I’m going to start this by declaring my usual approach to high-profile releases in the video game world: copious and equal amounts of skepticism and apathy. It’s not that I don’t see the appeal of most AAA releases these days, though. It’s more the fact that I’ve been burned on so many games that had incredible hype trains leading into their debut that I simply can’t take getting my hopes too high for another one. What you’re about to read is the reflection of someone who has mastered the process of cautious and measured optimism, and who sees grey clouds looming in the skies over major video game releases where others see sunshine and rainbows.
I’ll admit it – the last game that suckered me in with its sizzling beta and dazzling developer interviews prior to its release was Destiny. The unveiling of Destiny in 2013 was a glimpse into a completely new genre of gaming being tackled by Bungie, the studio that had brought my teenage self countless hours of entertainment and young children shrieking curses they had no right knowing into my headset. It was a match made in heaven, a blending of my favorite RPG elements with the same kind of polished, trigger-happy action FPS gameplay that Bungie had built its reputation upon with the Halo series.
Well, we all know how that turned out. Destiny, despite initial indications of a promising narrative in the Old Russia area that gamers got to explore during the beta, ended up being a blandly-written FPS/MMO hybrid that faltered in more areas than it found its footing. Even still, Bungie’s deftly implemented gameplay mechanics that kept gamers who loved a good PvP or PvE experience coming back, but even that has only lasted so long – longtime Destiny players like TripleWRECK have publicly bemoaned the state of the game’s matchmaking and content updates. It’s possible that the game will be salvaged with new content updates and some fixes to buggy PvP, but Destiny updates aren’t coming until after February, and fans have to hold their collective breaths until then in hopes that Bungie knows what it’s doing.
Destiny released nearly a year and a half ago, though, so it’s been some time since I felt the same kind of excitement for a new game release. In the past couple months, one game has managed to break my personal drought of anticipation, however. Tom Clancy’s The Division has all the makings of a truly great game, with exciting features mixed between single and multiplayer content, and a story that touches on current anxieties over capitalism and disease.
Stop me if people have heard this one before. If the buzz surrounding The Division feels oddly similar to the hype that engulfed Destiny prior to the latter’s release, that’s because it is. I caught myself discussing The Division‘s awe-inspiring, gritty takes on an abandoned New York City the same way I had previously raved over the slick, grim level design in Destiny‘s Old Russia. I have been eagerly researching whatever information I can find regarding The Division‘s skill-tree system, almost identically to the way I had previously spent hours poring over data on Destiny‘s different Guardian classes before I chose which one I would play during beta and at release.
It’s all starting to smell of Groundhog Day, if Bill Murray had been younger and more handsome and his groundhog was instead major video game releases that had exciting betas leading into them. I’ll admit, my issue is a lot more fun, but it’s still an issue. If The Division‘s major antagonists end up being named something like The Strain and one of the first “bosses” is called Fireman the Flameguy, I might never play a video game again.
So what, though? Why does it matter if The Division is kind of similar to Destiny, and if they both turn out to be flawed but ultimately enjoyable experiences?
Well, the problem with The Division is that it’s not breaking new ground. It’s a title that will forever be compared to Destiny because it’s walking the path that Bungie laid out for FPS/MMO hybrids upon Destiny‘s release in 2014. Destiny made a lot of mistakes once it released, but that was okay for a while because it was mapping out new territory for AAA titles and was innovative as a complete package. The thing is, a lot of the flaws in Destiny, whether it be the laughably bad narrative or the laggy multiplayer experience, have been there pretty much from the beginning. People started pointing them out as the game began to lose its “fresh” appeal, and the problems have started to pile on ever since.
In the case of The Division, it might be trying new things, but there is now a standard for the genre in Destiny. It’s not going to be good enough if The Division is simply “as good” as Bungie’s game, because there are, despite the currently disgruntled fanbase, a lot of gamers who are deeply entrenched in the Destiny community who won’t leave simply because they are familiar with their game and don’t want to spend the many hours it might take to get good at another in the same vein. If The Division mimics what Destiny has done and becomes a similar game in a different setting with different aesthetic choices, it will fail. If The Division isn’t more visually or narratively engaging than Destiny‘s Year One was, then it will be unable to usurp the uneasy throne of a game that is very likely experiencing its worst level of player activity since release.
Of course, there’s still plenty of time for The Division to prove that it has fundamentally changed gameplay and narrative decisions where it matters most. The beta will answer a lot of questions heading into the game’s full release, and many fans are hopeful that Ubisoft’s new IP will learn from the shortcomings of Bungie’s and feature compelling side quests more in line with those found in The Witcher 3. I’m not so much of a pessimist that I refuse to believe The Division can’t carve out its own niche within a fledgling genre and become a staple in many people’s game rotations for the coming year and beyond. That’s just one possibility among many, and past experiences and the striking similarities between The Division and Destiny‘s philosophies and pre-release communities are simply telling me otherwise.
I want to believe in The Division, and I want to look past the fact that it looks like Ubisoft’s game is heading in the exact same direction Destiny did. When the developers behind The Division promise that the Dark Zone will be unique and game-changing PvP, though, I see the same kind of promises that Destiny‘s Crucible once held. When friends and colleagues discuss the fascinating story of a world destroyed by a disease passed through the exchange of currency, I hear my old conversations regarding Destiny‘s cool take on intergalactic high fantasy and apocalypse narrative.
When The Division finally releases in early March, it will look to make Destiny history. I just hope The Division isn’t simply dooming itself to repeating that history in a different context.
The Division releases on March 8, 2016 for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.