It's been another long day at the GamesCom trade fair (ahem, well it had been when Stevie wrote this - Ed) and Brian Pass, senior producer at Activision Santa Monica, looks visibly worn as he bids us welcome and prepares to showcase the wonders of upcoming science fiction shooter Singularity. However, quickly banishing fears of a dour presentation tainted by the strains of endless preview appointments, Pass suddenly brightens once the controller is in his hands - as does our resulting first impression of Raven Software's latest offering.
With Wolfenstein barely out the door - and racking up respectable if unexceptional review scores - Raven's Singularity is looking to secure itself a little elbow room in the crowded FPS genre by crafting an intriguing storyline accented by a compelling time-control mechanic that adds depth and challenge to in-game puzzles and obstacles while also providing a unique battle approach that conflicts with the established shooter blueprint.
Opening in 2010, Singularity focuses on the surviving member of a stealth reconnaissance team dispatched by the U.S. to assess mysterious activity on Katorga-12, a remote island off the Russian coast. Quarantined since the Cold War after it played host to a terrible turn of events as a result of Stalin's obsession with gaining the upper hand over the United States, the island holds a terrible secret hidden from the world for 60 years.
However, not merely rooted in the present, the 'singularity' in question also provides a window back to the island in 1950, mapping the mined discovery and subsequent mishandling of Element 99 (E99), a deadly source of energy unique to the island that delivers unparalleled power but also carries a terrifying form of contamination for those who come into contact with it.
With tantalisingly vague narrative structure and the promise of time-straddling gameplay laid out, Pass begins the on-screen demo and gives us our first taste of Singularity in action.
Placing gameplay to one side for a moment, the demo's Unreal Engine 3 environments and character visuals exude a definite dark and moody quality, providing a convincing sense of tone and atmosphere amid locales ranging from claustrophobic tunnels, detailed complexes, devastated interiors, and more open and spacious areas ravaged by events in 1950 and the unstoppable advance of time.
Whether or not it excels in terms of aesthetics (things certainly look promising at this point), the success or failure of Singularity will likely hinge on the strength of its Time Manipulation Device (TMD) and the layered gameplay it proffers. Beyond the arbitrary run-and-gun action provided by Singularity's arsenal of conventional weaponry, the fortuitously discovered TMD grants players with the charged ability to tactically use time against enemies and also tackle in-game puzzles and otherwise impassable obstacles.
Worn on the back of the player's hand and open to progressive customisation, the TMD can be used in a variety of ways. For example: a simple broken crate can be reverted through time to a point where it is once again whole and, as a result, filled with handy supplies; a collapsed staircase can be rebuilt to allow the player to reach elevated areas before reversing the time process and trapping chasing enemies below; and, of course, enemies can be affected by TMD manipulation, which generally results in gory disintegrations as the unrelenting grip of time takes hold.
Clearly emerging as an extremely versatile tool during just a brief 20-minute demo, the TMD can also tap into ghostly in-game echoes in order to access audio discs in the past and even drag functioning objects from 1950 through to the devastation of 2010. For example, a malfunctioning door in 2010 blocks the player's progress but can be successfully opened by scanning the room for echoes, locating spare circuits on a workbench in the past, and pulling one through to be used in the present.
Walking a fine line between two narrative threads, Singularity's echoes are far from benign and pose a significant threat to the player thanks to Phase Ticks, deadly explosive insects that exist outside of time and are interlaced with E99. Then there are the enraged Zeks (Russian for 'prisoners'), which are the vicious human inhabitants of Katorga-12 infected by Soul Leeches following the Cold War catastrophe. Adding another element to the TMD's usefulness, untouchable enemies capable of attacking the player while phased in time can be dragged into the present by the device, where they become suddenly vulnerable to standard projectile weaponry.
All in all, Katorga-12 is no holiday resort, the player's escape will be far from easy, and the TMD's correct application is of paramount importance. Of course, despite the considerable promise accompanying the Time Manipulation Device, Singularity's focus on time-based gameplay could yet see it flopping to the levels of disappointment experienced when Sierra released TimeShift. And, if we're being brutally honest (and we always are), the inclusion of a bullet-guiding after effect that mimics Wanted: Weapons of Fate and Dark Sector doesn't exactly fill us with knee-bucking glee. However, that being said, there's still plenty to admire in Raven's upcoming sci-fi thrill ride and we're hoping for the best on all fronts after an impressive taste of its action.
Packing our notebook away and heading for the door, we ask Pass how Singularity has been received during the inaugural GamesCom trade fair, to which he smiles slyly, raising an eyebrow and thumbing over towards a nearby presentation booth bustling with constant activity.
"What, you mean against the 500lb gorilla in the other room?" he counters succinctly, directing attention to the dominating presence of Activision's flagship juggernaut Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
Point taken. But that's not to say Singularity didn't impress and its ongoing evolution isn't well worth keeping an eye on while enjoying the delights of Infinity Ward's newest moneymaking machine.
Moreover, beyond its solid presentation and eerie atmospherics, Singularity has plenty going for it. For example, it's a new IP, it employs interesting and ambitious gameplay mechanics, it was labelled 'Best FPS of E3' by GamingExcellence, and developer Raven Software certainly has a proven track record thanks to titles such as Wolfenstein, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and Quake 4.
As for multiplayer, Pass was unwilling to divulge any concrete details outside of the eight-hour campaign mode, but offered assurances that online gameplay is coming along nicely and downloadable content might also reside in the final game's future.
Our attention is duly focused from this point forward. Singularity is presently expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2010 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Games for Windows.