Singularity: How the Time-Space Continuum got her Groove Back!
It would be easy to dismiss Singularity, Raven Soft’s first new IP since 2000’s Soldier of Fortune, as a derivative and forgettable entry into the crowded FPS space, but that would be a real disservice to the actual enjoyment the game provides. Clearly influenced by Bioshock and Half-Life 2, Singularity is also in many ways a throwback to the way shooters were a decade ago. At times its ambition outstrips its reach, but the fundamentals are so solid and the mechanics so clever that the odd absurdity in the narrative is instantly forgiven.
Singularity begins with your character, Nate Renko, on a US military helicopter skirting the coast of the Russian-held Kartoga-12. Your unit has been tasked with investigating strange radiation readings emanating from the island, but the mission goes wrong when a blast of energy causes the aircraft to crash. You come to on a dock and must find any other survivors and get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Kartoga-12. Immediately it becomes clear things have gone very, very wrong. Much of the back story is told through notes, audio recordings and film strips that litter the environment. One of the first buildings you enter is the orientation center for new residents, providing a convenient, naturalistic way to explain the geography and history of Kartoga-12. Within minutes you learn Russia discovered a rare, powerful new element on the island, E99, and established a research facility to investigate and exploit its unique properties.
Singularity is clearly preoccupied with the idea of telling the back-story and relating various vignettes about the calamity that occurred in 1955 using Bioshock-style audio tapes. Unfortunately, since you find so many of them and they’re on these giant reel-to-reel recorders the device begins to strain credulity. In one instance early on you are literally following a trail of recordings left by a single character who, apparently, was dropping reel-to-reel recorders behind him like breadcrumbs for no discernable reason. Many of the recordings and notes suffer from that lack of narrative justification. It’s often unclear why this character is making this record, who they are talking to and what purpose they thought it served. It doesn’t help that, unlike Bioshock, you have to stand next to the recorder as it plays all the way through if you want to hear it. Both the audio tapes and film strips often come off as overly long, becoming almost intrusive. The game would have benefited from simply having fewer such touches, relying simply on the very effective, ghostly flashes from the past you also experience.
Suffice it to say, things went terribly wrong for the residents and researchers. Over the course of the single player game, which lasts 8-9 hours, you will face humans mutated by the effects of E99, travel back and forth in time between 2010 and 1955, battle Russian military forces intent on weaponizing E99 and fight giant monsters born of Kartoga-12’s unique, E99-fueled ecosystem. Raven has done a very good job of mixing up the enemy types for the entire length of the game. Combat feels great. The basic gunplay is extremely satisfying, and the additional plasmid or gravity gun-style powers you have access to with the TMD, or “Time Manipulation Device”, add a lot of variety and strategic possibilities to enemy encounters.
The weapons themselves are from the tried and true rack of FPS guns. You start with a revolver and move your way up to an assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, mini-gun and grenade launcher. You can only carry two at a time, so while some of the later guns might seem more powerful, they are also highly situational and it behooves you to keep a strong utility weapon with you at all times. Some weapons have special time manipulation effects as well. The sniper rifle can slow down time, for example. Weapons and TMD powers can be upgraded by spending the E99 canisters and Weapon Tech you find while traversing the environment. It doesn’t provide the same breadth of options as Bioshock’s weapon and plasmid economy, but it gives you a good reason to scrounge around for all those hidden caches of E99.
Aside from its combat applications, the TMD is also put to good use for puzzle-solving in the environment. It is capable of both aging and rejuvenating objects in and you can use this to repair rusted and collapsed stairs or crumple a box so it’ll squeeze through a tight spot allowing you to move it under a window or duct you couldn’t reach otherwise. Another ability, the time-lock, allows you to freeze spinning fan blades long enough to walk through safely. In fact, when you first get the TMD you might suspect Singularity is about to go “metroidvania” in its structure, but it remains a linear experience. What exploration there is to be found is mostly useful for discovering more notes, E99 or ammunition. Since you will get to points where going through a door will prevent you from backtracking, the Chrono-Ping power is very useful for figuring out which path to explore first. By pressing a single button a trail of footprints will show you the correct way forward. This might seem like a simple hand-holding device for someone who is at a loss for where to go next, but it’s even handier for completionists who don’t want to stumble into the next level before they’ve finished looking around for goodies.
As a time travel story, Singularity’s narrative is quite cavalier with the paradoxes you create as you play. From a tonal perspective, Raven doesn’t always hit the mark perfectly as it balances the craziness of its time travelling antics and E99 mutants with the harrowing drama being told through notes and audio recordings. The retro-goofy animations feel a little out of place, especially, but the grandiose villainy of the game’s primary antagonists, Demichev, fits quite well. You will have a few allies along the way as well. Briefly you fight along side fellow US soldier, Devlin, and “Mir-12” operative Kathryn, who does her best dead-faced imitation of Alyx from Half-Life 2. Russian scientist Dr. Baristov ushers you through most of the game, directing you to objectives remotely, and even sending you back in time to accomplish certain goals. While it doesn’t all nest together perfectly, there was a good amount of care taken with the story and it’s just clever enough to avoid the feeling they’ve taken too many liberties.
Perhaps the worst thing I can say about Singularity is that it is one of those games that just hit at the perfect time. It presents a moody, well directed, action packed experience that feels as slick as a Call of Duty, offers a beautifully well realized retro Russian environment and gives you just enough choice to feel empowered without getting lost. After years of working with various licenses, including a number of action-RPGs, it’s really great to see Raven back developing their own ideas and delivering such an expertly paced, if not perfectly crafted, shooter. Singularity hearkens back to the golden age of PC shooters where miniguns were important and the feel of your shotgun could make or break a game. I can only hope enough people respond to the game as I did that Raven won’t simply become another Call of Duty assembly line for Activision.