Disintegration – Bold Ideas, Flawed Execution
PC, Xbox One, PS4
What happens to somebody’s humanity if they lose their entire body, but keep their brain? Is our brain who we are? If giving up your body and living as a brain in a jar would save our planet, would you do it? These are all questions that are half-asked in Disintegration, a game set in a future where the line between human and robot is blurred and the fate of humanity is entirely unclear. It’s a fascinating idea for a potential future that could raise some interesting philosophical questions, if it really committed to exploring them. The problem is, like its attempt at being a unique mix of real-time strategy game and first-person-shooter, this is a game that has lofty ambitions but fails to quite stand out in any area.
It has all the elements that should make up a fun, sci-fi romp. You play as protagonist Romer Shoal (a name that makes him sound like a renegade school of fish, despite zero nautical associations), an ex-celebrity who, before being captured by an evil overlord, starred in a Top Gear-style show in which he apparently showcased his skills as a very good pilot of Gravcycles, which are basically flying motorcycles – or pod racers, with guns. Post-evil overlord capture, he finds himself accidentally aligned with a group of outlaws attempting to overthrow said regime and fight for the rights of humans everywhere to choose – do they become robots, or remain in their human bodies?
The process of adopting a more robotic physique is known as ‘integration’, and it was originally designed as a way to reduce the drain humans had on resources. Without bodies, humans don’t need to worry about food production or medical problems, and there are of course a number of reasons why leaving behind the physical body they were born into might be appealing to some individuals. Disintegration doesn’t try too hard to explore these reasons, though it drops hints about having some deeper stories to tell. Some of your teammates will make offhand comments about their choice to integrate, while others won’t say anything at all – but none of them gives reasons why. They’re all fighting to stop the bad guys, the ‘Rayonne’, led by the particularly cruel ‘Black Shuck’, but their personal motivations aren’t explained much beyond ‘because taking away body autonomy is bad’, and it feels like a wasted opportunity. While, obviously, taking away body autonomy is definitely bad, there are some bigger stories to be told here, and at times it feels like the campaign is just a snippet, or a preview of a longer story just waiting to be told.
However, beyond small conversations in between missions, you won’t get much of a chance to get to know your teammates. They’re a somewhat diverse group of individuals (though that observation in itself is based on the fact that they are in many ways stereotyped examples of a variety of cultural backgrounds, which isn’t great) and while the time spent on developing their characters is limited, some impressive voice acting makes most of them likable. Each one of them also has different skills that can be used on the battlefield, from slowing enemies to unleashing a barrage of missiles, and overall, the game does do a good job of establishing them as an effective team. It just needs to double the length of the campaign in order to really tell the story it was trying to tell, and to land the emotional punches it tries to inflict. But in order to do that, a bunch of changes would need to be made to the gameplay to make anyone want to be in it for the long haul – which brings us to the other of Disintegration’s lofty aspirations.
In trying to be both a real-time strategy game and a shooter, the game fails to make either one feel quite right. Romer, as pilot of a Gravcycle that hovers about the team, can command them to do things like attack, prioritise enemies, unleash abilities, heal, or hide behind cover. While they take care of enemies on the ground with varying levels of input from the player, Romer can provide support using the artillery of weapons and healing equipment at his disposal. This loadout will change with every mission, meaning you’ll sometimes be given a set of cannons to blast and a gun to heal your teammates, while other times you’ll be forced to work with two offence-focused guns and no healing capabilities. While this was fun at first and felt like a way to get to know all the different weapons available, it soon became frustrating that this loadout wasn’t customisable. Only one of the healing guns would heal Romer as well as his teammates, for example, and without this equipped it became easy to accidentally find myself in a situation that quickly led to certain death. Teammates are able to activate ‘nanite containers’ on the ground that create a healing field, but you don’t always have your teammates with you, and even when you do, you aren’t always in a position to pull them out of combat to activate one for you. Once I was familiar with the weapons I was ready to develop a playstyle of my own, but the game wouldn’t allow it. I had to succeed or fail on their terms, and it didn’t feel fair.
This is a particular problem when checkpoints within missions are so scarce that dying in the middle of an encounter often means replaying a large chunk of the already repetitive mission. Each mission is designed to take around half an hour and must be completed in one sitting, so be ready to commit to a lengthy session before you start – especially if you are playing on a higher difficulty, and are likely to die a lot. Want to take a break in the middle of a mission, regroup, and come back into it revitalised? Too bad – you have to finish it, or you lose all the progress you’ve made. At first, trying to develop strategic approaches for my team in battle was fun, and the onslaughts were enjoyably hectic, but as time went on it felt like punishments for failure just got worse, instead of a steady increase in challenge. I could forgive the fact that my team didn’t always listen to me and would stand just outside healing zones while also loudly exclaiming that they were dying, or the fact that you can’t command each team member individually to attack separate enemies, while it still felt like the game was forgiving my little mistakes. But after a while, I think we stopped forgiving each other.
The multiplayer modes, thankfully, offer a little more customisation and demand less of a time commitment. You have more say over the type of loadout you want to take into battle, as well as the type of team you want to assemble. On top of customising their abilities, you can customise their appearance, with unlockable skins costing either in-game challenge points earned through play or real-life cash. These skins are often just colour changes for pre-existing character templates and don’t affect gameplay, so at least there’s no microtransaction problem. Plus, the game does do a good job of allowing steady, consistent play to mean a steady, consistent accumulation of these rewards – so the balance is better here.
The modes themselves aren’t particularly novel but do allow for some variety. There are three to choose from – Zone Control, which unsurprisingly involves taking control of designated zones and then defending your claim on them until time runs out; Collector, which is focused on killing enemies and then collecting their ‘brain cans’ (literal brains in jars) to accrue the most points; and Retrieval, which splits the teams into ‘attackers’ and ‘defenders’, and tasks attackers with obtaining cores from core spawn points and delivering them safely to their destination and defenders from stopping this from happening, with the teams swapping after each round. These are all standard multiplayer fare, and everyone will have their own preferences, but no matter which you choose, the added customisation makes multiplayer more enjoyable than the single-player campaign.
I wanted to like Disintegration. It upsets me that I don’t, because it’s clear that developer V1 Interactive has created a world filled with so much untapped potential that’s screaming to become more than the somewhat shallow experience that this game offered. I hope that the developers do more with this IP in the future and expand on the world because I’m ready to go back to forgiving its flaws. I’m ready to join this ragtag group of outlaws on their next adventure – I just want to be less frustrated while I’m doing it. There’s fun to be had here, particularly in the multiplayer modes, but there are also a bunch of elements that aim too high and fall short and left me wanting more from the whole experience. It was a good try, but the results were mediocre at best.
Disintegration was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by Koch Media Australia
Jess is a writer and researcher who loves games with good puzzles, good stories, and a tendency to punch you straight in your feelings. She is one of the directors of not-for-profit organisation Queerly Represent Me and is particularly interested in games told from unique perspectives that highlight themes or characters from groups that are often underrepresented. She also just really loves coffee, hot chips, and terrible superhero TV shows, and is always secretly hoping that one day the world will give her a good Sherlock Holmes game.