The Division’s Dark Zone – my new favorite survival horror game

Tom Clancy's The Division™_20160324003113

“Let me join your squad.”

“I’ve already got a crew I’m rolling with. Sorry, dude.”

“If you don’t let me join your squad I’m gonna murder you and all your friends.”

The moment this random guy started talking to me in The Division’s Dark Zone, I was on edge. When he threatened virtual murder on my squad, the dial went to 11.

The Division, a third-person shooter developed by Ubisoft, takes place in New York after the Dollar Flu hits. On Black Friday an engineered version of Smallpox is released to the public on tainted cash. As a player in the game, you’re a nameless Division agent who must fight through the dilapidated New York City streets to save defenseless people, track down rogue entities and attempt to gain more intel on the Dollar Flu and its designers.

The New York we see here is similar to that of the movie I Am Legend, just replace the vampires with gun-toting factions and the greenery with snow.

The entire campaign can be played alone or with up to three other people, and every mission is you or your squad against AI-only enemies.

Tom Clancy's The Division™_20160324002028

The Division features a controversial area in the heart of its map called the Dark Zone. In the Dark Zone, players can come in contact with other real, human-controlled players as well as AI-controlled enemies. The best loot (meaning guns, armor and modifications for both) is in the Dark Zone. However in order to get the loot out, a helicopter must be called in, you must attach your loot to the helicopter’s extraction rope, and the helicopter must make it out. If you die, your loot drops where you died. Human-controlled players can help each other, ignore each other or “go rogue,” which means they start firing on other human-controlled players. Sometimes going rogue is accidental (telling the difference between human-controlled and AI-controlled opponents is often difficult) but more often than not players go rogue to steal loot from others after killing them.

The Dark Zone is a true no-man’s land, and the thought of it makes my pulse quicken. I’ve never been a fan of competitive online multiplayer for several reasons. Firstly, I never think I’m good enough to compete with players who spend hours on end grinding and getting better at games. I also don’t enjoy being called names or having other players tell me what kind of intercourse they had with my mother last night. Competitive online multiplayer does nothing but stress me out, yet somehow that’s exactly what I like about it in The Division’s Dark Zone.

Tom Clancy's The Division™_20160320032950

“If you don’t let me join your squad I’m going to murder you and all your friends.”

Up until that point in the Dark Zone, I had no idea random, human-controlled players could speak to you if you stand close enough to them. As soon as he started speaking my heart started pounding.

I wasn’t bluffing when I told him I already had a crew. Brad and Gina, who I’d spent the entire campaign with, were only a few hundred feet away. The trouble was, they were both having technical difficulties with their microphones, so they were sorting that out while I was negotiating with a Dark Zone bully. As soon as their microphones came back on, I hastily blurted out a warning that this random guy was threatening to murder us.

As soon as someone opens fire on another human player, The Division flags him or her as Rogue on everyone’s radar in the vicinity. However, there’s no penalty for following other players around and verbally harassing them.

At a certain point, the guy shot at us, and we returned fire. He made quick work of Brad and Gina. I kicked in my flight instinct and ran away. When Brad and Gina respawned, we decided to find this guy and tactically take him out. It was 3 on 1, how could we lose?

Because this guy had probably been playing The Division for 100+ hours and had far better equipment than us, he made quick work of us again. And again. Not only did he kill all of us, he kept stalking us through the Dark Zone, waiting for us to pick up loot from AI-controlled enemies, and murdering us to take that loot. We didn’t stand a chance against him and his high-level equipment.

At first I was infuriated. Although Ubisoft has recently fixed the tiers in which players fall into the Dark Zone (which means getting paired with other human-controlled players similar to your experience level is definite), the situation at hand wasn’t exactly fair. If one person can beat three people in a fight several times, player grouping and balancing needs to be fixed.

However, that’s what the Dark Zone is all about. It’s about risking your life and common decency for better gear. I came to appreciate the Dark Zone for the adrenaline rush it gave me.

Tom Clancy's The Division™_20160310181853

Weeks later, when my same crew revisited the Dark Zone I had a similar reaction. We weren’t stalked by high-level players like last time (thanks to new balancing) but just the simple act of crossing the door into the Dark Zone and knowing all bets are off and anything can happen in there made me excited and fearful at once.

After we pulled off a few gear extractions and exacted revenge on players who’d gone Rogue on others, Brad checked in on us.

“How are you guys doing?” He asked.

“…Breathing heavily.” I heaved into my mic, heart pounding.

“Yeah I can hear that. Are you OK?”

“Yeah … this is really exhilarating stuff.”

As a longtime fan of survival horror games (I bought Resident Evil 2 before I even owned a Playstation), I never expected The Division to give me the kind of heart-pounding fear I once got from running away from zombies or carefully barricading a home against mind-controlled Spanish-speaking villagers. Yet here, I’m finding new thrills with the aid of quite possibly the most terrifying element of all – human behavior hidden behind video game avatars.

When I consider that few survival horror games in the past 10 years have managed to capture an essence that gives me the sweaty palmed, heart-racing fear that I love, I appreciate my accidental stumble into the next best experience that does. For better or worse The Division’s Dark Zone is full of something an introverted guy like me fears the most – dealing with real people. I doubt a day will ever come where I enter the Dark Zone confident enough to keep control of my heart rate in it, but that’s OK. I had no idea The Division would inadvertently give me the best survival horror game I’ve played in 2016, and I’m not complaining. Fear is fear, no matter what the root cause.

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