Over the last several months I’ve been trying Tom Clancy’s: The Division on and off, and with Destiny 2 coming along I guess I can talk about loot-oriented action RPGs again. I might have use for a new one, but I think I’m conflicted about The Division.
Phantasy Star Online was one of my top games of all time. If handled just right the loop of defeating waves of enemies to get a constant stream of new gear to try out or sell can make for an extremely addictive game. That “Diablo” style of RPG naturally involves a lot of dopamine-fueling bars and numbers going up at a satisfying pace. It seems like large game publishers finally figured this out, monetized it, and furthermore figured out how to merge it with shooters in games like Borderlands, Destiny, and The Division. It’s a delicate balance though that makes the difference between exciting new apparel and just watching a bunch of numbers go up.
Maybe it’s just me but the latter is what The Division feels like to me. I guess my main personal issue with it is that I’m not buying into the scenario or storylines in this game at all. The story’s basic concept of a biological weapon turning New York into Escape from NY just doesn’t seem as plausible to me as the game wants it to look. Because of that, when I look at the “safe zones” I immediately just see menus where I have to exchange stuff with numbers attached for other stuff with numbers attached in hope of increasing my numbers. When I see the security station or medical center that needs to be “upgraded” I just see another number I need to increase from 30% to 40%. When the game asks me to devote resources to a psychological counseling center all I see is the RPG perk it gives you as a reward. The Division looks like a standard military shooter but as soon as that drops away I see the cold, hard structure it shares with games like Diablo and Phantasy Star Online.
I understand people have problems in The Division with shooting random civilians with impunity simply because the game labels them as “rioters,” which can be tone-deaf considering current events. To me, those rioters serve the exact same purpose as the skeletons you click on in Diablo. You kill them, they drop items with numbers on them that may or may not be higher than the numbers of what you’re wearing, and if not you mark them as junk and sell them.
At the same time though, I find myself semi-occasionally peeking back into The Division because it looks well-produced for what it is. The graphics look amazing, the environments are soaked with visual detail, the user interface stands out, and overall the production value exudes a sense of quality. Action games inherently have all these dopamine-fueling mechanics, it’s just a matter of dressing them up with colorful art direction and scenarios that players can at least slightly buy into. The Division only almost does this for me.
Phantasy Star Online worked for me back in the day because its blend of sci-fi and fantasy felt unique to me at the time. Its art direction and especially its music helped to initially entice me into what became an addictive loop of finding more and better loot. When I tried out the original beta for Destiny I immediately got a similar feeling — I’m pretty sure PSO was a huge influence.
The Division to me feels like Ubisoft set out to make a loot-centered action RPG and then tried to figure out how to write a modern day military scenario around that. I’m not even sure that was a good idea to try in the first place. Getting a new weapon that looks cool and has a slightly higher DPS than your current weapon is a main draw of these games, and that’s exciting when your’e exchanging laser cannons or lightsabers, but I didn’t get the same feeling from exchanging regular sniper rifles that are somehow supposed to deal wildly different amounts of damage to normal humans.
In the end, it’s like a junk game I would play from time to time for the same reason I eat Lays chips from time to time, it satisfactorily scratches some basic itch and very slickly advertises itself.
I still need to try out Path of Exile at some point.
- RSVP here for PitchJam, the event this summer where you’ll be able to send video game writing pitches in for review by professional editors, for free: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe8lgZtBPEIadJMOluZHU7LlsSwjYf_AiYun6sMxEAZde3-Cw/viewform
- Evo is this weekend: http://evo.shoryuken.com/
- Africade: https://venturebeat.com/2017/07/12/africade-will-showcase-video-games-from-all-over-africa-starting-july-29/
- Rare color footage of the “Black Wall Street.” https://twitter.com/Crystal1Johnson/status/883145612559958017/video/1