I'm three hours into The Division, and I'm having problems. Mine are nothing to do with the reported griefing, where other players are blocking access to and from safe houses in the game's beautifully ruined New York City, by star-jumping in doorways and generally being absolute dicks about other people's personal space. I've experienced no notable connectivity issues – this being an online-only game, naturally it's picked up its share of server criticism. The sound's dropped out for a second, here and there, but the running and the gunning, the climbing and the trading, it's all going smoothly. Mostly.
My problem is with, well, me. The me that I've created for The Division. On starting Ubisoft's great hope for 2016 – a game that really needs to do the numbers, what with the publisher choosing to give Assassin's Creed a year off – you're presented with a pretty basic character creation tool. The way it's framed – you, reflected in the driver-side door of an abandoned NYPD cruiser – is wonderful. What it lets you do, in creating yourself or whoever you want to be, is rather less impressive. Man or woman, sure, but with very few facial types to pick from. You can stick a tattoo on your noggin, if you like. Or a beard. It's not as hilariously restricted as Black Ops III's customisation "options". (Do you wanna be a chiselled white dude, or a slightly less stubbly white woman? No? Then you're shit out of luck.) But The Division's half-hearted range of sculpting tools set an uncomfortable precedent when it comes to how the player is going to connect with this gaming world.
I say "the player". I mean "me". Right now it's all about me – I've barely spent any time as part of a three-player team to tackle early objectives, though it was thrilling to band together with total strangers to rescue an essential doctor from a Madison Square Garden overrun with enemies. (If you played the beta, you'll have seen this before – it's the same as it was then, though it does feel a little tougher. Perhaps the difficulty upscaled because of the three-man approach to beating it.) That lasted maybe 25 or 30 minutes – we each died a couple of times.
The rest of my session was spent completing the Brooklyn-based tutorial, making the explosive transition to the streets of Manhattan, and unlocking more safe houses and side missions. I got cut down on occasions, on account of straying into zones requiring a higher level to navigate without deadly results – I'm level six or seven right now, and if I want to explore the Flatiron District, I'm going to need to be nearer nine. You know how you've read that The Division is more, or certainly as much, an RPG as it is a shooter? It absolutely is. So many numbers; so much looting, trading and crafting; so completely overwhelming of HUD and menus.
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And the whole while, I was wondering: why? Okay, so I'm but a few short hours in, and the story of The Division is only beginning to emerge. The synopsis, in short: a paper money-borne variant of the thought-eradicated smallpox has spread throughout the world, and presumably a whole host of major cities have gone to shit as a result. New York certainly has: riots have escalated, and the centre of Manhattan is a war zone, Central Park a cemetery, and the sewers and subways home to all manner of contaminated waste and unsavoury sorts. America had planned for something like this: a network of tactical agents, the (Strategic Homeland) Division, was established to activate and take back control of hotspots as and when the need arose. New York needs saving, which is where you come in – where I come in. But who am I? What's my motivation here?
I am a mute drone, told to go here, told to go there, told that we agents never had families, friends, any attachments at all. But I can't buy that. Look at "me" – I've greying hair, a thick beard, a face that says: I've lived. This is the me that I have made; yet the game says I am nothing, an empty vessel ready to be filled exclusively with the experiences of the adventure ahead of me. No past, just a future of death, more death, and hopefully, eventually, a little resolution. The Division has been compared, repeatedly, to Destiny, largely because of its RPG-dressed-as-a-shooter gameplay; but Activision's online-only multiplayer release of 2014, since supported by all manner of DLC, at least told you that you mattered. That you're someone special, that you (not quite) alone can save the universe. The Division frames its protagonists with nothing, literally: you are defined only by how little impact you've had upon this world, before now.
Which is why I'm struggling. I'm struggling to connect to this me – and by extension, to this greatly detailed world that Ubisoft has created. Its disaster-hit New York looks incredible. And yes, I know the game has been visually "downgraded" since its reveal at E3 2013, but to dwell on what might have been is to ignore what's right in front of you – which is regularly amazing. My favourite game of 2015 was another RPG, a numbers game, albeit with swords instead of submachine guns, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I'd not spent a great deal of time with its protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, ahead of starting the game – but it very quickly explains who your loved ones are, where they might be, and why you need to find them. Your quest, which soon forks wildly into myriad sub-plots, has purpose. Playing as Geralt, your motivation is never questioned. My silent Division hero, on the other hand, has no real human ties to this city, to the people who remain. If I could, I'd take him the hell out of New York and find some quiet place to sit this chaos out. This is an RPG; should I not have some degree of choice?
I thought that this contrast in connecting to leading characters was down, entirely, to the requirement to make my own. Geralt arrives fully formed, the Witcher himself, a monster hunter by day and lothario by night. If you want him to be, anyway – it's not like you can't keep his dick in his impressively unattractive pants. This "me", he's all taut skin, an itchy trigger finger and no tongue. But it goes deeper. I made a character in Fallout 4, and he talks as well as walks. He has a clear reason for venturing into the wasteland, a burning urge to find a man who destroyed his family while he (or she) was helpless. He doesn't need to kill everyone to solve a problem. The "me" of The Division, not so much. It's one thing to be benevolent, charitable – I've given a way a good half-dozen medkits to sickly citizens, so far – but quite another to blindly head down into the city's bowels because some guy you've only just met reckons there's some disinfectant down there.
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I appreciate that I have so much more to see – the internet tells me of some massive conspiracy that will reveal itself in The Division's plot, going forward. But to reach that point, I need to begin feeling more than an anonymous avatar without a life beyond what he's instructed to do. I need to talk back. I save a doctor, and she's grateful, and I say nothing. I venture into combat zones to retrieve assets essential to expanding my base camp's medical wing, and don't once celebrate my successes with vocal exaltation. Which, come on, we all do every day when we don't burn our toast. That's how people are.
The Division aims for realism, in its story and setting, its weaponry and its biological big bad – and it delivers to a commendable level on all those fronts. But by failing to even half humanise the player's own presence in the game, outside of optional co-op voice chat, it erects a more palpable division between the audience's needs, or at least my own, and any on-screen characterisation. I'm nothing more than a puppet in this game right now, my strings manipulated by powers I can't relate to, short one pair of scissors and a substantial slice of self-motivation. But let's see what comes next. After all, everything can change in a New York minute.
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