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V1 Interactive's President Marcus Lehto helped create the Master Chief, and for all Halo's multiplayer prowess, the series would be woefully incomplete without its single-player campaigns. With Disintegration, the first game from V1 Interactive and, like Halo, another sci-fi FPS born of an RTS idea, Lehto says single-player is a big reason why the game exists at all.
"I mean, it's one of those things that I was most excited about when I started the idea process for this game," Lehto tells USgamer in an interview session following an event where press got a first-look at Disintegration's single-player. What was originally meant to be a hands-on turned into a digital event given the COVID-19 pandemic, but via Skype, Lehto's enthusiasm for single-player rings through loud and clear.
"[Disintegration] didn't just come from a mechanical gameplay standpoint, here's what I think might be really neat for a gameplay mechanics perspective, to fly this grav cycle or command the units on the ground," says Lehto. "It's the reason why all of it exists there in the first place: the world around it, the lore that comes with it, the characters that are so interesting."
In multiplayer, these things are obfuscated. Disintegration's crews of grav cycle pilots and foot soldiers, ranging from a group of neon-drenched bikers to Twisted Metal-esque clowns, look cool in matches but lack context. The campaign will weave a story of what happened after the advent of "integration," a process where human minds can be transferred to robotic bodies. Set during a conflict between unmodified human "naturals" and the Rayonne, a fascistic post-humanist faction of integrated beings, players will assume the role of an outlaw named Romer.
Romer, like his spiritual cousin the Master Chief, has an interesting past for a guy who can't emote with his face (or, in the Chief's case, through a helmet). Romer's integrated with a humanoid robot body—and so, he's an "outlaw" because he won't work under the Rayonne. Before the war, he was a famous grav cycle pilot; Disintegration's star vehicles weren't just for combat. There's more behind Disintegration's worldbuilding than conflict.
"To me, [there's] a void of a real meaty understanding of the universes these games take place in," Lehto says of the trend of multiplayer-only titles. "That's so important to getting lost within a game universe and letting it absorb you, allowing that lore to live out and beyond the game.
Aiming for a Triple-A Story With a Tiny Team
Lehto didn't leave the Seattle area after he left Bungie, and it's where V1 Interactive is based now. The big change going from Bungie to V1 is size: Disintegration's being made by a team of 30 people.
"I'm used to working with 300 to 500 person teams at Bungie, so it was a real change of pace for us and a real restraint operation, as well, to make sure we reigned ourselves in and could build something that was doable with a small team," Lehto says of crafting a modern, full-price single-player and multiplayer FPS at V1's size.
Lehto says that using Unreal 4 as Disintegration's engine has been a boon to its development—the workflow allows for rapid iteration that appeals to "a stickler about quality" like him. "When you get into that seconds worth of iteration, that stuff matters so much to designers when it comes to unlocking potential discoveries along the way as to what's really awesome about a game in the first place," Lehto says.
It's perhaps easier to imagine the benefits of rapid prototyping and tweaks for a traditional FPS, but with Disintegration's unique grav cycle and ground unit interplay, it seems that'd be a huge help for campaign design and balance. Lehto says figuring out the "rollercoaster ride" of a single-player campaign is one of his favorite parts of the development cycle. For Disintegration, that doesn't mean a vehicle section here, or an on-foot combat section there—everything's being designed to accommodate and stretch the core gameplay.
"There's going to be points within the campaign where we really want to pit the player against some intense combat, and then have some nice breather moments, lulls where they can explore and understand a little bit more about the lore within the universe themselves," says Lehto. "And then, get into some very different, challenging situations where, in some cases, they have no ground units so they're forced to work exclusively on their own for a short period of time. Or, on the flipside of that, where they really need to focus on the usage of [ground units] to get past that portion of the mission.
"With only 30 people, you'd be surprised at how much we're able to produce with that small a team just being as efficient as we were."
Taking the Leap of Faith for Single-Player
Even with the pedigree that Lehto and V1's other seasoned triple-A devs bring to the table, a single-player FPS campaign isn't a sure bet. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 skipped one in 2018. Titanfall 2, one of the most critically acclaimed single-player FPS in years, was a sequel to a multiplayer-only game—it wasn't a huge hit, and now its battle royale follow-up has found success. Even Valve only returned to the single-player FPS space after years of investment in VR.
In light of all this, how did V1 settle on making single-player a priority with the confidence it has? "Believe me, we talked a lot internally about whether or not we should just be multiplayer, just like everybody else is," Lehto says. "But we ended up looking pretty hard at the landscape for ourselves, understanding that maybe this will be a huge benefit to us."
The 30-minute chunk of single-player footage provided to the press demonstrated a good variety of encounters built around Disintegration's unique mechanics, but it was also not loaded with big set piece moments. Like Obsidian's The Outer Worlds, another Private Division-published title that drew comparisons to Fallout: New Vegas and other RPGs before it, what Disintegration delivers may end up seeming a bit subdued to some. A flashier entrant with less substance, though, might struggle to win over fans who are pining for the FPS campaigns of old. The fundamentals of a solid single-player campaign all seem to be there in Disintegration. It doesn't look like an afterthought or a multiplayer sideshow.
Hopefully, we'll find out how the campaign turns out soon. Lehto says V1 is getting close to finishing Disintegration, but given the pandemic, everything's a bit up in the air. "The hardest thing we had to get over, the biggest hurdle, was making sure that everybody could get our database and functionally work on the game in a realistic way," says Lehto. "[P]lus, then, the communication, and setting up expectations of what everybody needs to be focused on, diligent, and disciplined when it comes to communicating what they're doing throughout the day. This isn't a vacation for us all, we're actually all still working really hard."
Then, the fruits of V1's labor still need to pass through other hands before it gets to players. "I'll absolutely say that it has affected everybody," Lehto says of the pandemic. "Not only on our dev side, with the way we're wrapping up the game right now, getting close to handing it off for certification, but when it comes to those who need to certify the game, and going through the final QA steps and submission process. We're figuring that all out, as we go, day by day.
"That said, it's not holding us back too hard. We're actually hitting the dates closer than we thought we would, which is pretty impressive given the circumstances."
With "so few games out there" featuring story campaigns, Lehto hopes Disintegration is poised to fill the void. Where Bungie and others moved in a live-service direction and, to accompany it, different cadences and approaches to doling out story, Disintegration seems to follow in the footsteps not just of Halo, but also of other standard-bearers like BioShock and Half-Life.
"You know, that's kind of the leap of faith that we're taking internally," Lehto explains. "[M]aybe this will be the one thing that people can sink their teeth into, as a different change of pace. To do something outside of what they're used to seeing, and to finally immerse themselves in a story campaign again. That's proving, so far, to be the case with regards to the things that we talk to with individuals outside of our studio—press, fans, the community—they can't wait for another campaign."