"It actually started as a real-time strategy game, initially," Marcus Lehto tells me. The president of V1 Interactive and game director on its debut game Disintegration, this isn't the first time Lehto has started a blank page with RTS ambitions. He was one of the co-creators of the Halo series, which was almost a strategy game as well.
"Maybe I should start all my games out as an RTS in the future," Lehto jokes.
V1 Interactive's Disintegration is a hybrid of many different ideas, stemming from strategy games, MOBAs, and several variations of first-person shooters, including esports-centric titles like Overwatch and Counter-Strike. The mode we played at PAX West 2019 was an attack and defense map, where one team was trying to recover energy cores and return them to an extraction point, while another was trying to defend them, with both teams getting an opportunity to score on either side of the match-up.
While Disintegration functionally controls like a first-person shooter, the twist is in the squad of units you command alongside your own avatar. Each player has three units at their disposal that run around, shoot, and use special abilities, just the same as you on your grav-cycle. The difference is that you command them, directing their fire and timing their special attacks.
Lehto describes it to me as taking the eye-in-the-sky camera from an RTS game, and putting that on the helmet of a pilot riding the gravity-warping cycle that all of Disintegration's pilots ride. The crew members are comparable to "secondary grenades," as he puts it, and act as additional sources of damage, crowd control, and general mayhem. Making them work in concert, both as a crew and with other crews, is the tricky part.
"If I had to boil it down, it's like a thinking person's FPS," Lehto says. "You're not relying on the muscle reaction of your fingers, as you are tactically looking at the battle space, and the encounter that you're about to engage with, and figuring out how you're gonna utilize not only your abilities on your grav-cycle, but the abilities of your crew as well."
My immediate reaction was to think of MOBA games, like League of Legends or Dota 2. Much like those games, the map we fought on for our hands-on session had almost distinct lanes of approach to the cores, and your units would naturally follow you down whichever path you travel. Making the crew feel autonomous was important, but the amount of smaller units fighting underneath thundering rocket barrages and the power of multiple grav-cycles made it feel like a very active MOBA.
The analogy goes further when you lock in your crew. There were six options available in our session, with an expected nine at launch according to Lehto. While some were fairly basic, like the tanky Warhedz, I really enjoyed the more oddball-types like the Sideshows, who packed some big booms with the sticky grenade launcher.
In our demo, the goal was to get your units to a core, because only they could pick it up and then carry it back to the scoring area. This little change, that the AI unit has to carry the scoring mechanism, ends up being fairly significant. There are often moments in Disintegration where you're forced to consider whether an enemy player is actually the most dangerous opponent in front of you at any time. It might do some damage, but it can't score points without one of the large mechs backing it up.
While my match eventually ended in a draw, I could see some of the ideas at play in Disintegration. It was a much slower pace than I've been accustomed to, in games like Apex Legends or Call of Duty. Battles are a little more weighty and hefty, and abilities like a missile barrage or time-altering field can rapidly change the dynamic of any fight. The more I paid attention, considered my options, and played to my own strengths, the more interesting the combat got from there on out.
Disintegration is set to launch with both the multiplayer component and a single-player campaign, one that sounds like it'll have a lot of bells and features all its own. Yet V1 Interactive is a small team, something Lehto seems pretty happy about compared to his previous days at other studios.
"Back when I first started at Bungie, we were only like 10 people, and [had] that kind of atmosphere where everybody's got a say on the project, everybody's critical path to what we're doing," Lehto says. "And as the studio grew, a lot of that went away, and a lot of camaraderie and just the understanding and familiarization with everybody in the entire studio, knowing you personally. I wanted to get back to those roots, because it's really important to me that, as a studio, everybody has a sense of ownership over some part of the project we're working."
With a whole lot of game still to come between now and Disintegration's release sometime in 2020, we'll see just how their collectively created hybrid shooter comes together.