Singularity Review: Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey

Activision and Raven Software release a first-person shooter with a time-traveling twist. Is this Sierra's intriguing yet disappointing TimeShift all over again?

Of course not! TimeShift had a time-shifting suit. In Singularity you have a time-manipulating device that slips onto your arm, so the rest of your body can breathe. You'll stumble across this device after finding yourself the lone survivor of a U.S. military patrol of the island of Katorga-12 off the coast of Russia, where mysterious experiments took place during the Cold War. Could the device and those experiments be connected? You'll find out as you unravel the mysteries surrounding the Singularity.

It sounds like bad science fiction. How does it play? Like good bad science fiction.

Loved
It's A First-Person Shooter All Right: Strip away the time manipulation aspects and Singularity is a first-person shooter that's as by-the-numbers as they come. You start off with a pistol you'll hardly ever use once you gain the machine gun, shotgun, and sniper rifle. Every once in a while you're treated to a special gun, like the rifle that shoots bullets in bullet-time that you can steer, but they quickly run out of ammo and are then discarded, put there seemingly as an occasional reminder of the whole time thing. Otherwise, it's your standard FPS, solid, dependable, and satisfying, if not spectacularly so.

Time Passages: What helps Singularity rise above other rank-and-file first-person shooters is the TMD — Time Manipulation Device. It's a wrist-mounted gadget from Cold War-era Russia that allows the wearer to age objects back and forth, cause localized time distortions, blast enemies apart using ferocious temporal energies, or pry open rifts in time. Using the device to manipulate the mysterious element E-99 certain objects are infused with, you can even use it to pick up and throw items.

Okay, so the science is a bit suspect. The application is rather nice, at least when you aren't busy reassembling smashed crates under doors to pry them open. While the game's puzzles may be overused and derivative (slowing time to stop giant fan blades? Really?), TMD-based combat keeps things fresh and entertaining. Aging enemy soldiers until they crumble into dust, maturing mutant ticks so they turn on their young, or aging the support holding up a couple of exploding barrels so they drop down on enemies' heads; it's these sorts of entertaining and generally unnecessary diversions that keep Singularity from becoming boring and repetitive. I like to think of it as playing with my food.

Twisted Tales Of Science!: In early Cold War-era Russia a sinister scientist discovers a mysterious new element on the island of Katorga-12 called E-99, the properties of which allow for the manipulation of time energies. In 2010 a U.S. soldier checking on the island after a strange energy knocks out an American satellite finds himself trapped there, forced to travel back and forth through time to unravel the mystery. It's pulp science fiction at its best. It's got questionable science, a mysterious terrorist group that knows your name, hilariously bad Russian accents, and a time-twisted plot that would make the most seasoned Doctor Who fan sit up and go, "Wait, what?" As long as you aren't taking it too seriously, Singularity's plot is stupid fun.

Time For Some Upgrades: Did you know that a Time Manipulation Device is capable of boosting the number of health kits you can use, or how much stamina you possess? Singularity's upgrade system makes about as much sense as its plot, but it's just as satisfying. By collecting the E-99 that's scattered all over the island of Katorga-12, you can transform yourself from a crepe paper soldier afraid to turn the corner to a tough-as-nails commando without fear. There's even a weapons upgrade system that can eventually be modified to use E-99 instead of the rare weapon tech upgrades you'll find laying around. Again, it makes no sense whatsoever, but who am I to complain when I go from being downed from four gunshots to wading through groups of enemies as if they weren't there?

Great Moments In Cold War History: With great time manipulation powers comes some great opportunities to push Singularities capable graphics engine to its snapping point. Singularity is littered with awe-inspiring moments; times when the game and gameplay truly shine. Watching a gigantic ocean liner reassemble itself and rise from the waters of Katorga-12's docks is incredibly impressive, just as having to navigate the said ship in order to find a bomb while it slowly crumbles apart is exactly the sort of death-defying, over-the-top action I crave in a video game.

Hated
Difficulty In Reverse: Remember in the upgrades section above, when I asked who I was to complain? Well now I am complaining. The upgrade system in Singularity is enjoyable, but it also ruins any sense of tension that might have existed towards the end of the game. I'm used to my shooters getting more difficult towards the latter half, but the opposite is true here. Once you obtain the armor upgrade and toss a couple of points into it, there's no enemy in the game that poses a significant threat anymore.

Beastly Multiplayer: Rather than pit soldiers against other soldiers, Singularity tries to follow the Left 4 Dead multiplayer model, pitting teams of humans against groups of mutant enemies in two multiplayer modes. You've got the team death match flavor of Soldiers Vs. Creatures, or the territory takeover in Extermination, in which the soldiers try to activate three beacons that will destroy the opposing monsters. Having only two game types and a handful of maps wouldn't be such an issue if there weren't serious balance issues between the soldiers and monsters. The creature team seems to constantly struggle to keep up with the soldiers, whose ranged weapons and selective time manipulation powers seem to outclass their bestial counterparts at every turn.

Just as Singularity's story intertwines elements from the modern era and Cold War eras, the game itself is a combination of older first-person shooter conventions and new ideas. The game obviously borrows heavily from many different sources, most notably BioShock's aesthetic sense and upgrade system. The difference is that Singularity, by design or by happy accident, doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. It's a nonsensical time-travelling trip that somehow works itself into an experience that's quite enjoyable, as long as you're able to toss your suspension of belief out the window and enjoy it for what it is: Stupid fun.

Singularity was developed by Raven Software and published by Activision for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on June 29. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the Xbox 360 version of game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through single-player campaign on standard difficulty. Logged several hours of multiplayer play.

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