Tuesday, September 7, 2010

REVIEW: Singularity (PC, 360, and PS3)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Raven Software. They don’t create technology and they don’t make particularly original games. They do, however, make fun games, and show a skill at design that often eludes some of the big boys.

Raven titles Hexen, Heretic, Soldier of Fortune, Quake IV, Jedi Knight II, and Wolfenstein are just plain good games, period. They have a knack for taking engines like Doom, Quake, or Unreal and making them do interesting things. That’s a rare skill. A company like Monolith can take the exact same technology and make a hash of it. I’ve never felt that way with Raven: I’ve always felt entertained.

There is no denying that the shadow of other, better games falls heavily upon Raven’s latest, Singularity. This is a game that takes BioShock, dumps the depth and narrative baggage, and just turns it into a wild, wonderfully ridiculous ride.

How much is this like BioShock? From the first moments, when your aircraft crashes into a mysterious island, you know you’re in familiar territory, and it just becomes more familiar from there. All of BioShock’s tropes are here: enclosed environment overrun with mutants, backstory told through recordings and notes, retro videos, voices guiding you forward, ghostly images of past events, the ability to modify a weapon fused to your body, weapon upgrade stations … well, you get the idea.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re going to pick a model to emulate, you might as well pick the best. Singularity wears these design elements more lightly than BioShock, without the portentous narrative and complex thematics of the original. It doesn’t really want to explore the nature of freedom and what makes us human: it wants to explore what a mutant looks like when he comes in contact with an explosive guided projectile. And sometimes that’s really all you need.

Singularity gives us a straight-up Cold War time paradox story. In the 1950s the Russians found a special element that would allow them to create powerful weapons and even bend time. A horrible accident destroys that experiment, but during a timeshift your character somehow changes the course of history. (How he does this is fairly obvious, but the reveal is kept for later in the game.) With the help of a scientist, a resistance group, and some nifty gear, you have to set things right, manipulating time in order to do it.

Although a standard assortment of military hardware is available (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and sniper rifle), you only begin to wield serious power when you get the TMD (time manipulation device). This allows you to alter time in small areas of the environment. For instance, you can age something so that it decays and falls apart, or reverse-age it so that a broken object is knitted together again. This creates some impressive environmental effects, and when amplified allows you to temporarily restore huge locations. It also works particularly well on creatures: sometimes it just makes them slower, and sometimes it pulls them apart.

The TMD has other powers, such as power blasts, the creation of time bubbles, grabbing and throwing objects, and more. There are some echoes of an unjustifiably neglected 2007 game called TimeShift. Although it ultimately ran aground on ho-hum gameplay and level design, TimeShift has a very interesting time-manipulation element.

And for all the derivative elements in Singularity, there are touches that are undeniably Raven’s. Simple things like special effects, architecture, hand animations and the feel of ranged weapons call to mind games as old as Heretic and Hexen. Level design is fairly linear, but still interesting, and the pace is a perfect blend of onrushing action and more sedate periods of exploration.

Frankly, Singularity passed right under my radar. It arrive in July, and in the frenzy of reviewing titles for the Games 100, I just lost track of it. I’m not sure if it’s found an audience or not, but it certainly deserves one.

Singularity is rated Mature for some foul language, violence, and lots of gore. It is available for Windows PCs, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. This review was done using the 360 version.


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