Although I figured there’d be one massive dry spell between Red Dead Redemption and September, when the fall lineup officially starts to kick in, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by several productions. The first was Joe Danger, which was sheer awesomeness in a ridiculously appealing little package, and the second was Transformers: War for Cybertron, which was both solid and satisfyingly entertaining. But wait…we must now add a third surprise to the list. It just released this past week and once again, I freely admit to going into this review with relatively low expectations. Perhaps it’s because Raven’s last effort, Wolfenstein, fell short of the mark, or maybe it’s because it can be exceedingly difficult to hit a home run with a brand new IP. But hey, you know what? Singularity is a damn good game and for those who enjoy titles like Bioshock and have the requisite patience, it’s really quite fulfilling.
At first, I was convinced the graphics would represent the lowlight of the game, and while they aren’t exactly groundbreaking, they’re definitely passable. And oddly enough, the visual presentation started to grow on me with every passing hour; it can’t be due to increased detailing and extra layers of gloss that miraculously appear in later stages. But my increasing contentment with the graphics might’ve come as a result of the new enemies and bosses, various environments, and sparkling special effects that go along with a few TMD (that’s Time Manipulation Device for the uninitiated) upgrades and abilities. Character design isn’t all that spectacular and if you look close, you’ll notice the lack of super sharp polish that make elite graphical palettes stand out. It’s just missing that extra professional something, you know? That being said, the graphics really do seem prettier and more attractive as time goes on…just wait until you see a head explode courtesy of the Seeker.
The sound is on much the same level, as the effects, soundtrack and voice acting isn’t spectacular, but very effective and in some cases, bordering on excellent. The only major downfall seems to center on the weapon effects; they all sound too tinny and even oddly distant, as if you’re hearing the gunfire from another person’s weapon. But besides this obvious drawback, everything else sounds great. You’ve got a fitting soundtrack that isn’t overly repetitive, an assembly of decent voice actors, and above all else, uber-creepy sound effects that make the adventure feel like Doom or Resident Evil. The distant wail of a child (from another time), the hiss or growl of something freakishly nasty that currently remains unseen, the explosive grisly-ness that goes along with a brutal death, etc. This is the primary appeal of the sound and indeed, one of the major highlights of a game that relies very much on creating a fearful atmosphere.
I can have fun with a straight-up shooter like Killzone 2 or Resistance 2, but I especially enjoy shooters that boast a bit more beneath the surface, like the Bioshock games. There’s a good story and perhaps more importantly, different mechanics you don’t normally find in any standard FPS. Singularity is a lot like Bioshock because on the one hand (your right), you’ve got your weapon, which can be anything from a sniper rifle to a shotgun to a super deadly tool, and on the other (your left), you get some “magic.” In 2K’s series, it really is a form of magic; in Raven’s game, it’s the ability to instantly fiddle with time. The aforementioned TMD is quite the impressive little device and wielding it doesn’t just mean you can turn back time and recreate crumbled stairs; it means you have yet another weapon that is absolutely unparalleled. Using the TMD and your basic weapons isn’t quite as fluidly linked as it was in Bioshock, but it’s close.
But before we get to all that, let’s mention the story, as it is an important aspect: Raven is always into messing with history (as those who are familiar with Wolfentein are well aware) and they’re at it again. In this reality that closely mirrors actual history, the Soviet Union doesn’t fall; instead, they find a unique element on a remote island called Katorga-12. This element is known as E99 and it imparts an insane amount of energy, which means it can be used as a serious upgrade for new-age weaponry and yes, it’s enough energy to spark time travel through the event horizon experienced at the “singularity.” If you’re not up on recent physics, you should read up on the subject; it’s what scientists believe exists at the center (or end) of a black hole and it’s pretty fascinating. Anyway, the discovery of E99 happened in the 1950s and because the world is in serious trouble, you’ll be traveling back and forth between the ’50s and 2010 to fix the catastrophic mistakes made by a diabolical Russian dictator.
It’s probably not a big shock to learn that exposure to E99 can create bad things in humans, which is why what you’re fighting are human-like…but still voracious and deadly. Now, as for the gameplay system itself, the control does feel a touch loose at times, and I will often curse my slow-moving body when up against speedy creatures and bosses. Strafing just doesn’t feel fast enough, I still hate having to use the L3 button to sprint, and I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of the button layout. But in regards to the latter, I’m not sure I could do any better because you sorta have to use most every button the controller. And besides, it all comes together nicely; the combination of the TMD skills and the regular FPS mechanics is both fresh and provocative, there aren’t any collision detection issues, the AI is aggressive and scary as hell, and the level design really forces you to stop and explore.
Thing is, the RPG-like elements are what makes the game shine. You have to take your time and look about for E99, which is used as currency and lets you purchase upgrades for both your TMD and your character. You also have to find special weapon kits to upgrade weapons, and with no regenerating health and enemies that can kill you very quickly, you always need a decent supply of health kits. On top of which, even with your ever-increasing powers, your foes are always extremely dangerous so running and gunning is a terrible idea. You really need a good amount of patience and strategy to succeed. The strategy aspect comes into play because you can choose how to eliminate your enemies: you can use the TMD, which uses up energy (but does regenerate over time), or you can simply go after ‘em with your guns, which of course expends ammo. But remember, you can only equip two weapons at any given time, so you have to examine your surroundings and make a decision.
The TMD is an interesting little item. With a quick press of the R2 button, you can release an Impulse, which can send a baddie flying, or if close enough, can instantly kill it. The L2 button determines the aging and “renewing;” if an ammo box has been crushed and eroded away over time, simply aim at it, press L2, and it’ll revert to normal. Then you can grab the goodies lying within. See a lock on a locker? Simply shoot it off or if you don’t want to waste the bullet, hit L2 and age the locker to the point where it just swings open. And if you go to age enemies, that’s even more fun. If they’re human, they’re just goin’ down but if they’re not, the thing still has to pass through a time warp and slows him down considerably. He’ll turn red and you’ll have all sorts of time to dispose of him however you please. Oh, but there’s more. You’ll soon get other TMD skills, too, like Deadlock, which creates an energy ball of stasis of sorts, which you can either stand inside of (enemies trying to get you will suddenly freeze) or cast it over invading foes.
The guns are pretty cool, too. Not only do you have the standard automatic rifle, shotgun, hand gun, and sniper rifle, but you also have a few unique weapons and a few unique features. When aiming with the sniper rifle, you can hit L3 and engage “Temporal Distillation,” which will slow down time and give you more time to aim. You just have to keep an eye on your energy meter; if it runs out, you’ll have to use an E99 Cell to restore it. This is automatically done when you run out but you have to manually heal yourself; just hit Up on the directional pad to administer a health pack. And then there’s the Seeker, which is a special rifle that lets you actually control the bullet; you can guide it across a room with the right analog and put it directly into the head or heart (or whatever) of an offending foe. The result is just…wow. You can even pick up certain objects – like flammable barrels – with your TMD, and catch thrown projectiles in mid-air and chuck ‘em back (Telekinesis, anyone?).
So in addition to the combat, there are also a few puzzles you’ll encounter that require the use of your time manipulation, and this only adds to the depth of the experience. The control does feel loose occasionally and you may get that annoying “overmatched” sensation, but the developers do a good job of keeping things accessible. If you just went through an area crowded with enemies, you’ll easily find some health packs, ammo, and E99 to bring you back to a state of stability and relative safety. You really do have to be careful, though, as death can occur very quickly. The whole thing takes a bit of practice but it’s the kind of practice that’s fun, and the end results are most satisfying. It’s also interesting to learn more about what happened on that island; about how E99 slowly but surely began to have its ill effects until ultimate disaster occurred. You’ll get plot info via notes left by former employees and civilians, and even a few projector reels.
Singularity is a game well worth playing. It’s an entertaining experience with nicely implemented gameplay elements, many of which will make you grin at the impossible power with which you are bestowed. The graphics aren’t the best you’ll ever see, movement can feel unfairly slow, and you do seem to take an obscene amount of damage from certain enemies, but none of these shortcomings can cripple the fun factor. Experimentation, strategy, and various role-playing elements allow Raven’s product to stand out; the game really is loaded with “woah, damn!” moments (Seeker, sniper rifle, up-close-and-personal impulse, tossing explosive barrels, etc.) and the atmosphere is truly scary and intimidating. That isn’t easy to pull off, you know. In the end, Singularity is effective if not fantastic, and if you want a FPS with a whole lot more substance and freshness, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
P.S. Could someone find out if Nolan North really is the voice of Devlin? Because it sounds a lot like him…
7/3/2010 Ben Dutka