Singularity is a singular experience, a time-traveling FPS that is also a hybrid puzzle/horror game. Raven Software cherry-picked the best aspects of everyone’s favorite genres: Half-Life’s deft cinematic presentation and clever puzzles, F.E.A.R.’s knack for jumpy thrills, and Bioshock’s atmospheric storytelling, and then wrapped them all up in a package that, frankly, could’ve used some more polish.
You are dropped into the boots of United States Marine Captain Nathan Renko, as he and his team are sent to investigate a nuclear disturbance on the Russian island/scientific community, Katorga-12. Things soon go awry, and Renko is thrust back 55 years into the past where he unwittingly alters history by saving the life of a man whose survival has disastrous consequences for the West during the Cold War. Renko, with the help of a renegade Russian scientist and a representative for a Soviet-resistance group, sets about correcting the timeline and saving the world. Mostly, the tool you use to interact with the world of Katorga-12 is the Time Manipulation Device, or TMD.
The TMD is powered by the radioactive substance unique to the island, Element 99 (E99). E99 is used to fuel massively powerful bombs, weapons, and, in the alternate timeline, allows the USSR to dominate the globe. The TMD can age objects, people, anything infused with TMD, taking them either backward or forward in time. As you move along through the plot, you gain different abilities with the TMD; it can generate time-and-bullet-stopping force fields, mutate people into rampaging creatures, and catch rockets in mid-flight. The TMD can pull some neat tricks, and is definitely the centerpiece of the game, but I wish there were some more creative uses. You can age staircases to create paths, move boxes and debris around, much like Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun, but only those objects “that are infused with E99,” i.e. the one’s the developers want you to manipulate. The TMD is a Wonder Weapon, and it’s fun to play with, but it never gave me the 6-year-old-with-a-new-toy feeling the Gravity Gun did, maybe because the number of objects you can manipulate with it are so limited. You can pick up and move, or shoot, almost anything, but they don’t do enough damage to be a viable choice as a weapon, and you can only age certain things…basically, for something called the Time Manipulation Device, it ends up feeling pretty powerless most of the time.
There’s some great in-game storytelling that goes on in Singularity. Like Bioshock’s “ghosts,” different timelines bleed together on Katorga-12, giving the player some insight into how people lived and died at this top secret facility. Also lifted from, or perhaps more fairly “inspired by”, Bioshock are audio-journals that scientists, soldiers, and civilians have left lying around; on the whole, the time-bleeds work better than the audio-journals, if only because of the jumpy-thrills that only a long-dead scientist pounding on a window, screaming for his life can provide. There’re are some great cinematic moments in Singularity: a giant bug destroying your train, a shiny container ship slowly reverting to a rusted hulk (with you inside), a ball ominously bouncing down a set of stairs as a ghostly child’s laugh tinkles down from above, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it critical plot point early in the game, all nestled inside a carefully designed and decorated Soviet facility. If only it was all a little prettier.
To be fair, this isn’t Modern Warfare, or Gears of War, or any other huge title with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars, and I want to point out that I am really looking forward to what Raven Software comes up with next, because the storytelling and the basic execution of the game was excellent. All of that being said, Singularity’s greatest weakness are graphics that are, at best, average. Some textures are noticeably grainy, like something out of an N64 game, and while this is rare it certainly happened enough to be distracting. The character model for Kathryn has eyes so big as to resemble Katy Perry on methamphetamine and articulation so poor as to be, well, noticeably bad. As a gamer, wondering whether or not someone’s head and neck could really move that way really takes me out of the experience and bursts my gaming bubble. That’s such a shame because so much of Singularity is about building that atmosphere and submerging you in that experience, and on those notes they do a great job, but all it takes is one poorly textured wall or one strange contortionist move, and all that world-building just comes tumbling down.
Textures on multiplayer, and the multiplayer itself, were extremely disappointing. Playing as a large green spider creature, it took nearly three minutes for the texture on my creature to load; that wasn’t typical, but it’s another example of a lack of visual polish that runs throughout the game. There are only two modes, one a variation on team deathmatch and another essentially a control point battle, that utilize humans vs. monsters teams, each with five different classes. I had some problems finding games and some texture issues, and generally had an underwhelming multiplayer experience.
That being said, Singularity isn’t about multiplayer. It’s about delivering a white-knuckle sci-fi experience peppered with some time-bending puzzles, and it delivers. Were there texture issues? Absolutely, but that didn’t stop me from being startled and thrilled and excited by this game in a way that I haven’t been since the original F.E.A.R. or Half-Life 2. Singularity is a rich experience in a poor game’s clothes, and if you’re the kind of gamer that only cares about graphics, you’re not going to be terribly impressed. If you’re the kind of gamer who’s looking for a game with an interesting plot with a theatrical flair, play Singularity.