This post originally appeared on dorkfam.net on July 1, 2016.
“Are we ever going to play The Division again?” OtherMark asked.
“I dunno,” OtherOtherMark replied, “Is The Division going to not suck anymore?”
I winced, partly at the reply, and partly because I was repeatedly falling to my death in the Vault of Glass jumping puzzle. Four months ago, OtherOtherMark was really excited about The Division. Destiny was looking long in the tooth. Our raid group completed King’s Fall. This was the end game content that we’d been working on together for a couple of months, since early December. And with the end game content mostly completed, the group started to drift apart as players started playing other games. Destiny was no longer holding their interest.
Destiny was the first modern online multiplayer game I had played where I became really involved in a group. In Destiny, you can group up into a fireteam of up to six people, and to do the raid, you’ll need six, so the first step was finding a group of people who could play together. It started with friends, and then friends of friends, and pretty soon we had a group of six who played at the same time and played well together. And so we did strikes, and played in the Crucible together. And it got to be a thing, you’d look to see who was online, and you knew you would be playing with them, often until late into the night. It became this wonderful social aspect to an already almost sublime gaming experience. I finally started to understand why this was all my friends were talking about last year.
But that social aspect was diminishing, and it looked like we were going to move to The Division. And that didn’t quite happen. Not every one in the group made the jump, and The Division didn’t have the end game that we needed, or wanted. It didn’t have much of an end game at all. Certainly not the raid that we worked towards as a group.
I spent most of March leveling up in The Division. I completed the story, and then there wasn’t much to do but to grind out better gear in the Dark Zone. The Dark Zone is an a special area within The Division. The Division is a beautiful open world design, where players move freely through a detailed recreation of midtown Manhattan. You complete missions and encounters on this map to get better gear and to advance your character. But in the middle of this map lurks a large section that is walled off, and can only be entered through select portals. This is the Dark Zone, and within the Dark Zone, The Division becomes a significantly different game.
In the regular game world, the player runs into randomly generated groups of bad guys to fight, but also civilians to help, and most significantly, no other players, except for those that you invite into your game session. You could play the entire main game solo if you wanted to, though you will see and run into other players within the safe areas where you restock armor and sell your loot. But once you leave the safe areas, the streets are yours and yours alone.
In the Dark Zone, you run into other players, players who are ostensibly agents of The Division, like yourself. But the Dark Zone is a place of no rules, and so not only can you see the other players, but you can shoot them. The Dark Zone was The Division’s unique take on PvP, and it could have been very interesting, creating a unique gaming environment.
I didn’t find The Dark Zone to be much fun. I don’t mind PvP, and while I like to keep my PvE and my PvP separate, I can play in a mix. I used to love to play on PvP servers in Warcraft, even though I almost exclusively played PvE. I wouldn’t even duel with people. I tried it once, found it tedious, and moved on. In Warcraft, you knew when you were in a PvP situation. It wasn’t ambiguous. But The Dark Zone was a big mess of ambiguity. A player who was helping you could turn and stab you in the back at any moment. A guy who ganked you earlier could help you out. You couldn’t trust anybody, and basically came down to people taking advantage of weaker players. Maybe if they had disabled level advantages, it might have been better.
I saw a lot of people defending the Dark Zone on Reddit, and I spent a lot of time wondering why they liked it so much. I think they wanted PvP. Some people really enjoy PvP, the challenge of playing against other actually human players instead of the somewhat limited and predictable AI. And that’s fine. I’ve been playing death matches online since Quake. I play Crucible in Destiny, though it’s not my favorite. I think that if you enjoyed The Dark Zone in The Division, it was because you decided that you were going to go rouge. You either went in with a fire team with the intent to go rouge, or you were a solo rouge. Then the ambiguity is gone. Or you play with the notion that everyone you see is a rouge, and stay away from them. And it did make it spooky, because other, so-called friendly agents wouldn’t be tracked on your HUD, so suddenly you’d see a group of gunmen appear out of nowhere.
The problem was that you couldn’t preemptively defend yourself, without going rouge yourself. It was like a game of chicken—you didn’t want to be the first one to shoot. If you went rouge, then not only could they kill you without getting marked for it, but they’d get bonus experience for it. So, if you’re going to play with the mentality that everyone in the Dark Zone is a rouge, then the only way to play it effectively to plan on going rouge yourself.
Which is why I think it’s flawed design on the developer’s part. The idea was to create this sense of ambiguity, this idea that these agents that are supposed to be on your side have flipped to the other side, and you don’t know who is who. But with no real consequences for flipping, in fact, there are actual bonuses and better gear for flipping, then the ambiguity is gone. Everyone is out to get you, because it’s really just a free-for-all.
Here’s how I would fix it: once you go rouge, you’re cut off from The Division, and you have to find the opposition, and make contact with them, and build rank with them, probably through ganking Division agents in the Dark Zone. Eventually, you get enough trust with the opposition that they send you back to The Division to become a double agent, except The Division doesn’t trust you right away, so you have to rebuild some rank with them, probably through not ganking Division agents in the Dark Zone while killing rouges. Then you’d have to make a choice at some point, who to betray, the opposition or The Division. Man, now I want to play that game.
The problem was that there was nothing else to do. I had spent most of March in The Division‘s rendition of Manhattan, taking out looters and rioters and guys with flame throwers and mercenaries. Block by block, I took out bad guys to defend civilians. It was made pretty clear who was bad and who wasn’t, at least to me. The civilians were always a little jumpy around me, skittish if I got too aggressive, a nice touch since I don’t think I could hurt any of them if I tried. I could shoot the tires on parked cars (which I’ll admit, I did a lot) or stray dogs (I never did, and it bothered me when my teammates would), but I couldn’t shoot any of the bystanders.
It was a game without an endgame. You could grind gear in The Dark Zone, but since outside The Dark Zone I was already like a god, basically unstoppable, why bother? There was no reason to play a mode that I didn’t find fun, and that was all there was to do.
What is the end game? Most video games have a story, or at least try to, though in Destiny‘s case, it was sort of loosely stringing missions together with some sort of tangent. It really didn’t matter, because the missions were engaging and fun.
So, the end game is what you do when you want to keep playing the game, but you’ve completed the story. For a multiplayer game like Destiny or The Division, that usually means PvP or a raid. The problem with The Division was that the PvP was more frustrating than fun, and there was no raid.
They did add The Incursion, which was supposed to be the first end game option, but I never played it. From what I heard, it was wave after wave of bullet-sponge bosses, and you needed serious gear to run it. In fact, a whole new tier of gear was rolled out just for The Incursion. To help you grind gear outside the dark zone, a new set of daily and weekly missions were available, but again, it seemed like a lot of work to grind gear for a mission that just didn’t seem fun, which was disappointing because the main story had been fun, and the missions were different and varied.
What Destiny did was a brilliant. Players left because there was only two options for end game, PvP and the raid. The raid was difficult to set up because you needed six players who knew what they were doing, because it was complicated. And you only had a week to complete it, and that’s assuming that you started on Tuesday, which most people didn’t. There were checkpoints through the raid, and if you made it to a check point, you could start there the next day. And when you were learning the raid, you’d need the checkpoints. And really, you could say that part of the end game in Destiny, once you completed the story missions, was getting gear good enough to go on the raid, something that took a little grinding to do. Also, players left because they had completed the raid, and it wasn’t holding their interest anymore.
So, Bungie raised the light limit, to give players something to work towards, and then opened up new paths to get the light limit. Now, in addition to PvP and the raid, you could do the revamped Prison of Elders/Challenge of Elders, which was sort of like PvE Crucible. You could also get higher level gear from the faction vendors, and they made it easier to grind faction rep. So now, just running the daily missions became a way to get better gear and raise your light level.
What happens when you hit the light limit? I don’t know, probably drift into another game for a while. The next update will be in September, and there will be new content, and the light limit will be raised again. There will be a new raid. That will make four raids. I’ve only completed one.
The Division is still on my hard drive, and I’ve been updating it, though I haven’t actually played it in a long time. Things could have changed. The conditions that I’m writing about were in late March, early April. I had a lot of fun playing the story of The Division, and the mechanics and gameplay were pretty solid. It was disappointing that the game didn’t scale well. Once we got to a high enough level, the bad guys just seemed to become bullet-sponges, and the difficulty was upped by sending them at us in overwhelming waves. I think part of what propelled me through The Division through most of March was the uncovering the map, learning the game and how to play it effectively, and grinding out better gear. There’s a whole world of crafting and improving gear that I was just starting to get into before I hit the why bother point. I’m keeping it because there might come a time when I want to get back into it, a point where they’ve fixed things and made changes to end game, or created more story to work through.
I’m still grinding through Destiny, daily. Destiny‘s April update came right when I was losing interest in The Division. At its core, Destiny is a lot of fun. The first thing I did when I dropped back into Destiny after being in The Division for so long was jump. When you jump in Destiny, you can soar. You can float all around the map. In The Division, you’re stuck on the ground. But more than that, the basic mechanics of Destiny are smoother and sweeter. It’s more fun to pull the trigger in Destiny, more fun per round fired. It doesn’t matter than I’m ranging over the same maps that I’ve ranged over a hundred times before, it’s just fun to be there.
Last night we were playing Iron Banner with DMot, who wasn’t part of our core raid group, but had filled in a couple of times when we needed a sixth. He admitted that he hadn’t been playing Destiny for a while, but had been playing The Division. It was fun, he said, “But I always knew I’d come back to Destiny. You can always come back to Destiny.”
And we did. We all came back.