Review: Singularity

Raven Software’s latest offering, Singularity, thankfully isn’t another attempt at modernizing or making Wolfenstein somehow relevant to today’s gamers. Last year’s reboot of the quintessential Nazi frag-fest certainly left gamers feeling more than a little cold — myself included. Though released with much less fanfare than Wolfenstein, Singularity is a much more solid shooter.

Whether simply a bizarre marketing decision or a keenly-engineered strategy to pose it as a diamond in the rough, we’ll never really know. The only thing clear to me here is that this solid action title will inevitably be overshadowed by something much less deserving. What seems on the surface to be a typical cut-and-paste first person shooter splices together physics-based puzzles torn straight out of Half-Life with good, old-fashioned fragging for a time-bending adventure that’s more than a little dated, but overflowing with charm. It doesn’t break new ground, but it tills the old so excellently that it’s hard to fault for sticking to tried and true conventions.

Set amongst a backdrop of the Cold War in the Russian search for uranium, Singularity expounds upon history just a tad. See, rather than finding uranium, the citizens of the motherland stumbled upon the mysterious element E-99. To run this peculiar element through its paces, scientists created an isolated island facility known as Katorga-12. Various attempts were made at harnessing its power, but unfortunately, as is usually the case with volatile elements, the Russians were cursed with some truly horrific results. A hefty helping of propaganda, short films, clippings, and audio logs are scattered throughout the facility to further explain the chain of events, and though none are particularly engaging, they attempt to further immerse you in this strange world in which you find yourself. That said, this narrative is stretched as thin as possible, but that’s alright. You’ll stay for the shooting.

Singularity is an obvious hodgepodge of conventions and aesthetics from other games. Its pleasing, minimalistic HUD and environmental text and decor recall BioShock in a voice much louder than a whisper. Simple run-and-gun gameplay coupled with echoes of a much darker force at work channel Valve’s fantastic catalogue, and all to great effect. Stark theatrical elements and attempts at making the player “feel” are replaced with solid core gameplay. It’s all about blowing the limbs off, solving the next puzzle, and scouring the next area for ammo before pressing on. There are escort missions, sniping escapades, and traditional boss fights that showcase an area of weakness in your foe so you can hack away without worrying about some unorthodox method you’re supposed to be using. It’s very comfortable, but still manages to shock.

With that said, the only feature Singularity has to distinguish it from other productions out there is time-travel. With the TMD (time manipulation device), you’ll be slipping in and out of portals to different areas in time, aging or reverting items and people, and using time in general as your weapon. Stasis spheres slow down the mutants who would tear out your throats, or fans that turn too quickly for you to get by. You can age soldiers into dust or revert them into mindless, bloodthirsty beasts who attack anything in their paths. Your TMD quickly becomes your go-to weapon. It’s just a blast to watch a human soldier age rapidly into a pile of dust, stopping them completely in their tracks. It never got old.

And neither did the store of weapons other than the TMD. The Seeker, for one, allows players to steer the bullet right into the head, limbs, torso…or anywhere on an enemy’s body making for a satisfying, meaty gibbing. The same can be done with the impossibly accurate sniper rifle (sure, it helps to slow down time when you’re aiming) and other weapons in store. My only real disappointment in the futuristic armory was that the Volk shotgun seemed underwhelming at best, not what I was expecting in a game that encourages unrealistic exploding heads and blood gushing from wounds. I expected Resident Evil-styled shotgun carnage. I was wrong.

Fortunately, you’re never limited to relying solely on these armaments at their base strength. Weapon upgrades are littered throughout Katorga-12, allowing for strength, clip, and reload augments to keep you fighting fit. Similarly, upgrades for your person can be bought with E-99 tech found throughout the environment. You can up your vitality, capacity for carrying health packs, or apply other similarly useful upgrades that will lessen the pain of simply trying to survive. You’ll be able to see and feel a difference after several subsequent upgrades, so it’s in your best interest to collect enough E99-Tech and Weapon Tech to power up sufficiently.

After upgrading your weapons several times over, it’s very frustrating not to have any actual ammunition for them. Ammo can be all too rare when you need it. Too often you’ll find plenty of bullets for the criminally useless Hyperion pistol, but little to no ammo for the powerhouses in your arsenal. Too many times I had to restart an area after dying repeatedly because my good weapons were all empty. This just in: the Hyperion is no match for enemies shifting in and out of phase space that can kill you in a four hits.

Health packs were another aspect I took issue with. While I enjoy the old school sentiment of picking up stimpacks and first aid kits, the fact that you’ll instantly die when your health gauge is depleted is more than a little frustrating. Since Singularity can be downright punishing even on the lowest difficulty, I would have appreciated the game auto-activating a health pack or two since there were two or three left in the inventory. It wouldn’t be realistic, but what part of this game is?

It’s rare that gritty, classic shooters allow any time for laughs to be had at their expense. From the awful Russian accents to the kitschy, overly familiar time travel-based narrative, this adventure is all about familiarity and entertaining players without forcing them to think too much. Of course, the game’s opening would have you think otherwise, as the grandiose introductory sequence bringing Katorga-12 to the forefront smacks of gamers’ first departure into Rapture. It’s all intelligence, knowledge, and progression…until you’re face to face with your first enemy and giggle at how ridiculous the notion of mutants tossing explosive barrels they plucked out of thin air at you really is.

Singularity doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a competent mixture of games that have come before it, but it’s solid. Familiar. You’ll feel right at home as you blaze through the six to eight hour campaign. There’s no set of shocking twists (you’ll figure the biggest one out halfway through), the voice acting isn’t top-notch, and the graphics are certainly dated. But it’s fun to blow a few legs off and watch the resulting stream of blood gush from the open wound. And isn’t that what a good shooter is all about?

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