The baseball bat guys got me again. Here I am, lying face down in the snow, surrounded by hooded and bloodthirsty punks, who smashed my bones until I died. It has been a hard life. I almost froze to death, scavenged the belongings of fallen players, and somehow reached the most dangerous part of blizzard-stricken New York all by myself. Now, I am dead. The anti-virals I was told to retrieve are less than ten yards away. This is The Division’s new survival mode. In many ways, it is what the shooter’s original Dark Zone should have been.
Here’s the skinny. You sign up for a game of survival at home base, and are whisked away by a cinematic helicopter which crashes cinematically in the middle of a blizzard. You wake up in a hideout with none of the gear you’ve grinded so hard to get – just a pistol, some fabric and a dose of painkillers. You’re going to need to take the painkillers because you have a septic wound. You have one hour until the infection kills you. However, you can temporarily slow the progress of this timer by dosing up. Any reasonable human being would find a drug stash, look for medical help and wait out the storm. But not you, you’re a Clancy hero – the mission is still on.
This is what gives the mode its chops. It’s not really enough to simply survive, you’ve got to head towards a goal – a clatter of important anti-viral drugs stashed somewhere in the centre of the city’s most dangerous area. And while many survival games overwhelm you with meters, there’s only really one here (if you discount the infection timer). A temperature meter drops horrendously fast as you scramble between barrels of fire, flaming cars, shelters and hideouts with crafting stations – recognisable by a ring of light from their distinct orange lamps.
As you go, you can find new trousers or craft scarves or hats from fabric, making you more immune to the effects of the snowstorm. Likewise, weapons parts can become guns and electronics can become skills (no, you don’t even have your usual technomagic to begin with). You’ll still get thirsty or hungry, but the exact moment this might happen isn’t signposted by a ticking meter – just an icon that appears when the game reckons you need a chocolate bar. I think it’s better this way and it doesn’t happen often enough to be irritating.
Of course, up to 23 other players will be doing the same as you (in PvP or PvE fashion, depending on your chosen flavour) but that number will quickly dwindle. Death is swift in this mode. The storm means enemies, both NPC and human, are much harder to spot (and you in turn are harder for them to spot). There’s no radar either, warning you of unseen foes. This results in the occasional surprise shoot-out as you turn a corner straight into the path of a trio of gunmen. If you're brave you might head toward the crash site of a helicopter, where everyone will try to kill you to get the good loot that lives beneath.
The game makes a gleeful announcement any time a player dies. “22 players remaining” it will splash across your screen. And shortly afterwards: “21 players remaining”. Below you can see a map of the city. Every red 'X' is a player who has fallen. If you survive long enough you might get to see another type of announcement: “A player has reached the Dark Zone.”
This is what makes the mode work for me – it has goals. Full-fat survival games often fall flat because of a general lack of motivation – you are simply surviving to build, or to get better stuff. It’s grind by another name. And while the Division cannot in any way boast that it is free of grind (it is a gnashing monster of grind), the survival mode itself is much more focused. It gives you five straight objectives, five concrete targets to hit before you succumb to infection or the cold.
1. Make a filter mask
2. Get in the DaRk_ZoNe
3. Make a flare gun
4. Get the anti-virals
5. Call for extraction
I have never made it past the third objective. But by giving you these orders and dangling a little stopwatch of death in front of you, the mode boots you in the backside and makes every piece of loot significant and every encounter a little more stressful. It’s also damn hard.
The furthest I have got was either the time mentioned above, when I was killed by New York’s least friendliest baseball team, or a separate game in which I teamed up with two other random players. I met them as I lay dying in an alleyway. I had been surprised by three hoodlums that I didn’t see coming and although I murdered them successfully, the cold had finished me off just metres from a hideout doorway. I was lying there, unconscious and watching a five minute timer tick down. “I’ve gotten pretty far,” I figured. “Maybe someone will show up.”
And sure enough, two righteous men appeared and revived me with a medkit. We eventually traipsed into the Dark Zone together. At a scorched junction, one of the pair fell behind and died to an enemy that I did not see. I did not go back to help him. But neither did his friend, who panicked about how much loot he had and prematurely called for an extraction without even getting the anti-virals. At this point my infection reached critical levels, my HUD started glitching, and then we were surrounded and shot to pieces by the game's newly-added foes, the 'Hunters'. An angry Hunter ran up to me as I crouched on the ground clutching my wounds. “I have not seen this murderous animation before,” I thought, as he buried an axe into my neck. It felt like a fitting end.
We always go on about games that create stories. Systems and mechanics that fuse together to form a small tale, sometimes funny, sometimes disastrous, but always interesting to live through. The Division isn’t really good at creating stories but it is good at creating atmosphere. Outside of Survival mode, New York is a ghostly, frosted ruin. Needy survivors beg for help, worried citizens shout from windows, dogs snarl and bark at you (or simply ignore you to take a shit in the street) – a lot of small touches, admittedly repetitive, come together to make a slightly-better-than-average cover shooter often feel chaotic and real.
Survival mode adds to that feeling in a different way. It has its problems – I still think splitting the mode into PvP and PvE branches is a mistake, dividing players into straight carebear and murderbear categories and stripping a lot of tension out of it. In PvP mode, I found that you are more or less shot on sight (only once did this not happen to me) suggesting that all the people with good hearts are taking life easy in the PvE arena.
As a point of contrast, it was the PvE branch in which I was revived by the two kind strangers. This makes it a far less meaningful gesture (though still appreciated!) A medkit is really a small investment to make to add another person to your band of survivors, especially when they can’t physically harm you once they wake up. As it currently stands, a gesture like that doesn’t feel plausible in the PvP branch – why waste a medkit on someone who would have probably killed you on sight? Just keep on moving. But if those same players had found me dead in a universal mode that allowed PvP, this would have been more of a calculated risk, more of a question of trust. The likelihood of me being a trigger-happy backstabber is more questionable when the players are mixed.
But there are many who will disagree with that, happy to dip between the two branches or to live happily within one of them. Fair play. The important thing to note is that Survival mode feels like the best part of the Division right now. While I considered the original Dark Zone of non-blizzard New York to be a step in the right direction for apocalyptic multiplayer manshoots, it always felt like it was not fully realised. The rogue system, which is absent here, was a good stab at bringing some DayZ to blockbuster audiences but it didn’t really match the rawness or tension of its influence. Survival mode feels like a second step in that same direction.