Thursday, August 11, 2011

Singularity: Not As Cool As a Black Hole

Raven Software's semi-latest game, Singularity, would be great if only it were better. I know that's asking a lot, in a vague sort of way, but there's really not much else to say. There's plenty to say, actually, but the case with Singularity is that it has the framework to be excellent, but squanders its brilliance with blemishes. What could have been a fun, creative shooter turned out to be a rote, by-the-book FPS. It has a wonderful premise with promising gameplay elements, but it just doesn't capitalize on its ideas, and ultimately holds itself back with certain limitations. It's still an enjoyable game; it's just disappointing to realize that it could've been even better. Read more about Singularity after the jump.

Singularity is one of those "alternate history" games, kind of like Fallout, set in a time period where history went a little differently. In 1955, during the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was working on a time manipulation device that would allow them to alter the time-state of objects, and even to travel through wormholes. Things went wrong and the project was eventually shut-down and covered-up by the government, until a disturbance from the research site, Katorga-12, interferes with an American spy satellite. The year is 2010, and you play as Captain Nathaniel Renko on a mission to investigate Katorga-12.

The story becomes even more "alternate" than that, though, when you inadvertently alter history. During the introduction sequence, a seismic wave sends you back to 1955, and you save a man from from a burning building. That man, Nikolai Demichev, originally died in the fire; now that he's alive, he goes on to advance the TMD and ensures Soviet conquest in the Cold War. For the rest of the game, you try to change history (again) to prevent Demichev from gaining power, and stopping the time-altering singularity that's been affecting the island.

The time-traveling mechanic of the story is, for the most part, used pretty well. There are issues when you're not really sure why you're in a particular time period or what you're supposed to be doing in the story, because it tends to get lost in the process of "shoot enemies, go from point A to point B." It doesn't help that most of the "story" and premise is told through audio logs and written notes, since they feel so far removed from the rest of the game. But the game does a pretty good job of planting messages and clues that make more and more sense as you travel back and forth through time, which makes the ending feel particularly exciting. 

The time-travel and Cold War stuff may seem far-fetched, but it's one of those ideas that you're not supposed to take too seriously. The slow build-up as you fly into the island, crash land, and explore the ruined facility really helps to set the stage and immerse you in the setting. Which is actually pretty stimulating. The island exterior has this gothic, twisted, mutant-sort of feel to it. There're all kinds of weird plants growing everywhere, and the facilities have crumbled and rusted over. Even if you were to strip the game of all its other elements, it would still be fairly entertaining just walking through the levels and looking at the scenery.

Katorga-12, exterior. Looks exciting.

The gameplay is typical for an FPS: shooting plenty of enemies while going through linear maps, completing objectives and getting from point A to point B. Aside from the unique premise, Singularity tries to mix the gameplay up with its use of the Time Manipulation Device (called the "TMD" in-game). The TMD gives you certain skills to use in combat, and becomes your vessel to travel back and forth in time to alter history. The gameplay actually feels very similar to BioShock and Cryostasis, as comparisons.

As you explore, you collect canisters of "E99," a manufactured element that powers the TMD. Every so often you come by stations where you can spend your E99 on upgrades and bonuses to power up yourself and the TMD. Likewise, you can find weapon upgrade kits, which you can use to increase the damage, reload speed, and magazine size of your weapons. These are nice features that add a little extra depth, but it didn't feel necessary for the first half of the game--I was able to get by without a single upgrade. Once I finally upgraded myself I actually felt over-powered, so it's not very well-balanced.

The weapons are pretty standard: pistol which you'll never use, shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, grenade launcher, rocket launcher, etc. The only gun that really has a unique function is the Seeker, a gun that fires E99 rounds and lets you control the flight of the bullet in mid-air. It's extremely fun firing a bullet from around a corner and guiding it into an enemy's face, but the Seeker only shows up a handful of times. You can only carry two weapons at a time (you can switch them out at weapon lockers which show up every so often), but I wound up sticking with the shotgun and assault rifle for 98% of the game.

The TMD, meanwhile, gives you a couple of powers. One function lets you instantly age lesser enemies, turning them to dust and bones in a few seconds. Or you can blast enemies with a close-range force that knocks them out of phase with time for a brief moment (basically a stun). Or you can drop a time distortion field that slows down time for everything within it, including enemies and bullets. You can also manipulate things in the environment, reconstructing or deconstructing ruined stairs, control panels, storage crates, and so forth.

Reconstructing a collapsed staircase.

The combat can be pretty fun, at times. Mowing down enemies as frantic music plays, compelling you forward through the level, provides the same level of exhilaration that you'd expect from a solid FPS. Some of the enemies are weird mutants that also add plenty of variety to the combat, requiring different strategies to fight different enemies. And some of the bosses are more genuinely "epic," huge adrenaline-pounding monstrosities that have you dodging and shooting all in precise maneuvers. 

But at other times, the combat can feel bland and uninspired. Ironsights, for example, feel like two-dimensional overlays; they don't really feel like you're looking down the barrel of a gun. It's kind of like playing the original Doom, in that regard. I'm also not terribly impressed with the sound effects for gunfire, because they tend to sound pathetic and subdued, like you're firing a paintball gun instead of an actual deadly weapon.

A majority of the combat feels compulsory, where they just throw a couple of enemies at you to break up the peaceful silence of walking from place to place. These moments aren't challenging and don't feel very involved. But they also throw a couple of really obnoxious elements into the mix, as if they're just trying to make the game harder instead of making it feel challenging.

It's pretty frequent, for example, for enemies to pop out from unexpected, unpredictable areas and land a cheap shot or two on you. There are also a few sections where enemies spawn BEHIND you as you're going through a level, resulting in several bullets winding up in your back, from an area you just cleared. One of the enemy types, in particular, is a tiny kamikaze insect that travels in swarms. You'll be crawling through a duct and several will pop out of nowhere and drop you down to low health in two seconds. They're a pain to kill even when they don't surprise you.

The TMD has a lot of potential to break up the monotony, using the unique mechanics to kill enemies in fun, new ways. But when enemies spawn from nowhere, my instinct is always to shoot my guns, cause that's what I'm trained to do. As a result, the TMD went largely unused until it seemed absolutely necessary. It gets used outside of combat as well, though, to solve minor puzzles. You have to reconstruct or deconstruct things in the environment, or slow down time, or use the gravity mechanism to solve physics puzzles or to create a walkway somewhere. Even this, though, begins to feel kind of shallow once you realize that you're mostly just pressing one button to run a scripted sequence. It's ultimately no different than pulling a lever or pressing a button on a control panel.

The time-altering Deadlock.

And of course, there's the "air-lock" save system. There's absolutely no manual save, you're stuck with checkpoint saves that get overwritten each time you reach a checkpoint. You can't backtrack to earlier areas because doors frequently lock behind you, which bothered me because I didn't want to get stuck in the next "air lock" without having explored and experienced all of the scenery/content in the previous one. But it also means that you can't save in certain places in order to go back and replay more interesting sequences.

With all of that said, Singularity was an enjoyable game. Except for the annoying save system and a few small problems here and there, it played well and didn't piss me off. It's still difficult to give it a strong recommendation, though, because it's still missing out on a lot of its potential and promise. It would've been nice if the TMD had more functionality than simply serving as a fancy new way to press a button and trigger a scripted sequence, and I would've liked to see more interesting new weapons like the bullet-controlled Seeker. But if nothing else, the game was enjoyable just because of the scenery and the unique premise.

I paid about $8 for Singularity and thought it was an excellent game for the price, so if you find it for a bargain price it's definitely worth checking out. But don't spend $30 on it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment