68

Tom Francis

Jul 31, 2010

Singularity

Dear sir/madam. I am writing to return the enclosed 'Time Manipulation Device' I purchased as part of your first-person shoot-them-up 'Singularity'. I had looked forward to using the tool to rend the fabric of spacetime like a cheap hooker's tights, but was confused by the results. When assailed by a spindly mutant, for example, I found my TMD simply caused him to turn red, inflate, run towards me and explode – at some cost to my constitution. How is this related to time manipulation? I fail to see how the mutated gentleman could have been an about-to-explode gentleman at any point preceding our encounter – nor destined to become one after it.

I have a question about the TMDaaaaaargh.

Furthermore, while I see consistently good results using the device to age crates and staircases, it has no effect on doors. I did read your helpful disclaimer that the device could only affect objects infused with Element 99, but this only raises further questions. What benefit did the Soviets imagine the most lethal chemical known to man would bring to the humble stair?

I hope for a refund and that you will rename the device The Certain Things Manipulator to save future customers the same confusion.

Yours faithfully,

Your Future Self Or Something Trippy Like That

In Singularity you're an American captain sent to investigate a remote Soviet outpost. What happens there changes history to put a powerhungry lunatic in charge of the world. His empire is based on the Singularity, a power source derived from dangerous new element E99. Ostensibly, E99 is the explanation for both your time manipulation abilities and the mutants you fight. More honestly, they might as well have called it Unexplainium.

The joke is that this is Raven's first original game in a decade, and it's comprised entirely of parcel tape and borrowed ideas. It's as if they've been collecting tropes to rip off: when they couldn't find a way to fit time travel into a Jedi Knight game, or exploding alien bugs into Wolfenstein, they put them into this. I don't mind the borrowing – more games should learn from what the classics do well – but the unfocused jumble they've ended up with makes a lot of the coolest ideas arbitrary or useless.

The Certain Things Manipulator is a perfect example. It's supposed to age things or renew them, which in most cases means bending spacetime to perform menial maintenance work, such as repairing decrepit staircases. It's used for one good puzzle, where you wedge a collapsed crate in a narrow space and renew it to widen the gap. But rather than build on that puzzle type, they simply repeat it four or five times and never come up with anything else.

Even true time-travel isn't used for anything interesting. I thought for one exciting moment that I had to use a crate to jam a bulkhead door open in the past, so it would remain open when I hopped back to the future. But no. You just have to take the crate itself to 2010 and stand on it to reach a higher ledge.

Then you start using the CTM on enemies, and the jumble of random mechanics you find is almost funny. Some enemies it ages. Some it swells to twice their size. Some it turns into zombies who vomit acid on their friends. And some, as mentioned, simply turn red and explode.

Having two noses gives them nasal depth perception.

The thing is, turning people into projectile-vomiting zombies is awesome. If the device always did something along those lines, it'd be a fun and inventive cornerstone of combat. Instead, even towards the end of the game, it takes a second to remember which arbitrary effect your CTM will have on the enemy type you're facing.

One idea that's close to working is the stasis field: you can throw out an orb that pauses everything in a generous sphere of influence. It's awkward, thanks to using the same key as your rudimentary gravity gun, but it offers some interesting options. Lacking any long-range weapons, I was about to give up fighting a sniper when I tried firing a freezeball at him. It hit some cover between us, but every shot he fired was caught in the field and held there, while I slipped round it and shotgunned him at close range.

More commonly, it provides breathing room to fuss around with the game's tactics. You can pick up and fling both exploding barrels and freeze canisters that turn enemies rigid and brittle. You can pump bullets into a stasis field and they'll all hit at once when it collapses. And you can manually roll grenades around in a murderous game of Marble Madness. None of these things are quicker or more efficient than shooting people with guns, but stopping everyone with a stasis field gives you time to do them anyway.

Freeze people in time, then freeze them in nitrogen.

You can eventually level-up your abilities, including the size and duration of your stasis field. But 'eventually' is a dangerous word in a seven-hour game. You get enough E99-themed experience points to make customisations, but most of these are locked until you find certain scraps of paper. It's only in the last hour or so that you have any real freedom to upgrade yourself and, shortly after that, you're given infinite energy for your CTM. I'd specialised in maximising that, so all my upgrades were a waste of time. Sulk mode activate.

The other problem with the level-up stuff is that you get a lot of experience points by exploring. This isn't a nice game to explore. Apart from dragging you through some miserably drab takes on Ruined Lab, Anonymous Warehouse and Thing That Might Be A Sewer, it's riddled with invisible barriers. Can you jump on that? NO. Can you get through there? NO. Can you get across- NO.

The scenery isn't helped by a problem where low-detail versions of most surfaces don't get sharper when you get close. It looks like the world's been hosed down with a number of increasingly beige flavours of soup. That the developers missed this hints at something gone badly wrong behind the scenes.

What did happen behind the scenes, surprisingly, is a whole lot of effort, love and intelligence on the multiplayer. A feature that's so often rushed, in a game that clearly has been rushed, yet it's packed with far more ideas than it strictly needed – all done well. It's a class-based humans vs mutants deathmatch, with an objective-based mode to focus the action. So having a random jumble of unrelated abilities actually works here: each human class has only one or two of your singleplayer powers, and each mutant has a radically different way of fighting.

Why would that even happen?

My favourite's the Phase Tick: a tiny insect that can walk on walls and ceilings, explode on people, or jump on a human's face to take them over. At that point you simply become the player you face-hugged, only with lethal friendly fire. Great fun to do, and even oddly fun to fight against: as a human, I respawned once to face my tick-possessed doppelganger – who promptly killed me with my own carefully chosen loadout.

I'm not optimistic that there'll be many people to play against in the long run – there's no server browser, and already the matchmaking is struggling to find me a game. But it's another aspect to Singularity that makes me sad the overall game was bungled. It just needed someone to say, halfway through development, “Good work guys, now pick three or four mechanics that really work, make them consistently useful, design a few more puzzles around them – and cut everything else.”

It would have given them time to do something interesting with time travel, the space to give each ability its own key (currently four keys double up), and scope to make the combat creative and satisfying throughout. What we've got instead is a desperately muddled game that's routinely frustrating to play, but one that copies enough cool stuff to be fun every ten minutes or so. If it drops to a pittance on Steam, it's worth your time.

Singularity

A confused mess of promising but inconsistent mechanics. Hilarious, maddening, stupid and occasionally fun.

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