This generation, Raven Software's releases have failed to rise above average. Their last two games, Wolfenstein and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, were both seen as good games, but neither proved to be all that memorable. That might be related to the fact that neither were original properties, or due to their releases being nestled up against other big releases. Hoping not to allow history a chance to repeat itself, Activision delayed the developer's next title, Singularity, to the spring, allowing it time to stand out on its own without being surrounded by high-profile sequels. For the first time, Raven has a chance to stand out, something they've never been able to do before.
One step towards standing out is being original. Singularity isn't a sequel to another game, and it isn't based on a movie or comic book. It's a property invented by the developers alone, set on Katorga-12, a mysterious island off the coast of Russia where a catastrophic event called the “Singularity” occurred during the 1950s. Players assume the role of Captain Nathaniel Renko, a US black-ops soldier who is sent to the island to investigate strange radiation patterns. Upon arrival, Renko finds that Katorga was the site of a large scientific compound built around E-99, an element only found on the island. E-99 has nearly limitless power, capable of even changing the flow of time. Renko finds this out first-hand when he begins being whipped around time, unintentionally changing history. If things are starting to sound familiar, it's because the "originality" of Singularity begins to fade away fairly quickly. It's only a matter of minutes before the player stumbles upon a projector that begins to tell the history of the island. It may not begin with "I am Andrew Ryan, and I'm here to ask you a question," but it might as well.
Players will likely find Katorga-12 much more familiar than they expected when they set foot on the island. The environments, mood, and style all ring reminiscent of BioShock, right down to the ghostly visages and recorded messages. It's obviously different at its core, themed to fit the USSR setting (which, for the most part, meant flipping the Rs and Ns around), but the two share similarities that supersede color pallets. In some ways, Singularity actually does BioShock better than BioShock did, since the random encounters with specters in Rapture were never really explained that well. In Singularity, they are visions from another time, something that fits right in line with the rest of the story. In other ways, however, it finds itself coming up short, lacking memorable set pieces and often looking a bit uninspired. There are also some strange design choices, such as not allowing the player to pick up recorded journals. Instead, Renko must stand next to the 1950's recording device as it spouts oftentimes meaningless information, grinding the pacing to a halt.
Despite some faults with originality, it’s a great set-up for a story. The opening few hours do a wonderful job at building up a number of interesting story arcs and introducing several characters. Full of potential, the early hours are easily the best in the game, and it really felt as though the story could go in any direction. Some additional folds are added as time goes on, such as mysterious messages written on the walls and occasional flashes of disturbing scenes. On several occasions, the instability of the E-99 will cause the world around the player to age, an effect that manages to look simply stunning every time. In other instances, Renko will need to travel back in time through rifts, encountering the desolate, destroyed areas of the future in their pristine past conditions. While these segments often go against the game's rules of time travel, which seem to follow the idea that any minor alteration to the past can have massive consequences in the future, they manage to be the most impressive and memorable moments of the game.
Sadly, the wheels come off by the end of the story, and the narrative falls drastically short of its own potential. It feels as if Raven was building towards some sort of fantastic twist or revelation and then forgot to add it in, or simply didn't know what it would be to begin with. In the end, it's a mishmash of good and bad concepts; several different ideas woven together with plotholes and dropped storylines.
Faults with the narrative are easily forgiven with solid gameplay, something that, for the most part, Singularity nails. In order to right the wrongs of time, Captain Renko needs to battle Russian soldiers, E-99 corrupted wildlife, and the irradiated former workers from the Katorga base. Besides having several upgradeable weapons, the main tool at his disposal is the Time Manipulation Device, or TMD. By using the TMD, Renko can move objects backwards or forwards in time, create a time-frozen sphere, pick up and throw items, and even pull objects from the past into the present. It’s used both for puzzle solving and combat, allowing the player to get a leg up on the hordes of enemies. It's limited only by the E-99 power reserved in the TMD, and there's usually enough to control the battlefield. By the end, though, the puzzles become fairly repetitive, and the same few mechanics are overused to the point where they lose all novelty. Luckily, the combat is strong enough to carry the gameplay, and the different abilities lead to some varied encounters.
The entertaining combat continues into the multiplayer, which wasn’t really mentioned much leading up to release. It comes packed with two modes, each of which, on its own, is fairly standard. One is essentially traditional team deathmatch, while the other has one team attack different positions while the other defends. Where it separates itself from other games is in the teams themselves, which are comprised not of generic grunts, but enemies encountered during the singleplayer. One team is comprised of different Russian soldiers and the other has players controlling the mutated monsters, gaining access to all of their abilities. From tiny bug creatures to massive beasts, it's a good deal of fun to play as the monsters, and thanks to the variety of abilities on the other team, it's still entertaining to step into the shoes of the soldiers as well. It’s a bit like Left 4 Dead's versus mode, which isn't at all a bad thing. It’s likely not enough to keep players interested for way too long, but it's far from tacked on, and it definitely adds to the value of the game.
Despite having every opportunity in the world to triumphantly succeed, Singularity, instead, falls right in line with previous titles by the developer. Raven has, yet again, fallen just short of brilliance. The game is flawed in a number of areas, many of which detract from the overall experience and come across as sloppy or lazy. While it has the capability of looking impressive, it spends much of the time getting there, bearing many of the scars of early Unreal 3 titles. Texture pop-ins are abundant, despite the game being released well after these issues have been addressed. It also has its fair share of glitches that can lead to the product appearing unfinished at times. The glitches range from slightly humorous, like seeing a corpse do somersaults after death, to frustrating, as the player will sometimes fall through the floor, slipping below the world and falling for minutes until the game realizes what has occurred.
Despite being given a delay simply to arrive in a less crowded season, there's no question that it would have benefited from a few more months in the oven. Maybe then, Raven could have cleaned up the glitches, polished the graphics, and focused the story a bit more. The gameplay is strong, though it's not enough to really lift the product above its other issues for too long. In the end, the result is a game likely not worth the hype, and one that, while entertaining, isn't worth getting too excited about.