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Singularity

(Activision; US: 29 Jun 2010)

Everything that’s right and wrong with Singularity can be summed up in the kitschy decision to use backwards “Rs” and “Ns” in all of the game’s fonts because it’s supposed to look all Russian and stuff. The single backwards “R” in the game’s logo works just fine—it does its job conveying the game’s Russian setting and is eye-catching. But seeing it over and over again in menu options and elsewhere in the game transforms what should be a singular design element with a nice punch into an unwelcome distraction that comes to seem cheap and nettlesome. Likewise, most of my criticisms of the game are with matters of weak style and design choices layered on top of a solid shooter experience.


Singularity is a sci-fi first person shooter set mostly in the modern day but that includes time travel elements that move the action back and forth between the present and the 1950s. Although it jumps (a little) through time, spatially the game is restricted to a secret research facility located on an island of the Russian coast. Here, thanks to a mysterious element called E-99, brilliant Soviet scientists developed time-bending technology centered around a central invention called The Singularity. You play an American soldier sent to the island as part of a modern day expedition to investigate an anomalous energy signal emanating from the ruins. Things go quite badly, quite quickly from there, and you end up facing a variety of enemy soldiers and monsters in two different eras.


As a first person shooter, the game is absolutely fine. I enjoyed the combat, which has your basic pistol/shotgun/assault rifle/sniper rifle set but also includes some more interesting things, like a grenade launcher that fires explosives spheres that you can zoom around the battlefield like a radio controlled car and explode them at will. Not, as it turned out for me anyway, particularly useful, but fun to play with. The real variety comes from the time-bending powers that you accrue over the course of the game. You can instantly age enemies, turning them to dust. You can transform enemies into monsters (sometimes). There’s a kind of generic but gratifying energy pulse that blows close combat opponents to pieces. My favorite is the ability to throw spheres of frozen time, which freeze enemies in place while you fill the air around them with bullets that all strike at once when time resumes. Also, you have telekinesis for some reason. I don’t know what this has to do with time bending, but it does let you catch rockets and throw them back at dudes.


This handy time bender also lets you transition items in the world between the current day and the 1950’s and back. In principal it’s neat. You can zap ruined chalkboards to see them restored. You can zap broken stairways and bridges to repair them. You can zap crushed boxes to make them whole again. This effect is used in game mostly for puzzles. The first time that I took a crushed box, slid it under a door, and restored it to jack the door up enough for me to crawl under, I thought that I was pretty clever. The next half dozen times that I did the same exact thing I thought it was silly. Likewise, I felt the same way about the times that I restored boxes for the sole purpose of using them to climb up onto a ledge. And the time where I went through a hole in time just to bring back a box from the past into the future so I could climb up on a five foot high ledge. Well, that’s just lame. Like those backwards letters in the title, the handful of time-manipulation tricks in Singularity wear thin very fast. There’s just no variety and not much imagination put into the mechanic.


This laziness carries through into many false notes throughout the level design. Time and again, Singularity chooses to go with what they want to do for gameplay purposes even if it makes no sense in the world that they’ve created. Your Time Manipulation Device is supposed to be a miracle of technology and the only device of its kind. Why then are there Augmentors and upgrade kiosks scattered throughout the world? Why is there a machine to give your unique device a new ability sitting in the middle of a sewer tunnel? Because that’s the exact moment the designers wanted to give you a new power—story, setting, and sense be damned. Likewise there are several instances where there are these massive platforms that you stand on to super-charge your TMD and do things like repair huge bridges or raise sunken ships or (for some unclear reason) kill a giant monster. These platforms are just there in the middle of dockyards and on the backs of trains for no other reason than for you to do this cool game thing. Every time that I saw one, I groaned as I was snapped out of the story by its iron fisted lack of subtlety.


So the story doesn’t inspire and the level design doesn’t excel. Singularity is still a fun game, and I enjoyed myself the whole time that I was playing it. It’s kind of Bioshock-lite (maybe ultra-lite), a well-made shooter with some very thin atmosphere and a story that’s more interesting than not. The multi-player, which pits the game’s monsters against soldiers, seemed fun the one time that I was able to find a match and stay in it for a full round. The other four times that I tried to play online I wasn’t able to find a server or lost connection within minutes. Hopefully, this will be less of a problem as the game becomes more popular, but I’m not sure how popular this game will be. I suggest getting your multi-player fun while you can. In a month with nothing else to satisfy my shooting needs, Singularity hit the spot. I’m not sure that I’ll give it a second thought next month, but for now, it was just what I needed and not any more than that.

Rating:

Rick Dakan is a novelist and former game designer whose books include the Geek Mafia trilogy from PM Press. For more of his prose and musings, go to www.rickdakan.com.


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