This Could Be Good

Tom Clancy's The Division

A Sidekick With Kick

Tom Clancy’s The Division offers a new kind of second banana.

By Ryan Smith • June 17, 2013

Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.

Video games have always struggled to perfect the playable sidekick. Typically, they’re programmed as computer-controlled helpers because developers assume that part of their games’ allure comes from the power fantasy of being The One—the character that saves the world or stops the terrorist from executing his nefarious plot. Who wants to play as the guy who helps The Guy?

Tom Clancy's The Division

There’s a reason, the thinking goes, that we’re playing as Snake in Metal Gear Solid and not as a support-team guy like Otacon, who hacks computer networks and uploads it to Snake’s codec. That’s why secondary players in games often fall into the Mario Bros. model. The prevailing narrative of Mario games would have you believe Luigi has embraced the Samwise Gamgee role, content to dwell in the hero’s shadow. But the svelte sibling doesn’t even count as a sidekick in the truest sense of the word because usually, he’s more like Mario 1.5—a clone who has nearly identical powers, skills, and resources.

The same carbon-copy philosophy applies to the four main characters in Tom Clancy’s The Division, an open-world action game that looks as if could be the Skyrim of tactical shooters. The game takes place in a New York City ravaged by a virus that’s spread in the most cynical way possible: attached to currency during the shopping orgy that is Black Friday. Three additional players can inhabit their own government agents in addition to player one, but each one character merely represents a new coat of paint slapped on the same basic prototype.

If you connect an iPad or another compatible tablet to the game, though, you can play as a remote-controlled drone—a supporting player who provides intel with a little ass-kicking on the side. (Finally, a character in a military shooter who’s made for the Obama era!) While your squad of friendly feds remain stuck on the ground, engaged in firefights, the drone takes to flight above the snow-covered Brooklyn rooftops and enjoys a bird’s eye view of the battle. Once there, the drone can “tag” hidden enemies—providing a glowing red “Here’s the bad guy!” indicator for allies on the ground—or heal the wounded with some kind of magic heal ray. (Dr. Drone, I presume?) Finally, once a timed meter fills up, the drone can launch missiles from a nearby rooftop to decimate unsuspecting targets. Like your human comrades, your exploits in combat earn you experience points, which can be used to upgrade your abilities.

Tom Clancy's The Division

From what I observed during the E3 demo, the game’s visual effects are significantly diminished for those playing as a drone, but it was still pretty amazing to play The Division in real time on a tablet. The developers say you’ll even be able to group up with your console-bound friends while commuting on a train or bus, but my best guess is that all that you’d be killing is your 3G internet connection.

As someone with mixed feelings about America’s real-life drone-war policy, there’s something slightly disconcerting about inhabiting the role of a remote-control murder machine. But from a game design perspective, the tiny drone buzzing above the post-apocalyptic battlefield in Tom Clancy’s The Division represents a new brand of playable sidekick—one that contributes to victory in ways vastly different from the heroes.

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15 Responses to “A Sidekick With Kick”

  1. CrabNaga says:

    I don’t understand what game companies are trying to go for here with these alternative multiplayer modes. Are these new and innovative modes just the “girlfriend/parent” mode? The counter to the “Nah, that game looks too complex/intense for me. I think I’ll just watch” statements that most gamers are too familiar with? Just shove a tablet or remote in their face and make them do busywork that tangentially helps the player.

    Are these asynchronous multiplayer modes an actual legitimate attempt to introduce new and unique mechanics to the game? Are they a transparent ploy to sell corresponding SmartGlass® devices? Is it simply easier in the current state of AAA game design to implement these sorts of multiplayer than more classical co-op that focuses on the core gameplay? Or is it some combination of the above? I’m honestly baffled.

    • Right now, it feels like developers are just testing the technology. They’re adding tablet support because they can, not because they actually have great ideas for enhancing the game experience. For now, it’s just a bullet point on the box, but someone might eventually find a good use for it.

    • duwease says:

      They always seem like boring afterthoughts to me, but inexplicably it’s the only way my wife likes to game.  She doesn’t like games at all, but being the “helper” in things like Super Mario Galaxy 2 is something she actively asks to do.

      • CrabNaga says:

        Yeah that’s what I was thinking of primarily when I wrote that comment (especially with respect to the SO/parent partnering idea). It’s the sort of interaction that people aren’t going to shy away from. You can’t lose, and you’re not required to perform well all the time. Nobody’s going to get mad at you for missing a star bit.

        It’s just odd because that sort of demographic doesn’t really pull in the money, unless you’re counting the peripheral costs (extra controller, tablet, phone, etc.), but it’s not like that money’s going to the developers.

        • duwease says:

          True, I wouldn’t buy a game for that functionality.. it’s more of a nice bonus if it happens to get use.

          I’m wondering if the reasoning isn’t more of a sales pitch to the brass.. “iPads are big, right?  We do something something iPad!”

    • beema says:

      THE KIDS WITH THEIR IPADS AND THEIR SOCIAL MEDIA

  2. Effigy_Power says:

    Yup, fell asleep reading the title.
    The prefix “Tom Clancy’s” does that to me better than Ambien.

  3. Ah_good_the_sea says:

    And the award for ‘Most Alarmist Game Trailer of 2013’ goes to…

  4. beema says:

    Ryan, any comment on the game’s UI? When watching the preview trailer, that looked like something that might be extremely obnoxious. Like either using a controller you are scrolling through things linearly and really interrupting the game flow, or on kbm having to bind 50 billion different keys.

    The game itself looks pretty cool, Tom Clancy nonsense aside. Like a co-op Watch Dogs or something. It looks to take some cues from MMO’s with slightly different player roles (one guy had a deploy-able turret, one appeared to be a healer, etc) so more than just your standard L4D style co-op. It leaves me to wonder if it will be something that is also enjoyable to play by yourself, in case you can’t find a good group to play with (like Borderlands often leaves me hanging)

    • Ryan Smith says:

      Beema, to me it seemed to play a lot like Borderlands through a Ghost Recon style tactical shooter filter. To me it seemed like something that would be average as a single player game but a much improved experience as a group. I have a hard time soloing in BL2 and I imagine the same would be true in this case.

      I didn’t notice anything more obtrusive UI wise than most games of this ilk.

  5. ProfFarnsworth says:

    Oddly enough, this reminds me of the coop mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where one player is raining death from above and another player is running for their lives on the ground.  I can see that perspective and the interesting bit from that.  The other side of me says, “That is one of the more controversial ideas I have heard so far this year”.

  6. STOP_RIGHT_THERE_CRIMINAL_SCUM says:

    this game looks fucking rad

    • djsubversive says:

      I agree with this guard. I’m a sucker for co-op, open world, and tactical shooters, though. I bet I’ll be able to get my Rainbow Six/Ghost Recon crew to play this.

      Massive made Ground Control, which is a plus, but they also “collaborated on the development of Far Cry 3,” which is a minus (for me, at least). I pretty much hated Far Cry 3, even though I loved the first two games. They seem to work pretty closely with Red Storm, and I like most of what Red Storm does (again, except Far Cry 3).