Singularity – XBOX 360 (game review)

A few weeks back, I reviewed Alpha Protocol, which marked developer Obsidian’s venture into new IP after a successful career of stepping into other RPG franchises to deliver sophomore efforts. There seems to be a few developers out there who have mined that niche, and while Obsidian might be the go-to developer for RPG sequels, the offspring of popular first-person shooters have found suitable childcare in Raven Software, the developer that previously shepherded Quake 4 and Wolfenstein, among others. Once again I’m presented with the opportunity to pass judgment when one of these “cover bands” aims to go solo as Raven unleashes their stab at a new franchise with Singularity.

Singularity is a shooter that wouldn’t exist in a world without Bioshock. I don’t mean that as a knock (after all, last year’s excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum drew from the same fertile well), but it’s clear that Bioshock’s success in creating an alternate reality in which to get your gun on has bred its fair share of admirers. The Bioshock model positions the environment as the star, and that’s exactly what Raven has done with its depiction of a crumbling Russian island research facility that exists with one foot planted clearly in the heyday of the Cold War and the other drawing from the fantasy islands that drive the plots of TV shows such as Lost. This is a game that is proud to pay homage to its varied influences.

Crash landing just offshore of the mysterious scientific outpost, you piece together the mystery of what caused the crash – as well as the decimation of the island. Early on, you gain access to the TMD (Time Manipulation Device), which allows you to alter the environment (age/degrade) and enemies to solve environmental puzzles. This soon leads to all sorts of time-travel shenanigans, with the TMD progressively augmented throughout, granting you new time manipulation powers. As you seek to set right what once went wrong, you’ll continue to do the time warp between 2010 and 1955, with actions in the past having repercussions in the future. These time-travel conundrums work as a nice spell from the frequent gun battles that erupt between you and the surviving Russian forces, as well as the nefarious mutants that have sprung from the those Commies’ cruel experiments.

I have mentioned that Raven has made its name by playing in other sandboxes. Unlike the BioWare-inspired Alpha Protocol that emerged a limp retread of their greatest hits, Raven’s Singularity is an entertaining excursion through some familiar gameplay types and environments. Sure, there is very little here that is new and original, with the island setting on loan from Bioshock and Lost, and the TMD (with its time and gravity manipulation) stolen from Braid and Half Life. But Raven has polished these elements to a sheen. They might not be telling us anything new, but they’ve certainly learned how to spin their tale, and the further I explored the decayed majesty of this mysterious island, the more involved I got in resolving the temporal anomalies that I was inadvertently creating. It’s all scripted, but it’s done in a way that makes the game utterly compelling, propelling you further down the rabbit hole in a bid to set things right again.

While the solo game is surprisingly entertaining – with some fun weapons-based achievements to score for those interesting in extending longevity – I found the multiplayer to be a sparse landscape. I applaud the wrinkle Raven has added, alternating players as either humans or “monsters” in the battles. But the game types all remain as variations of the same tired Capture This and Defend That modes that bulletpoint every online first-person shooter. Unless you have something that will knock Call of Duty or Halo from their thrones, why waste the development resources?

Singularity is a real summer surprise. I wasn’t expecting much from the game, a feeling that was hard to shake when I began having flashbacks of 2K’s own lackluster sequel to Bioshock. But once you make your way through the lengthy prologue and gain access to the TMD, the gameplay really opens up and the narrative hooks you. It might not alter our perception of what a first-person shooter can be, but Activision’s new stab at a franchise is worth playing. And the clever twist at the end makes me hope that Singularity multiplies in the future.

[game 4.0]