Common Battlegrounds: Comparing The Division and Freedom Fighters


Games have long relied on the nar­ra­tive of hero­ic strug­gle against over­whelm­ing odds to sup­port their most pop­u­lar mechan­ic: shoot­ing men and col­lect­ing loot. Whether the vil­lain is an evil wiz­ard bent on world dom­i­na­tion, hordes of inhu­man zom­bies, or just brown-skinned sol­diers, they all rep­re­sent inter­change­able ciphers ready to pro­vide the player’s char­ac­ter jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to com­mit mass mur­der.

The ways in which each nar­ra­tive is fla­vored, how­ev­er, can dif­fer sig­nif­i­cant­ly and in notable ways. Two games that share a sim­i­lar premise while har­bor­ing dis­tinct themes are IO Interactive’s Freedom Fighters (2003) and Ubisoft’s The Division (2016). Both take place in a hos­tile, anar­chic, New York City. In Freedom Fighters it’s because – as in the film it lib­er­al­ly bor­rows from, Red Dawn (1984) – the Soviet army has invad­ed and occu­pied the city. In The Division, the source of strife is inter­nal­ly derived; sparked by a domes­tic bio­log­i­cal ter­ror attack, the city has fall­en into dis­ar­ray and var­i­ous gangs have taken over. Both games involve “tak­ing back the city” in some form or anoth­er.

Each game draws from a dis­tinct his­tor­i­cal set­ting which serves to both cohere and sep­a­rate them. Freedom Fighter’s urtext, Red Dawn, was a film firm­ly couched in Cold War para­noia. It was based on the idea that apoc­a­lypse – brought on by two nations with mas­sive armies and huge nuclear arma­ments bat­tling for hege­mo­ny – was just around the cor­ner. The Division taps into a more cur­rent fear, which also hap­pens to be the under­cur­rent of many of Tom Clancy’s other prop­er­ties: that the enemy is not gov­ern­ments but indi­vid­u­als with their own moti­va­tions. The fear is still death and chaos, the unknow­able and unpre­dictable end of civ­i­lized soci­ety, but the object of that fear has changed shape. And in response to that shift­ing cipher, the play­er is given con­trol of two very dif­fer­ent kinds of heroes.

In Freedom Fighters you play as Chris Stone, a work­ing class plumber who stum­bles into becom­ing the ersatz leader of a rebel group fight­ing the Soviet occu­pa­tion. He’s also in search of his broth­er who has been kid­napped and damseled by Soviet forces. The Division has you play a name­less cit­i­zen sol­dier; some­one who has been recruit­ed and trained under the aus­pices of the ter­ri­fy­ing real-life Directive 51 to main­tain the con­ti­nu­ity of the Federal Government in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions. You are essen­tial­ly a trussed up, government-funded, ver­sion of a dooms­day prep­per: some­one con­vinced that civ­i­lized soci­ety will inevitably come crum­bling down, and who imag­ines them­selves one of the few suf­fi­cient­ly pre­pared to sur­vive. That prepa­ra­tion usu­al­ly comes in the form of food, water and med­ical sup­plies. And lots and lots of guns.

The work­ing class nature of your hero in Freedom Fighters is heav­i­ly sup­port­ed by the text. A plumber is as respect­ed a totem of work­ing class America as it gets. One need only recall the rise and fall of Joe the Plumber who lent dubi­ous work­ing class cred­i­bil­i­ty to McCain/Palin’s Presidential run in 2012. The forces that gave his words the extra weight of authen­tic­i­ty are part of a pow­er­ful iconog­ra­phy. Employing them in your nar­ra­tive says a lot about the kind of mes­sage you’re try­ing to pro­mote.

Meanwhile, The Division does not cast the play­er as an indi­vid­ual as much as a name­less tool of the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Only in the last third of the game do you have to face ene­mies that are as well-supported as you are. The rest of the ene­mies in the game are per­ceived loot­ers, escaped con­victs and decid­ed­ly work­ing class “Cleaners,” ex-garbagemen who in a kind of group para­noia have taken it upon them­selves to burn away any remain­ing infec­tion from the city.

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Though these groups of gangs may pro­vide some chal­lenge in the early stages of The Division, you quick­ly estab­lish your tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic dom­i­nance over them. Your home base, The New York State Post Office, is loaded with resources that only become more bol­stered and exten­sive as the game car­ries on. Many of the mis­sions in The Division involve pro­tect­ing these same pre­cious resources from the wild and unruly pop­u­lace. This dichoto­my is flipped in Freedom Fighters. Your role is to destroy prop­er­ty and weak­en the Soviet-controlled gov­ern­ment. The more that chaos is sewn, the less sta­ble the occu­pa­tion becomes. This is a defin­ing ide­ol­o­gy of those who prac­tice guer­ril­la war­fare, and by com­mit­ting to this ide­ol­o­gy Freedom Fighters paints your char­ac­ter clear­ly in the dra­mat­ic col­ors of a guer­ril­la fight­er.

Of course, guer­ril­la war­fare is not with­out its con­tro­ver­sy. Governments are not incor­rect when they blame guer­ril­las for increas­ing vio­lence and insta­bil­i­ty in a region, which often leads to the unnec­es­sary deaths of civil­ians. This is the line used by the fic­tion­al Soviet occu­py­ing force in their pro­pa­gan­dis­tic news broad­casts that appear as cutscenes in the game. The Division sim­i­lar­ly puts a heavy empha­sis on the safe­ty of the city’s civil­ians. It seeks to tread a line where you are revered as a kind of folk hero even as the brunt of your actions are, as men­tioned ear­li­er, in the ser­vice of pro­tect­ing prop­er­ty and main­tain­ing sta­bil­i­ty and gov­ern­ment hege­mo­ny. Just as in real cases of guer­ril­la war­fare, both sides claim that their most cher­ished goal is the safe­ty and liveli­hood of the non­com­bat­ant civil­ians who then end up being the ones who suf­fer most.

As such, it’s impor­tant to inter­ro­gate what these games imply when they task you with “tak­ing back the city.” It can be under­stood that the ide­al­ized res­o­lu­tion of both con­flicts is the U.S. gov­ern­ment as we cur­rent­ly know it com­ing back to power. A return to the sta­tus quo, rather than the begin­ning of some­thing new. There are story threads in The Division that sug­gest poten­tial branch­ing res­o­lu­tions, but for the pur­pos­es of this essay, they are too vague to attribute much nar­ra­tive impact to.

Considering the plots of both games seek sim­i­lar out­comes, the con­tours of how they dif­fer exist pri­mar­i­ly along the axis of how you are allowed to seek these out­comes. Some light is shed by exam­in­ing how each game approach­es “squads” and friend­ly allies in gen­er­al. While both games fea­ture the sim­i­lar­ly redun­dant ally NPCs that lit­ter the scenery either as pan­ick­ing civil­ians, or near­sight­ed friend­ly troops, Freedom Fighters allows you to recruit NPCs to fight along­side you and to fol­low your com­mands. The amount of NPCs you can recruit depends on your charis­ma level, which is increased by help­ing wound­ed allies and tak­ing over Soviet bases. These NPCs are cut from your cloth: rough and ready armed civil­ians ready to take up with the insur­gency. They aid you, and you aid them, togeth­er you present a more uni­fied front in the stoic bat­tle to retake your home­land.

The Division, being released more than a decade later, com­mits to a fair­ly online-centric mode of play. While you start the game alone on the streets of New York, it’s triv­ial­ly easy to join a party of four and play the game with other humans, both strangers or inti­mate friends. You are thus taken out of the nar­ra­tive of the game itself; you aren’t recruit­ing New Yorkers like in Freedom Fighters, or any other char­ac­ters that might osten­si­bly exist with­in the text of The Division, you’re play­ing with other mem­bers of the audi­ence who share the same detached per­spec­tive that you do. It helps rein­force the game’s some­what dis­mis­sive atti­tude toward much of its inter­nal fic­tion that I like to describe as “dis­as­ter tourism.” It’s the kind of tonal dis­so­nance we saw in the first E3 demon­stra­tion of The Division’s online play.

The video fea­tures scenes of dev­as­ta­tion, mixed with the kind of ban­ter you’d reserve for a pick­up game of soc­cer. Not to say that this type of light­heart­ed online expe­ri­ence is exclu­sive to The Division, but in pri­or­i­tiz­ing online inter­ac­tions, the game loses some of its abil­i­ty to back up the tone and set­ting through play. By restrict­ing squads to NPC allies, Freedom Fighters allows its world to stand on its own, with­out com­ment, with­out dis­con­nect, as hokey as that world may be.

The enemy types in each game also make a huge impact on the expe­ri­ence. Freedom Fighters pits you against a car­toon­ish­ly evil Soviet army. You spend the game putting holes into card­board stereo­types and offen­sive car­i­ca­tures. But on the level of eth­i­cal dubi­ous­ness, The Division is far more trou­bling. While Freedom Fighter’s NYC stops at its famous mon­u­ments and exag­ger­at­ed accents, The Division seeks to repli­cate as much from the actu­al loca­tion as pos­si­ble. This added verisimil­i­tude has deeply trou­bling out­comes when some of the NPCs you’re killing come with a back­sto­ry of break­ing out of Riker’s Island, a prison with a hor­ren­dous­ly trou­bled real-life his­to­ry. Even devoid of cor­rupt insti­tu­tions, the act alone of shoot­ing riot­ers in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion painful­ly recalls recent American his­to­ry: dur­ing Hurricane Katrina black peo­ple were assumed to be loot­ers, shot and arrest­ed at far high­er rates than white peo­ple.

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The diverse means by which the sta­tus quo is restored do make a dif­fer­ence in exact­ly what kind of sta­tus quo each game resolves to. By the end of Freedom Fighters Chris and his cohorts cel­e­brate on Governor’s Island, in the face of an uncer­tain future. The Soviet Union remains in con­trol of the rest of the coun­try, and New York is a burnt out husk of its for­mer glory. A sense of creep­ing doubt obscures the bright halos caused by cel­e­bra­to­ry fire­works explod­ing in the back­ground. The dilem­ma of every gueril­la move­ment final­ly rears its head: was it all worth it? Did the means, the inno­cent blood spilled, truly jus­ti­fy the ends?

The Division asks no such ques­tions, strug­gles with no such doubt. The game ends in the way many other open-world, player-retention-seeking games do: with nods to plot-threads promised to be unrav­eled in future install­ments. And New York, the city that orig­i­nal­ly expressed some under­stand­able hes­i­tance at invit­ing a large unac­count­able mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tion into their midst swaps neat­ly into a mode of thank­ful­ness and adu­la­tion. Sure, the state of things is essen­tial­ly the same as when you began the game, but your “char­ac­ter” express­es no dis­ap­point­ment at the fact. A game built to pro­vide unlim­it­ed play can­not pos­si­bly sup­port a sat­is­fy­ing story arc.

The Division tasks the play­er with sav­ing the world, but in the dis­tract­ed man­ner of some­one only half pay­ing atten­tion as they tell a story. Self-defense becomes a much more dubi­ous sell when you spend most of your time in the game wan­der­ing around shoot­ing black men in hood­ies; when you don’t even pre­tend that your char­ac­ter has any real stake in the sit­u­a­tion. It’s a game that prizes fun above res­o­nance, but still wants to slip in com­pelling, real-life con­text.
Despite its grit­ty, hard-edged real­ism, The Division doesn’t treat its subject-matter near­ly as seri­ous­ly or even holis­ti­cal­ly as Freedom Fighters ulti­mate­ly does.


Yussef Cole

About Yussef Cole

Yussef Cole is a writer and visual artist from the Bronx, NY. His specialty is graphic design for television but he also deeply enjoys thinking and writing about games.