If you look up Raven Software's portfolio as a developer, you'll find a growing list of classic action titles. Take Soldier of Fortune, Heretic, Jedi Outcast, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for example. These guys know action gaming and they're back this week with a brand new game and a new IP known as Singularity. I just completed the campaign and had a great time with it -- and while I wouldn't call it Raven's best work, it's a really enjoyable FPS that no action gamer should miss.
Time On Your Hands
Singularity puts gamers in the boots of Captain Renko, a US black ops soldier who finds himself stranded on a mysterious island off of the coast of Russia. This island became an item of interest to the US after a satellite probe detected a very high amount of radiation in the area.
The opening cutscene fills us in on some of the details of the island, which was designated Katorga-12 by the Russians in the 1950s. As the cutscene explains, the US had nuclear power in the 40s, making the Russians nervous and envious. But when the Russians found Element-99, aka E-99, on Katorga-12, Stalin quickly realized that this incredible element could turn Russia into the most powerful nation of all. Unlimited research funding was granted and the best and brightest scientists and their families moved to the island to help research the element that seemed to offer clean energy, time altering and traveling capabilities, and tremendous destructive power.
But something went wrong just a few short years later in 1955. Katorga-12 became an extremely dangerous place and the Russians wanted to cover up their presumably failed experiments. They buried the E-99 research efforts and tried to basically forget it, but the island was still putting off a way too much radiation for the US to ignore. Flash forward to present day, and Renko and his black op buddies are in helicopters preparing to land on Katorga-12. Suddenly a massive EM pulse goes off, sending the helicopters crashing into the island, leaving only two survivors stranded on Katorga-12 with no functional communication to the outside world.
And this is where Singularity starts. You're first objective is to try to meet up with the only other black ops survivor, Devlin. The initial hour or two two is paced intentionally slow to bring players into the atmosphere. You won't encounter any monsters or bad guys just yet.
Raven uses several different ways to let the player learn more about the story and the events and people that took place in 1955. Audio recorders and notes are the most common way, and these are spread out all over the island. Hand-written messages are also scribbled on walls and floors, too. There are even old propaganda films lying around. These films declare Uncle Sam and the US a constant an imminent threat and encourage the inhabitants of the island to work hard to study the usage of E-99. About a dozen times through the campaign players will also experience an Echo Event which shows ghostly visions from the past. On other occasions, including early in the game, Renko is actually zapped back to 1955 and partakes in scenarios from then, disrupting the time continuum. Naturally, the past shapes the future, and what you do in 1955 changes what you and the world experience in 2010. Seeing the before and after effects is pretty sweet.
Eventually players meet up with not only Devlin, but also a woman (named Kathryn if memory serves). Kathryn throws an interesting wrench into the mysterious story. She claims to be from MIR-12, an organization that wants to expose the truth about what happened on Katorga-12 to the world and how those events changed history. MIR-12 is in conflict with another ideology that is presented to players in the story and the decision you know you will have to ultimately make in the end will at least get you thinking a little bit. Perhaps unfortunately, no matter what you do during the campaign, which of the three endings you get is determined in the final seconds of the game.
Before you get to those final seconds -- which took me only about nine, maybe ten hours of play -- you will lead Renko through some really good FPS action. As most of you know, the niche feature in Singularity is the TMD, or Time Manipulation Device. You'll discover this in a hidden area of Katorga-12 after a couple of hours and it greatly shapes how the game is played from then on. So in addition to your standard weapons (of which you can carry two at a time), like the Valkyrie assault rife, Volk S4 shotgun, sniper rifle, and others -- you also get to flex the power of the TMD.
Time Is Indeed On Your Side
The TMD is attached to your left hand and is controlled easily with the the left and right bumpers. It allows you to age or restore objects and enemies, so long as the crosshair indicates you can do so. Renko also has telekinetic abilities with the TMD, allowing him to pull in health packs, ammo, E-99 cells, and other pick ups. With the telekinesis ability, you can also catch objects thrown at you (like explosive barrels or grenades) and throw them right back. The RB fires out the Impulse power of the TMD, knocking most enemies back if not tearing them to shreds, and bringing certain enemies into phase so that you can attack them.
Knowing what objects you can effect with the TMD only requires that you look at how the crosshair changes when you hover over it. If you see a blue line, that means you can restore the item to a previous state (1955). Restoring can be used on things like broken boxes so that you can then open them and take the items inside, or staircases so that you can rebuild and walk on them. An orange line on the crosshair indicates the item or enemy can be aged. For certain enemies, this means they will go from flesh and blood to old bones instantly, which is pretty incredible. Aging can also be used on things like locks and safes, allowing you access to whatever lies behind. Finally, a circular orange icon means the object can be manipulated with telekinesis.
Other functions are unveiled throughout the campaign at the three or four TMD upgrade stations you encounter during play. One upgrade allows you to double tap the LB to turn a human into a Revert, a slumbering, venom spewing beast that is blind, but reacts to sound. The Reverts are fun to encounter and there's a particular section in the campaign in the sewers where you have to sneak by a pack of them. It was a well designed and very intense sequence.
Another TMD power is the Deadlock. Whatever is within the blue sphere created by the Deadlock is in a state of slower time. Meaning that you can charge up a Deadlock by holding down the Right Stick for a couple of seconds, and then shoot it off at an enemy or some environmental hazard. Whatever is inside the Deadlock is practically frozen in time for several seconds. For enemies, this means you can blast them while they're stationary; when you remove the Deadlock, or when it times out by itself, they instantly die. It's also used to get past a couple of massive fans and even a pesky door that just won't stay open.
Besides being a major part of the game in both combat and a few routine puzzles, the TMD is also used to complete several major objectives. These include raising up an old cargo ship from the bottom of the sea so that you can find a certain, very important item. During these moments where you need massive TMD ability, you generally first have to find and then power up an amplifier station that gives your TMD the ability to do these amazing feats. That type of 'restore power' objective is pretty common in Singularity, which I say with some disappointment. Along with the linear level design and scripted events, Singularity has a lot of that old school design to it. Part of me welcomes that, but another part has experienced more advanced design that I would like to have seen more of here.
More Thoughts On Gameplay
There are several other aspects to Singularity I want to share that don't really have their own category. For example, the AI. While I found the combat in Singularity to be fun, I couldn't help but notice how slow to react the AI was at times. Their strength was certainly from numbers instead of ability or intelligence. Thanks to the numerous upgrades and pickups, after a certain point I felt like I literally couldn't die, no matter what type of radiated monster or Russian soldier was thrown at me.
That's actually another point worth making, the campaign, at least on Normal, is almost too easy because of how powerful you become with the TMD and with upgraded weapons. Around the halfway or maybe two-thirds through the campaign, I only used the TMD, Valkyrie, and Volk S4. My two guns were upgraded and very powerful, and ammo stopped becoming an issue at that point too. I thought a better balance could have been struck with the difficulty. My sense of concern for the enemy faded away and I think that made me enjoy the experience less because I was practically untouchable.
So, speaking of upgrades, Singularity features a few different types. There are Augmenters, Weapons Lockers, and TMD Upgrades. I've mentioned the TMD Upgrades before, these occur about four times throughout the game and are only available in set locations. These give the TMD a new ability and increase the strength of the Impulse.
Augmenters have several different kinds of purchasable enhancements and require that you find blueprints or bio formulas in the game world to use. With those, and by spending E-99 Tech (easily found in the game) you can do a variety of things like increase your health and E-99 meter (which depletes when using the TMD). You can increase the amount of health packs you can store, and how effective they are. Other available upgrades, like being able to sprint or hold your breath longer, reduce damage from melee and ranged attacks, are also on the menu. You can upgrade the Deadlock a couple of times to allow it to cover more area and last longer. There are even equip-able perks that increase aiming accuracy and the rate at which you find E-99. Heck, there's even a Perk that allows you to regain health for every kill.
Weapons Lockers gives players the chance to change out their loadout and upgrade any weapon they have found. You can also see how much ammo you have for each weapon, even if you don't have it equipped. Upgrades include the standard fare of things like increased clip size, reduced reload time, and extra damage. You can also spend 5000 E-99 tech to purchase ammo, but you shouldn't need to.
I wanted to also add that I liked what Raven did in terms of keeping the player going in the right direction. Generally the objective and proper path is easy to find, but if you ever feel lost, just press down on the d-pad to do a Chrono Ping. When you do, brightly lit footsteps show you the path you need to take. I liked this better than a persistent compass or pointer on screen and figured it was worth mentioning.
Singularity also has a multiplayer component that I have yet to actually try out. Just yesterday, Gustavo Rasche, Multiplayer Design Lead, posted a lengthy and detailed article that's all about Singularity multiplayer.
With that, let's get to the summary...