Could Disintegration be the next Anthem?
I remember the days when I'd feel lucky to get access to a beta test for a new game. The whole process of creating an account on a site and signing up, sometimes completing a questionnaire or survey, and then the wait for acceptance. You'd get an email with a link in it, and there you were - among the lucky few who'd get to play the game first. Among the ones who'd be able to say "I've been playing since the beta..." in community forums in perpetuity, as if the early access somehow elevates you to the status of being someone to whom other people should pay attention. Back when getting access to a beta "meant something", they were more than a marketing ploy. These days, "open beta" doesn't so much mean server/infrastructure stress test so much as it means extension of hype machine.
The first couple of betas I played were for games I ended up spending a lot of time playing. The one for Titanfall was an amazing weekend of chaos, with a couple of technical hitches that did nothing to slow down my enthusiasm for a game that, in retrospect, changed the face of first person shooters for years following its release. The beta for Destiny took the anticipation I was feeling for the game and turned the volume up to about 27. I played the technical alpha for Sea of Thieves, and have loved it ever since. Then came the phase of the more cynical beta; the ones that pretended to be tests but were really demos. I think Destiny 2 and The Division can be firmly placed in that category, along with the ones for the various Forza Horizon games. They were fun, but I don't think they were really intended to learn much about how to support online infrastructure so much as they were to bring more eyes to the product. Fair enough, I guess. It probably worked.
Lately though, it seems as though some betas have moved into a dangerous area where the lines are blurred. These betas happen pretty late in the development cycle and feel like a simultaneous test of online functionality AND marketing opportunity. You can spot them - because the games are being shown off fairly close to release, and have some major technical issues. The first that leaps to mind when I think of beta tests that fit this hybrid category is the one for Anthem (which was referred to as a "demo" but which really should have been a beta) - which poured cold water over my excitement for the game and left me concerned about how it would perform on release. Moving forward, the next one will be the one that I'm participating in now - and that's the one for Disintegration. It's the brainchild of Marcus Lehto - the ex-Bungie alumnus who dreamed up the Master Chief during his time there, so hopes are understandably high for the game which is being developed by V1 Interactive.
The gameplay premise of Disintegration is far more interesting than the narrative one, which describes a world set after some war another... blah blah. Insert videogame plot here. I'm sure the campaign will be interesting enough, but seeing as the beta consists largely of online multiplayer, the narrative is unknown at this point. It plays like a cross between a first-person shooter and a real-time strategy game. You control a "grav cycle" which basically acts as a floating weapons platform. You point and aim and shoot at things as you'd expect. Where it becomes different is in the RTS part of the game - as you simultaneously control the movement of a small unit of troops. In addition to shooting at everything in sight, you can position these troops strategically and instruct them to fire or carry out special attacks on specific targets that you nominate. It sounds complex, but there's a solid training mission that explains how it all works quite nicely - and it all falls into place fairly quickly. It's different enough to be interesting, but not so different as to be alienating, which seems like a really good balance to strike.
That's not to say that it isn't without problems. Within the multiplayer that the beta centres around, the grav cycle itself feels floaty and unresponsive, and not really fast enough. The time-to-kill seems insanely long. In the chaos of a match, it's sometimes difficult to tell which units are yours, and what they're doing. At this point, it's difficult to tell what they're used for; which is something you'd definitely expect NOT to be a problem once the full game is launched and there's a campaign in place to explain all this stuff. Your grav cycle is equipped differently depending on which team you select at the start of the match - and some of them feel seriously underpowered. There's no mini-map, so on spawn in to a map it's often difficult to tell where you need to go to get back into the action.
Where it all falls down (at least for me, while playing on an Xbox One S - so your mileage may vary!) is in the performance. There is a notable difference between playing on an Xbox One X and an Xbox One S. While neither experience is perfect, playing on the X was a much better experience with fewer technical problems. On base hardware though, Disintegration is broken at a technical level with any attempt to play it resulting in massive performance problems. Even the loading pages stutter and lag; once in a match massive framerate drops were commonplace. Textures pop in all over the place, hit registration is inconsistent, players and units apparently teleporting all over. I have to caveat strongly that this way my experience and that yours may be different. Looking at comments within the official Disintegration discord channel, my experience seems to have been in a minority. It's worth nothing though that most of the players in there seem to be on PC (requests for ability to invert mouse controls and for different default key bindings are ubiquitous), and the praise for the game is high. If that means that my experience is inconsistent with that of most others, then fair enough - and I hope that that's the case. But it's my experience that I have to write about - and it's that experience that makes me fear that Disintegration could be about to "do an Anthem," at least on consoles.
Performance issues can often be fixed with time - but at the moment, Disintegration is slated for release "late Q1/early Q2 2020." We're now at the end of January, so this release window could be very close indeed based on that vague date range. I hope it isn't - to me, it feels as though this game needs some more time in the oven. It's interesting - and as we all know, in the context of games "interesting" can often evolve into "wildly successful"... but you only get one chance to make a first impression. If Disintegration goes live in the state the beta currently is in without some serious finessing, I have a feeling that it will release to middling reviews and a player base that makes a lot of negative noise before disappearing. The developers will carry on working on it for another year, after which it'll be a really good game - and by which point no-one will care. That's what "doing an Anthem" means. I really hope they can change course. I'll be watching with interest.