope of goodness, no chance of meeting people like 'dElementb', my formerly incinerated partner. Likewise, making the loot of a better quality goes against the slow-burning rules of MMO design (not that these should be shown any respect). On top of all this, Ubisoft have a rancid habit of elevating UI uber alles. "Without a little red skull," goes their question, "how will people know who to kill?"

Basically, it comes down to this: how much like DayZ do people really want their MMO shooty-bang to become? Ubisoft have drawn the line at the 'rogue' mechanic, at little red skulls. And while I personally think that's a shame, I also recognise that it is a huge step in the right direction for a multiplayer game like this, where I suspect the alternative system proposed was probably a straightforward PvP arena like Destiny's Crucible, the frantic traditional firefights of the Iron Banner. As much as I like a good arena FPS, this outcome would have been a total waste of The Division's setting and atmosphere.

There is also a feeling to the Dark Zone that I appreciate. The contrast it holds to the rest of the open world. Come out of the DZ after a long time inside and you feel real relief. That you have to physically head through the door again, from one place to the other (no fast travel in the DZ) is a natural design decision I am very grateful for. Just leaving the DZ can become a cat and mouse game between the NPC enemies and yourself, especially if you get separated or abandoned by the rest of your group while in the middle of DZ06. Trying to plot your way out, avoiding fights instead of seeking them, results in even greater feelings of relief when you finally emerge from behind the walls, into "OK" New York. Even without the presence of other human players, the ambiance of anarchy has somehow been retained.

Ultimately, I still think the Dark Zone is kind of broken. It isn't the murderous moral wasteland that I would have liked to see. But it is not the dull PvP coliseum that it so easily could have been. The lessons of DayZ and its ilk have been learned. We can be happy among the few rogues that do exist, hiding on the rooftops, luring do-gooders towards certain death. Even if they only became rogues because they shot someone in the leg by mistake.

For our guide to The Division, click here.

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