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Singularity Throwback Review — Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

It is the year 2010 and you are walking through the streets of Santa Monica when you pass by Activision headquarters. It seems like a normal day in the vicinity. A new CoD is being made to stand in for physical money printers that may give off the wrong impression. Execs are certain that a $120 Tony Hawk game is a good idea. The rhythm game bubble is about to pop (but don’t tell anybody). You are about to round the corner when the all-too-perfect world behind you is disrupted. “Mind the window!” calls an over-eager marketing exec and Singularity, an original IP that has health packs for christ-sakes, flies out to its doom. This is the case except for the fact that you catch it, play it, and expound upon its idiosyncrasies and quality gameplay. You are responsible for a new reality where this disgraced game can be appreciated.

 

The fragility of pop culture’s evolution is a funny thing. Having nearly been canceled in the first place, Singularity was thrown into the fire of a packed summer release schedule with minimal marketing, a passion project for the founders of the long esteemed Raven Software that took place in two time periods at once, interacting with each other in unexpected (albeit scripted) ways. A frantically innovative combination of Wolfenstein, Bioshock, and a little bit of Portal that if presented the right way could very well have been the future of FPS campaigns. Instead, it flopped and remains stuck in an odd purgatory of gameplay aspects that foreshadowed that of future titles and/or feel futuristic to this day, matched with graphics that were merely average for its time and haven’t necessarily aged like George Clooney.

 

These discussions of time and age are not the product of a premature midlife crisis. They are the crux of Singularity’s alt-history-in-real-time premise that serves as the catalyst for gameplay with a gleefully inventive arsenal and deceptively diverse level design. These components gradually reveal themselves, as at first Singularity appears to primarily tip its hat to survival horror. The opening hours are occupied with introducing you to the lore of Katorga-12, hypothetical Soviet Union territory and energy haven. Rather than the ever-reliable World War II era, Singularity is rooted in Cold War paranoia, centered around the discovery of E-99, a nuclear power replicant that can additionally tear through literal time.

Many diverse characters are eager to welcome you to Katorga-12, image courtesy of Singularity Wikia

Once you, Captain Nathaniel Renko, inadvertently land on the island (turns out flying towards an island that primarily violently surges energy in all directions was a bit ill-advised), it isn’t long before you bear witness to E-99’s central power. This revelation is not found in the absurdist mock Soviet propaganda that surrounds you in the opening gameplay (though the deft attention to detail Raven has given to easter eggs and collectibles in the game are commendable). A much more sinister realization of the element’s power occurs right before your eyes, as a surge of its energy immediately sends you to 1955, not to a land of poodle skirts and sideburns, but to your present surroundings now in flames, falling to pieces in front of you.

 

This frames the deeply consequentialist dilemma the game places you in the middle of. While navigating through the engulfing inferno, you save a man who presumably fell to his doom in the prior version of this incident. This was a mistake. In doing so, you have just saved the malevolent mastermind behind the increasingly damaging implementations of E-99 energy. You promptly return to a present-day reality that has now fostered the successful rise of Nikolai Demichev.

 

Oops. (image courtesy of Singularity Wikia)

Your decision has left the modern-day Katorga-12 a wasteland. Humans ravaged by E-99 are now rendered mutants, towering over the player and often sustaining multiple rounds from the weapons you scavenge early on. Most would not be pressured to call Singularity a very scary or even imposing game, but the opening hours of the game do a great job making your character (and you, by proxy) feel uncomfortable in their environment. Though your arsenal is more standard and fleeting in this part of the game, the gameplay remains captivating thanks to above-average gunplay (your limited ammo adds more weight to mechanics that are on-par with triple-A shooters of the time) and an environment that constantly finds more ways to perturb.

 

Where Singularity fully comes together, however, is about two hours into the game when you are equipped with the TMD. This stands for “Time Manipulation Device” and the device opens the door for clever level design and chaotic gunplay. It takes a few more hours for its powers to fully flourish, but immediately your perception of the environment changes as timelines crossover. Obtaining the device allows you to manipulate your environment in a Red Faction-esque manner (and then some), aging pieces of cover forward into ruin or switches and storage boxes in reverse to progress onward. The numerous puzzles focused on this mechanic are rather simple, but cleverly designed and a welcome break from taking out the entire Soviet army and mutated Katorga-12 population at the same time.

Not much in gaming compares to the cleansing feeling of restoring a staircase with the powers of E-99, image courtesy of Singularity Wikia

Watching a staircase reassemble itself piece-by-piece by aging it inversely is one of many strangely satisfying animations brought in tow with this central device. The scattered weight/crate puzzles noticeably reflect Portal, but are a novel change of pace within the context of a combat-driven shooter. Another asset of its pacing and an even more transparent example of influence from Portal is the appearance of well, portals. The TMD opens up marked portals that transition you between 1955 and 2010 any time the level design starts to get old. The novelty of this is second, however, to the moments when the game decides for itself to flash forward or back, often to throw you in the midst of especially surprising setpieces.

Traveling 55 years into the past to find a crate and bring it to the future is more compelling than it sounds I promise, courtesy of Singularity Wikia

Developers of the game have been plain-spoken about abandoning countless potential setpieces due to an abridged development schedule (seven months to develop the final version of the game from the ground-up!), but what makes it into the game accounts for a lack of cinematic flair with the sheer novelty of using the TMD in combat. Excessive doesn’t begin to describe the opportunities the TMD brings to the table. Aging enemies all the way to a fossil in the span of a few seconds is just the start.

The surges of energy that took down your helicopter and got you into this mess in the first place are now on your side, capable of tossing enemies around like newly mutilated ragdolls. Shields and airborne rocket-propelled grenades can be taken from enemies and volleyed back at them. Pieces of cover can be eroded and enemies actively slowed to a crawl as tactical measures. These are the general baseline abilities, and even more displays of perverse strength can be obtained through the upgrade system.

It never gets old, but they do, courtesy of Singularity Wikia

The joys of E-99 being ever present at your fingertips, however, do not quite overshadow the slightly more conventional, but equally satisfying assortment of guns at your disposal. The Centurion pistol you begin with is weak by design, purposefully keeping your potential for power on a leash, and pales in comparison to the weapons you gradually attain as you move deeper into Katorga-12. Though nothing quite compares to the E-99 bomb you are tasked with destroying in the alternate 1955, the grand majority of weapons you use in the game feel remarkably powerful whether or not the force of E-99 permeates them.

 

Switching between the propulsive Volk S4 shotgun, the rapid AR9 assault rifle, and your ever versatile TMD is a pretty untouchable arsenal of destruction that you can depend on being well-stocked for the duration of the game. Specialty weapons like the Seeker Rifle and the RLS-7 are placed strategically to spur on more climactic action sequences and allow players to guide explosive sniper rounds and rockets towards their enemies respectively. The chain gun you are introduced to about halfway through the game is potentially one of the most enjoyable I have ever used, and maybe the one example of disproportionate weapon balancing. By the time I received it, it was tempting to ditch every other (forceful in their own right) weapon entirely.

You can rest in this late game highlight being the demise of many demons and soldiers alike, courtesy of Activision Publishing, Inc

You feel all powerful at points, but the game never becomes an outright cakewalk. Somewhat arbitrarily (but necessary to the game’s difficulty curve), some mutants you encounter are outright resistant to the TMD’s power, serving as mini or all-out boss battles. A highlight is battling what resembles a giant mutated praying mantis on top of a train car, displaying a cinematic flair that has been said to have been kept out of the game as a whole due to time constraints, but arguably stands stronger due to being a one of a kind segment within the game. Elsewhere, stronger and more damage resistant enemies are interspersed among battles with mutants of a varied design and Russian officers, neither of whom are too smitten with the sight of you.

 

In playstyle and character progression specifically, Singularity calls to mind shooters in the vein of Quake and Raven’s own Wolfenstein. You feel increasingly powerful as the campaign advances not through ornate setpieces, but through amassing a progressively damaging and outlandish arsenal, taking down enemies that only increase in these properties alongside you. Underneath the Bioshock influenced narrative and upgraded presentation is an explicit homage to the chaos characterizing the original glory days of first-person shooting, where ambitions of reality-defying game design surpassed technological limitations.

There tends to be a lot going on in Singularity at once, image courtesy of Singularity Wikia

I returned to Singularity after playing through Titanfall 2, particularly a similarly time manipulative level in the midst of the campaign. Both have frantically creative campaigns, placed on the same level of importance as their multiplayer (I was unable to return to Singularity’s multiplayer due to a lack of player support but remember it being a creative twist on the likes of Dead Space). Both were developed by renowned companies and were pretty swiftly swept to the side by an unforgiving release schedule. The push towards homogeneity in the FPS genre spurred on by increasing game budgets and the need for every release to be a crowd pleaser was very likely reinforced by the success (or lack thereof) of these titles; Singularity being the last original IP Raven will tentatively work on and Respawn Entertainment being redirected towards working on a licensed title as evidence.

 

Recent articles in this publication and many of the major outlets alike have questioned the state of single player gaming in recent years as the bubble of battle royales engulfs the industry. Singularity has already been resigned to being considered something of a relic, whilst potentially in an alternate universe representing what the future of FPS campaigns could be. The space for original IPs with single-player campaigns in the genre seems increasingly precarious, but the quality and innovation of these titles realized to their full potential speak for themselves. As passe as directing this much attention to a single-player FPS experience may appear to many consumers, games of Singularity’s ambition in spite of its ramshackle resources ought to be propped up in a time where their significance is doubted more so than ever before.

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  1. […] levels that barely seem to narratively connect with each other. I recently compared 2010 FPS Singularity to retro spiritual predecessors Quake and Wolfenstein, but Dredd vs. Death recalls a title like […]

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