The Division is a terrible Tom Clancy game

Most strategy in The Division boils down to using the right tool. Pinned down or getting rushed? You need a turret. Sniper fire? Pull out the long gun. If your friends go down, you toss a revive station. For every gear, there is a season.

Too bad Ubisoft didn’t understand that the same applies to branding, because The Division is the branding equivalent to using a shotgun when you need a sniper rifle. To be blunt: it’s not well researched enough to be a Tom Clancy game. That misuse of the brand rages like a fever through what would otherwise be a competent shooter, and its shoddy attempts at world building make it look very much like right-wing propaganda.

Understand that I don’t think The Division is a bad game. I’ve enjoyed playing it, and it delivers on the tactical pop n’ shoot format. It’s overall fun, and the option to match up with other players at a mission’s start point should be the new gold standard for this short of thing. I can’t deny The Division has a solid frame gameplay-wise. Superstructure is not the issue.

The problem comes when you take these RPG bones and try to put Clancy muscles on them. As we’ve discussed before, game mechanics tell stories of their own, and when you deploy them into a new setting, the rules may not fit that world. Take Far Cry: Primal, for example. It brought its hunter-gatherer mechanics to an ancient setting that (mostly) made sense for them. The Division isn’t so insightful.

Tom Clancy games are, overall, about tactics and leverage — they reward players that have a plan. But planning an assault is largely dependent on gameplay structures where a headshot kills instantly, and that’s the antithesis of RPG mechanics. Headshots down low-level enemies in The Division, but past Level 15 every guy with a Louisville Slugger becomes a bullet sponge, and elite enemies brush off shrapnel like rice at a wedding. Tactical planning’s hard when a boss can survive 15 sniper rifle headshots, two grenades, and turret fire. I get it — that’s just what RPGs do — but in gritty New York, it feels laughable. That strange gulf between tone and mechanics makes it hard to take The Division seriously, and unfortunately, taking stuff seriously is the main appeal of Clancy novels.

Earlier Tom Clancy games rewarded tactics, planning, and taking stuff seriously.

Earlier Tom Clancy games rewarded tactics, planning, and taking stuff seriously.

Clancy built his reputation on plausibility. Readers picked up his novels primarily because they seemed like they could actually happen. Say what you will of him as a writer, but the man did his research. Clancy never hand-waved technical details or made stuff up as he went along. When he researched Red Storm Rising, he constructed intricate wargames to simulate a NATO-Soviet clash, and played through them with friends from the Naval War College. His passion for schematics and reports went so deep, that toward the end of his life he seemed more interested in writing nonfiction than novels.

That’s a long way of saying that Clancy showed his work. He wasn’t right all the time, of course, and some novels did contain personal bias, stereotyping and patently absurd scenarios. But when Clancy overreached, he provided a chain of reasoning for that overreach. He explored consequences. If he manufactured a laughable conflict between the U.S. and Japan, then dammit, he’d make sure it was the most technically-plausible absurd U.S.-Japanese war you’ve ever read.

On its surface, The Division looks like it continues Clancy’s deep-research legacy. The disease-ravaged streets of New York come straight out of Operation Dark Winter, a multi-state epidemic/bioterror scenario the U.S. government conducted in 2001. Scenarios involving pathogens spreading through money recall the post-9/11 Anthrax attacks, when someone — most likely a biodefense employee — mailed anthrax-laced letters to several Democratic senators. The eponymous Division operates under National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 51, a government continuity directive President Bush signed in 2007. Directive 51 was not the U.S. government’s first government continuity plan (it revoked a similar directive signed in 1998), but it was the first released to the public, letting its vague language and heavily-censored text fuel conspiracy theories — which, unfortunately, The Division runs with.

Make no mistake, there are constitutional concerns about Directive 51. The document’s main thrust is that the three branches of government should cooperate to ensure “the continued functioning of our form of government under the Constitution,” and that cooperation raises real questions about the separation of powers. But the operative phrase here is under the Constitution. Whatever concerns one has about Directive 51, it’s unlikely to suspend the Constitution and hand government agents vigilante powers. Even the most extreme abuses of martial law — like Hawaii’s military rule during World War II — pale in comparison to those portrayed in The Division.

Division members are sleeper agents activated during times of national catastrophe with the goal of “saving what remains.” They operate in plainclothes rather than in uniform, raising interesting legal questions (if a man in civilian clothes shoots your friend, you’re allowed to defend yourself, right?) and apparently would rather exterminate suspected criminals than detain them for trial. Division Agents take back New York City by killing through it, block-by-block.

It’s a very video game-y concept, but it also stomps all over the Constitution, and rarely addresses that fact. In most games that would be a glaring storytelling oversight, but in a Tom Clancy game, it’s criminal. In Clancy media, the whole point is to examine the ramifications of government action, to understand its mechanisms and explain what is and isn’t legal. Not all actions in Clancy novels are constitutional, but the better novels display a nuanced understanding and exploration of these concepts. By contrast, The Division seems uninterested in exploring these themes, and never extrapolates meaning from this extreme scenario. There’s no depth. The Clancyesque chain of reasoning never adequately links our world to the future scenario posited in the game.

What right, exactly, does the Division have to indiscriminately kill civilians — even armed civilians — on American soil? Sure, Agents are justified to use lethal force to prevent a life-threatening crime in-progress, but players will also kill enemies as they stand on street corners, doing nothing. But we know they’re enemies, of course, because they’re tagged like enemies and dressed like enemies.

And that’s where The Division’s politics raise concern — because what enemies dress and act like in this game has very specific coding.

The Division’s starting-level enemies are the “Rioters.” That’s a loaded term to start with, given the complicated history of labeling black protesters “rioters” in order to violently suppress them. Given that label, it will probably not surprise you that these enemies are dressed in hoodies, ball caps, and often sport bandanas over their faces. Their dress is Blood red.

These visual cues — plus names like Lord of the 212’s and Five-0 — code them as African-American street gangs. They look like the Facebook pictures that spread after police shoot a black man under questionable circumstances. Even if this similarity is unintentional, it’s hard to mow down waves of Rioters without it turning your stomach. In post-Ferguson America, a game where tactical teams — with no official oversight — “clean up the streets” by gunning down people in hoodies is difficult to dismiss as fantasy entertainment.

This uncomfortable streak extends to other enemy factions like the Rikers and the Cleaners. The Rikers are escapees of Riker’s Island, and take revenge on society by capturing, torturing, and killing anyone wearing a uniform. Their leader LaRae Barrett is a violent woman who gives rousing speeches about striking back at the society that victimized them. The Cleaners are a band of city employees gone awry, who attempt to eliminate the infection by torching anyone, or anything, they suspect might be infected. Cleaners speak in blue-collar New York accents, like a bit-part cabdriver in Seinfeld. Their transition from municipal employees to a fanatical religious cult is a leap of imagination I won’t go into.

In other words, most of the enemies you face in The Division are the domestic boogeymen of American conservatism — poor African-Americans, prisoners, and public sector unions. Looked at this way, The Division suggests that law enforcement is the only thing holding prisoners, the poor, and workers in check. When that fails, the world descends into chaos.

It gives a slightly different tone to the opening cinematic, where Agents leave their offices, families, and comfortable middle-class lives to defend America with arms. Grab your grenades and gun turret, Agent! Some really bad dudes — gangs, unions, and released prisoners — have taken control of New York. But since the rule of law has collapsed, there’s no Constitution to prevent you clearing the scum out with vigilante justice.

You hear that dog whistle?

This may sound trite, and indeed, there are counter-narratives. There’s a mission centered around pharmaceutical executives holding back a cure and evacuating ahead of the population, for example. But these are background incidents compared to the upfront Rioters, Rikers, and Cleaners. And when you look at how these groups have actually responded to crisis situations, it’s hard to think of The Division as either fair or accurate.

While it’s easy to think of The Division as based on the 9/11 terror attacks, I’d argue it’s more consistent with Hurricane Katrina. The parallels could fill an entire article — the joint relief agency/military response, homemade “help” banners, stranded civilians, shelters, and struggle to restore utilities — but the most pertinent are the reports of rioting. I say reports because it’s now taken for granted that initial rumors of looting and violence during the hurricane were overblown. While some people did steal TVs, most of the thefts amounted to desperate people scrounging for supplies.

Damage in Mississippi following Katrina.

Damage in Mississippi following Katrina.

“It was way over-reported,” Lieutenant-General Russel Honoré told The Guardian in a 2015 retrospectiveHonoré commanded Joint Task Force Katrina, a federal response force that included both FEMA and 20,000 active-duty U.S. military troops. “People confused looting with people going into survival mode. It’ll happen to you and I if we were just as isolated.”

Despite the fact that multiple studies have shown wide-scale looting after disasters is a myth, these Katrina rumors took on a life of their own. School bus drivers refused to go into the city to pick up evacuees, citing media reports of lawlessness and violence (National Guardsmen later drove the busses without incident). Stories about helicopters taking sniper fire further delayed the response. The most infuriating result, however, was that the rumors encouraged racial violence.

In Algiers Point, an un-flooded white enclave in a majority black neighborhood, armed residents erected barricades and hung signs reading “We Shoot Looters.” Black New Orleans residents recalled white vigilantes showing up on their doorstep and threatening them at gunpoint, and seeing black men, shot to death, floating in the floodwaters.

One Algiers Point resident, Roland J. Bourgeois, Jr. was later indicted for shotgunning three black men as they walked toward a Coast Guard aid station. He took a bloodied baseball cap off one of them and proudly displayed it as evidence he’d shot a “looter.”

New Orleans Police did no better. Six days after New Orleans went underwater, four police officers armed with assault rifles — including an unauthorized AK-47 — opened fire on an unarmed black family as they walked to the grocery store. The shooting wounded four unarmed people and killed two others — including Ronald Madison, a mentally disabled man. Police shot him in the back as he fled, then stomped on him as he lay dying. The officers later planted a gun to cover up the fact that the family was unarmed.

Border Patrol agents search an apartment building in downtown New Orleans following Katrina.

Border Patrol agents search an apartment building in downtown New Orleans following Katrina.

In a separate incident, local police officers shot Henry Glover, an unarmed black man, as he scavenged for baby supplies in a strip mall. Afterward, one officer attempted to erase the incident by loading Glover’s body in a car trunk and torching the vehicle. He’s currently serving 17 years in federal prison.

Corrections officers had a similarly poor record when dealing with New Orleans’ prison population. Far from staging a breakout during the hurricane, hundreds of prisoners found themselves stranded in their cells when guards evacuated. According to a Human Rights Watch report, inmates in one block of the Orleans Prison Parish spent five days locked in their cells, without food or water, before officers returned to evacuate them. By that time, the generators had failed and toilets backed up, leaving the inmates in fetid darkness. Those in ground floor cells lived in chest-deep water for four days. One wonders what might happen at the notoriously abusive Riker’s Island during a similar crisis.

As for overzealous public works officials, while health officials can overreact to a crisis, there’s no precedent for groups randomly torching buildings and immolating patients. The closest analogy I can think of would be the Great Chinatown Fire of 1900. During that event, Hawaii Board of Health workers set 41 fires in an attempt to stop a bubonic plague outbreak in Honolulu’s Chinatown. However, winds picked up and spread the fire, leveling the entire district. Many factors — including anti-Chinese racism — influenced the decision to use a controlled burn in the first place, but the end result was almost certainly an accident rather than arson. Still, that aside, the Cleaners feel like a smear to public works employees that are always on the front line of disaster response.

In other words, the poor, imprisoned, and disenfranchised are the overwhelmingly victims of violence in disaster situations, not the perpetrators. Forget thoughts of rioting and escaped prisoners — there’s much more danger in police overreaction, media rumors, negligent officials, and armed vigilantes.

Which brings us back to The Division, and its match-for-match enemies in the Last Man Battalion. These are both armed security officials who’re loose with their guns, trying to rebuild the city on a foundation of bodies. They’re the most dangerous thing in Manhattan, and the game acknowledges that, suggesting that extrajudicial power is only a problem if it’s in the wrong hands.

I’d love to see that dangerous, irresponsible idea explored and interrogated. Maybe it’ll be in the DLC.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Lt. Gen. Honoré commanded 300 members of the National Guard. In reality, General Honoré had overall command of Joint Task Force Katrina.