The Division: Verticality

So last week we compared The Division to the Arkham games (specifically Arkham Knight), and I suggested that even though they’ve got quite similar narrative structures and tropes, the Arkham games never got slammed for the weird criminal stereotypes because it’s a bit more cartoony, as opposed to the kinda gritty realism thing that The Division goes for. This week, I wanted to continue comparing The Division and Arkham Knight – this time in terms of how they deal with verticality.

And I want to say at the start that The Division has some pretty stunning environments. None of this is about bashing it in any way at all. The ground-level stuff is all immensely detailed, as you can see in that screenshot below – just intense amounts of detailing (I think you can click on those images and they’ll pop out into a little gallery view, if you want to get them bigger). There’s also some pretty wonderfully atmospheric areas – that burning Christmas tree in the second screenshot is an outstanding set piece. All told, I really like how The Division does its environmental design.

However, I wanted to point out that The Division is usually a bit skinny whenever you look up. All of that detailing and precision that we find on the ground isn’t really transferred into a vertical dimension. And the Arkham games again here serve as a strong point of comparison – I’ve shuttled in a gallery below, so you can see what I’m talking about. In some ways it’s not totally fair to be comparing the two games, because they operate very differently – Arkham is all grappling hooks and Bat-gliding, while The Division is more of a cover-based shooter. That’s why I say I’m not really making a criticism of The Division in any meaningful sense: the Arkham games design their environments to include the vertical dimension, because it’s more relevant to the gameplay. The Division doesn’t design like that, because verticality is for the most part pretty irrelevant. It just means that whenever you look up in The Division, things are a bit shabby – especially compared to the really loving and exacting detail across the rest of the ground-level environments.

In that first Division image, for instance (in the gallery below), you can see that the facade of each building is relatively flat. You’ve got like a couple extractor fans on the front side of the building on the right, and that American flag around the corner, but as you look further down the street there’s not really anything that extrudes – it’s all very flat surfaces. In the second image, from Arkham Knight, you’ve got a lot more stuff sticking off the buildings. There’s the faux-balcony with the trident figure right over the shop entrance on the right, and then drainpipes along the side of the building, neon signs hanging off things, that water tower right at the top – it’s just a lot more detailed. The third image is really striking – it really looks like you’ve got one floor that was just copied a bunch of times. Compare that to the apartment from Arkham Knight in the fourth screenshot, where even though each floor is still relatively consistent, there’s still enough to break the building up, so it doesn’t look as blocky and copy-pasted. The second and third floors on the right have a different number of windows, there’s the billboard top left – even just having the lights on in certain windows really makes a difference. The fifth image is another particularly awful instance of duplication, with one building being copied out into three. Not sure how they thought they could sneak that past us. The sixth and final image is actually a bit of a counter-point in defence of The Division – I noticed this bit of wall-art while I was up on a rooftop, and I wanted to point it out. I do think that the game is generally pretty weak on its vertical design (which, again, is not the end of the world given what sort of game it is), but it does have these little touches that’re worth acknowledging.

In this second gallery, below, I wanted to push a bit more into the idea of a city’s silhouette. If you look at the images from Arkham Knight (first, third, fifth), they’re much better with ideas of foreground and background, of multiple heights and shapes all crammed into this tiny location. It’s a cityscape that jostles you. Everything demands your attention, all the billboards and flashing lights and different towers and buildings with radically different styles and forms. The screenshots from The Division, by contrast, are quite drab, quite plain. It’s really lifeless, frankly. There’s a slight bit of interest in that second Division image (fourth in the gallery), with that one building in the middle that’s got some curvature. It does help to break up the monotony, although it feels like grasping at straws at that point.

I guess in closing I just wanted to touch on that final Division image – the last one in the gallery. It’s a really gorgeous moment, and it pretty well sums up my experience of The Division‘s Manhattan. There’s absolutely no focus on the vertical in there – and that’s fine. I’ve never been to New York, personally, so I have no idea what it’s really like. It might be that despite all the skyscrapers and huge looming buildings, the experience of the city for most people is really heavily focused on the street right in front of you. In that sense, The Division might be depicting something realistic about how people experience the city. Even if it’s not, though, I still think there’s something compelling about how that space is laid out. The broad street, the towering buildings stretching straight down the road, as far as the eye can see. There’s something comforting about it, something enclosed and familiar. In some ways, I almost recommend you don’t look up – it ruins the illusion, sure, but it also takes you away from a clear and compelling vision of the city.

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