Making a first-person shooter that stands out from the crowd must be tough these days. Particularly if it's being published by Activision who, with Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, are set to unleash the sequel to one of the most successful examples of all time. Consider that they are also publishing the remake of Wolfenstein, the game that pioneered the genre, and you have to feel for Raven Software, gamely attempting to gatecrash the party with what marketing skunks glibly refer to as a "new IP. That so-called intellectual property is Singularity, which Google would have you believe is "a recognised leader in implementing agile business process management software". Wikipedia is scarcely more helpful, hinting at a "theoretical future point which takes place during a period of accelerating change sometime after the creation of a superintelligence".
As for the story of the game, it's arguably even more complicated, but well take a stab at the basics. You're an American fighter pilot on a recon mission when something goes awry and you crash on a remote island. The good news is you survive. The bad news is the island is subject to the kind of strange goings on that make an episode of Lost look as mundane as a weekend in Magaluf.
Since a Cold War experiment in 1950, the island - Katorga-12 - lias been quarantined, largely due to the presence of the mysterious Element 99, which no less an historical figure than Stalin was experimenting with as a power source. Or at least one of his scientists was, before it all went tits up with a catastrophic event that was on a par with Chernobyl.
However, rather than giving radiation poisoning to Welsh sheep, the upshot of this particular blunder was a rip in the space-time fabric resulting in some time travelling shenanigans. Luckily you're equipped with a handy Time Manipulation Device (TMD), which enables you to tamper with the properties of time on a localised basis.
A number of games have attempted the old time travel shtick, but according to producer Kekoa Lee-Creel, Singularity takes a different approach.
"We've seen other time games and they've had almost like a VCR function, rewind, fast forward, record, that sort of thing," Lee-Creel explains. "So instead of doing that, the direction was more 'What if you could actually see what a physical item looked like 50 years forward, 50 years back, and play with that notion?'"
At its most basic level, imagine there's a large tree blocking your path. Zap it back 50 years with the TMD and it becomes a mere sapling that you can easily step over. In other contrived scenarios, you can replace staircases to get upstairs, revert crates to their former glory in order to snaffle their ammo (which luckily works in your 2010 weapons) and remove brick walls in order to progress though buildings.
The Time Manipulation Device can also be used on human enemies, which in theory should reduce them to children or pensioners and thus make them easier to kill. For reasons of good taste, Raven have settled on your enemies devolving and evolving into some kind of gelatinous mass, which then runs around attacking all and sundry.
Enemies in Singularity take many forms, from the modern-day guards, to '50s soldiers who appear when you slip into a so-called Event Echo. Throw in mutated flora and fauna, and parasitic foes, and it's clear you're going to be up against it albeit equipped with some contemporary weapons - pistols, shotguns, and machine guns - including one that has the ability to chuck rockets back whence they came.
As the game progresses, upgrades become available, and the story also unfolds, with narrative elements scattered about in a BioShock fashion for those prepared to search for them.
Time For Fun
As for the multiplayer, Lee-Creel could only confirm, "It is time-based and you do have some of the time stuff integrated in there, some cool stuff that we're doing right now. I've played if it's a lot of fun."
How much fun Singularity will be to play remains to be seen, and we'll have to fast forward to later in the year to find out. Do you see what we did there?
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Sophisticated people like you and me are immune to hype. Perhaps immune is the wrong word; we're prone to notice the difference between information and hype, mulishly hardening ourselves to the product being fingered into our mouths. If you're so cool, we think, we'll see that for ourselves.
Unfortunately for us, and happily for the manipulative scum that forms the nation's ranks of marketeers and advertisers, we'll probably end up buying the mush anyway, just so we can bitch about it in on the internet with a more educated sense of resentment. The complete absence of hype, however, is slightly more puzzling. Are we supposed to like it? Feel like it's a rare discovery? Rescue it from its neglectful tormenters? Singularity had a short burst of publicity, but that was over a year ago. Since then, Activision has been silent about its time-bending shooter. No review copies were sent out. There were no visits to the office from an Activision public relations lady using words like "unique" while the hypnotic Activision giraffe looked in through our third-floor window.
Poor Raven - Singularity doesn't deserve this level of brutal neglect. That's not saying this is a masterpiece, but slipping an original title so far under the radar implies an inappropriate level of disinterest and embarrassment.
So, Singularity. The game in which you, Nate Renko, visit Katorga-12, a Russian island that was the home to many peculiar experiments in the '50s. After your helicopter is brought down by a massive crackling explosion, you return to consciousness in the flaming ruins of the island complex's welcome foyer.
This is the place where scientists brought their families to work on Element 99, a time-deforming isotope that Kruschev hoped would give Russia the upper hand in the Cold War. The experiments failed, and no advantage was gained. But they did build an odd bridge between 1950 and 2010, one that slings you unwittingly into the time of the original explosions that ended the '50s experiments. Being a hero, you decide to help people out.
Unfortunately, the guy you carry to safety is one of those people who died for a reason. His life creates a new, and substantially crappier, timeline in which Element 99 is harnessed, Mother Russia dominates the world, and Kruschev is deposed by someone ever so slightly more evil. Suddenly, it's your job, with the help of the original E-99 scientist and a group called Mir-12, to reinstate the original timeline. Don't ask too many questions.
Don't ask how Mir-12 are aware of any branching timeline. Don't ask why people in the feverishly oppressive atmosphere of Communist Russia are so keen to record their treacherous thoughts on audio cassettes. Don't ask why the artistic style seems to owe less to more classically Russian styles such as Constructivism, and more to Bio Shock and Jurassic Park's Mr DNA.
Let's get this out of the way: There are a lot of ways in which Singularity is derivative. Numerous elements of the game will remind you, variously, of BioShock, TimeShift, FEAR 2, and Prey. And I'm not just name-dropping a few shooters to create a spurious sense of knowing what I'm talking about, I'm trying to hedge around spoilers, even if they are spoilers you've already seen in different games. There are times throughout Singularity where you'll notice what a patchwork quilt of influences and rnagpied ideas it is. But here's the important thing - you'll enjoy yourself anyway.
But let's switch and get complimentary. There's a streak of well-concealed originality running through Raven's half-buried game. The time-manipulation device allows you to age and renew items that have been imbued with Element 99. Again, dull your scientific mind, as this is a gameplay and expositional device that doesn't stand up to the gentlest of scrutiny. So don't ask why heavily mutated boss creatures don't have any E-99 in them, or why people appeared to write on blackboards using nature's most valuable and volatile element.
Just know that your glove can be used to decay your enemies' cover to rubble, and crumple and uncrumple crates in ways that are surprisingly useful, both from a puzzle platforming perspective, and a strategic angle. Explosive barrels can be rendered harmless by the passage of time, then re-activated with the glove and shot from a safe distance. Playing around with the glove is far from sandbox gameplay - the objects you can use with it are too limited for that - but it has enough uses to surprise you.
There are stands throughout the game that can upgrade your magical time glove. The first allows it to act like a gravity gun, perhaps because someone at Raven realised they hadn't nicked anything from Half-Life yet.
The second upgrade lets you create deadlocks - stasis create deadlocks - stasis (bubbles that you can throw between yourself and an enemy to slow bullets.
I It's a balanced talent, I you're not invincible as I bullets still move, but when you're surrounded by skittering explosive plants from Prey, it's the ultimate defence.
Combat has a similarly tactical feel -use the wrong weapon, and you'll take heavy damage. The assault rifle -usually an FPS staple - is flaccid against anything other than human enemies; whilst the shotgun leaves you untouchable when you're fighting the stumpy, phase-shifting Zeks.
The problem is lack of that intangible feeling of connecting with the weapons. It could be something as simple as the guns' sound effects or their recoil, but some, the assault rifle in particular, feel thin and ineffective.
But then, there are the great weapons such as the hold-down-to-charge spikeshot, and the E-99 guided bullet that lets you steer it around corners. (How does time steer a bullet? You're asking questions again, stop it.) The game keeps you moving, keeps adding new elements, so that, while it's never truly original, Singularity never gets dull. If there's one thing Half-Life 2 taught the world, it's that normally sane people will form loving relationships with imaginary women, as long as you create a paper-thin illusion of intelligence. Singularity gives it a whirl: Kathryn is your friend in Mir-12, the resistance group that's grown up to think of you, Renko, as the man who appeared from the future in '50 and will come back to fix things in 2010.
Was A Contender
Exposition takes place through a long chain of notes, audio logs, temporal hallucinations and film projectors. You can't pick up the tape recorders, so if you want the full backstory you'll have to hang around and listen to them, but they're not generally interesting enough to bother. There's only so many times you can hear someone saying, "I'm not sure what we're doing here is right. I don't feel well. Oh shit, a monster."
The hallucinations are well done, even if they do amount to unskippable cutscenes, but some of the notes are hilariously bad. "Something got into the TELEPORTATION research lab," goes one. "We can't work out how it got in though. All the doors were locked to the TELEPORTATION research lab."
Can you decode the mystery? You probably can, I mean, the creatures have been teleporting around you for the last three hours. The range of bad guys is grim, but slim. There's the lunging, squat, phasing guys, and the annoying, tall lurchers with detachable arms, whose heads flap around so much you waste less bullets shooting their chest. Element 99 affects plant life, too, creating underground caverns of glistening meaty bulbs that slurp out a barrage of explosive ticks. Top tip: you can age the plants, and they won't birth a tick like they do when you shoot them. The problem is, you always know when you can use it because of the unsubtle indicators, so you rarely get the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.
Singularity really does have its moments. The best comparison is to TimeShift that's pretty enjoyable despite never punching you in the guts. Lower your expectations of videogame storytelling, and you're in for a miniature treat.
Sadly, though, I wish Singularity was better. I wish I could beat my chest at the fashionable villains of Activision, who cruelly buried this new franchise from the people who brought us PC classics like Hexen, Heretic and, erm, the Wolfenstein reboot. But their decision makes business and psychological sense. If Singularity had been projected onto the moon and touted as some worldchanging beast, it could become somewhat disappointing. As it stands, Singularity will be seen as a game that's surprisingly good. Or at least, not as bad as you'd think. So let the slow-burning word of mouth campaign begin.