Review: Singularity – Raven Software – XBox 360 (2010)

Last week when I played through Fracture, it was with an eye to playing through a game quickly, and specifically a FPS that would be short enough for me to plough through in a day. As it happened, it was a 3PS instead, and, well, not very good. Right down to one of those disproportionately difficult end-boss fights that really reduce the fun factor of whatever game they’re tacked onto.

Singularity was a second attempt at same. Though this one got more positive reviews, and the devs in this case are Raven Software – developers of quite a number of games I’ve enjoyed through the years on a number of platforms: Soldier of Fortune II, Star Trek Voyager Elite Force, Jedi Knight II and Jedi Academy, X-Men Legends 1 and 2, Marvel: UA, Wolverine, 2009’s take on Wolfenstein… and these days they’re part of Activision’s Call of Duty sweatshop. Still, it’s a solid pedigree of games I’ve personally enjoyed, and a dev house that I respect. getting through it was supposed to (hopefully) take 1-2 days but took a week to play through, a bit each day.

The intro-premise of this game actually seems pretty reasonable and well thought out for a videogame, and would probably work for a work of literary work of fiction. There’s some cold war, Soviet research gone wrong, a bit of time manipulation and of course divergent timelines that go with that sort of thing. I won’t go into detail here, but I found the plot here actually quite decent for a videogame.

One of the horror-themed mobs in the game

Details is where Raven do well throughout the game – though I’m a little dubious on the USAF markings on a crashed US Black Ops chopper, and you’d think that the Soviet Union seems to not have collapsed – but the banners located throughout the island you play through are just leftover from the 1950’s when it was abandoned. I guess they must be made of some fucking durable cloth as the game is set “now” and they’re in locations as diverse and weather-friendly as  docks at the edge of the sea, burnt out buildings, abandoned refineries… They’re not even sun bleached! Speaking of that, there are even mummified corpses on the sea’s edge? I just can’t see that happening.

The early game is concerned with setting the atmosphere, setting the scene. It does a really good job for the most part – The game does well in leveraging the atmosphere for a nice little horror vibe. Because linear FPS videogame reasons, your highly trained spec-ops black-ops character isn’t very good at climbing walls or debris that even I can traverse without a hassle. It also uses the trope/memory-saving method of arbitrarily locking doors off behind you and one-way jumps in order to load the next bit of game and drop the last section out of memory. At one point when you’re inside an abandoned schoolhouse, discarded milk cartons are scattered around the cafeteria. I thought молоко was the Russian for “Milk”, but nope, these cartons have MILK all written on them. Still, the game gives off a pretty cool hybrid of a Fallout/FEAR vibe in these early film reels.

Judging by the number of projectors stuck in a loop, the still-working microphones with pre-recorded messages and the reel-to-reel tape recordings – all of which work, those Soviets really had some durable technology to go with their mysterious source of unlimited power. The movies from the projectors early on are also amusing, with Cyrillic-style Roman characters so we can read them, and many references to “Mother Russia” despite the Soviet iconography all over the place. Whole we know that the Soviet Union was very Russo-centric, it still seems odd to hear the Union referred to as “Mother Russia” in an “official” propaganda film. But yeah. It’s more than a little odd that the lights and power are still on in a partially burnt-out, abandoned for 60+ years building. Those are some damned reliable incandescent light bulbs!

There are lots of E99 devices like this throughout

Niggling silliness aside, Ravensoft have done a nice job with the Soviet propagandist atmosphere, though – and interactive elements like notes stand out well enough against the background without seeming out of place. The many posters scattered around make me wish I could read Russian. I’m assuming that the accented Russian dialogue from the recordings is simply representative of our protagonist being fluent in Russian – but not too hot at reading it, apparently! – at least until later on(?) On the other hand, quite a bit of signage as you move through the game is written in Russian with a useful English subtitle underneath. Just like signs in American and British Military/Research bases helpfully have subtitles in Russian on their signs – gotta stay helpful to any enemy infiltrators, after all! I was impressed to see an older-style “hole in the ground” European toilet at one point. The game does details very well

In the hall early on dominated by the cool-looking bust of Uncle Joe, there’s also a nice diorama of the island, featuring button-press explanations of the various facilities on the island. I wondered if these would correspond to the game’s levels? No prizes there!

I have to give credit, though – the first part of the game you’re unarmed, and it’s all about exploration and still managed to do a good enough job that I enjoyed myself. Even at the point where I’d only shot 4 mobs, the game was fun. The game really has much more of a horror-shooter feel to it than I was expecting. It’s much closer in tone to FEAR than to Call of Duty. Even the first kind of mobs that you might have a weird, loping gait that makes lining up headshots quite tricky (with a controller, anyway) which just raises the tension when one is coming at you while armed with the starter pistol.

A videogame Russian. You know what this means. Why do we never shoot faceless American soldiers outside of Spec Ops: The Line?

The game took a foreboding turn towards dudebro, though. Firstly, when you get the Sci-Fi-Soviet Assault rifle, the mutant mobs instantly become much less scary, and then you run into your old bud, Devlan (last name Mud?) Shortly afterwards, you have a semi-auto shotgun, and the game become much more of a generic dudebro shooter. Devlan even tells you to “stay frosty”. Just like guys in the real military always do! The game’s flirtation with Call of Honor thankfully ended pretty quickly, though – and the game was allowed to find its own identity.

Gameplay wise, I’m not terribly fond of upgrades being tied to pickups that will often be hidden around levels. It means that in order to level up “properly” and not be horribly disadvantaged in the later game, a player is often tied to using walkthroughs and such to make sure they get them all. This is the main reason that my playthroughs of both Shadow Warrior Redux and Advanced Warfare both fizzled out. I just want to be able to play the fucking game without needing to be on the constant lookout for meeples. After the first “freebie” meeple, the game hides several hundred more units (points?) worth in the next 20 meters of the location, in luggage and dumpsters and so forth. It also means that in a modern “update” of that horrid adventure game trope/feature of moving the mouse over every damned pixel onscreen in the hope of picking the right one, the player here needs to run up to every bag or bit of abandoned luggage, box, dumpster and container in the game in the hope of more upgrade points. /sigh. I did a pretty good job of it overall, but realised that I’d forgotten to keep looking in anything that looked like a dumpster after awhile, and I know I definitely missed out on a whole lot of drops/upgrades as a result.

The game goes for a horror-shooter vibe, with some success.

Did I mention that following newer shooters example, you can only hold two weapons (including pistol) but like old-school shooters you don’t have auto-regenerating health, and instead need to use health packs? That’s right! The worst of both worlds! After awhile, you pretty much know your weapons – Assault Rifle, Shotgun, Sniper Rifle. There’s a cool homing-sniper rifle that turns up every so often and is one of the most fun (though overpowered) weapons in the game, though it doesn’t become part of your normal arsenal. You can upgrade weapons, though the opportunities to do so are rarer than I’d like. Later on you end up with a railgun and an autocannon. Hope you didn’t waste upgrade points on the pistol or assault rifle! Oh, you did? Well, you’re never going to use most of those again. I have to say that the weapons are fine, but the execution of allowing the player to actually access, upgrade and use them is a real miss.

Likewise, you get given a Techno-magical glove – the TMD (Time Manipulation Device) after the first chapter, which gets upgraded at various points – which I just referred to as my Nintendo Power Glove. The game’s various gimmicks/USPs all revolve around the Power Glove’s ability to manipulate objects in time – such as aging or un-aging stairs, barrels, containers, and even your enemies! The game came out a year before Red Faction: Armageddon, as well – though the repair-destroy gimmick had already been well established for years in Red Faction. The Power Glove also allows you to equip other augments that you can buy from the occasional vending machines – quite a few augments in fact. Sadly though, in my careful playthrough I’m now just shy of halfway through the game and still only have the one slot – so there’s little point in having any but the one that gives you more “money” (E99) from pickups. It wasn’t until much, much later when I realised that the game only limits you to one slot from the first category of the glove upgrades. Of course the game neglects to tell you any of that, so I ran through literally 90% of the game without using any of the second or third category of upgrades, which you can have multiples of. Nice work, Ravens.

The funny thing, as the game goes on is that I found the actual shooting is pretty mediocre – yet the game itself was somehow fun and entertaining enough to keep me interested. Not enough to play it for long stretches, but it’s a rare game that I can keep powering through (not sure how I did it last week for Fracture. I guess it was pretty short.) Despite the silliness, I found myself examining every note and listening to every audio log – things that usually bore me senseless in these games. It wasn’t until I got to the last couple of acts when they started to really wear thin and get tiresome.

Pew! Pew! Pew!

While there aren’t a huge variety of enemies in the game, the atmosphere is pretty well done, and to be fair, you never really know what kind of mob is around the next corner. The h̶e̶a̶d̶c̶r̶a̶b̶s̶ ticks are really fucking annoying. Just thought I’d throw that in there. The kind of mob that makes you sigh because you know the next bit of game isn’t going to be fun. Proper HL2 headcrabs were much more fun. In a nice touch, once you finish the game it allows you to “continue” and by doing so you have a chance to see all three endings, with only the unskippable dialogue from the final encounter making it a little tedious.

Overall, I’m glad that I played through Singularity. It’s a decent game and in it you can really see that with a bit more work, and better shooting mechanics it could have been something really special. Perhaps if they were allowed to skip the tacked-on, pointless multiplayer it would have been that much better as a single player game.

Verdict: Actually a decent game. If you see it cheap and have time, feel free to give it a runthrough.