The Division – Aesthetic Review

There is nothing gentle about heavy snowfall. It spills out of the sky like a breach in a dam, blanketing vision ahead to anything but the most vague shapes, the most piercing lights, everything but the most important details.

New York City swells with snow. It hails from the skies and bleeds from the streets, spilling corpses and garbage and death. Trash and body bags line the streets and alleys, Christmas lights and discarded decorations appear like ghosts in the margins, invisible save for brief moments as the agents trudge the streets. Although everything is festive, nothing feels celebratory. It all feels a little subdued, as if waiting for the next blizzard, the next gunshot, or the next tragedy.

Danger seems to linger in wings. Random skirmishes wait down alleys and on sidewalks. Looters stalk the streets in packs of two and three, waiting for any opportunity to lance out into the night, guns and voices raised, to join the cacophony of the storm.

The gunfight ends as quickly as it starts, corpses of two looters sprawled out in the fresh snow. These men don’t have names, nor does the agent seem to want them to, but it still feels absent. There should be life to these men, a reason for their death, but it seems the only thing this world leaves for them is opportunistic looting and death.

The quieting of the gunfire seems to herald a change in the air, and the weather quickly follows suit into silence. With the snow gone, the streets of the city become freshly lit by the mid-afternoon sun. In the daylight, in the right neighborhood, it can almost be difficult to tell that this is apocalyptic New York. Trash only barely visible in the ramps up to the closed and locked apartments, the recent snowfall has formed gentle mounds on the tops of parked cars. As the agent walks along the streets, a small trail of footprints leave a trail of the agent’s path.

The wind whistling between the tall buildings on either side brush loose powder off the top of a nearby taxi, falling to the ground briefly. The small cascade of snow feels very natural, like a part of the breezy landscape. Snow is still falling, slowly, but the worst of the blizzard still clings selfishly to the agent’s hair and backpack. As the agent drifts down the street, they reach absently out, and close the door of an abandoned New York Police squad car. The windshield and driver-side window have bullet holes in them, aftermath of the brief gunfight with the looters.

Taken here, in this moment, New York City is beautiful. The snow, a living part of the landscape, moves with the player. It rests on cars and spills into the streets with the wind. Footprints displace piles of fresh white as the agent stomps through in search of the next cell phone recording, or piece of intelligence. Sounds echo off of the walls, sending doppler-echoes in all directions. Drones can be heard as the agent passes, electronic chirps bouncing above and down the street. The agent crawls over dumpsters and fire escapes looking for routes up to recover the intelligence these drones carry.

In the streets below, a group of men in flame-retardant jumpsuits, with makeshift fuel tanks strapped to their backs, crunch through the snow. When they encounter the cold-looking civilians hurrying down the street, they mutter darkly of duty and raise the weapons to their shoulders. Bright gouts of flame paint the landscape in orange as the flames leap from their weapons. The hiss of accelerant, the roar of flames, and the pleading shouts of victims swiftly follow. Again, the sound of gunfire ruptures the decadent serenity that New York City had grown following in the wake of the heavy snow.

The Cleaners, as they are called, coordinate with more optimism than precision, but manage to find adequate cover and return hasty fire aimed at the government agent firing from the rooftops. Rounds that pierce the metal fuel containers make a distinct noise, rebounding lead off as the metal. The former-fire extinguisher groans as the rounds ping off into the sky. Another pair of rounds land home, and fire spouts from the top. It hisses furiously, unable to vent all of the pressure that’s building in the fuel. The cleaner screams, an echo of the victim’s screams mere seconds ago, before the entire assemblage explodes. Flame and smoke fill the air, and the other Cleaners shout and find new cover. None of them seem ready to face the same fate.

The agent returns back to the streets after dispatching the remaining cleaners. Like the looters before them, these new bodies find themselves at home with the rest of the death lining the bricks. Snow all around the immediate area has been scratched away by the hurried footfalls of the now-dead men. The agent returns to the hunt for intel.

Night comes to New York City slowly. The streets and snow briefly regain orange and blue and purple before ceding to darkness. The street lights and emergency lamps flicker to life with furious color, painting the agent’s vision in hazy yellow. In the wrong spots, the city is so polluted with light it can be harder to see than in the darkness. An errant round, or perhaps a well-placed one, can disable the lights for a moment. A brief island of darkness in the glowing streets.

The former inmates at Riker’s have planted themselves behind a concrete barrier, armed with Russian weapons, and are snapping out of cover just long enough to fire round after round up the street. On the far side of a group of abandoned cars, a squadron of heavily armed and armored mercenaries are planting turrets and providing covering fire. The Riker’s are pinned, and their survival seems bleak. Deeper down the road, two of the mercenaries’ snipers are setting up shop, lining up pristine lines of sight on the convicts’ only remaining path of retreat. And, slowly, grenades and covering fire are letting the militia’s men move up.

More gunfire, then silence. Six bodies lay in the street. Five of them convicts.

The agent turns the other way, and retreats back into the depths of the alley. This fight wasn’t theirs anyway. The alley, with its dark corner and deep pockets of cover, feels like a better place to hide than stage a fight anyway. The Last Man Battalion, the moniker of the well-armed men who just silenced the former prisoners, are a tough enough fight to not want to borrow any trouble in this alley. Instead, the agent listens to a recorded briefing outlining the LMB’s original purpose for being in New York in the first place, and retreats back to the street they had come from. An engagement with those LMB soldiers was inevitable, likely, but doing it on favorable ground seemed a wiser option.

In combat, New York bleeds into absence. Instead, the only things that feel important are lines of sight, places to take cover, and the angles through which the agent would either throw or intercept grenades. Everything else, ultimately, disappears as the threat of death came hard and fast. The mercenaries used furious tactics, leveraging their turrets, their health kits, their snipers, and their grenades with unapologetic efficiency. The fight becomes a game of angles and numbers. From this cover, only three of the seven combatants would have a line of fire on the agent, so it’s the smartest place to engage. Six quick bursts, two grenades, and one dive roll later, only five enemy combatants remain.

The gunfights feel meaningful, in so far as the agent never quite feels immortal. Prepared and able, certainly, but still vulnerable. Guns make meaty, threatening noises as they’re fired. Sniper rounds gain the friction, insectoid buzz, and departing crack of high velocity rounds, and assault weapons whine as they impact off of railings and light posts. Grenades beep furiously as their fuses shorten. Explosions and nearby fire shake the camera, immediate and threatening. Combat feels good, but it feels ugly. It can drag on too long, at times, as enemies can travel in large groups. Sometimes, several fights coalesce into a single, hair-raising, imperfect avalanche of poorly chosen cover and panic. Then, when the fighting stops, fallen guns and gloves litter the street, the rest of the city seems to reappear.

The real strength of these moments, this journey, is in the city. Beautiful, vast, and full of fine details. As the agent descends into the subway, the snow seems to melt away as the temperatures rise. But it melts slowly, leaving less snow on the shoulders every time one might look. This subway’s emergency sprinklers, those that work, shower the agent in water and plop audibly against the leather of their jacket. The echoing vastness of sounds deeper in the tunnels seems to slide off of the tiles against the walls as they carry through the tunnels.

Then the agent arrives at a safe house. It glows warmly, without raised guns. It’s gentle and teeming with bodies. Other agents hurry around, refilling ammo, storing weapons, chatting to vendors, and checking the local maps against their own. These moments of respite should feel calm, and safe, but they lack the unapologetic gorgeousness of the non-violent New York streets above. The crowds can feel crushing where the empty streets do not.

When the agent is back out on the streets, the snow has started up again, slowly, and it paints the streets in fresh white. The agent raises their weapon, and the muted cough of a suppressed pistol paints a spiderweb of cracks on a nearby sedan’s windshield. Two more shots replicate the experience, covering the window with jagged white lines. Further up the street, a car chirps in alarm as the pistol breaks its side mirror. Further still, the flashbulbs of a police car’s light bar shatters in a rain of plastic shards. The naked bulb glows under the street light. The flickering lights of a distant, alarmed car paint the snow and trash piles in angry and flickering orange. Down the road another gunfight can be heard. The agent sighs, and turns to run toward the gunfire. The biggest flaw of New York is that its battles are rarely as beautiful as its streets.

The gunfire rises in pitch as the agent joins the fray. In response, New York fills the pre-dawn blue with increasing snow. There is nothing gentle about heavy snowfall. Bullets whistle through the air, coming from the vague dark shapes in the blizzard, and the agent responds with gunfire of their own.

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Taylor Hidalgo Avatar

1 response to “The Division – Aesthetic Review”

  1. keeverj Avatar

    I remember really enjoying your review of Half-Life 2 back when you first published it, and reading this piece is making me wish you wrote more of these pieces. They’re really invigorating to read! you’re able to extract real beauty from the games you’re writing about; even a game that would resist such an effort at every turn like The Division. I can’t think of much more to say than to simply affirm that the way your words transform my perception of the game is a hell of a thing


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