You can’t argue with cold statistics. Per my Steam library, I’ve played Tom Clancy’s The Division for a total of 130 hours. It cost me £40; that’s 31p per hour played. In the value-for-money stakes, The Division scores a clear critical-damage headshot. And I would be false to you if I said those hours weren’t enjoyable. They were. But much as I’d love to keep on playing, I can’t. Or rather, won’t. Because over the past week, The Division has gone from a fun, if frustrating, game to a game that might just be irremediably broken.
Look on Reddit, Twitter or the Ubisoft forums, and you can’t but notice: the community is mutinying. What started as the odd dark muttering has snowballed into a unanimous orgy of anger. Post-apocalyptic New York is nothing: the game’s players and developers are on a war footing too. And it’s Massive, the developers, who are guilty of firing the first shots. For all its merits – the superb graphics, the satisfying cover-shooting mechanic, the lovingly realised Manhattan setting – The Division suffers from an Achilles heel. Bugs: it has them in abundance (ironic, really, in a game about a smallpox pandemic).
These wouldn’t matter so much if the game as it’s meant to be played wasn’t so frustrating. Once you hit the level cap of 30, The Division becomes less about shooting and more about doing something a little less exciting: farming. In common with other loot shooters like Borderlands or Destiny, The Division requires you to grind (i.e. do the same things over and over again) to get improved gear. Replaying missions at harder difficulties, killing named bosses in the Dark Zone, extracting the loot they drop – it’s all for that gear. In this sense, the game functions not unlike a job. In order to afford the game’s choicest items – which cost Phoenix Credits and crafting materials – you need to work. This sounds tedious, but done well, it can create a satisfying and addictive feedback loop: the more time you put in, the more you improve. Done badly, it feels like an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, The Division is more latter than it is former.
Because it uses a RNG (random number generator) to determine the quality of items, playing The Division is a game of chance. You could grind for six hours to gather the Phoenix Credits and crafting materials to get a Navy MP5, and have every ‘roll’ be terrible. Or you could grind for twenty minutes and craft a godlike one. It’s all in the lap of the gods (or RNGesus, to give him his other name). This was worsened by the recent 1.1 patch that hugely increased crafting costs, suddenly making the process that much more time-consuming. That’s bad for hardcore players, but disastrous for casual ones, who can’t possibly hope to find the hours necessary for the game’s interminable grind. And falling behind matters: many of the game’s best items are to found in the Dark Zone, populated not only with powerful AI enemies but other players. If their gear is better than yours, you’re going to end up extremely dead extremely quickly.
Which brings us back to the bugs. Why work yourself like a button-mashing packhorse in the vain hope of improved gear when you can glitch through a wall and fastrack the soul-crushing process? It’s a rare day when some new bug or exploit in The Division doesn’t come to light, allowing players to accumulate a bounty of Phoenix Credits or crafting materials or Dark Zone ranks in a fraction of the usual time. Recently, a particularly egregious glitch let players ‘cheese’ their way through the new Incursion mission and harvest multiple pieces of sought-after level-240 gear – gear which the developers only wanted to drop once per week. Those on the side of truth, good and justice, those who don’t use glitches for ethical reasons, now have little incentive to play the game legitimately. There’s a rupture in The Division’s social contract: the rich (i.e. the exploiters and hardcore players) are getting richer, while everyone else faces months of toil just to catch up. To compound matters, the game now boasts a ‘gear score,’ letting other players see the quality of your build, leading to newer or more casual players getting kicked from matchmaking groups for the crime having too low a score. If nothing else, it creates a feeling of status anxiety I thought I’d left behind in the real world.
The Division is teetering. Whether it falls depends on how soon Ubisoft and Massive can fix the exploits and repair their broken carrot and stick. The game in its current state is a losing proposition for everyone. Not just for the beleaguered players, but for the developers, who face the prospect of a deserting playerbase before the arrival of the first DLC. I slogged to level 50 in the Dark Zone, I crafted a full set of 182-grade gear, and I’d love to upgrade once again to the new gear sets. Nothing in this world is got for nothing: that’s true. But the prospect of further probably fruitless grinding has ground me down. I think I’m going to stay out of virtual Manhattan until the All Clear has been blown, or at least until they get the viruses under control.