I love games with ambition. I think I love them more than I like good video games. That isn’t to say I can always recommend them, though. Good video games almost always feel and play better than the weird bullshit I evangelize. The quiet dark of Dragon’s Dogma, for instance, will always beat out its greatest influence, Skyrim, with its wealth of content and expansive lore, in my heart. Which is why my disappointment with Disintegration is so complete. It is a totally fine video game. Everything works. It isn’t actively broken, which is more than I can say about some games I adore! But that’s all I can say for it. Disintegration isn’t bad; Disintegration isn’t great. It just isn’t interesting, either.
Here’s the full pitch: technology has advanced such that implanting human brains into robot bodies is not only possible, but practical for the majority of people. You play as Romer Shoal, a celebrity Grav Cycle pilot who became the earliest spokesperson for this idea of “Integration.” Fast-forward an unknown amount of time (the game’s intro is a bit messy, the only way I can tell you any of this is through good use of context clues) and an evil faction known as the Rayonne has emerged. The baddies have captured Romer — plus hundreds of other integrated humans. The sky prison where they’re held explodes, and you assemble a team of integrated to reluctantly mount a resistance.
Mechanically, Disintegration blends the first-person shooting with real-time strategy genres. You command a squad of units around the battlefield, each with their own abilities, while you pilot a heavily armed Grav Cycle (basically a slow Podracer).
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Combining the FPS and RTS like this should be super exciting, requiring you to think on two distinct layers of game at any given moment. You may be great at getting kills, but if you aren’t thinking tactically you’ll fall behind the overwhelming enemy forces. The tension between these genres forces questions like “Should I lead a charge here, distracting the enemy while I use my squad to flank?” Or maybe “I’m getting kills, but I let my Warrior fall behind and now he’s trying to solo a fight against two enemy groups.” At least, those are the kinds of dilemmas I wish Disintegration leveled at me. The reality is way less exciting.
Your entire squad is controlled with the same button press. Meaning that, at all times, you’re sending all three units to the same spot. There’s no clever positioning, nor designating, nor the ability to use two units to provide cover fire for a flanker. You can tell them where to stand, who to kill, and what abilities to use. That’s it.
Like the rest of Disintegration, those unit abilities are also… fine. Each type of unit has its own ability (singular) which you command with their assigned button. These are, in all honesty, basically grenades. There’s the slow grenade, the stun grenade, the just kill ‘em grenade, and the weapon jamming grenade. All these factors combine to make strategy feel so one-dimensional that they eventually stopped factoring into the way I played at all. It can be fun to make your squad run around, and even to designate targets for them to shoot! But there isn’t real tactical depth when your units are basically grenades with health bars.
My same frustrations apply to the gunplay. Games, as a medium, have learned how to make guns sound very good. Which usually makes guns feel very good (looking at you, Destiny). Disintegration is no different. Sadly, for as good as the weapons sound and feel, they don’t do enough. The enemies are bullet sponges that require both your own weapons and those of your units. As such, most of your aim is distilled to tracking motions as you strafe around a mostly stationary target. It’s a effective skill to build, but it isn’t fun. The other difficulty here emerges from the game’s movement system.
In a world where most in-game guns feel nice to shoot, the way you navigate space becomes what sets your game apart. Titanfall 2 has solid shooting, but phenomenal movement. Combine that with mechs to elevate the entire package. Movement in Disintegration, by contrast, is incredibly slow… and not in the way I like. I am the MechWarrior liker. I enjoy big slow machines with guns — with a weight that makes simply walking feel like a deliberate commitment. That feeling of weight is just as evocative as the grace of a Titan Pilot. But in Disintegration, the Grav Cycle is just slow. Its boat-like movement doesn’t evoke anything at all in me. It is too smooth and clean on top of being sluggish. I want it messy, or fast, or clunky, or anything that makes it feel like I’m actually piloting a thing.
There is a version of Disintegration that is so much “worse” (and so much more daring and interesting). That’s the one I want to play, and I can see its ghost. One where Romer becomes a bolt of violence in summer, weaving through the enemy line prioritizing targets and directing a brilliant flank by a lone Warrior. He realizes halfway through his charge he’s left his Ranger in poor cover. He looks back and sees her pinned by an enemy Striker quadruple her weight and firepower, so slams his control handles to the left and wide swings around, firing all the way, before ramming full speed into the hulking machine.
It isn’t pretty. Last of the enemy forces handled, Romer leans back in the seat of his now crumpled Grav Cycle and wishes his body would ache. He knows it can’t. The dropship arrives and he settles in for the long flight home.
I want Disintegration to have more opportunities to generate stories like this! It almost has the tools it need to do so but falls just short.
I wish this game was unwieldy. I wish it had too many systems. I wish it tried to let you pilot a fiddly spaceship while moving around fiddlier units. B-games aren’t B-games because they’re low budget; they aren’t B games because they’re mediocre. They’re B-games because their reach exceeds their grasp. They are the products of ambitious teams and not enough editing. They are rough-hewn and easily broken. They are usually fine, but almost always interesting.
I want to be very clear here. Disintegration isn’t wholly lacking in ambition. You cannot make a video game in this industry and in this world without some level of aspiration. Making any art under capitalism requires a certain amount of folly and I respect the hell out of it. I also want to say that I think V1 Interactive is a development studio I’m excited to see more from. It made a game that works well enough. I just want to see those abilities put towards more exciting, more experimental ends.