Playing Disintegration always feels like I’m playing multiple games at once.
Disintegration is a hybrid first-person shooter and real-time strategy game from V1 Interactive. It is both of these things (and more) and yet also, somehow, neither. The game is based on a handful of good ideas, few of which come together with any coherence.
The story takes place in a dystopia in which human brains integrated into robotic bodies outnumber natural humans. The evil posthumanist faction is seeking to wipe out the last “uncanned” humans, while I, playing as Rohmer Shoal, the integrated outlaw gravcycle pilot, think that humanity should be allowed to exist without being hooked into man-made hardware. From my motorcycle-like, hovering gravcycle, I lead my team of fellow outlaws on missions against Rayonne in a vaguely defined effort to save humanity.
I’m often simultaneously engaged in a dogfight with enemy gunships, directing squad movements, and managing mission objectives, all from atop my oversized drone-slash-command center gravcycle. The experience can be elegant and rewarding — when it all comes together — and there have been a few times in my 10 hours of play in which it all makes sense.
They do prove that this idea has some merit, at least. When it all works, my AI-controlled squadmates seem to predict my goals and work alongside me to accomplish them. They move as a unit to take on harder-than-usual enemies while I pick off weak ones. We act as both individuals and a team.
But those times are truly few and far between.
I’m usually mashing buttons on my controller, desperately trying to figure out how to get my squadmates to do what I want — or at least convince them not to run blindly into an enemy ambush — and shouting at my TV when they do it anyway.
I can’t invert the camera controls when I’m in the between-mission hub, so I’m frustrated and confused even out of combat.
Playing Disintegration is a matter of managing this interplay between the game’s desire to be both a first-person shooter and a strategy game and my desire to not always lose. I can help my team in fights using the various weapons attached to my gravcycle, but if I focus too much on my own shooting, my squad won’t use their more powerful attacks, and we’ll all take a beating. If I focus too much on directing them, my mostly unarmored gravcycle will get shot out of the sky and I’ll have to start the skirmish over. Finding the middle ground is a fiddly, murky endeavor.
The world itself is presented well, with rich environments, well-drawn out characters, and strong voice acting. The environments themselves are often destructible; my bullets can blow trash out of piles of debris and remove my enemy’s cover, if I want to go that route. My rockets tear through walls, exposing building interiors when enemies might be taking shelter. This all helps the virtual world we’re fighting through feel lived-in and real, much more than the expected and shallow set-dressing. It’s everything else that causes the problems.
From my vantage point above the battlefield, I can direct my squad to do a few things: go here, interact with this, or just follow along with me. My teammates roughly follow my targeting reticle and go wherever I point when they’re in follow mode, which is great for a first-person shooter. They go where I’m looking and engage the enemies I’m shooting at!
This also means I can’t look around and survey the battlefield without my team sprinting around wildly and triggering every enemy in the neighborhood. I have to firmly tell them to stand somewhere (preferably behind cover) while I head off on my own if I want to do any recon or planning for the mission. They mostly listen, at least, but my demand for them to stay right the hell there and wait for further instructions is often taken as a polite recommendation, and not an order.
I tend to feel like I’m fighting the game, not the enemy. Even all the destructible cover that hides careful squad placement doesn’t work the way I’d expect. Yes, being behind cover means my troops are protected, but it also means they won’t engage in much combat — my gravcycle’s guns often feel like the only long-range option I have. But, then again, if I absentmindedly aim at a far off enemy to try to snipe them, my squad follows the reticle and I’m suddenly in an all-out brawl rather than a sneaky sniping mission.
Each mission is about 40 minutes long, and they tend to play out the same way. I come up to a new skirmish, I cajole my squad into hiding, I take a few seconds to plot out a strategy, and then we all rush in together with guns blazing.
Except that I have to constantly remind myself I can’t look around — if I turn too far or try to look behind me during combat, my squadmates’ imperative to follow-the-reticle takes over, and they abandon whatever fight they’re engaged in to sprint across the battlefield. Once I stumble my way through the fight, we head down the road a little and start it all over again.
One unexpected saving grace is that the loadout on my gravcycle changes from mission to mission, though I have no control over it. I may have machine guns and a healing ray in one mission, and then shotguns in the next. Maybe I’ll have a rocket launcher in the next. Again, I have no control over this, which means I’m forced to try a lot of weapons and change how I play, but it also means I rarely feel confident or in control.
In every mission, I’m chasing those fleeting moments where everything clicks — when my brain and the game rewards me with that dopamine jolt for doing things perfectly. It keeps me pushing through those 45-minute long missions, hoping that this time I recreate those ideal conditions. And then, mid-combat, I try to see who’s shooting me from behind and my squad follows my reticle, sprinting across the battlefield into certain doom, and I start shouting at my TV again.
In the most recent mission I’ve played, I have an optional objective to complete it in under 35 minutes, but I know I won’t be able to. In my three aborted attempts to complete this mission, nothing has clicked. My seemingly random gravcycle loadout is too slow and underpowered, the distances between enemy emplacements are too vast to do any scouting without resetting my squad’s follow-me instinct, and I’m forced to manage a tedious main mission objective. I can see the next hour(s) of the game ahead of me — all within this one mission — and I just don’t want to pick the controller up again.
Disintegration features some interesting ideas, but never learns how to get out of its own way long enough to let me enjoy them.
Disintegration is now available on Windows PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by V1 Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.