Developer: Raven Software
Sometimes, through no real fault of their own, good games fall by the wayside. Untouched. Unnoticed. Unloved. The reasons for this are nearly always incredibly straightforward: the publisher has ploughed all of its money into the latest instalment of its flagship series. The target audience is an unknown entity. It's a new IP and it's just been thrown in at the deep end to see if it can swim. I fear that Singularity might well be one of those games. It's arrived with all of the majesty and fanfare of a butterfly's fart in a wind tunnel which is a crying shame because it's really rather good.
Much of this has to do with the fact that the game shamelessly rips-off all of the best shooters of the twenty-first century and makes no apologies about doing so. Apart from Half-Life 2, which I'll come to in a bit, Bioshock is probably the most obvious source of rich material here, and Raven have mined 2K's modern classic well. The opening scenes are strikingly similar, you tumbling out of an EMP-stricken helicopter and finding yourself surrounded by the burning wreckage of the pier you half demolished going some way to evoke memories of Bioshock's plane crash. There are audio logs littering the corridors, the entire island reeks of a decayed 50s era and you see all of the action unfold through the eyes of a silent protagonist.
There's been an odd extraordinarily high radioactive energy reading that the US have detected off of the coast of Russia and so, tempting an international incident, they decide to send you - Captain Nathaniel Renko - in with a squad to check it out. However, an EMP blast knocks your chopper out of the sky and you find yourself washed up on Katorga-12, with most of your team MIA. It turns out that the Soviets discovered an amazing new element - E99 - and were running a whole bunch of tests on a variety of subjects. Basically mad Russian scientists started playing with hideously radioactive fire and it all went horribly wrong. Like it always does.
As Renko you gradually begin to unravel the reasons behind the horribly mutilated corpses that are strewn everywhere as well as why the hell there are flesh-eating mutant zombies roaming the halls and screeching like banshees, why you keep seeing visions of the past and reliving flashbacks from the 1950s, and why reality keeps shifting whenever you do. Everything gets much more deliciously complex when you get your hands on the item that the Russians were really working on: the TMD, or Time Manipulation Device. Armed with the TMD, Renko starts popping back and forth between the present day and 1955 (aka. The Year That The Shit Hit The Fan) to try and stop the Soviets from altering history.
Sound silly? Of course it does. Is that a problem? Of course it isn't. In fact, the entire plotline is so wonderfully inventive and corkscrewed that it might just be the best use of time travel since Braid. That's not saying a huge deal, admittedly not many games have even attempted to meddle with time too much and those that do tend to slide into bargain bin obscurity as a result of half-arsed development, but this is an absolute treat.
It affects the gameplay too. The first hour or so of the game is a perfectly solid, if pretty unremarkable, FPS experience, with the TMD, however, that all changes. Suddenly you can age your adversaries in seconds, causing them to wither away into skeletal dust. You can use the device to pick up items - much like HL2's gravity gun - and fling them at enemies. Stuck at one end of a courtyard filled with a dozen Soviet troops with itchy trigger finger? Just grab an explosive canister with the TMD and chuck it into the middle before picking off stragglers and transforming them into piles of organic sherbet.
There are puzzles to solve too, mostly involving the TMD. Initially they start off pretty basically - move this item here, restore it to make it work, continue - and...well...they stay pretty simple throughout the game. After you've moved yet another box into position just so you can hop up to your fiftieth high ledge you'll start wondering if they couldn't have been a little more ambitious with the puzzles. It's a shame really, it's almost as if the developers used up all of their imagination on the story and didn't really leave any for making the most out of the TMD.
Sadly this is also the case with the multiplayer which feels almost offputtingly tacked-on. The only real standout feature of it is that it pits TMD-assisted soldiers against a team of mutants, but whilst it can be pretty fun to play as the mutants, the lack of multiplayer content (there are only 3 maps) means that it's pretty short-lived. It's frantic, to be sure, but the same can be said of a spaghetti junction during rush hour.
It's a shame that developers feel the need to add on a multiplayer, particularly in this case, because it actually takes a little away from what is really quite a surprisingly good single-player campaign. Although it takes a little while to get going, Singularity is actually a lot of fun to play. Sure, the elements that make it up are pretty average, but Raven succeeds in mixing up the formula do a degree that means you're never doing the same thing for too long. The puzzles, whilst simple, are never tedious, the firefights are well balanced and perfectly paced, the popcorn-spilling jumps and shocks are nicely implemented. The weapons are absolutely cracking too, including a sniper rifle that can slow down time and a rifle that has bullets you can pilot with the right stick much like Perfect Dark's Slayer or Unreal Tournament's Redeemer. They're all upgradeable too, allowing for more power, accuracy and reload speed, as is the TMD and you can upgrade yourself with things like better health, lower damage and a more powerful melee by finding blueprints scattered around Katorga-12's. These little upgrades add a little incentive to doing a bit of exploring and having a bit of a nose around.
When all's said and done, Singularity succeeds because you never ever find yourself bogged down. That's not to say the game is a breeze, there are some particularly tense setpieces one of which saw me pass the checkpoint with a weapon locker and forced me to take on an army of teleporting fiends with a pistol and an underpowered TMD (I died....LOTS!), but rather that the game keeps the action ticking along nicely and isn't afraid to mix it up. There are some wonderful ideas in here and it doesn't matter that we've seen variations of them before - this is far more of an homage than plagiarism - because when they come bundled in such a fun package as this it's hard not to appreciate what Raven have done.
Brilliantly barmy story
Fantastic pacing and variety of action
Some wonderful weaponry
Time manipulation perhaps not pushed as far as it could have been in puzzles or narrative
The Short Version: Rather fittingly for a game that deals in time travel, what we have here is a title that subscribes to the school of fun and frivolity over realism and sense. Yes the story is hilariously convoluted and utterly crazy, but Raven know exactly what their FPS is all about really and they deliver with some gloriously gory combat, inventive weapons and a game that isn't afraid to revel in going over the top. It's a heart over head sort of a game and it really deserves to be played.