After 20 hours of shooting-and-looting my way around the urban decay of post-disaster New York, I’ve realised something: The Division is confused. The slice of virus-infected Manhattan that Ubisoft has created is a genuinely impressive construction, with an extreme, almost perverse attention to detail. It’s one of the most believably cluttered, realistic virtual cities on PC, and it’s clear there are some hugely talented world-builders working on it. But it’s in this remarkable feat of environment design that one of my biggest problems with the game lies.
You’ll be walking among abandoned police cars in a blizzard-battered Times Square at night, those vast walls of coloured neon glowing through the snow. Or exploring an apartment complex and seeing sad, scattered fragments of life before the pandemic. Scenes that tell a poignant story or evoke a particular mood, and that sweep you up in the atmosphere they create. But then a voice crackles over your radio, shattering the illusion like a sledgehammer through a plate glass window.
A lot of the characters who relay mission details to you in The Division are quirky in some way. There’s a guy with allergies who comically sniffs and coughs his way through his lines; a smarmy TV executive who’s more concerned with getting back on the air than helping people; a woman who patronises you like a mother encouraging a toddler; a risible caricature of a new age hippy; a guy with a stereotypical Italian-American accent who talks about turning someone “into a carbonara.” It’s a cast of characters that’s completely at odds with the setting, and it's distracting.
Not only are these characters desperately unfunny, but they jar horribly with the sombre, evocative world around you. Almost everywhere you look in The Division there’s some kind of harrowing imagery—rows of body bags, piles of burned corpses, crashed cars, smashed windows, gutted storefronts—and then, faced with this bleakness, you have some guy cracking jokes in your ear. It’s a tonal inconsistency that does a disservice to the powerful, haunting ambience of the city.
If the entire game was gloomy and sincere you’d be depressed by the time you reached level 30. So perhaps the way these characters are written is an attempt to add some colour to the grind. But if that’s what they were going for, it doesn’t seem like it was their plan from the start. It feels more like they made a serious Tom Clancy game, then clumsily sprinkled some jokes on top before they were done. That might not be the case, but that’s the impression I get. It’s like they can’t decide whether they’re making a comedy or an earnest story about a city gripped by a disaster.
It’s entirely possible for something to be serious and funny. Take something like Breaking Bad, a show where the humour and darkness are symbiotic. The jokes are often a product of the darkness, and vice versa. But in The Division the comedy and the misery don’t comfortably share the same space They’re two disparate, clashing elements, like a clown car in a funeral procession. It’s harder to make an open-world shooter an effective dark comedy than a scripted TV show, so maybe that comparison is unfair, but the point remains: The Division doesn’t know what it wants to be.
I won’t stop playing it, though. The compulsive loot-and-shoot loop has its claws in me, and loading it up will be the first thing I do when I get home tonight. But for the 20 hours I’ve played it so far, this has been a constant niggle. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been captivated by the beautiful atmosphere of the city, only to screw my face up when someone starts cracking wise on the radio. All I can think of when I hear them is some frustrated writer sitting and thinking: “Okay, how do I squeeze some gags out of this depressing virus-infected city littered with body bags?”