farley post office

The Ambulance

Look. The Division is fucked.

Everything you’ve read in other reviews is true. The side quests are repetitive, but the gunplay is snappy and fun. Crafting needs a more intuitive interface, but building up your base is a satisfying intrinsic reward. Post-superflu New York is a beautifully-rendered wasteland, a truly breathtaking achievement for the probably dozens of artists working on it. And so on, and so on.

For me, all of these factors are secondary to the way the game wants me to act.

Last night, I rounded a corner by the makeshift hospital set up across the street from my home base in the hollowed-out ruins of the Farley Post Office building in Manhattan. And there, in a clearing ringed by waist-high barricades and totaled cars, stood some Rioters.

That’s “Rioters,” with a capital R. Rioters are the first set of enemy combatants that we encounter in The Division. They dress uniformly in hooded sweatshirts with red bandanas pulled up over their faces, which identifies them immediately as enemies, in case the red arrow that had appeared in my HUD over each of their heads did not suffice. For me, playing on a small computer monitor, their outfits also have the (perhaps intended) side-effect of obscuring any trace of visible skin. In this game, Rioters are ostensibly without race, ethnicity, or identity.

Rioters are consistently coded as thugs, lowlifes, opportunists. They are the antagonists of early-game hostage missions. Some of them employ a side grip on their pistols as they fire at you - “gangster” style. You can find them in computer stores, looting laptops. Or in a bodega, looking for food.

These three men were breaking into an ambulance.

I slid behind a burnt-out police car as the red arrows flashed above their heads. Because they hadn’t detected me, their idle animations continued to play. I watched how they moved, how they acted. One man grunted as he pried at the door at the back of the ambulance with a crowbar, complaining that he couldn’t pop it open. His companion laughed, saying “You don’t do it right. Let me.” A third was perched on a dumpster nearby, not keeping watch, but squatting against the wall, his head down. Resting.

In real Manhattan, the Farley Post Office is inscribed with the words that we in America associate today with postal workers everywhere: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

The Rioters weren’t threatening me. They weren’t holding anyone hostage. They weren’t guarding a stockpile of weapons, or even taking anyone’s wallet. They were breaking into an ambulance.

I only hesitated for a brief moment before I spun out from behind my cover.

One by the ambulance first - he’s got a bat. Can’t let him get in close. Then turn, pivot, left trigger to aim down the sights. The game’s AI has kicked in now, which means that the Rioters are scrambling around looking for cover. The one on the dumpster has jumped down and is running toward the the edge of the clearing, toward one of the barricades.

Running away from me.

Shooting him was easy. After all, his back was to me. The game even awarded me an XP bonus for a headshot. I’m getting pretty good at those.

The Division sometimes acknowledges the absurdity of its politics. Maybe there was someone in the room saying “we can’t make all the Rioters people of color,” or “portraying prison escapees as uniformly violent might just be a harmful stereotype,” or “you know, maybe there are some problems with a citizen militia acting unilaterally to enforce law and order in a society that has completely collapsed.” And these little nods, tucked away in incidental lines of dialogue, are nice. But they ring hollow against the thematic backdrop of the game. Time and again, the game wears its politics right on its sleeve. There’s no room for nuance, no room for personal choice, no room for a discussion about the ethics of prioritizing the property of a failed civilization over human lives. Rioters are Rioters, whether they’re looting an Apple store, rifling through a Starbucks, looking for food, or trying to get into an ambulance.

The red arrow above their heads told me so.

Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night…