Broken Escalators: Washington DC’s Metro System in Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

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Video games set in real-world locales often lean on public landmarks to sell the setting. No private entity owns Times Square, for instance, so it’s an easy addition to a game, lending verisimilitude to all the nameless, generic streets running nearby without necessitating rights payments. The soon-to-be-released—and awkwardly named—Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (Ubisoft, 2019) places its open-world third-person “loot shooter” in contemporary Washington, DC, a city replete with a unique and recognizable street structure and tons of public landmarks to help situate the player.

All the big buildings and monuments you’d expect are there, in a very faithful recreation of the city street grid. Having spent some time with the game’s open beta (a glorified demo, more or less), I was pleasantly surprised when I walked—well, ran, being chased by some post-apocalyptic wanna-be with a mohawk—around a corner and saw Pennsylvania Avenue, properly wide and grand and angled, with a vista towards the Capitol I’d seen hundreds of times in real life. The DC of The Division 2 feels right, with the trademark low skyline and restrained architecture of the Federal core recreated as much in detail as in broad strokes. None of the private buildings were real, of course, with far more parking garages than the city actually has, but the public fixtures, the historical markers, the street signs, hew close enough to the real to provide the illusion of the city.

But then I saw this map:

The DC Metro Map in The Division 2

It’s almost an exact replica of the actual WMATA Metro map (.pdf), with the WMATA website listed, the planned Silver Line extension out towards Dulles, even the rush hour routes. There are a few differences, as it looks like they re-drew the map rather than simply pasting it wholesale, but there’s not a resident of the DC area who wouldn’t recognize the map in a second.

Add to that the very faithfully recreated Metro station mezzanines and, as one of my gaming buddies noted, the all-too-familiar broken escalators, and you’re left with the one of the most realistic depictions of a real-life subway system in a video game to date. Only Persona 5 (Altus, 2016) comes close.

To be fair, Metro's escalators don't really break that often

Oddly, the farecard machines are nothing like the real things, none of the stations seem to have names, and the entrances from the street lack the proper pillar signage. These slight variations from the real feel puzzling, given the otherwise painstaking attention to the details of the actual subway system, and actually pull the gamer back out of the scene if she or he knows what the real system is like. As the beta only provided a limited portion of the game to explore, I’m uncertain what the actual platforms look like, but if they’re shown, I would imagine they’ll likewise be a mostly accurate representation.

Minus the graffiti, a near-exact replica of the real thing

The last game set so firmly in Washington, DC, Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008), also featured the Metro system, but it used a highly stylized version of the map that bore little resemblance to the real thing. The station in Georgetown sort of gave it away…

I haven’t been able to discover what, if any, arrangement Ubisoft came to with WMATA for the use of the map and “look and feel” of the subway system. Other city infrastructure and signage comes close to the prototype, but it all stops just short, as with the two stars between bars shown on Washington, DC, flag presented in game; the real thing has three stars atop two bars. Whether Ubisoft feels the Metro system falls sufficiently in the public domain or WMATA granted a license or something in between remains unclear. Given the system’s slightly parlous finances, I do hope there’s at least a bit of a payment involved.

Regardless of how the DC Metro system came to be in The Division 2, I applaud its inclusion. The system’s striking architectural and design aesthetic deserves attention, and this fairly faithful replica honors the real thing. Shame I’m not sold on the gameplay, which feels like yet another open-world Ubisoft game full of map icons to diligently track down, but kudos to the art team at Ubisoft for their sterling efforts here and with the feel of the city as a whole. It’s the rare game world that I can navigate using entirely real-world knowledge.

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