Monday, July 12, 2010

Singularity Review

This review was originally published on

Singularity marks a departure for Raven Software, the team behind the recent Wolfenstein reboot, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The studio finally has a chance to work on an original property and the result is a game that borrows stylistic elements from their previous sci-fi laden shooter and relies on the team’s pedigree for crafting solid mechanics. The game begins as Nathaniel Renko, member of an American military outfit, is on a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union’s defunct island, Katorga 12. Singularity’s story portrays an alternate timeline that retells history as if the USSR never disbanded. The island of Katorga 12 was an all-important part of the country’s rise to power. A new element containing incredible power, dubbed E99, was discovered underneath the surface. If wielded correctly, E99 could even manipulate time itself. Like any dubious evil power, the Soviets sought to exploit it. Renko & Co. are marooned on the island decades after it was abandoned in the 1950s. Things quickly take a turn as you realize the past is finally catching up with them.

The effects of the experiments have taken their toll on Katorga 12 and its inhabitants. They’re now horrible creatures, mutated by the power of E99, and they’re coming for you. Singularity’s first impression is striking, taking influence from games such as Bioshock and Metro 2033, the world of Katorga 12 is detailed, haunting, and rich with character. Art-deco elements mixed with Red Army propaganda give Singularity a distinct look and sense of place. It's just a shame the early environments later give way to some generic industrial warehouses. At times, the world can feel a bit contrived. Backwards R’s and N’s on your objectives give the game a “Russiany” look, I suppose, but it’s forgivable when you realize it’s all in good fun. Singularity isn’t trying to be Tolstoy, more like a Hollywood blockbuster’s Russian counterpart. Jerry Bruckheimervich, if you will. Somewhere along the way, history is altered. An evil man has seized power and taken over the world. It’s now up to Renko to travel through time to set things right.

Singularity sits on a foundation of solid first-person shooting mechanics. The ubiquitous pistol, shotgun, and assault rifle are naturally part of your arsenal but weapons which tie into the game's time-travel motif are the standouts. The Seeker, a rifle that fires bullets you control as they travel through the air is pure masochistic fun. Other weapons like the sniper rifle have the ability to slow down time so pesky headshots are a thing of the past. In addition to the fun weaponry, Singularity relies heavily on a time mechanic afforded by the TMD or Time Manipulation Device.

Those mad Russian scientists managed to wield the power of E99 and create a handy (and portable, no less) weapon that can either turn back the wheels of time or move them forward. Use the TMD to age locks into dust allowing doors to open, turn enemies into ash, and restore broken staircases to their former selves. The time mechanics are, unfortunately, limited. It would have been nice to see more freedom in who or what you can move through time but, as it is, the game has a set library of objects that are susceptible to time manipulation. Mild puzzles are also sprinkled in for good measure but don’t go beyond simply figuring out how to traverse the environment. I felt like the time mechanics had so much potential, I wished the game had more of an emphasis on these puzzles. As the game progresses, upgrades to the TMD keep the action fresh and the game incredibly well paced. In another nod to Bioshock, the world is littered with upgrade stations which allow you to trade in currency for enhancements to yourself, your weapons, or the TMD itself. While Singularity doesn’t offer the dual-wielding of TMD and guns as Bioshock 2 did for plasmids and weapons, the action doesn’t suffer. The steady upgrades ensure that, even though you’re fighting the same enemy types throughout, the methods are constantly evolving and keep things feeling new.

As Renko leaps between the 1950s and the present, you’ll dispatch plenty of Russian soldiers along the way. The occasional boss battle against a gigantic monster keeps things leaning back into the realm of sci-fi. While these encounters offer some of the game’s more dramatic set pieces, it’s a shame they fall prey to the same “shoot-the-giant-glowing-spot” syndrome.

As a whole, Singularity isn’t a particularly long game. Most will get through it in a little under eight hours. It’s right in the sweet spot between offering just enough and overstaying its welcome. Fans of story-driven games will have a hard time putting it down. Bioshock-esque audio logs, notes, messages from the past which are rendered legible by the TMD, and a headache-inducing time twist really flesh out the narrative. In the end, a moral choice offers a variety of endings depending on which route you take. While the ending itself is interesting regardless of your choice, it was another area where the story felt contrived. None of your choices throughout the game up until that moment factor in to which ending you receive. It felt forced that suddenly the game introduced a moral choice when, all the while, you’d been doing what you thought was right.

Despite being a single-player focused game, Singularity does offer a decent multiplayer offering. While the standard deathmatch pitting human soldiers against the monsters of Katorga 12 is a fun, class-based distraction, it’s not likely to pull you away from your current online game of choice. Extermination is another game mode that, once again, pits humans versus creatures but is more objective-based. As the soldiers, it’s your duty to restore beacon points and protect them while they charge. As the monsters, it’s your job to stop them. If a team works well together, Extermination can actually get quite addictive. Soldier classes range from the typical medic, spec-op, and heavy units while the creatures offer a little more variety. The multiplayer isn’t the main draw of the game but it’s worth putting in for a weekend and seeing what it has to offer.

Singularity isn’t the most original game but it still manages to do a few things very well. The world of Katorga 12 is not the next Rapture but it’s damn close. Added to that, a time-travel mechanic, great shooting, and mind-bending story all work to shape a rich experience that’s worth seeing through to the end.


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