Exploring The Division’s Realistic New York Cityscape

Like many people who have been pumped about going hands-on with Tom Clancy’s The Division, I spent a ton of time in the recent closed and open betas gunning down thugs across the plague-decimated streets, hunting for loot in the early solo missions, and venturing deep into the dark zone to square off against other players.

My pursuits in the betas were quite a bit of fun, and the game’s mix of open-world gunplay and role-playing quest elements are really shaping up. This was even more evident during our expanded hands on time with the game’s open beta content at the Xbox Spring Showcase event last week.

Beyond the satisfying thud of bullet damage stats stacking up and the constant loot scavenging, there’s something unexpected about The Division that has held me in its grip above all: the city itself.

A city in crisis

You arrive by helicopter at New York City’s Hudson Pier – the very outskirts of the quarantine zone. In a whirlwind setup, you’re fed the critical details. Terrorists have released a weaponized virus at the height of Black Friday shopping frenzy. Those who haven’t been infected are either struggling to survive or have formed into gangs of gun-toting thugs battling it out for turf. In short: The city is a total mess. Your job? Fix it.

Once you pass through the quarantine barriers, the stretch that follows funnels you into Midtown Manhattan towards your eventual home base of operations. As expected, all of this is very directed, very game-like. I obeyed the pings from the sci-fi HUD and directions spat out over the comm. I settled in and tackled a few missions, one of which sent met battling to the roof of Madison Square garden to take down a crazed machine-gunner and his goon squad. I lost myself in the nerdy thrill of watching the bullet damage stats pile up as I poured lead into my foes.

But then something happened.

Wandering the city streets to find more mayhem, I began taking a closer look beyond the burning barricades and piles of debris. Beyond the bodies and destruction. And I caught a glimpse of something familiar and unexpected that left me gawking away in the middle of a gunfight, oblivious to the chaos erupting around me.

A street sign. Then an odd realization: I’ve actually stood at this exact spot before… in the real world.

It’s a context that I hadn’t considered when I dove into The Division, and it completely changed my experience in a profound way.

That’s the moment I abandoned my mission of saving the city. Instead, I donned my detective cap and became obsessed with seeing just how close this virtual representation of New York City was to the real thing.

A sightseeing tour… but with lots of guns

Having spent a few years living on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, about 45 minutes outside the city, I’ve spent a great deal of time trekking into Midtown Manhattan and exploring on foot. To walk down the exact same real-world streets and settings that I’ve traveled numerous times before, only this time armed with an assault rifle instead of a pen and reporter’s notebook, is a bit surreal.

It’s a strange feeling when you can visually reference buildings, streets, and landmarks in-game, then fire up Google Maps and zip down to street level view to find they’re almost 1:1 with their real counterparts – right down to the architecture and fake business sign colors. That’s how detailed The Division’s virtual NYC is, and it’s what compelled me to spend several more hours exploring the city, retracing steps from previous real-world jaunts to see what I’d find.

A few of the juxtaposition between reality and fantasy took a jarring turn at times. Venturing down a familiar subway entrance I’ve been to in The Dark Zone’s lawless limits, for example, yielded not a platform full of busy commuters waiting for the train but a pile of infected bodies stacked and rotting in the darkness. Other stops on my peculiar sightseeing trip were less grisly – flashy high rises in familiar spots, the statue kiosk at Herald Square, and even a parking garage sitting on exactly the right corner a few blocks from Madison Square garden.

The Division certainly isn’t the only game set in a realistic interpretation of a major metropolitan area, or the even first to unfold across the Big Apple, yet it’s easily one the most authentic I’ve ever experienced. It’s hard to imagine this not resonating – on one level or another – with players who’ve lived in or visited the city. I can’t wait to see where my next trek will take me when Tom Clancy’s The Division’s launches next week on March 8.