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Forging Fragile Alliances At E3 2015 In The Division's Dark Zones

Exploring the most highly contaminated areas of New York in Tom Clancy's The Division.


In the epidemic-ridden New York of Tom Clancy's The Division, it's every man and woman for him- or herself. As groups of survivors scavenge for weapons, ammunition, and protective gear, they may occasionally encounter each another in areas of the city called "Dark Zones". These are The Division's walled-off player-versus-player areas--separate from the cooperative exploration and looting of the rest of the game.

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When you enter a Dark Zone, you have the chance to locate some rare loot. However, the loot is irradiated, which means you can't use it immediately. Instead, you need to call in a helicopter to extract the loot by firing a flare and defending your landing zone. But you're not the only group trying to get their loot out of the Dark Zone. In my hands-on time, I played on a team of three people, and faced off against two other teams of three--so there were nine players in total present, in a 3v3v3 setup.

These Dark Zones don't present your typical adversarial multiplayer scenario, however. Instead, every team starts off being neutral toward each other. No-one is tagged as hostile until they fire a shot at another team. The intention here is to create an experience whereby you attempt to create an uneasy, temporary alliance with other scavengers, so that everyone fulfills their objectives then goes their separate ways. Only one team can call in a chopper at a time, so if you work together, you'd take turns extracting your loot.

Your other option is to kill the other teams, take their loot along with yours, and then extract with even more items than you would have if you had worked together. It's a risk/reward scenario: do you take the safer route and be friendly, allowing everyone their fair share? Or do you ambush the other teams, take them down, and claim everything for yourselves?

I found this multiplayer setup fascinating, but missing one key element: there was no way to communicate with players outside of my team, with either proximity voice chat or character emotes. Instead, all of my available actions were outwardly hostile--shooting, throwing grenades, hiding behind cover, and sprinting away. There was no way to communicate my intention, so every encounter devolved into a more standard-fare PVP shoot-out.

Do you take the safer route and be friendly, allowing everyone their fair share? Or do you ambush the other teams, take them down, and claim everything for yourselves?

This lack of communication prevented what I feel would be the most interesting encounters from happening--stumbling across another player by surprise, getting shot at, and shouting "Friendly!" then trying to convince them you want to work together. That is the kind of world that The Division implies, but without proximity voice chat, it's next to impossible to create.

"I kind of agree with you," The Division's associate creative director, Julian Gerighty, told me. "This may be off-script, so I hope that the team doesn't shout at me, but I'm a big fan of proximity VOIP and communication. But we found in tests that, in a living room setup, you get a lot of unwanted dogs barking, babies crying, 'Are you coming to dinner?' and it breaks the experience. So it's not a technical issue, it's a player thing."

Gerighty said the team is experimenting with including military-themed player emotes in place of proximity voice chat: "It's one way--it's not a perfect way. We're going to play around with different solutions open to us, but we're definitely aware of that challenge."

This is good to hear; without ways to communicate with neutral players, I fear the Dark Zones will devolve into an unspoken PVP arena. This would be unfortunate, because the actual combat that followed once we opened fire on the other groups didn't feel like it had much impact. Damage numbers would fly out of characters upon shooting them in a manner similar to Borderlands and Destiny, but there was little other feedback. The environment was heavily reliant on using cover to avoid enemy fire, with crates stacked upon crates surrounding a helicopter landing zone creating a maze of boxes. However, the controls for navigating cover felt imprecise; in heated moments, I would find myself incorrectly snapping to cover that would expose me to the enemy, or accidentally vaulting over objects into the line of fire. These cover mechanics felt almost identical to the way cover worked in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, a game I had similar troubles with which resulted in similarly fatal errors.

What did feel great was the 3v3v3 nature of the combat. Because both teams appear as red (hostile) to you when combat begins, it's easy to forget that some of those enemies also appear hostile to each other. When you're engaged in a firefight, and another "enemy" sprints in and starts shooting at your target as well, the chaos that ensues is the Dark Zones' combat at its most fun. The time it takes to kill another player is much longer compared to other multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield. This was a refreshing change and resulted in firefights that had a longer back-and-forth exchange of gunfire, movement, and attempts to flank one another.

Yet, after a couple of attempts to extract our loot and respawning after a few deaths--respawns are allowed until one team extracts their loot--I was ready to leave the Dark Zone behind. To me, this feels like the least-interesting aspect of The Division. I want to explore more of New York's contaminated streets. I want to build up my home base and bring order back its surrounding boroughs. But mostly, I want to see how The Division tells its narrative, which despite us not having seen much of it yet, Gerighty tells me is definitely something the game will contain.

"Obviously it's about the virus and other events within New York," he explained. "It's a deep narrative. Is it the only reason people are going to play? I hope not. I hope that people will get so engaged by the mechanics that they'll continue playing for hours and hours after they've finished the narrative."

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