Given Activision’s apparent tendency to heavily promote everything under the sun that it publishes, it’s a wonder that Singularity seems to be flying under the radar of so many people – including yours truly. I remember seeing clips of the game a while back, thought it looked mildly interesting, and then heard nothing more … until it was practically on my desk.
It’s even more surprising that it’s actually pretty good.
Singularity puts the player in the head of special forces operative Renko, sent as a member of a squad to investigate a mysterious Cold War-era Soviet installation that has been emitting heavy pulses of radiation. It turns out that the radiation is the result of Soviet research on the powerful and unstable element E99, which caused a disaster that led to the abandonment and burial of the plant – only, an incident involving you accidentally triggers an alternate future where the Soviets won the Cold War thanks to the power of the aforementioned E99. Naturally we can’t have that, so your job is to slip back and forth between 1955 and 2010 to set things right.
The upside to a world in which the Soviets defeated the Western powers with super-fancy technology is that they made some really neat guns that you get to take from them – and use against them. While the arsenal seems pretty old-hat and run-of-the-mill at first (pistol, shotgun, assault rifle), it starts to get more interesting when you get the sniper rifle that slows down time. It gets a lot more interesting when you get the Seeker, a gun that shoots a controllable, explosive bullet.
The Soviets didn’t just make guns, though – they made the Time Manipulation Device, which you retrieve fairly early in the game. This little glove is the core of Singularity, and it is by this device that the game is made or broken. Initially, it can only shift things forward or backward in time and send out a damaging pulse of energy, but it gets upgraded over time to something akin to Half-Life 2‘s iconic gravity gun, only a bit less versatile.
While you can use the TMD as a weapon, it’s more of a puzzle-solving tool. Restore this broken staircase to its original, whole state. Age the safe (and the soldiers guarding it) into dust to retrieve the hidden items inside. Age a crate so that it crumples, wedge it under a mostly-closed gate, and then restore it to force the gate open letting you crawl under – that sort of thing. As you progress in the game, the TMD will be upgraded with some fun features like the ability to stop time in a bubble, which is used both in combat and in puzzles, and switching back-and-forth between your magic-science glove and your guns has a good feel to it after some initial awkwardness.
As you progress through the ruined Katorga-12, you collect pieces of E99 technology, which – upon meeting the right man – can be used to upgrade your character (and the glove) with blueprints you find scattered through the installation. It’s a solid idea and it works well, but it feels like developer Raven Software just lifted it from BioShock without giving you any of the more imaginative powers to be found in that game.
The E99 upgrades aren’t the only thing in Singularity that make it feel like the developers were more than a little fond of BioShock. The story itself feels similar in quite a few ways, what with the whole “groundbreaking new technology causes a disaster and mutates the local inhabitants while granting them superpowers” theme and all, and it’s told in a similar way, too. You’ll find tape recordings and personal notes scattered through the island that help piece together the mystery of Katorga-12 and the Singularity, and there were more than a few moments where I found myself scratching my head and thinking, “Wow, this is BioShock with a less imaginative setting and worse writing.”
Of course, that feels like I’m being unfair to the game. Saying that the TMD is less versatile than the Half-Life 2 gravity gun and saying that the setting and writing aren’t as good as they were in BioShock is like criticizing a novel for not being as long as Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” There’s no shame in not being as great as something truly stellar, and judged on its own merits Singularity holds up well.
The story isn’t a work of great literature, but it’s paced well and told in a way that makes you want to keep playing to find out what happens next. The TMD’s function to pulse the area and see mysterious time-lost footprints leading the way is one of the best “breadcrumb” features I’ve seen in a game in a while, and the TMD itself is just a ton of fun to use. The weapons feel great and work well, the island of Katorga-12 is a well-realized and atmospheric setting with a heap of optional information lying around to help flesh out the image of life in a secret Soviet installation … there’s a lot to like here.
Occasionally the game stumbles, and occasionally you realize that it just isn’t very original – and that it’s also very short, with a playthough of the campaign taking between 6-8 hours depending on how meticulous you are (and how easily you get scared in the early sections). It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn good effort from Raven that borrows some great ideas from some of the most beloved shooters of our time. If they quite aren’t as good in Singularity as they are elsewhere, that doesn’t suddenly make them bad ideas.
If Singularity has slipped under your radar – as it has that of so many others – you might want to look again. This could be a gem lying hidden in plain sight.
Bottom Line: What Singularity does, it does well. It has some nifty weapons, an intriguing story that keeps you wanting to find out what happens next, and some great puzzles and firefights. The TMD is one of the most fantastic “gimmick gadgets” in a game this side of Half-Life 2‘s gravity gun. It’s not particularly original, occasionally gets repetitive, and the main storyline is fairly short, but it’s a solid and entertaining effort that you’ll probably enjoy more than you think you will.
Recommendation: Give it a look – a rental if nothing else. If you like shooters, consider picking this up, since it’s almost certainly one of the better ones this summer.[rating=4]
Developer: Raven Software
Release Date: June 29th, 2010
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Available from: Amazon
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
John Funk would have so much fun with the Roly-Poly Grenade gun in real life. Please don’t ask how.