When I was young and foolish—a mere level 6 Division agent—I decided to venture into the Dark Zone. I’d heard stories about this lawless PvP area: of betrayal, revenge and tense stand-offs. But seconds after entering I was shot and killed instantly. Dejected, I sloped back to the PvE districts, but vowed to return when I was stronger.
New York City has been devastated by a weaponised virus, but the government—thanks to a group of super-agents called The Division—has a fragile grip on law and order across most of Manhattan. The Dark Zone, however, is a different story. This closed off, highly contaminated area has been overrun with criminals and rogue Division agents, but it’s also where you’ll find the game’s best gear and weapons.
The Dark Zone is the most dangerous place in the city, thanks largely to the presence of other players. When you enter it you share the space with 24 other agents, and the chances that at least one of them wants to kill you and steal your stuff are, unsurprisingly, quite high. The result of this is a constant feeling of tension and unease.
The first Dark Zone area comes with a recommended minimum level of 10, but I wait until I’m level 12. Then I brace myself and step through the door to no man’s land.
The PvE districts are rough, but it’s clear the Dark Zone has suffered more than the rest of Manhattan. It’s night when I enter and a thick blizzard fills the screen with swirling snow. Through it I can see abandoned military vehicles, wrecked cars and looted stores. Fires burn in the skyscrapers above and there are bodies everywhere. I feel a sense of foreboding as I walk through the eerie, ruined streets, which are quiet except for the occasional crack of distant gunfire. Then, in a street lit up by neon signs, I run into my first group of enemies, their yellow health bars indicating that they’re elites.
I pin myself behind cover, toss a turret ahead, and drop a health pack at my feet. The bad guys in this part of town are Cleaners—a ruthless gang whose solution to the pandemic gripping the city is to burn everything with flamethrowers. The turret rattles to life and they rush me. They’re a level lower, but it’s a tough fight. In PvE zones you fight one, maybe two, elites at a time as end-of-mission bosses. Here there are dozens of them fighting together, and leaving cover even briefly will see your health bar rapidly drop. These guys don’t mess around.
It becomes clear that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’m out of medkits, my ammo is dwindling, and there are still a handful of Cleaners bearing down on me. Then, suddenly, two other players rush in. They’re a few levels above me, and they polish off the remaining enemies with ease. It’s my first encounter with other players in the Dark Zone, and it’s a pleasant one. We salute each other and they disappear into the blizzard. I grab the gear the enemies dropped, including a few blue, or ‘specialised’, armour pieces. A yellow hazmat bag appears under my pack, revealing to other players that I’m carrying loot, but not the contents. I might as well paint a target on my back if there are any rogue agents nearby.
Killing another player marks you as a rogue and places a bounty on your head, but people still do it. People will do anything for sweet, sweet loot. And for some, the potential contents of a yellow bag will be hard to resist, so I decide to extract my stuff before anyone tries to steal it. I mark the nearest extraction zone on my map.
When I arrive, another player is already calling in a chopper. Anyone in the area is alerted when one is incoming, and more players arrive. The tension rises as a dozen agents nervously shuffle around wondering if someone will turn rogue. But before the tension boils over, a wave of enemies approach the LZ. The group works together silently and repels the attack. Then the chopper arrives and we attach our yellow bags to the rope. I breathe a sigh of relief as I watch them being yanked to safety knowing my loot is safe. All the people I’ve met in the Dark Zone so far have been extremely pleasant.
It couldn’t last, though. I returned to PvE for a few hours and increased my level to 16, then I ventured back into the DZ to spend some time killing bad guys and collecting loot. But then I ran into some players who were less inclined to help strangers. There were two of them, obviously playing together. I saluted and they saluted back. Over voice chat I could hear them talking about heading to the extraction zone, then one of them said, “Shall we go full sexy?” The other replied, “Yeah, let’s go full sexy.” Then they gunned me down for no reason, saying, “Sorry!” in the most insincere voice possible.
My blood boiling and my heart racing, I respawned back at the DZ entrance and sprinted to the extraction zone, knowing they’d be there. I didn’t think much of my odds against two players, but the rage took over. I saw them waiting for the chopper and tossed a sticky bomb at them. I detonated it and heard one of them shout over voice chat, “It’s that guy!” The other said, “Time to go full sexy again.” A firefight breaks out. I get a good few shots in, but they gun me down. As I’m dying I see other players approaching the LZ, gunning for the two rogue agents who now have a bounty on their head.
I respawn again and dash back to the extraction point. And I’m met with silence. I’m not sure what happened, but there are no agents nearby. And then, where the ‘full sexy’ guys were standing, I notice a pile of loot—including the stuff they took from me. I grab it, as well as what they were carrying, and attach it to the extraction rope with seconds to spare. I didn’t manage to kill them, but this is somehow sweeter. Among the spoils I find my first purple, or ‘superior’, item: body armour with a critical hit buff. In the space of 20 minutes a bad situation turned into a lucrative one at the expense of a pair of murderous assholes.
As my level rises, the Dark Zone gets much tougher. I reach the point where clearing an extraction zone alone is nigh-on impossible, and forming uneasy alliances with other players is the only way to leave the DZ with something to show for it. But since most people have their own loot to extract, they don’t want any drama, so extractions are often conflict-free. Going rogue is a pretty risky gamble: you might get away with the pile of loot you nabbed from the guy you just killed, but chances are you’ll be ganged up on and killed for the bounty, losing a lot of Dark Zone XP as a result.
Some players don’t care about loot, however, and see the Dark Zone as their own personal hunting ground. They kill for sport, and they don’t care about what you’re carrying. I’ve run into people like this many times, indiscriminately killing people for the hell of it. They’re annoying, but their presence does add a sense of excitement and danger to every journey into the DZ. Sometimes they wait near an entrance and ambush players as they come in, which is just griefing, pure and simple. Always be careful when stepping through the entrance. There aren’t as many ways to mess with people in The Division as DayZ, though—you can’t handcuff someone and force-feed them a rotten banana—but the same kind of players who became bandits in Chernarus seem to be drawn to the Dark Zone, for obvious reasons. But unlike Bohemia’s zombie game, at least dying in the Dark Zone isn’t permanent.
Once I’d learned the ropes and felt more confident in the Dark Zone, I inevitably found myself wanting to go rogue myself. I’d been putting it off for a while, but then fate stepped in. During an extraction, I accidentally shot another player who ran into my line of fire. It was enough to mark me as rogue, and I thought I might as well finish the job. I killed the guy and immediately felt bad about it. He wasn’t even carrying anything decent. Accidentally going rogue through friendly fire is a little too easy at the moment. It needs some tweaking.
I fled the scene, but found myself being chased down a wide avenue littered with abandoned cars by a dozen other players attempting to claim the bounty. I fought as best as I could, but lasted all of five minutes as a rogue. As time goes on, and more players kill me for no reason, I can feel myself becoming jaded and suspicious. If I see another agent I instantly assume they’re going to turn on me. And I’ve killed a few (probably well-meaning) people as a result of this paranoia. The Dark Zone, it seems, has got to me. I’ve gazed into the abyss, and the abyss is gazing right back at me.