Review: Singularity

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Raven Software’s mix of Soviet super science and time travel have cooked up a Cold War surprise that effectively blends both into a fun romp with a healthy dose of sundered limbs. If you’ve seen their work with Wolfenstein, this will feel like a return engagement. You’ll probably also remember that the single player was the best part about the Nazi buster.

And that’s also the main thing about Singularity. Just as Raven worked their magic on Wolfenstein’s Nazi smashing solo act, Singularity’s comes across as a high-octane, if short lived, thrill ride into a twisted tale of Soviet-styled sci-fi and time tripping vengeance.

Raven’s spin on the Cold War starts off with a slick briefing that starts with the end of WW2 and takes us to the present day. In the early 1950s, on an island called Katorga off of the Kamchatka Peninsula, a miraculous new element is discovered called E99 whose potential makes nukes look like wet firecrackers. Stalin’s communist spirit is thrilled at this and immediately orders the cream of Soviet science to converge on the island and develop E99 at a site aptly named Katorga-12.

E99 also has some other effects on the living such as mutating them into slavering monsters. But it doesn’t stop the USSR’s best from experimenting until a devastating cataclysm forces a hurried evacuation of Katorga. Khruschev, taking over after Stalin’s untimely demise from ‘natural’ causes, orders all records destroyed and the island forbidden deeming E99 too dangerous despite its potential. Katorga-12 quickly became a forgotten footnote. That was in 1955.

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Fast forward to 2010 where the player, as black ops agent, Nate Renko, is traveling by helicopter to an “uncharted island” after a mysterious energy wave erupting from it catches the attention of the United States’ spy sats. The US wants to know if the Russian Federation is up to something they shouldn’t be and when a wave of blinding energy sends Renko back to the heady days of 1955 before pulling him back home, he becomes involved in a Cold War conspiracy that may decide just how history should play out.

Raven’s lavish attention to detail lets the somewhat predictable story slip from every rusty bolt screwed into Katorga’s epitaph to Soviet science gone wrong. Tattered posters cover the walls extolling communist virtues, blackened corpses litter the ground where they had fallen over fifty years earlier, ripped flags bearing the hammer and sickle hang over cracked concrete and stained steel, propaganda videos (translated into English, it seems) wait for someone to educate, audio recordings archive the last voices alive on Katorga-12 before the end, and the faces of Stalin and Lenin gaze down on what is left of its worker’s paradise.

Each area is meant to be savored and explored, puzzled through, and offer a number of different challenges such as sneaking through an area whose mutants can only hear you. You could always shoot your way through, but its an option that sneakier players can enjoy since the same mutants show up later in other venues to keep things interesting.

The special effects imbue each with a diverse mix of industrial grit and alien organics with a few places looking as if someone took the time to blow their nose on every pixel. When a wave of white energy rolls in from the horizon and shifts everything to 1955, or when stepping through a tear in time heads back home, the split personality of Singularity’s world is a jarring and welcome blast to the eyes.

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Enemies are also treated in the same way with enough variety to range between long limbed mutants or a Red Army grunts from 1955 to keep things interesting, nearly all of whom will react to enough hard ordinance with all of the subtlety of an exploding sponge that had been soaking in cherry Cool Aid. Building on the gore injected into Wolfenstein, Raven’s artists have honed their ability to an even more brutal level, especially thanks to the inventiveness of some of Singularity’s more amusing weapons. At one point in the game, I thought someone had left a glove on a shelf until I realized that it was actually a hand blown into the room from an earlier fight.

The soundtrack was decent, but not as memorable as the voice acting. Renko isn’t exactly a silent protagonist all the way through, either. Soviet soldiers scream at you in Russian, but it’s also interesting to see as much English translated signs throughout Katorga-12 as well as hearing videos spoken in the same way. While not wrecking the presentation, it made me wonder if they had that many defectors come in from the West to make so many accommodations.

As detailed as it can be, it’s not often the best looking stuff in HD, though, even with the UE3 engine under its hood. Pixelated textures up close, oddly bright lighting washing out certain areas, and the bizarre ‘low-to-high’ res effect when entering a new zone occurred frequently enough to take away from some of the immersion.

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But Raven has also provided bonuses for poking around this Red wasteland with E99 tech that can be collected and then used to upgrade Renko if he has also found the appropriate “bio notes”, such as those improving his health limit or how long he can sprint. Weapon upgrade points are also hidden throughout the game to supposedly make his collected arsenal even deadlier, though most of those didn’t seem to do much other than provide the tangible benefit of having a larger clip. Scattered weapon lockers allow Renko to swap out any of the two weapons he can carry with him for nearly any of the others that he has found along the way with a few exceptions such as the rocket launcher. They can also be used to purchase more ammo if you’re willing to part with a few E99 tech points.

Health packs are also collectable because the game doesn’t use regenerating health, forcing the player to scavenge what they can and approach each firefight with a bit more care than they otherwise might. Not everyone will like it and may view it more as a throwback, but as blunt as it is for pacing the player, it does add a small layer of challenge to simply being Rambo.

The game does say that “Time is your weapon” though it relies just as much on traditional firepower. FPS staples such as the pistol, a machine gun, and even a mini-gun are included, but it is the more unusual weapons that help distinguish the gameplay. The Seeker gun is a special gun found in certain areas – as well as one of the weapons that can’t be stowed for later use – that allows the player to fly an exploding bullet into enemies. There’s the Dethek Launcher with its steerable grenade ball which, unfortunately, was useful only in one part of the game for me. And then there’s the sniper rifle with its limited time dilation ability that slows the action down for those perfect multi-shots.

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When time does become your weapon is when you get the Time Manipulation Device allowing players to age enemies into dust, revert healthy soldiers into exploding flesh bags, or rebuild collapsed staircases and crumpled crates to get around Katorga-12. As Renko moves through the main story, more powers will be unlocked allowing him to levitate objects, use the “Deadlock” ability to fire off spheres of time that freeze or slow anything and anyone inside of them, and blast enemies with a pulse of deadly energy. The TMD slowly recharges and not every power draws from its reservoir, though Renko can carry special vials of E99 in case he needs the extra juice in a pinch.

As awesome as that might sound, the rebuilding feature of the TMD is focused on only a select number of spots with the thin explanation that it can only affect “E99″ saturated objects to limit its use. So don’t expect to rebuild large sections of Katorga-12 or clear blocked passageways unless it’s part of the actual story as opposed to simple exploration. Aside from using a TMD amplifier in key locations, you won’t really get the feeling of being able to rebuild the world at will. But for where the script goes in with dramatic effect, it’s impressive stuff to watch.

More useful were its combat abilities, especially the Deadlock feature which almost felt game breaking, but given how the game also loves to throw legions of enemies at you, it’s almost expected that you have something like this to even the odds. What I couldn’t stand was that two things were tied to the same right analog stick click.

Clicking the right analog stick while aiming at something can “catch” it in a gravity beam, but clicking and holding the stick generates a Deadlock sphere. Trying to get a Deadlock sphere ready in an area cluttered with enemies and objects made this setup feel incredibly clunky when I accidentally grabbed an enemy or a crate, and there were enough places in the game where this happened to wish that designers would stop assigning multiple actions to the same button or at least test it enough to think of an alternative.

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Multiplayer is pretty sparse with only two modes offered: Extermination and Creatures vs. Soldiers. Both modes are team based and split between, well, creatures and soldiers. Both can pick from a number of classes from their side with various attributes, such as being able to heal others or use a shield and after picking a class, it can be further modified with additional “perks”. Creatures vs. Soldiers is team deathmatch, while Extermination is more like conquest as soldiers fight to take control of three points to ‘exterminate’ the creatures’ nest. Three maps are offered with Extermination and Creatures vs. Soldiers have eight to wage war across, all of which support up to six players per team.

The creature side offers up a different experience in third person without hardware, but with a number of advantages that make up for a lack of projectile weapons. Players can elect to be be a phase tick that can climb walls and ceilings and possess enemy players with a surprise attack, or as a Zek that can phase out of time and jump back into reality for a deadly ambush. Or a giant, spider-like goliath with a devastating fire attack.

Online, gameplay was largely lag free and the differences between both sides added plenty of variety to play styles. Still, disconnects were an issue at the end of a game as I was booted out from the current session. Finding a decent Extermination game seemed to take much longer than in finding a Creatures vs Soldiers session which seemed to be almost always populated.

Experience can also be earned online for higher ranks, but that’s about it so don’t expect to unlock anything to deepen the experience. It’s still fun for what it offers and can be challenging when two teams can work the maps. For something that fits what Singularity is all about, it does the job though if you’re used to Modern Warfare’s plethora of options and unlockables, it probably won’t pull you away for long.

Storytelling doesn’t belong in every game but where it plays an important part as it does in Singularity, it can take players on a time tripping adventure spanning ruins of the Soviet empire to its heady days in 1955. Even in seeing some of its twists miles away, taking out Red Army grunts in the past with weapons from the future is one of its guilty pleasures alongside trying to survive the present in order to fix history. In so doing, Raven provides plenty of fiction for players looking for a reason to perforate mutants. It certainly plays up to some of Bioshock’s aesthetics of ruined excess and mystery and that might be something more than a few players may want to get into.

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On the other side of the coin, Singularity is a short game with little in the way of extras other than its three different endings which can all be experienced without having to replay the game. There’s no game plus mode to go through it with, weapon upgrades feel largely useless, and certain save points often made me replay large sections of repetitive combat. Unless you’re the kind of gamer that enjoys exploring areas for the scraps of fiction that tell more of its backstory while taking in the trappings of its post-Soviet dystopia, you might not get as much mileage from its setting as others would. Multiplayer addicts may find Singularity’s offerings to be far too little or too shallow to dive into and despite its special weapons, the game can often feel like a typical FPS.

I enjoyed what Raven had done with its time addled world despite a few oddball holes in its story, once again flexing the medium into telling a thrilling and entertaining, action packed adventure. As an FPS that caters almost exclusively to the lone player who wants to enjoy a good story with plenty of action, it accomplishes its mission. But whether that’s enough for would-be time travelers to bank on depends largely on how deeply they want to dig down into Katorga-12′s grisly graveyard of Soviet secrets.

Singularity
Activision / Raven Software
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows
Rated M for Mature