(Pocket-lint) - With the creative weight of one of Halo's creators behind it, Disintegration rocks up as an interesting blend of shooting and strategy, with a surprisingly polished campaign to sample alongside its multiplayer focus.
Whether it succeeds in creating a new micro-genre is another question, though - a task that somewhat creates a rod for its own back, after all.
The key to Disintegration's proposition is its unique gameplay. You play as a gravcycle pilot in a futuristic rendition of the world, perched on a sort of floating motorbike with guns.
This makes you a little like a field general on a war elephant. Elevated above the battlefield, and able to zip around it, you can fire on the multitudes of enemies from whichever angle you choose.
Meanwhile, you'll also be directing a small force on the ground. These units will follow you around as best they can, but you also have limited direct control over them. If you want them to attack a particular enemy, you can mark the target for them, while you can also activate and aim their special attacks.
That's it, too - the real-time strategy control is as limited as that sounds. This is clearly a concerted choice, to keep things simple and not overwhelm the player with too many systems, but that brings the pros and cons you might expect.
On the one hand, when a fight is well-balanced, you can be flying around doing damage while ordering your troops from one priority to the next quite happily. In such instances everything can feel smooth, responsive, and good fun.
On the other, you might well find yourself getting peppered by enemies that you can't quite see, while your ground forces concentrate on the wrong target, with no powers available to use, and your attempts to retarget them stubbornly are translated to an order to move right next to the unit you want them to attack.
The more we played Disintegration, the more we felt it to be more of one half of its gameplay than the other. The gravcycle handles pleasingly, and piloting it could be more fun in a purer action game where you're wielding a lot more power.
Equally, were the player ignored by grounded enemies, with the ability to more directly control a wider range of units, this way of observing strategic combat from above could be compelling.
Instead, we get both smashed into one, and a more fleeting and inconsistent level of success, albeit formed around an impressively ambitious idea.
A so-so story
There's something to be said for starting in medias res, jumping into the action and kicking things off with plans and characters already in motion.
That's seemingly one of the principles at play around the start of Disintegration's campaign. A glossy introductory cutscene looks like it's going to spell out what's going on in the world in which we're going to be embedded, but only does so to a degree.
We learn about humanity's spiral into war and mass disease, and its discovery of an apparent panacea - “integration”, or the upload of a user's entire consciousness and personality into a robotic brain-receptacle. It's immortality, with the risk of hardware failure.
So far, so straightforward. But that's basically where we're left as the story transitions to find Romer Shoal, apparently an ex-celebrity gravcycle pilot who's a prisoner aboard a nefarious floating prison called the Iron Cloud, interrogated by one of the more obvious baddies of recent times, Black Shuck.
An explosion interrupts things, Romer (who the player controls throughout the campaign) drops out of the prison and finds himself with a gang of freedom fighters, also robotic, who team up for reasons that aren't clear, to fight back against Black Shuck and his clan of robot fascists, the Rayonne.
They'll pick up more squamates over time, including some non-integrated “natural” humans, but there's an odd lack of urgency to the storytelling. The stakes aren't established with any clarity, the backstories of various factions are left to incidental details, and Romer's place at the centre of it all is totally unexplained.
The cutscenes that book-end your missions are, almost confusingly, extremely polished, gorgeously realised and edited with a bit of creative flair to boot. By the time you reach the end of the campaign you'll be a little more invested in what's going on, but it's a real shame that the first few hours feel like a meandering diversion.
Linear, bite-sized missions
The campaign actually plays out in missions, with breaks in-between spent in staging areas. Before each level you'll walk around, seeing what the characters have to say, picking up three side-quests for the next mission from others present. It doesn't take long for this section to feel like a chore, sadly, although the dialogue can occasionally be sprightly.
The missions are generally fairly linear, seeing you lead your squad through an environment scanning elements, collecting resources or simply fighting off the Rayonne.
Those baddies have a few unit types that you'll get very used to seeing, from regular troops to snipers and bigger mechs, right up to charging Rhinos and four-legged Thunderheads. A bit more variety would certainly not have hurt on this front, but the blend of adversaries does a good job of keeping you on your toes and moving around the arenas improvising.
The gameplay loop of an arena battle followed by travel to another arena and another battle is a little tired, although missions are rarely longer than around 40 minutes, which makes them plenty digestible. Occasional difficulty spikes can sometimes feel a little churlish, too, in particular one otherwise low-powered enemy unit that can spawn mines that destroyed our whole squad on more than one occasion.
Thankfully, destroyed squad members respawn quickly, provided you get near enough to pick up their "brain can" to initiate it - that makes for a forgivable mechanic to keep you firing. In missions where you don't have your own healing abilities, this can still make for a challenging time.
A final confused note comes when the game routinely swaps out your squad members and equipment before missions, without much signalling - this can leave you without healing, as mentioned, but also strips away some player agency that might have been welcome. Choosing your squad and equipment could surely have provided opportunities for different strategic approaches.
Polish is inconsistently drizzled over the actual game visuals in motion. As we near the end of the current consoles' life cycles, Disintegration feels like it's not overly concerned with pushing the limits of their visual capabilities.
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On the base PlayStation 4 it looks perfectly fine, and not much more than that - textures are entirely solid as you move around the battlefield but often get a bit muddy up close, which isn't a problem since you'll rarely be that near.
The actual design of the world is serviceable and occasionally interesting. That floating prison is a menacing horizontal star on the horizon, while the dilapidated, half-abandoned future that the game proposes brings nice contrasts of urban ruin with natural vistas.
One superb, if subtle, touch is the light destructibility brought to the environment you play in - stray shots will damage structures and surfaces, ruining farmhouses and barns and cutting up concrete blocks with impact and force. It makes the world feel far more grounded and real than might otherwise have been the case.
Overall, though, there's a lack of flavour and distinct character that hurts Disintegration over time. The comparison to Halo's introduction to a new universe is perhaps harsh, but is brought on by the direction of Marcus Lehto, who co-created that world. Sadly, there's nothing here to match the memorable design of the Covenant ships, or the angular blocks of the human starships (let alone the giant space rings themselves).
If Disintegration's juggling two sides of its gameplay proposition, it also has a balance to strike between its single and multiplayer options.
There are three modes of play in Disintegration's multiplayer segment - Zone Control, Collector and Retrieval. The first of these is effectively domination, as you know it from many other shooters, while Collector is a lot like Call of Duty's Kill Confirmed, whereby picking up Brain Cans from destroyed enemies nets you scores.
Retrieval is more complicated, seeing you play a sort of capture the flag variant where the flags can only be captured by your ground units, making it a little less direct, and giving more emphasis to the strategic side of the game.
Multiplayer is, sadly, of a similar quality to the game's campaign - a mixed bag, we mean. Fighting against players certainly spices things up and makes for more challenging fights, but we weren't won over by the loop and rewards it presents.
For one thing, there are only three maps to play on, which feels a little anaemic even if they are sizeable. It also feels like the strategic side of gameplay gets a bit more lost in multiplayer, when going for enemy pilots is effectively compulsory rather than their ground troops. Sadly, there's just not enough here to keep the interest past your first few matches.
Disintegration is the first game from Marcus Lehto's studio V1, and feels a bit like a maiden effort. The blend of gameplay occasionallycomes together into a fun, new-feeling blend of styles, but is more often a slightly frustrating mishmash.
With a multiplayer component that simply didn't convince us and a campaign that isn't memorable enough, Disintegration has all the hallmarks of a missed opportunity.