When this game landed on my desk I hadnâ€™t even heard of it before. Considering that Activision is quite well known for blowing their own horn, it was an understatement to say that I wasnâ€™t expecting too much from Singularity. However, despite the low-key marketing and Ninja-like entrance onto the market, Raven Softwareâ€™s latest shooter is right up there with some of the more recent triple A titles.
If Bioshock, Half-Life 2 and F.E.A.R all got together to have a baby, it would either be every geekâ€™s wet dreamâ€¦ or Singularity. In fact at times, I couldnâ€™t help but wonder just how Raven managed to get past plagiarism issues. But as fans of these games will attest, any combination of those three epic shooters canâ€™t be a bad thing.
You play as Captain Nathaniel Renko, a US military operative who has been sent to the island of Katorga-12 off the coast of Russia. Apart from having a funky sounding name, Katorga-12 is also the hot-spot for all things sci-fi as the Russians used it as a testing ground for new weapons technology during the Cold War. After discovering a whole new power source known as Element 99, Russian scientists managed to disrupt time and space and even weaponise it to potentially turn the tides in the Motherlandâ€™s favour. However Element-99 is also highly unstable and after a series of accidents, a huge explosion results in death and radioactive exposure to all the unfortunate workers situated on Katorga-12. Captain Renko is set to the mysterious island to uncover the truth about the experiments and eventually rewrite history by traveling through different time periods dating back to the 1950â€™s.
Russia, experimentation, world domination, radiation and time travel arenâ€™t new plot devices by any means. But Singularity throws them all together in such a well executed package that the game feels like a breath of fresh air. The game wastes no time in throwing players deep into the story, either, as the opening sequences depict your helicopter crash-landing following a sudden surge of radioactive activity from the island. Barely surviving the crash, you and your teammate are left stranded in different locations on Katorga-12. Picking up scraps and any nearby weapons, you are forced to explore the bleak and terrifying surroundings, piecing together the atrocities that took place on the island. The first hour or so of the game is purely survival as you encounter fast-moving mutants armed with nothing but a revolver and a round of ammo. However it isnâ€™t long before you uncover the massively destructive weapons that the Russians were working on and use them to your own advantage.
The main one that youâ€™ll call on is the Time Manipulation Device, or TMD, that is almost surgically attached to your wrist by machines. Having a reactor powered by the unpredictable Element-99 strapped to your hand isnâ€™t the most comforting of things â€“ until you realise what it can do. The TMD allows you to alter the age of objects, such as walls, crates, doors and even enemies and turn them into old decaying bits of dust. You can reverse time as well, turning old, rusty objects into brand spanking new ones that look like the day they were made. Of course, with the console hardware there are limitations as to what you can alter the time of. Singularity attempts to explain this restriction by saying that only objects that have Element-99 in them can be time distorted. It was annoying to see a barrel get rejuvenated and not be able to change the decrepit metallic door next to it. However the TMD is still an impressive piece of game design and players will definitely get a kick out of watching objects get reconstructed and pulled apart with painstaking detail.
As the TMD upgrades throughout the game, it gives way to a lot of the problem solving aspects of Singularity as well. With it youâ€™ll be picking up objects (just like in Half-Life 2 with its anti-gravity gun) which lets you push or throw things around. To get past certain puzzles in the game, players will also need to age or rebuild objects. Admittedly, a lot of them are as simple as moving a crate across a room to be able to jump up onto a platform. But there are a few that will make you stop and think for a minute, breaking up the gameplay nicely. One thing that I appreciated in Singularity is that it never spoon-fed me. It teaches you the basics of what your equipment is capable of and then throws you head first into it and lets you figure out what to do. Some of the challenges in the game include escaping from a basement quickly filling up with poisonous gas. Even some of the more clued up gamers should need a couple of tries to suss it out completely. The game is also packed full of hidden rooms and areas that players can seek out for secret extras and upgrades.
Problem solving and bonus items aside, most of the game is simply spent shooting at things. But gunplay is something that Singularity does exceedingly well. Although ammunition can be painfully limited at times, blasting things with machine-guns, shotguns, sniper rifles and revolvers is good old fashioned fun. You can pinpoint legs and arms to send limbs flying from enemies and the FPS dynamics stand up to the best shooters out there. Later down the track youâ€™ll get rail guns, grenade launchers and even a sweet weapon that lets you aim each bullet in slowed-down, first person view so you can curve your bullet and guide it through the air towards your target. The viewpoint lingers too, so that you can get up-close and personal as each round explodes to decapitate your enemy or rip off a leg or two. Known as the Seeker, this gun was certainly a highlight but sadly, this weapon only seems to appear at particular moments of the game and even mysteriously disappears afterward no matter what you do.
Like the arsenal, the enemies in Singularity are equally diverse and come in all sizes, ranging from annoying little head-crab things to gargantuan beasts that can kill you in a couple of swipes. One memorable encounter took place on a train that was dangling off a bridge and being attacked by a colossal praying mantis type thing that was knocking carriages around like they were tennis balls. Although frustrating as hell initially, the end result of frying the nightmarish creatureâ€™s brains after a twenty minute battle was definitely rewarding. Leading up to that however were more balanced enemies that included fast-moving mutants, intelligent and organised Russian soliders and blue gorilla-like beasts that can climb walls and turn invisible. The pace of Singularity was challenging but never boring, even after taking down wave after wave of nasties. Contrary to popular belief the singleplayer campaign clocks in at a very reasonable 8 to 9 hours as well and includes three well-written alternate endings.
Singularity was built with the relatively archaic Unreal Engine 3, but the graphics are extremely effective and could be the best example of the engine to date. The atmospheric lighting, dynamic fire effects and animations are stunning and players will never be short of something to blow up or zoom-in on to take in all the attention to detail that Raven has put in place.
On top of the impressive visuals, Singularity packs in a huge amount of story too, mainly in the form of the hundreds of readable notes you find scattered around and movie clips to watch. Oddly enough, despite this sprawling but cleverly-written story, your character Nate remains a silent protagonist. Although this lets you get immersed into the story without annoying first-person banter, it also negates any emotional connection to your character and his terrifying surroundings. One major oversight from the developers is the blatant lack of archiving these notes, meaning that you can never go back and re-read anything at a later time. You canâ€™t replay any of the well put together, historical video clips that the game presents to you either, without playing the entire game again.
Speaking of frustrating omissions from the developers, Singularity also has a far too casual autosave feature that allows for just a single load point. If you quit the game, you can only continue your game or start a whole new one, meaning that if you missed something or forgot to pick up ammo you either have to make do and continue, or start all over again. The ability to load chapters throughout the game would have been very welcome, especially considering you need different weapons for each stage but only a few limited opportunities to equip them.
Of course, being a first-person shooter, Singularity includes multiplayer modes as well including â€śCreatures vs Soldiersâ€ť where two teams of six go up against each other online. The opportunity to be one of the enemies in the game has its charms, but truthfully the multiplayer action here will struggle to compete with the more polished first-person shooters out there. Although it can be fun and frantic at times with multiplayer, Singularity certainly shines brightest as a singleplayer experience. Itâ€™s best to treat the half-a-dozen or so hours youâ€™ll get online as a bonus to the campaign story.
Overall, this game isnâ€™t going to win any awards for originality. Raven definitely know their first-person shooters and their influences are clearly recognised in this game. But what they have done is combined some of the best elements from other brilliant titles and tweaked them into a whole new franchise. The end result is an extremely solid action thriller that Activision probably should be more loud and proud about. The only plus to the quiet release could be a price-drop for buyers in the upcoming weeks, so keep your eye out on this one.