Xbox 360 Review

Singularity

Shame on you, Activision

There is a place. A dark place where action gamers seldom venture. Here, in the darkness, dwell the crippled and the lame. Sent to die in shame by their publishers, undeserving of either marketing or publicity, the abandoned and the ignored include rancid shooters such as Codemasters' festering Turning Point: Fall of Liberty and Midway's diseased Finest Hour.

Yet, occasionally, a worthy hero is unwittingly cast into the rancid depths. Deprived of all hope despite seemingly obvious strength, and lost forever amid the cloying software filth sucking at its heels, one such example of a brave but banished paladin is Singularity.

It's 1950, the height of the Cold War. On the remote island of Katorga-12, somewhere off the Kamchatka peninsula, the Soviet Union has discovered a volatile and massively powerful new element called E99. While pushing ahead with dangerous E99 experiments in order to create an arsenal of weapons with which to destroy America, the island's scientific facility is devastated by a mysterious catastrophic event. With project leader Dr. Nikolai Demichev killed and the island awash with contamination, Stalin abandons E99 research and orders Katorga-12 to be placed under quarantine. The island is forgotten by history.

It's 2010, western intelligence reveals unusual activity on a remote atoll off the southeast coast of Russia. Fearing another Chernobyl, the United States dispatches a black-ops reconnaissance team to establish a clearer picture of the situation. As a part of that flyby helicopter mission to Katorga-12, Captain Nathaniel Renko gets more than he signed up for when an apparent EMP blast from the island downs the team and leaves him facing the perilous time displacement of E99's singularity.

That equates to the bear bones of Singularity's storyline, which places Renko on the docks of Katorga-12 and progresses via seemingly straightforward run-and-gun mechanics. However, the narrative structure soon take a refreshing turn when Renko is yanked back to 1950 through a time rift. Stepping from 2010, the dilapidated staff orientation building Renko is exploring is suddenly reconstructed and filled with terrified staff fleeing from a raging fire. Pushing through the flames, a confused Renko prevents a man from falling to his death as burning floorboards collapse beneath him. That man is Dr. Demichev, and, as Renko finds upon returning to 2010, his survival of the singularity explosion has changed the world... for the worst.

The main body of Singularity's plot unfolds via a mixture of scattered voice recorders, animated propaganda films, and often unsettling ethereal echoes from the past that usually pop up when traversing new areas. Interestingly, there's also no use of cut scenes or rendered sequences. This approach not only keeps the player living and learning in-game without having to suffer spoon-fed exposition, it also helps maintain a level of interest and interactivity that convincingly plasters over what is, essentially, a fairly linear experience.

Keeping the player constantly occupied is Singularity's greatest trick, and one it pulls off extremely well. With an intriguing time-jumping storyline in place, and a steady stream of mutated island inhabitants and Russian elite Spetsnaz soldier to contend with, developer Raven (Wolfenstein) then strives to blind the with the power of gameplay variety and upgradable weaponry. And, again, it succeeds thanks to largely top-drawer execution.

In terms of weaponry, there's the usual pistol, shotgun, assault rifle and sniper rifle to choose from, but the traditional arsenal soon gives way to experimental Katorga hardware such as the Seeker rifle and Dethex grenade launcher, both of which fire explosive rounds that can be directed by the player. Then there's the RLS-7 rocker launcher, which homes in on targets via reticule tracking, and the Spikeshot rifle, which is essentially a railgun that fires charged single-kill beams. All in all, there's plenty of fun-filled firepower to play with. Yet, in order to prevent the player from becoming an unstoppable killing machine, the game only allows Renko to carry two weapons at any one time and E99 weapons can only be used for as long as the player has E99 energy cells. Of course, the game actively encourages experimentation and the liberal doling out of death, so weapons can be swapped out at arms lockers spread intermittently around the facility and E99 recharges slowly even without quick-load cells.

Ordinarily, such a strong selection of oomph-worthy weaponry would be enough to grace most shooters, but Singularity's real core weapon of choice is its Time Manipulation Device (TMD). Gifted to the player a few hours in, the TMD is a powerful and upgradable tool created in the past by Katorga's Dr. Viktor Barisov, who's waited 60 years to provide assistance to the present day Captain Renko upon his 'return' to the island.

While the limited weapons load-out works to rein the player in, the E99-infused TMD provides a dimension of offensive support that instantly transforms the game's basic aim-and-shoot mechanics. For example, the TMD can be upgraded to forward and reverse time around environmental objects and onrushing enemies. This can lead to the clever reconstruction of collapsed stairwells, gangways and bridges, the reassembly and refilling of destroyed supply crates, the quick rusted decaying of locked safes, the accelerated aging and death of Spetsnaz soldiers, and the explosive reversion of Katorga mutants.

Use of the TMD also plays a direct part in the solution of simple but clever environmental puzzles and even delivers progressive E99 powers. These include the ability to pick up and hurl heavy objects, turn soldiers into mutants that attack nearby squad members, tear enemies apart with an impulse burst, stop incoming rockets in mid-air and turn them on enemies, and even perform swift kills in a domed bubble of time that slows the world for those trapped within it. Raven certainly manages to pack a lot into the gameplay, and it's unlikely players will ever pause long enough to question the developer's motives.

Specifically, variety may be Singularity's greatest asset, but the game is also shameless in its 'borrowing' of gameplay aspects from other shooters. Gravity manipulation and uninterrupted gameplay structure are lifted from Half-Life 2, the steering of bullets is pilfered from Stranglehold and Wanted, the eerie presentation and collectable story elements carry the BioShock stamp, the dingy graphics have a distinct Batman: Arkham Asylum feel, and the stylised 50's inspiration and animated propaganda films belong squarely in Fallout 3. That being said, while Raven is quite obviously guilty of robbing its contemporaries left, right and centre, Singularity still manages to nail each borrowed element with such slick efficiency that it emerges as a perfectly decent standalone shooter and a respectful homage.

Factor in a serviceable if somewhat underwhelming multiplayer mode - you'll be hard pressed to find a steady stream of players given Singularity's placement in gaming's wilderness - along with a solid cast of voice actors, a good 10 to 12 hours of single-player game time, creepy sound and music, and some ambitious set piece moments, and there's very little to complain about here.

It makes you wonder what Activision was thinking when it opted to forgo fanfare for Singularity, choosing instead to bury Raven's impressive sci-fi shooter without trace. Indeed, you'd assume becoming the world's largest third-party publisher would entail some degree of insight where assigning marketing dollars is concerned. Evidently not. Not least because the commercial obscurity presently surrounding Singularity would suggest Activision prefers lobbing darts at a list of its upcoming releases and doling out the cash accordingly.

As a new IP, Singularity is not groundbreaking, its environmental design is largely linear, and its heavily borrowed gameplay features hide otherwise generic run-and-gun action. But, on the other hand, the game offers superb presentation, a clever and intriguing storyline, a wealth of fearsome weapons, and, in the Time Manipulation Device, a gameplay tool that channels borrowed features so seamlessly that any sense of blatant thievery is quickly forgiven.

What a waste of a perfectly decent videogame. Activision should hang its corporate head in shame, directly after it offers the development team at Raven a public apology for so savagely shafting its work on Singularity. If there were any justice in this world, and my opinion amounted to anything more than a whisper lost amid a crowd of screaming maniacs, every shooter fan would promptly purchase Singularity in order to drag it back from the depths of hell to which it has been so unfairly consigned.

But, in the meantime, at least we can all look forward to the wonders of Tony Hawk Ride 2.

88%
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