Disintegration Review: Tin Men in Search of Heart

Disintegration Review: Tin Men in Search of Heart

V1 Interactive's debut is solid, but the result is still a bit hollow.

Disintegration asks if it's possible to make an entire game out of the vehicle sections from a first-person shooter. This debut from the small team at V1 Interactive, published by Private Division, has been pitched as a cross between an FPS and a real-time strategy game. It is that, to an extent, but at its best it really is more like playing something made just from the tank driving bits in Halo. At its worst, it's like driving that same tank but with a weaker gun, or without having anything cool to shoot at. Disintegration proves its vehicle and squad gameplay works for decent single-player and multiplayer offerings, but beyond that it does little that feels particularly new or all that inspired.

At the core of Disintegration's gameplay is its star vehicle, the gravcycle. It's a hovering, single-pilot weapons platform with the ability to float a few stories above solid ground, strafe side-to-side, and boost. In Disintegration, players never disembark a gravcycle save for short between-mission intervals in the campaign, and with a handful of exceptions a gravcycle on its own is actually a pushover. They're best paired with a group of foot soldiers, and that's Disintegration's secondary concern: giving players squads of robot people to order around the battlefield.

Emphasis on people, by the way. Disintegration's world doesn't stray far from sci-fi tropes, perhaps least of all in how its cast of mostly metal men came to be. After havoc wrought by climate change, constrained resources, and yes, a devastating pandemic, scientists devised a way to put human minds in mechanical bodies, calling the process "integration." It's a simple premise, and for Disintegration it mostly serves to set up the wordplay in the name and handwave away game mechanics like respawning blown up soldiers.

The single-player campaign stars Romer Shoal, who in the before-times was a poster boy for integration and a famous gravcycle pilot. Little is said what that fame entails, and the same goes for Romer's more recent history as an agent for the Rayonne, a faction of integrated warriors led by rulers bent on either integrating or eliminating what's left of Earth's "natural" human population. We're to understand that Romer turned on his evil-eyed Rayonne ally Black Shuck, leading to his imprisonment. At the start of the game, Romer and a misfit gang of integrated break free from Shuck's floating fortress. Pilot, meet squaddies.

The campaign kicks off with two missions that don't leave a great initial impression. If anything, they set the bar low for the more varied missions to follow. Both take place in the same environment, a picturesque valley ringed by mountains that Romer and his crew find themselves in. They serve as a too-slow tutorial (on top of an actual tutorial) for getting players used to both piloting the gravcycle and commanding units. The gravcycle controls are pretty intuitive, not requiring much from an experienced FPS player that they won't immediately grasp. Commanding your units is as simple as telling them to go somewhere, who to attack, or ordering one of them to use a special ability. An hour in the woods is more than enough time to get the basics of doing both.

I am not a seasoned RTS player, but I can confidently say that the squad mechanics in Disintegration are diluted enough to make the label a generous descriptor. The squad engages with ground units in ways players cannot, yes, and there are moments when the gravcycle can't get somewhere, or its weapons are jammed and you have to rely on the squad alone, but Disintegration only demands so much in the way of strategy. Flipping between the middle two of Disintegration's four difficulty settings, the squad mechanics feel more like secondary weapons on cooldown timers rather than distinct units that need to be moved with care. Planning attacks with squad abilities is easy once you have the rhythm for it down.

Every now and then, Disintegration will serve up a nice vista like this. | Mathew Olson/USG, V1 Interactive

In the campaign, there are three characters that toss the same concussion grenades as their special ability—in missions where two of them are in the squad, their attributes beyond "having grenades" don't really matter. Some squaddies' abilities are more specialized, like a field that slows enemies for crowd control or the ground shaking stomp of a giant integrated soldier's foot, but the others are just quick ways to damage groups or larger enemies.

Whatever squad abilities a mission doles out, finding a rhythm with them is important in Disintegration, even if wrangling and directing the actual, easily-respawned squad members isn't. It's key to keep the squad alive so that all the abilities can keep counting down on their refresh timers. On missions where the gravcycle's weapons don't pack much punch, time spent waiting for the squad to respawn practically guarantees death.

To return to the idea of stretching the vehicle section of a shooter into a 10-hour campaign: being dropped into a mission on a gravcycle with weak guns can be something of a chore. When Disintegration grants the player decent, weighty weapons and a squad with a fun set of squad abilities, it can scratch that bull-in-a-china-shop itch. When it holds back on the gravcycle's firepower, it makes the whole idea of taking one into battle seem suspect. Against Disintegration's bigger, spongier enemies, piling on damage by emptying the graycycle's weapons and tacking on a hit from a squad ability is the go-to. Every enemy can also be staggered, pausing their attacks and opening them up to increased damage. At least with sticky bombs or cannon rounds, that all feels a bit more active, but with puny automatic weapons it gets rote quick. In practice, it becomes "shoot, and then... just keep shooting."

Pacing is important to a single-player campaign, and if there's anything really disappointing about how Disintegration plays when it's holding back on weapons and abilities that empower the player, it's that there weren't more creative solutions to mixing things up. V1 President and Disintegration's Game Director Marcus Lehto is known for having co-created the Halo series at Bungie, and each of those titles is a masterclass in pacing. With the exception of one early mission with a timed mechanic dictating when it's safe to move, Disintegration comes up short in offering engaging variations on how it feels to pilot the gravcycle and play with the squad. When all of the parts are together, it can feel damn good. Taking away the squad or limiting the gravcycle for pacing's sake just cramps what works about Disintegration.

This screenshot, provided to press, has a way better angle on this stomp than you'll get from the gravcycle. | V1 Interactive

Some of this could be easily looked past if there was a lot to look forward to as the story unfolds, but there's not much. Most of Disintegration's storytelling is done in stiff, formulaic cutscenes. Within missions, Romer hardly speaks, and most of what's said between squad members is either exposition or light banter. At home base between missions, Romer—off on his own two metal feet—can walk around and interact with members of his posse, but most of the time these are just short one-sided musings. There's no striking up lengthy conversations to hear all about the squaddies' lives, or Romer's.

This is not Mass Effect, and this is not the crew of the Normandy. Disintegration's between-mission breaks are weak, and the characters inhabiting them are thin. That stuff is just for getting a scant bit of story color, picking up bonus objectives from nameless NPC robots, and then shipping off to the next mission.

The campaign also doesn't scatter story collectibles, audio logs, or anything of that sort around, so by the time Disintegration introduces some characters from a pro-"natural" human faction, it's a guarantee for some quick expository lines in cutscenes and more barren exchanges between missions. Instead, using a scanner during missions will reveal caches of salvage and the occasional upgrade chip. Salvage is for leveling up, and upgrade chips unlock improvements to basic attributes for Romer and his squad. There are no out-there ways to spec-out Disintegration's characters or come up with novel builds, especially with the gravcycle loadout and squad pre-determined for each mission. In the absence of more context for the world, Disintegration offers a simple power climb.

Seguin's purple-blue slow field is fun, and sorely missed in missions without it. | Mathew Olson/USG, V1 Interactive

To V1's credit, building a 10-hour shooter campaign with a team of 30 people is no mean feat, Disintegration's biggest sins being a lack of creative spark and effective pacing. There's a lack of spectacle and variety to Disintegration that reflects its limited scope and budget, but it still follows tested conventions of big-budget shooter design to a T. Really, gluing players to the gravcycle is partly to blame here, making it harder to sell any moments that depend on scale (like a massive ship passing overhead) or a sense of vulnerability.

As for the multiplayer, the generally slower-paced gravcycle and squad gameplay might hook a small base of players, but there's nothing about the experience that elevates it above the single-player. Disintegration's three objective-based modes, each of them five-versus-five team games, see players selecting crews with different gravcycle loadouts and squad makeups, all identified by distinct visual themes. These distinctions hardly matter in combat, more so for identifying the weapons of enemy gravcycles than the AI squaddies. Also, the themes themselves feel tired quite and/or stereotypical: see the "Muertos" clad in calaveras make-up, a "Militia" group sporting camo and antlers, and a group that's just spooky clowns. There's another layer of unlockable customization on top of that, but playing with the custom emblem editor is probably more fulfilling.

The big twist to Disintegration's multiplayer, aerial shootouts aside, is that controlling the AI squad is essential to completing objectives. In the zone control mode, parking a gravcycle in the zone won't net points, as only ground units can capture and hold them. Good players will manage and protect their squad while engaging with other gravcycles sparingly-bad players will prioritize killing enemy players over pursuing objectives or taking out squads. The distinct flow the campaign trains for translates to multiplayer matches, sure, but folks in search of a robust multiplayer shooter or RTS will more likely gravitate toward other titles in either genre than stick to their gravcycles.

Disintegration is a respectable start for V1 Interactive that, for the ways in which it underwhelms, still suggests that the team has the talent and fundamentals secured to craft something more exciting down the road. The campaign, undoubtedly the focus of V1's efforts, is not a memorable experience that'll stand alongside the single-player FPS greats, nor does it feel like the start of a new, novel sci-fi universe. If The Outer Worlds proved that Obsidian could make a trim, focused RPG with a Private Division budget, then Disintegration demonstrates that the team at V1 is a nimble shooter team in search of first-rate ideas. I want to see what they end up making next, but I won't be thrilled if it's more Disintegration.

Disintegration is solid, but uninspired. The gravcycle and squad gameplay that defines it works when it's allowed to, but pacing proves inconsistent in the campaign and the FPS/RTS hybrid mechanics are only mildly interesting in multiplayer. A commonplace story and what feels like missed opportunities to fill in more of its universe threaten to drag things down further, but when provided with a good mix of weapons and squad abilities, the core combat and mission design show V1 Interactive can craft something engaging. Disintegration is not the next great sci-fi action franchise (as if we really need another), but hopefully, it can be a stepping stone to something more distinctive and unique from V1 in the future.

2.5/5

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Mathew Olson

Reporter

Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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