Robots blasting and bashing each other to bits is a concept near and dear to my heart, and on that level Disintegration’s single-player campaign delivers. Its creative approach to first-person shooting is also intriguing, since it has you floating above the action and calling the shots for a team of bots on the ground while firing away. But it’s not as smart as it looks, and what seemed like it could get interesting and tactical never really did.
Disintegration’s 15-hour campaign doesn’t do a great job of setting up the conflict between the evil, red-eyed robots and the good, blue-eyed rebels, but a lot of that history eventually comes out in between-mission dialogue with your cohorts. Most of them have been “integrated,” which is the technology of transferring a human consciousness into a robot body. As former celebrity pilot Romer Shoal, you lead your team in a series of missions to take down the enemy’s massive flying fortress. The voice acting does lend those bots some good diverse personalities, and that gives the story’s events a little bit of weight, at least.
There are a few “Wha?” moments from the opening minutes I have to call out: first, Romer knocks an evil robot unconscious by whacking him in the back of the head with a wrench. I… don’t think that’s how robots work? A short time later, 12-foot-tall robot hulk Doyle backs down from attempting to intimidate a human who points out Doyle’s gun isn’t loaded, as though Doyle couldn’t literally squish this guy between his robo-toes like jam. It settles down after that but these eyebrow-raising moments set a strange tone for the rest of the story.
Disintegration is respectable but not the prettiest of games – its robots are well-animated but the textures, lighting, and effects are largely middle-of-the-road – but it does have some good diversity to its settings. Visually at least, no two are alike: you’ll start out in forests and move to canyons and junkyards and urban areas and more. Mission design, on the other hand, almost universally leans heavily on throwing wave after wave of the same handful of enemy types at you as you move through a linear gauntlet. It’s not without variety in objectives, since you’ll often have to destroy a target or have your squad deactivate a jamming device so that you can use your gravcycle’s weapons again, but the process of fighting from point A to point B doesn’t shake up too much because of limited enemy diversity, especially in the first half.
To Disintegration’s credit, blasting enemy robots like Star Wars’ battle droids is a fair amount of fun for a while. Not because their AI is especially good or anything, but because rather than literally disintegrating when you kill them they explode into chunks in a satisfying way, sending pieces flying. That’s one thing Disintegration does better than most games: your guns will tear apart the environment in a pretty dramatic fashion, reducing wood to splinters and even shattering concrete barriers that enemies were using as cover. It’s not Red Faction or anything, since most of the environment is invulnerable, but this level of destructibility definitely makes the weapons and explosions feel powerful and look cool.
Disintegration Gameplay Screenshots
And yet, combat gets stale pretty quickly because even though this is a squad-based game where you get a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, Disintegration isn’t tactical at all. Where something like Mass Effect allows you to tell each unit where to go and what abilities to use when they get there, this is more like directing a mob. You can’t tell your Iron Giant-style hulk buddy to play Rock’em Sock’em Robots with the big guys while the more agile soldiers take on the fodder because there’s only one “everybody attack this target” or “open that box” button and they all act as one. It’s very simple and one-note.
You do get to direct your squad members’ to individually use their special abilities, like grenades and ground-pounds, and they can be used as combos for extra damage. Missions’ side objectives will reward you, for example, if you can use the time-slowing bubble to hold enemies in place while Doyle bombards them with rockets. But these abilities aren’t really interesting to use because the positioning of your squad doesn’t matter much – there’s no setup required – so it’s just a matter of waiting for the cooldowns and then casting them again.
You have to keep your team alive to use them, though, and also so they can absorb all the enemy fire that your fragile flying gravcycle can’t. Depending on what gear you’re given for a mission, that can be tricky to do – for instance, if you don’t have any healing abilities and have to rely on pickups from certain enemy types or healing stations your crew can activate for you. But of course, if one of your bots goes down, all you have to do is retrieve their head and they’ll rocket back onto the field a few seconds later in a shiny new body, so you don’t need to sweat it much if they explode. It’s important to keep them on the field to give the bad guys something else to shoot at, and there’s a 30-second timer that will end the mission if you don’t retrieve a head, but the stakes are largely pretty low.Then there are the boss battles, which look and sound great but are usually pretty weak. They boil down to shooting the giant four-legged Thunderhead walker (while dodging its slow-moving projectiles) until it goes down, then getting right up in its armpit – and I mean all the way up in its armpit – and hovering there while you hold down the fire button until each of four weak points explodes. It only got a little challenging when I had to deal with two at once, but the vast majority of these fights after the first one were painfully dull.
What’s especially frustrating about Disintegration’s campaign is that even though there’s a whole area you walk around between missions where you can talk to your crew, you have zero control over your squad composition or your vehicle’s loadout. Every mission dictates all of that to you, and all you get to do is pump in a few upgrade points for boring but necessary stat boosts to weapons, cooldown reductions, and things like that. I get that I’m being walked through different roles I’ll need to know for multiplayer, like the healer and the sniper, but it’s a bit annoying to have things like how you heal yourself change from level to level and not being able to pick a favorite gun or robot and develop it. That lack of continuity made levels feel like a string of unrelated battles, and practically kills replayability because I can’t return to a mission and play it with a different style of gravcycle and squad. Having no customization seems like a really poor design choice.