I first heard about Tom Clancy's The Division in the summer of 2013, back when I was dashing around a virtual countryside evading laggy zombies and morally ambiguous players in DayZ. Maybe what I was playing at the time coloured my initial expectations of what Ubisoft's ultimately delayed blockbuster would be. In my mind, The Division was a tactical shooter in which you roamed a fallen New York, tussled with other players for supplies, and maybe, just maybe, killed a bunch of terrorists and saved the world.
But what we got was, arguably, much better. What we got was Destiny: New York City, trading the robotic vamping of Peter Dinklage for Brandon Keener, otherwise known as the voice of dreamboat Turian Garrus from the Mass Effect series.
Make no mistake about this article. This isn't a review. It's a love letter.
Not to The Division as a whole, but to its scuzzy PVP arena, the Dark Zone. The Dark Zone is basically Midtown in this bastardised vision of digital Manhattan; it's enclosed within a giant wall, and it's by far the best part of the game. While the main, story side of the experience sees you undertaking city-saving missions either solo or as part of a group, wandering the snowy streets of a beautiful but largely static environment, in the Dark Zone, the streets teem with life. Hyper-aggressive, immediately violent life. And the game takes on a whole new dimension because of it.
The Division is a massively multiplayer online game, an MMO, albeit in a very loose sense. Like Destiny, and indeed any MMO, you prowl around level-appropriate areas, complete missions and take out bad guys. You do this not just with an eye to fulfil the usual Clancy staple of saving the good people of the United States of America – and, by extension, the world – but for the true American dream of getting a slightly shinier assault rifle than you had previously, and perhaps a new jacket. It truly is Destiny's child.
The Dark Zone is something else though, a collection of tight mechanics and incredible systems that keep your heart thumping and the mood tense as you trawl the area for loot while trying to second guess your fellow players, who could turn on you at a moment's notice.
The best description of this swing in intensity comes from the game itself. Players in the Dark Zone from outside your group show as "non-hostile agents" when your aim rests on them. It resists slapping a big red warning next to those words, highlighting that these not-quite-friendlies could, without warning, open fire on you, but the implication is always there. Whenever you and your teammates meet another group trudging through the slush, it always feels like you're awaiting a hail of bullets.
Article continues after the video below
Every Division player wants to be in the Dark Zone. At every stage of the game, all of the best gear is found inside its walls, ensuring that even if you just want to enjoy the game cooperatively, you'll need to spend some time in the Zone to remain competitive.
That means that the Dark Zone is heavily populated, and not just by hordes of players looking to fuck each other over for whatever gear they're carrying. There are decent people just trying to make some money, who will be friendly towards strangers in the hope of making a few bucks, which means you generally can't just shoot first and ask questions later – unless you really want to, of course.
However you do get it, once you've got your hands on the Dark Zone's high-end, game-enhancing loot, it's contaminated. This means several things. Firstly, you can't carry much of it. Carrying capacity in the zone starts at six items and doesn't go up much further, and you can't use what you've picked up, by fair means or foul, it until it's been extracted – by calling in a helicopter. The loot has to go into a bright yellow bag hanging from your regular backpack, making it visible to anyone else that might be tempted to take you out for a look at what's inside.
Brilliantly, while the game shows that you're carrying something in your yellow container, it doesn't show what's actually inside. It could be six purple items, the games designation for epic- or exotic-level gear; or it could just be a bag full of baseball caps and crap you'll break down for parts. Either way, some players will happily fight others to the death for the contents – or just because someone else looked at them a little funny while their swag-bag was bulging.
Trying to extract your Dark Zone loot via airlift is like sounding a gong. You're never too far from an extraction point, so once loaded you head to the nearest one and fire a flare into the sky – immediately altering everyone else around you to your position, and letting them know that a chopper's on its way. This works two ways. At best, other players swing by and use the extraction to save their loot, too. At worst, they're going to murder you and take all that you have before they put it on the helicopter themselves.
So, whenever that flare goes up, nerves begin to shred. You never know who is going to show up in the 90 seconds or so of waiting time, and what their motivations are, until they're right there on top of you. Can you gun them down even if they've not got their finger on the trigger? Is it better to be safe than sorry? Making this call in the Dark Zone is tough.
And it's not just the human players, either, who are on the look out for telltale beacons. Any AI characters in the area that see the flare will also come running, and there's a decent chance the game will spawn a wave of enemies to bring the fight to you on top of any human-controlled attacks.
Still, even when strangers approach you without their iron sights on your forehead, the situation might sour. Only four loot bags will fit onto any one helicopter, and many teams will number that many players, meaning that if you travel to an extraction point with entirely innocent intentions, you could still end up staring into four readied barrels of four very deadly rifles. The Dark Zone is filled with reasons to exterminate your fellow agents, but a cool head and a few calm words on your microphone can prevail, most of the time.
All these factors come together to create an atmosphere of paranoia and, in some cases, petty vindictiveness. The first group that tried to rob our team as we headed towards an extraction zone made a critical error by opening fire on me unaware that I was waiting for two friends who were only half a block away. They arrived and put down the pair of would-be robbers, who immediately started begging for their lives. "It was an accident," one yelled in a teenaged voice, nearly crying. He had a yellow bag on his back, which could potentially be carrying some worthwhile loot. Also, he'd tried to kill me. "Please, just let us go," he pleaded, as I walked towards him, pulling out my pistol.
On Motherboard: Could the Post-Pandemic Chaos of 'The Division' Really Happen?
In case I've not made it clear, the Dark Zone is a place of great distrust, crawling with gun-toting opportunists, everyone in a constant face-off. It's like the Mexican standoff ending of Reservoir Dogs, but in a video game (that isn't the awful video game version of Reservoir Dogs, obviously). Except instead of a few paltry handguns, people are packing assault rifles and sack-loads of grenades.
My team ran into the kids that'd attempted to ambush me several more times over the next two hours of play. They'd track us using their scanning abilities, and then wait until we were weakened from fighting the Dark Zone's elite enemies before engaging us. And we'd fight them off all the same – years of working together in DayZ and Gears of War have given my crew an edge over a pair of bumbling teens driven only by revenge.
But even though we knew they were trouble as soon as they walked in, you can't pull a Han Solo and shoot first, as injuring another player marks you as a Rogue Agent for a set amount of time. This makes you a righteous kill – express permission is given to all other players to hunt you down and take you out, with a bounty paid for your head. So the only way to legitimately kill someone else in the Dark Zone and not be the bad guy is if they shoot you first.
These mechanics, combined with good old-fashioned human psychology, make The Division's Dark Zone the tensest experience I've ever had in an MMO. And it's massively compulsive. The Dark Zone takes everything good about The Division and polishes it to a shine so high you can see your own misgivings in it, and it's an environment I've been thriving in. Linking up with friends to go spelunk for loot in the Zone while moving between car to car as cover feels great, and the clipped chatter between groups passing each other in the snow sends a shiver running down my spine every time.
There's a lot about The Division that isn't amazing. But the Dark Zone really is something special. So if we end up doing this all again, how's about we make it all PVP for the sequel? It's a lot lighter on the conscience to kill people who are actively trying to end you, after all, than it is opening fire on a few "rioters" who probably just want to find some supplies for what remains of their families.
More from VICE Gaming: