Marcus Lehto was the creative art director at Bungie for 15 years. During that time he helped create and grow Halo, a series that’s arguably as influential in the FPS arena as DOOM, Half-Life, or Call of Duty. Breaking away from Bungie in 2012 to form independent studio V1 Interactive, he began work on Disintegration, intending to create a new paradigm for the genre.
“From the co-creator of Halo” is an intimidating sleeve quote - one that any game would struggle to bear the weight of. Surprisingly, though, this hybrid shooter gives it a damn good try.
Set in a future in which mankind ‘integrates’ with robotic frames, sacrificing their bodies for cold metal armatures, the Rayonne - a post-humanist organisation led by Black Shuck - are responsible for injecting an indoctrination protocol into the integration process, enslaving mankind. They are resisted by a group of ‘canned’ outlaws, and the last remnants of flesh and blood humans.
Gravcycle celebrity Romer Shoal (gotta love these names) is busted out of his prison and joins up with an outlaw militia, who want to stop Rayonne before they give the remainder of humanity an out-of-body experience.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Disintegration has been in development for some years and along the way, it’s picked up a few traits from the current sci-fi shooter stock. Similarities with titles like Destiny and ANTHEM range from story elements to more obvious stylistic lifts like the Tower-esque hub areas you walk around between missions. It would be harsh and a little unfair to call it derivative, but that compulsion is hard to resist at times.
What does set it apart from the pack is its blending of squad-based mechanics and mech-like command movement. Protagonist Romer pilots a Gravcycle, which is a fancy name for a bike that moves like a jetpack. The equipment allows him to fly around and over the battlefield, barking orders at his fellow armatures. Commands range from basic movement and environmental interaction to class-based abilities.
When you first take control of the Gravcycle, it feels incredibly cumbersome. With a horrible floaty movement and imprecise dodge, it doesn’t make a good first impression. Yet something clicks in the first couple of missions, as you get into the rhythm of climbing up to a vantage position and sending your wisecracking squadmates into the fray.
The AI is no slouch and usually chips away at a scattered group of enemies competently. Marking specific targets can alter the flow of aggro, making a firefight more organised. Squad abilities are fun to throw around, with slow-motion and concussive grenades alongside powerful sniper shots and micro missiles. You can spread out your attacks to slow incoming waves or spam everything you’ve got on a large single target.
Enemies spawn around relatively freeform arenas and fights can get hectic, so command skill is paramount, especially at higher difficulty settings. There are multiple ways to heal, both between skirmishes and mid-firefight. Zapping one of your squad with a health gun, while focusing fire on an elite enemy - which triggers a dropped health item - will keep you alive in a tense situation. Juggling heals, abilities, positioning, and your own role in the fight can be exhilarating. The ambition and enthusiasm of the combat model are hard to resist.
However, the campaign is hampered by the aforementioned similarities to other sci-fi titles, and some low production values. Missions offer frustratingly linear paths in between combat areas, which belie the freedom that could be offered by the Gravcycle. Being blocked by scenery or ‘you are leaving the mission area’ warnings feels archaic at this point.
That being said, the squad combat makes up for the linear mission structure. Mixing up abilities on the fly as Romer’s primary weapon (which varies between missions) offers crowd control, feels satisfying. There is also an upgrade system that has you hoovering up salvage like Ratchet & Clank, freeing up slots to equip augment chips found in missions.
Storywise, Disintegration is fine for the most part, even if events ultimately boil down to good robots vs. bad robots with humans on the sidelines. The villain is intriguing but barely shows up for the campaign’s entire first half. The intra-mission hub areas offer exposition and warmly funny non-sequiturs from your squad, as well as a way to collect salvage challenges. Much like the pre-mission areas in last year’s much-maligned ANTHEM, these story segments feel threadbare and the contents could have been weaved more effectively into the mission banter. It feels like a grander narrative has been curtailed by an indie budget.
Multiplayer is the other half of the Disintegration package, and the one that may be under the most scrutiny given the studio's pedigree. Much like the single-player campaign, V1 Interactive has wrapped a flimsy framework around its central mechanical gimmick, taking several generic PvP modes and hoping they’ll be livened up by the squad-based, tactical angle.
There’s certainly some initial fun to be had experimenting with each of the nine starting crews. Each has an aesthetic theme and a different loadout for the gravcycle pilot. Best looking is the glossy cyberpunk of Tech Noir, worse is the clown-chic of The Sideshows. The latter get the game's worst primary as well, a sticky grenade launcher that feels weak and mostly useless.
It’s a shame there isn't much variety to the suite or anything that really tries to use the squad gameplay as its central focus. There are three modes at launch; Zone control, retrieval, and collector. Collector is a bit like Kill Confirmed in Call of Duty, only you scoop up player ‘cans’ instead of dog tags. Zone Control is a classic king of the hill style area blitz that has you pushing units into capture points and making sure they stay alive. Retrieval has teams rushing explosive ‘cores’ to key attack points.
What’s interesting about the multiplayer is that the ability to control a multi-purpose squad, while laying down fire yourself, should be chaotic fun. Instead, matches quickly become bland slogs, which the colourful and inventive crew themes can't liven up. That said, the primary weapon types do offer some tactical advantages, and mopping up units while keeping an eye in the sky for their gravcycle commander creates some unique situations.
The flaws in Disintegration’s execution are easy to spot. Restrictive level design and a limp narrative hamper the single-player, while the multiplayer suffers from a dearth of content and no way to make the squad combat sing. Perhaps a sequel could expand on the genuinely good ideas V1 has brought to the FPS table. Disintegration is an interesting genre blend that ultimately falls short.