Singularity is essentially Half-Life lite. It’s a first person shooter that partners conventional military hardware with abstract futuristic weaponry in a fight against faceless soldiers and nuclear mutants. You take orders from an old scientist and his attractive-yet-pragmatic female sidekick while using a gravity gun to work your way through a series of fading post-apocalyptic environments. In fact, time is all that separates one game from the other.
In Singularity, you play as Nate Renko, an American soldier who stumbles through a time-rift in an abandoned Soviet research facility and inadvertently saves the life of a Communist dictator in 1955. The ensuing fallout results in a Russian Cold War victory, so it’s up to you to go back and restore the world to its original state. The whole endeavour is a massive time paradox akin to Back to the Future, but it’s easy enough to follow if you’re willing to swallow a lot of pseudo-scientific gibberish.
A wonderful gadget known as the Time Manipulation Device holds the narrative and the gameplay together. The TMD isn’t a time machine, so you can’t travel at will. However, you are able to tamper with the chronological composition of your surroundings, which primarily involves tinkering with objects in varying states of decomposition. Repairing collapsed stairwells and restoring busted machinery are a few of the possibilities, and it’s all seamlessly incorporated into the natural flow of the game. Experimenting with your arsenal is a genuine pleasure that only gets better once you take your time to the battlefield.
The energy-infused rifle that allows you to guide bullets in slow motion is only the beginning. Zapping humans with the TMD immediately ages them to dust, while zapping them twice turns soldiers into slavering mutants that will rip their comrades to shreds while you patiently munch on popcorn. The gravity gun allows you to shoot rockets and grenades back at enemies, while gas canisters, propane tanks, and liquid nitrogen all make for highly serviceable projectiles.
Sadly, the practical realities of warfare prevent the combat from fulfilling its variable potential. Battles tend to guide you towards the use of one specific weapon and the mechanics aren’t smooth enough to facilitate any particularly dynamic strategies. Switching from a shotgun to the TMD takes several agonizing half-seconds longer than it should, so you’ll absorb a lot of punishment if you try to get too clever. You’re usually better off unloading with whatever weapon you happen to be carrying.
The combat is still functional and it eventually becomes possible to mix and match once you become more familiar with the timing of the controls. It’s simply not quite as good as it could have been, which is an apt summary for the entire game. Singularity sets itself up as a multigenerational sci-fi caper in which you’ll have to use the past to change the present. That game never fully materializes.
It’s a shame, because the segments in which you do get to time hop stand out as some of the best shooter stages in recent memory. Sliding fifty-five years from a crumbling chamber into a busy break room full of guards creates some unexpectedly exciting set pieces, and there are enough thrilling moments to make Singularity worthwhile. Raven just doesn’t develop any of the more interesting mechanics. The chrono-light, for instance, is forgotten almost immediately after it’s introduced, giving Singularity the incomplete feel of a project that was rushed out the door so that the designers could take off for lunch.
That half-hearted design philosophy is reflected in Singularity’s flat difficulty curve. You’ll coast through it in about eight hours—which is disappointing given that the challenges scale for a game of twice that length. An obstacle about three-quarters of the way through the game illustrates the problem. You’ll find yourself trapped in a room with an inaccessible elevator and will have to carry a building block through a time rift in order to progress.
The solution is perfectly satisfying, but the block portal is an introductory-level puzzle that should tease more complex temporal platforming. Unfortunately, it’s the only multi-dimensional task in the entire game, and earlier scenarios are similarly rudimentary. The intricate situations that are generally saved for later chapters are conspicuously absent; leaving you longing for more even after you’ve overcome everything Singularity has to offer.
Enemy encounters don’t pose much more of a threat. The Soviet soldiers are always wildly incompetent, although some of the mutants are startlingly aggressive. Regardless, health kits are so plentiful that your life bar may as well regenerate and the more dangerous opponents only step in for cameo appearances. An intense fight with a creature that revives other monsters never gets repeated even though it’s not a boss fight and it’s not too hard to figure out that you should kill the medic first.
There are some RPG elements, but they’re wholly unremarkable and have a middling impact on gameplay. The same is true of the lacklustre multiplayer, which won’t make anyone forget Call of Duty. Singularity also contains some spectacular instances of cranial violence. A well-placed sniper round will cause an opponent’s head to erupt in a torrent of bone shards and blood, and it remains awesome every single time.
Raven ultimately deserves credit for introducing some fun innovations into a stagnating first person genre. A 15-hour version of Singularity with more complex chronological gameplay would be a worthy rival to Half-Life 2 and BioShock in the Pantheon of great sci-fi shooters. As it stands, Singularity is merely a good game with the slightly below average implementation of slightly above average ideas. The rich material deserves a more ambitious presentation, and Singularity is too brief to warrant anything beyond a rental.