It was about five years ago that Marcus Lehto, one of the key developers behind the Halo series, set out to create something new. He and two engineers started working on a prototype to prove that their idea for a different kind of first-person shooter, one with an ingrained tactical element, would actually work in practice.
”It was really clunky but it was enough to get the idea across,” Lehto told me in a cramped booth at PAX West, where his studio V1 Interactive was showing the game. “We wanted to have this entity in the sky with weapons and defensive and offensive abilities that could also command this group on the ground in a way that stayed with fluid nature of first-person shooters.”
That prototype eventually turned into Disintegration, a first-person shooter/real-time strategy hybrid where you play as a human consciousness controlling a hovercraft (“grav cycle”) fighting for survival in a dystopian wasteland. You’ll need to engage with enemies on the battlefield directly while ordering around a squad of three class-based, AI controlled units on the ground. It’s set to launch sometime in 2020 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.
Lehto is known for his legacy in the shooter genre, having worked on most series entries between the original masterpiece, Halo: Combat Evolved, and its sixth follow-up, Halo: Reach. He didn’t want to make another straightforward shooter, he told Polygon; he wanted to make something based around his love for real-time strategy games.
”I love real-time strategy games, fast-paced, non-turn-based tactics games,” Lehto, who started V1 Interactive to make his own smaller projects back in 2012, said. “Myth: The Fallen Lords was a game I worked on at Bungie back in ‘95, ‘96 when I first started working with them. It helped me connect with my friends and was something I fell in love with.”
Halo: Combat Evolved actually began as a reskinned version of Myth using the same engine and many of the same mechanics. Eventually the team at Bungie decided that it was more enjoyable to drive the humvees than watch AI-controlled units hop behind the wheel. Halo turned into a third-person shooter before finding its footing as one of the most influential first- person shooters ever made.
Disintegration had a similar start. “I started this game as a real time strategy game as well, where you’re micromanaging units on the ground and that kind of thing,” Lehto added. “But we quickly morphed into something different. We turned that camera in the sky into a vehicle that you fly.”
Disintegration also returns to the sci-fi space; its story is set after disastrous climate change, overpopulation, and disease nearly wipe out humankind. In order to survive, some humans abandon their bodies and place their consciousness within one of the Disintegration’s grav cycles. What started as a temporary measure during humanity’s efforts to clean up the world became a nefarious plot for some: the Rayonne — a splinter group — believe integrating is better than living in the soft shell of a human body. They’ve even found a way to remove people’s autonomy when integrating, creating a hive-mind of robot soldiers.
The story picks up as I take control of Romer and a crew of outlaws, in a campaign that follows the war between the Rayonne and everyone else. That story also bleeds into multiplayer with each of the nine playable crews (a different hovering robot and three soldiers) being a different group of outlaws who integrated to survive.
”All of the stuff that we see in multiplayer, like those futuristic motorcycle crews, builds off what we have in the story,” he said. “They’re all grounded in the world we’ve created. So all together it creates this lore and it creates this universe that has a cohesion to it.”
The idea of combining first-person shooter action with real-time strategy depth didn’t come naturally. Lehto and his team felt that a straightforward real-time strategy game would get lost among the library of other titles in the genre.
”We really want to try to carve out some differences that would stand out,” he said. “It was a risk to take though, because while internally we were excited about the idea, it took a long time to work through mechanical gameplay issues that were generated as a result of the combination [of the two genres].”
After playing Disintegration, I think Lehto was mostly successful in solving those problems, I enjoyed both of the quick multiplayer matches I jumped into. The demo featured a capture-the-flag type mode called retrieval where teams had to either take one of two different reactors back to their base. I got to choose between one of nine crews, like the sword wielding King’s Guard or the clown-filled squad The Sideshow, that had different sets of AI-controlled units, some had snipers with range or strong tank units, which were important for team compositions.
Once we began I immediately charged towards the second reactor, commanding my troops to run ahead of me as we tried to sneak in an early point by grabbing the reactor before the enemy could get there. Hovering around the map in my ship and commanding my small squad felt a bit like a MOBA, I had picked the lane for my troops to charge down and we’d be forced to engage whoever we ran into.
Enemy squads soon met me head on and everything turned to chaos. It was difficult to understand who was shooting at who; there were so many guns blazing. I had picked an enemy squad for my soldiers to engage with a quick button press and then turned my sights to the enemy ships. Drifting left, right, up, and down while releasing a slow barrage of fire was methodic and impactful.
It was clear, however, that the real-time strategy element was more important in this scenario. My team won the skirmish we ran into but lost the entire match after the enemy team snuck away to take the other reactor. No one on my team was communicating, so I had no idea where everyone was or what their overall gameplan was. Despite that issue the whole thing was chaotic fun. But I only had a quick taste as my demo ended after two brief bouts, hardly enough to judge the quality of a game.
The line between Disintegration’s first-person shooter action and real-time strategy depth was clear. Twitchy fingers won’t win fights. The gunplay is slow and methodical, meant mostly to compliment your strategy on the ground. I learn I can’t survive by shooting my way through a tough spot.
While Lehto said that a single-player campaign that builds out a universe is important for Disintegration, multiplayer is a huge focus for V1 Interactive.
”Multiplayer is where a lot of the interest is for the growth of the game for me personally,” he said. “It’s the thing that connects with the community outside that will be playing this game for the long term. It’s also the thing that requires a lot of iteration and input to get right.”
Outside his history with Myth, Lehto and his team took inspiration from MOBAs like League of Legends and DOTA 2. Certain maps in Disintegration are laned based with a few clear paths between each enemy side, like the one I played. It’s another element in Disentagration’s amalgamation of genre elements that Lehto is hoping will add up to an addictive final product.
Even after playing, I worry Disintegration may muddle the thing that makes both first-person shooters and real-time strategy games what they are. Lehto recognized my concern, but said that expectations need to be put aside in order to appreciate how different Disintegration is from the standard in both those genres.
”I’m really counting on the idea that this idea will draw from both crowds,” Lehto said. “It’s a slightly slower based first-person shooter on purpose, because we’re allowing the player to tactically using those ground units. The twitchy reaction time is gone and there’s an appeal to that.”
We’re still a long ways away from Disintegration’s launch date next year. But Lehto believes that he’s championing some design choices that aren’t common in shooters anymore.
”We went against the grain of what everybody does nowadays,” he said. “By going back to some of the old-school things that we firmly believe in, such as having a rich single player campaign. It’s deep and it creates lore and pushes the player to think about what’s happening outside the immediate story. That applies to multiplayer too.”