(Xbox 360 Review) Singularity

Developer: Raven Software
Publisher: Activision
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1-12
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: George Damidas

Overall: 8 = Excellent

Singularity is full of surprises. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, with little fanfare save for a Prototype promotion, it managed to overcome its quite release and a confusing and sluggish beginning to be one of the more satisfying first-person shooters that I have played in some time. A far better title than 2009’s Wolfenstein, Singularity takes the best bits from some of the genre’s most renowned titles and weaves them into a traditional design that manages to reestablish Raven as the industry’s leading workmanlike development house.

Going with the tried and true isn’t always a safe bet. I’d actually point to Wolfenstein as an example of when going with tradition doesn’t always pay off: the basics may provide a solid foundation, but what’s added still needs to be compelling. So saying that Raven follows tradition isn’t to say that they’re taking the easy route; on the contrary, their games bring numerous well-known and critically acclaimed titles to mind while playing, which makes for quite a bit of pressure. Fortunately, Singularity manages to hit most, though not quite all, of the right notes.

As Captain Nate Renko, a black ops operative for the US Army, you stumble upon the mysterious island of Katorga-12. Used by the Soviet Union in the early 1950s to mine the powerful element Element-99 (E99), Katorga-12 has since been forgotten after an accident obliterated most of the island and its inhabitants. In 2010, you find yourself investigating a downed satellite in the area when you land face first into a whole lot of trouble. Within moments you’re catapulted back in time after a wave of energy washes over you, emanating from the singularity, during the inferno that caused the evacuation of the island in 1955. By doing what you do – being a freaking hero – you inadvertently cause a ripple in the timeline which sees the Soviet Union becoming the sole global power after E99 is used to crush all opposition – including the U.S. Now it’s up to you, and a mysterious organization known as MIR-12, to set things right.

Sounds pretty exciting, right? Well, it is – just not at first. One of the biggest hurdles facing newcomers is that the beginning is boring. Actually, once you beat the game, the beginning is quite interesting and worth playing through again, but that’s only because you know just how to kill enemies and what to look for to uncover more of the story. Be that as it may, it’s an absolute slog the first time. Without any way to manipulate time or weapon or ability upgrades, you’re left running around like a man with an Airsoft rifle, as you pump round after round into enemies that just won’t die. Humans and mutants alike seem impervious to the first five shots, and that makes the initial encounters both freighting (mutants!) and trying (he isn’t even wearing any armor!). It can also take time to adjust to the more traditional design, with doors magically shutting behind you and encounters more about powering through than ducking and blind firing.

The game really picks up after the first hour or so, and it doesn’t let off until the very end. Much of what is so enjoyable about Singularity is how Raven simply lets it flow. Once you gain the time manipulation device (TMD) and access to TMD upgrades; weapon chests, where you can arm yourself with any two weapons you’ve picked up, purchase ammo, and apply weapon tech upgrades; and machines to upgrade your abilities, the momentum continues to build until the end. Everything is purchased with E99, which is liberally strewn about the world, and tucked away to encourage exploration, so that you’re always able to buy additional weapons and abilities. And save for one TMD rifle, every weapon can be taken from a weapon closet: chain gun, rail gun, etc. Better yet, all of the weapons have an excellent feel about them with solid firing mechanics. Character upgrades are in the form of hero perks of two types, those that have to be applied and those automatically applied. You can gain additional health, ability to hold your breath longer under water, greater resilience to melee attacks, and stronger TMD attacks. Speaking of which, the TMD attacks are recklessly fun: barrels can be levitated and hurled at enemies, an impulse can push enemies away and pull a temporally shifting mutant into your time, and a beam can age an enemy into oblivion. After a few weapon and hero upgrades under your belt, the game really begins to sing.

The TMD is also used to solve rudimentary puzzles. The puzzles are a touchy subject because they are simple and largely similar, so there’s a good chance that you will find them repetitive. I didn’t, for the most part, and that’s because they mostly revolve around using the TMD to renew objects to traverse obstacles and kill enemies. Slowing down time to bypass massive fan blades, or reforming a staircase or a crate to reach a higher level, might not be terribly imaginative, but they provide for an easy means to convey the power of the TMD and break up the string of encounters. Plus, the renewing animations make for great eye candy – it’s a great tradeoff.

The TMD also allows access to the many hidden areas. That’s one aspect of Singularity that I really appreciated: the freedom. The game is linear, though it can somehow still be vague enough to stump you for a bit, but dotted throughout the levels are little nooks that have extra supplies and, more importantly, background information on what happened on the island. Audio recorders, messages on walls, notes, and chalkboards are all over the place, and each reveals a little more about the island’s history. The recorders and wall messages require the TMD’s renewing abilities to become accessible, and doing so will reveal creepy stories and foreboding warnings.  While the corpses add a basic element of ‘Oh, this is unpleasant,’ to the setting, learning why the corpses are in a certain position or how the looped images of an assault are why they are great touches. Of course, you could always just run and gun your way through, earning enough E99 for several upgrades, and enjoying the game that way – its design allows for both styles of play. Regardless of the approach you take, you’ll find some really well-done levels (e.g. being on a slowly decaying barge) and have to be on your toes as you ricochet through time.

Multiplayer, like the single player, is straightforward and enjoyable. Unfortunately, not too many people seem to be playing, and there have been issues with lag and connection stability. Still, the TMD-enhanced Soviet troops versus mutants setup is nicely done, if a little unbalanced (though few seem to mind). Each faction has a choice of unit type and two aids: humans get a weapon and a perk while mutants can cheese two perks.

The troops are limited to one TMD ability, in addition to being able to pick up barrels, which include healing (Healer), impulse (Bruiser), shield (Lurker), and teleportation (Blitzer). The available weapons include the assault rifle, chaingun, shotgun, sniper rifle, and rail gun. Perks vary from delivering stronger melee or ranged attacks to a faster sprint to enhancing the unit’s TMD ability. Mutants are also broken up by class: Zek are the phase-shifting mutants frequently encountered throughout the game that can phase in explosive barrels to throw, reminiscent of the creature from Altered State; Reverts are strong mutants with a long reach that have the powerful vomit attack that caused such a problem during the story; the irritating explosive Phase Ticks, which can crawl on walls and take over enemies; and Radion, massive creatures that tongue whip and fire explosive projectiles. Since mutants are their own weapon, they get two perks, which can be anything from seeing humans behind walls to extended range to a faster sprint. The interplay between the classes is great, with Tick players taking over humans to turn on their confused enemies and Blitzers insta killing Radions by teleporting into them. With only two modes, Creatures Vs. Soldiers (team deathmatch) and Extermination Mode (players alternate sides in timed rounds to defend or take beacons), and a ranking system that doesn’t actually involve perks, it’s best to look at multiplayer as a few extra hours of fun rather than a means of significantly extending the game’s shelf life. It’s goofy fun while it lasts, though.

I wouldn’t be doing Singularity justice if I didn’t mention the endings. Throughout the game, Raven really has fun with time travel, and the endings serve as the perfect cap to their reveling in all things temporal. In addition to a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ ending, there’s a surprising third ending that caps things off nicely. The slow beginning and random bits of repetitive or dull encounters were largely negated as the game went out in style. It’s also worth noting that there is a checkpoint right before the end, allowing you to go back through and view all endings without having to replay a lengthy portion – a very nice touch. By the time the game wraps, when you have all of your upgrades and E99 is no longer necessary, you are a time-manipulating Terminator. And it’s awesome.

Overall: 8/10
What Singularity lacks in originality it makes up for with nicely paced, action-oriented design that encourages exploration and playing with a lot of fun toys. A simple yet addictive multiplayer has a lot to offer but is, unfortunately, fairly limited. When put together, you have a first-person shooter that’s solid but not quite exceptional.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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