In January, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump boasted that he was so popular, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose voters."
I couldn't help recalling Trump's curious hypothetical as I played "Tom Clancy's The Division," in which you can stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot many, many somebodies.
The new Ubisoft game casts you as a Homeland Security Department sleeper agent activated only in the most dire of crises. In this case, it's a smallpox outbreak on Black Friday that turns midtown Manhattan into a snowy warzone. Through blinding squalls and floodlights, halted rush hour traffic and uncollected garbage, you're trying to preserve the little civilization that's left while also hunting down whoever unleashed the virus.
That means killing. A lot of killing. "The Division" being a shooter with some online RPG systems, a la "Borderlands" or "Destiny," killing means progress. It means better guns, better gear, better abilities. Killing means more killing.
All that killing fits Ubisoft's well-worn design formula better than your Division agent's knee-padded jeans. The publisher's Massive studio splatters the familiar midtown grid with green, orange and blue symbols, each signifying a copied and pasted mission structure. Sometimes it's holding a position, sometimes it's taking one — but it's always killing.
None of it would work so well if Massive didn't make killing in "The Division" so fun. The hiss and rumble of its guns make firing them feel invigorating. The elusive movements and strategic knowhow of its enemies make downing them feel skillful. And the design of its firefights, from cover placement to enemy wave composition, makes winning them feel earned.
"The Division," in this basest and most mechanical of senses, is a good game. It's when you scrutinize whom you're killing, as well as how you're killing them, that it becomes a troubling one.
The game's enemies come in a few classes: the street gang Rioters, the blue-collar Cleaners, the excon Rikers and the hired guns of the Last Man Battalion. Sometimes you kill them because they shoot first. More often, however, it's your sweepingly powerful agent who takes the first shot against these dispossessed classes, chasing them through streets and alleyways until their red icons no longer infest your mini-map.
That's where Trump comes in. Much as his infamous January statement bears a physical resemblance to what you do in "The Division," the candidate's fascism bears a broader philosophical one.
Whether it's shooting someone in the street for looting or punching someone in the face for protesting, the same zero-tolerance rule girds both The Division and Trump's rhetoric. Both encourage the same extreme responsivity to anything aversive, the same absence of compassion, the same unquestioning conviction in one's privileged rightness. Both should scare the hell out of you.
Like Trump, "The Division" is entertaining. It pleases your lizard brain with stunning graphic detail, a surprising immunity to glitches and third-person shooting that's as fun to play with friends as it is to play solo.
But, also like Trump, "The Division" has political ideas that are far less fun to ponder.