The Division’s 1.6 update brought with it an expanded Dark Zone, new Last Stand mode, and another Incursion. Slipped in amongst that good stuff, developer Massive Entertainment also opened up a new in-game vendor selling cosmetic items. Backpack and weapon skins, clothing, and emotes are all on sale, but can only be bought by spending real cash on Premium Credits.
Which is kinda weird in and of itself, because The Division . Post-apocalyptic workwear doesn’t exactly scream sweet micotransaction. In a wintry, post-outbreak New York City, it might make sense that people would gravitate towards clothing that prioritizes function over fashion, but when a developer starts packaging your dad’s weekend closet—and now, his dance moves—as premium loot, you can expect the community to reject the idea like homemade antivirals.
I took a visit to the Premium Vendor (who’s located in the Terminal if you’re curious—look for the gaudy neon), to see what the fuss is about. And honestly, though I’m not against the idea of paying for cosmetics, The Division’s items might be the most overpriced and underwhelming I’ve ever seen. Even if the blow is softened by through Uplay rewards and from simply logging in between now and the 16th, these are bad hats. Allow me to take you browsing through the racks of garbage…
Seriously, look at these backpack skins. They’re only visible on the straps and a bit on the side. I wonder if what I see when I preview a backpack skin is the actual texture appearing or some trick of the brain filling in the blanks. I collapse to my knees, arms outspread and mouth agape in the horrifying realization there’s no difference.
Backpacks range from 250 to 500 Premium Credits, which works out to between $2.50 and $5. You can buy the stuff in bundles, a few of which are optimistically labeled “Most Popular” and “Best Value”, like Ubisoft is your friend giving you a sweet discount. I’m calling bullshit on that $50 best value deal.
Gun skins are texture swaps with an assortment of bright, garish skins, going for anywhere between $1 to $5. They’re the easiest to see of all the cosmetic items, since guns hang off your character’s back, and looks pretty cool, honestly. If you know your Division weapons, it’s OK to feel a tickle of pride at the sight of your decked out guns. Just don’t ruin them with one of the mobile disco skins.
You’ve got your typical assortment of wacky camouflage for every kind of terrain, and then—boom, The Division goes straight up Lisa Frank on LSD with its skin choices. We’ve got some pink skulls, abstract green and yellow shapes on a neon purple backdrop, indiscernible “Smiley” cartoon characters with noodly arms—all for your damn gun. Sorry Tom, pink skulls are canon now.
Outfits round out the selection cosmetics, available in $8 to $11 bundles or anywhere in the $1 to $5 range for individual pieces. Just how bad do you want to dress up as a Riker, the most generic, thuggish enemy type in the game? Or maybe you’d like to roleplay as one of the JTF, a generic soldier type with notoriously incompetent AI?
As an experiment, I purchased the AlphaBridge outfit and came out of the dressing room looking like I was doing Cabela superfan cosplay, layered from tip to toe in that good, good camouflage. I suppose that’s an ideal vibe for a Tom Clancy game, but it should be a reward for playing, not paying.
The emotes aren’t terrible offenders, ranging from $5 to $10. They include light gestures like a shrug or curtsy, or more playful animations like an Irish Step Dance or Rock Paper Scissors. Most of them are fun and definitely took more effort to create than slapping garish texture onto a gun does, but whenever player communication is closed off behind more money, I get sad. Rock Paper Scissors could make for some really interesting Dark Zone encounters, like resolving a tense LZ pickup with hands instead of bullets. Now the premium emotes signify status more than anything. I don’t want to pay $10 to make a fist with my hand in some po-faced Clancyverse, even if it saves my life.
By spending that same $10 in Overwatch, I got a legendary skin, an epic, a few rares, and a bunch of victory poses, sprays, and Play of the Game animations. It’s not my favorite way to get cosmetic items, essentially gambling, but I can still earn cosmetics at a regular clip just by playing. More importantly, almost everything you get is guaranteed to look incredible (those horrifying Jester Junkrat outfits aside). Overwatch’s alternate skins aren’t limited to muddy palette swaps either—some are complete reinventions of the character or interpretations of them at a different point in their history. They’re both storytelling devices and bright expressions of the player. A green beanie in The Division says, ‘I like green, maybe’. In Overwatch, a green skin says, ‘I’d marry green if I could, hell yeah.'
In The Division, your character is already small on the screen and blends in with the muted environment. Purple polka dots lining your thin backpack straps won’t exactly pop and they don’t make much sense in the world. I’ve argued for more creativity in The Division’s aesthetic offerings before, but grabbing a random Hot Topic t-shirt pattern and throwing it on something from an REI doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Where are the traffic cone hats? The tire armor? Trash ghillie suits? It’s been a year already. I get that Tom Clancy’s mind was a gravely militaristic place, but that doesn’t excuse the fiction from ignoring the fact that these people have been quarantined in New York City and don’t much to work with. Of course they’re going to get creative and weird. Express that in expensive cosmetic items, at the very least. I already have to buy boring functional pants in real life. Nothing makes me more anxious than dressing rooms and the overbearing, always-sad question: ‘Does my ass look good in these?’
In Team Fortress 2, the answer is always ‘you look like an ass in these’, whatever they are: top hats, antlers, viking helms, rabbit ears, and so on. But looking like an ass is the point. TF2’s cartoonish world is perfect for whatever silly cosmetic nonsense people can think up. Cosmetics can be earned through random loot drops or expedited by purchasing keys to open supply crates, which are full of random loot and drop independently from normal hat and weapon drops, for around $2.50 a pop. That’s four supply crates and a shower of new cosmetic items for the price of a dirty outfit in The Division.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive swings the opposite direction with much than The Division. But that’s because CS:GO uses a player driven market to determine demand and pricing. The loot drop system closely mirrors that of TF2’s, it’s through the competitive community that certain skins start to carry more prestige, and bigger prices as a result.
If a skin is expensive, it’s not just because it’s rare—it’s because the player market has determined that a particular skin is noteworthy for its significance in a tournament or that it looks particularly cool or that it’s been discontinued—or a dangerous combination of the three. Dropping over $1000 on a Dragon Lore AWP isn’t a decision to be made lightly, but players that see you with it instantly understand your commitment to CS:GO. Whether they respect it is another question.
In The Division, a purple-ish backpack strap doesn’t carry any importance. They cost whatever purple-ish is worth to Ubisoft. I can’t tell what another player is wearing at a glance without inspecting their loadout, and even then I’m staring at floating UI, not sexy gear.
Can you tell the difference between plebeian pants and premium pants?
Even if it were easy to tell what kind of pants they’re wearing or the shape of their scarf, I wouldn’t have a clue why they chose those colors. Chances are they paid for it or it’s all they have, but I’d never know the difference. CS:GO even has commands that turn your weapon sideways just so you can look at the lovely thing. Hell, with the addition of glove skins, you can look at your damn hands on demand.
The Division limits gear lust to rotating the camera around your character in the weapon modding menu. Any affection for a particular item is kept at a distance, while you squint and assume your agent looks cool. With Premium Credits, now you can spend money on your imagination and empty gestures. Twist: Maybe the Dark Zone was Capitalism this whole time.
My frustration comes from a place of love. I only want the best for a game that made big strides towards feeling like its ideal self. One year in and The Division’s combat is more fluid, the enemies less spongy (even though they’re still spongy), and the character progression and loot path are constantly rewarding and exciting to spec out. But The Division still has almost no character, and what’s there isn’t something I’d ever describe as ‘premium’ or shell out perfectly good burrito money for.