Monday, October 17, 2011

Singularity review

Seeing Singularity on the shelf the other day, I vaguely remembered reading that it was an FPS with some time manipulation mechanics (to be honest, I think I was confusing it with Timeshift in my mind), and I decided to give it a go. I was not expecting much, a basic modern-day sci-fi FPS with bullet time and some other gimmicks that would keep me entertained for a weekend. What I found was something rather special.

I am sorely tempted to walk you through the start of the game to try to explain what surprised me about it, but I'll save that for the spoilers section. Instead I'll just say this: I was probably twenty minutes into the game when I finally picked up a gun. Up till that point the worst I had done was stab a couple of wooden boards into submission with a knife. But I had saved a life, and in doing so broke the world.

This initially slow pace is because Singularity has quite a strong story. It's not as deep or elaborate as more RPG-like games and the supporting characters aren't very well developed, but it still gives a you a much better reason for what you're doing than most shooters. Personally I found it engaging and one of the game's strong points.

Speaking of the plot, one of the pivotal moments has you carrying a man to safety. I found this to be really engaging, because this was one of the few times I could remember in a shooter when I had a chance to actually save a life. If you're the hero, how come all you're supposed to care about is killing people, and you're never supposed to care about saving all the civilians or friends who get gunned down in front of you?

I remember in Half Life 2 I would always order my squad mates to hold their position so I could take care of the enemy without them getting killed - that's what heroes are supposed to do, right? Well, it generally doesn't work - certainly the game never cares if you've saved a few grunts or hid in the back and let them all die. But Singularity actually gave me a chance to save someone, and even though I knew it was all scripted, it was still an intense experience.

I think one of the things that helped draw me in was that the main character is almost a silent protagonist, so it feels more like the consequences are of your actions, not his. I say almost because the mold is broken in a few ways, but mostly these work well for the story rather than detracting from it.

Unfortunately the supporting cast just don't engage with the player. At one point you're saved by a woman called Kathryn who is apparently a British agent but dresses more like she belongs in Mirror's Edge. She basically plays the role of Alyx Vance, but she's just not very good at it as her presence makes less sense, she's less useful, and generally behaves less like a person and more like a set of player instructions. Your other source of directives, Victor Barisov, is even less interesting despite being far more integral to the plot. The main villain himself has his moments and is quite villainous, though it sometimes feels less as though he is the main threat and more as if time itself is your opponent.

As mentioned, the game centres around time-travel. While this is used to good effect in the story, and leads to some very atmospheric and visually impressive scenes, it doesn't really do very much in gameplay terms. You have a handful of abilities, such as the ability to age or renew some objects, slow down some enemies or prevent them from teleporting around, but these are so specific and context-sensitive that they never amount to much more than fancy switches.

For example, you can age or de-age some objects, but only specific objects and there's only the two extremes. So essentially it's nothing more than a visually interesting switch some objects have. There's a few puzzles that rely on this, but they're generally not very taxing and have very little variety. You can levitate and throw some objects, like barrels, but that's hardly related to time-travel and actually serves to highlight the static nature of the environment - in any given area they may be a handful of boxes or barrels you can pick up, and lot of boxes, lamps, telephones, chairs, and other small objects that may as well have been carved out of the ground you're walking on. It feels artificial and makes the environments feel less realistic than they would if you couldn't move anything at all.

When using your time powers on the enemies, the effect depends on the enemy, so some will slow down, others turn around and attack their friends, while one type of enemy jumps up and chases you for a few seconds then explodes. Again the lack of consistency is annoying. If all the enemies reacted the same way it would make sense and feel like time manipulation, but instead it feels like the enemies themselves have some sort of switch you can flip.

Speaking of enemies, there's a fair variety, especially when compared to the ubiquitous modern military shooter. There's solders with a variety of armaments, and a range of monsters with different abilities and appearances. While none are terribly visually impressive or imaginative, in gameplay terms they're nice and varied and some are quite scary, others are dangerous enough that you have to figure out the best weapons and tactics to take them on.

One interesting thing about this game is that it doesn't follow the modern trend of regenerating health. Instead you have a health bar and can carry a few med kits. Here's the thing: you're health bar is short. Seriously, it only takes a three or four attacks from most of the monsters to kill you, and if you let yourself get caught out in the open against soldier you lose most of your life in the few seconds it takes you to get to cover.

This is brilliant, because it means that combat is scary again! It's not about walking forwards until you get shot then hiding for a few seconds, in this game you need to move carefully, against monsters you will run like hell while firing like crazy, against soldiers you will need to use cover and advance slowly, pulling tricks like ageing their cover to destroy it and de-ageing objects to hide behind yourself, or using some of the more interesting weapons.

The weapons are a bit of a mixed bag. Unfortunately you can only carry two, though there's plenty of opportunity to swap as needed. Also all the regular weapons can be upgraded, but this doesn't really work as well as it should because every weapon has exactly the same upgrade options, none of which have any visual impact, and upgrade modules are hard to come by. As a result the system feels tacked-on and lackluster, failing to instill the kind of sense of ownership that some games do.

While the standard weapons are underwhelming, but some of the special weapons are brilliant, and just incredibly fun to use. The first weapon you get is an impressive (if ugly) looking revolver that's surprisingly pathetic. I had to empty almost the entire cylinder on the first enemy in the game. The fact that it was weak made sense from the perspective that a pistol should be weak and you get more powerful weapons later, and also in terms of establishing the enemies as credible threats (and in this case as scary monsters), but that's what small semi-auto pistols are for, not revolvers

Large revolvers are supposed to be powerful and slow, not weak and slow. Take for example the magnum in Half-Life, which will kill a soldier in a single shot but takes skill to use because of the massive recoil. Or better yet the revolver in Resistance 2; not only will kill standard enemies with a single shot, it also has a secondary fire mode that detonates the bullets you've fired, allowing you to kill an enemy then blow up the bullet when another is running past the corpse for multiple kills with a single shot, making it great fun to use. The Singularity revolver in contrast is very disappointing, neither fun to shoot nor effective in game, and simply not worth using.

The assault rifle was powerful and effective, and basically the best all-round weapon to use when you have the ammo, but it was not really fun to use due to excessive muzzle-flash and camera shake. The shotgun was powerful at close range, but damage dropped off so quickly with range it was just silly, basically it was only really worth using when running low on assault rifle ammo. There's also a rocket launcher, which has the advantage of being a 'special' weapon. This means that you can carry it in addition to your regular two weapons, but you drop it if you try to use a regular weapon. This works perfectly for a limited-use weapon like this, and the rocket launcher itself works well.

The sniper rifle follows the Resistance model, and allows a few seconds of "bullet time" when zoomed in. Great fun to use thanks to the game's damage system (I'll get back to this later), and it's power makes it a great choice against most enemies, but as you would expect limited ammo capacity and supplies greatly restrict it's use. That's not a bad thing, it makes it more of treat when you do use it, but if you could carry more than two weapons so you could afford to carry it and only use it when needed would have been nice.

There's a minigun that puts out a hell of a lot of firepower and actually has a pretty decent ammo capacity. The main problem is that you cannot move very fast when firing or spinning the barrels, and if you walk around without spinning the barrels it will take a moment to start spitting out bullets. This makes it unsuitable for standard use as you may get surprised and killed before you actually get it firing, but extremely useful in intense fights.

Now for the more unique weapons. There's a weapon that fires powerful spikes, but you have to charge it up before firing. I find it annoying and very difficult to use, and only bothered with it in one single section of the game where you fire at large unmoving targets.

Then there's the explosives launcher. This either lobs grenades in typical grenade-launcher fashion, or drops a remote-controlled explosive sphere that you drive around and detonate at will. You cannot move when using this alternate fire mode as the thumbstick controls the movement of the grenade instead, which works surprisingly well. You can see an outline of the ball through objects, and it has a pleasing weight and momentum, which makes rolling it behind enemies cover and blowing them to bits surprisingly easy and fun. There's even a couple of Overall a very powerful and effective weapon that's quite unique and a lot of fun to use.

Perhaps the most entertaining weapon in the entire game is the 'seeker' rifle. This is another special weapon, so you only get to use in a few areas in the game, but it is incredibly fun to use, as well as being insanely over-powered. Basically, it's a powerful rifle which fires exploding bullets that can easily kill all but the most powerful enemies with a single shot. The big deal though is that when you hold the aiming button when firing, you can guide each individual bullet in slow motion right to the enemy, "Redeemer-style". It's easy to wipe out whole armies from behind cover, slowing homing in each shot to it's doomed target. Not only that, but you get a second after the impact to watch them die in glorious slow motion. For example, you will come across soldiers carrying ballistic shields that are proof against most of your weapons. With this gun it's not a problem, just guide the bullet under the shield and watch their legs go flying off.

Which leads to my next point: the hit reactions are not only very well done, they're also quite gory. Limbs get blown off, monsters explode in a shower of bits, and you can even freeze and shatter enemies using barrels of liquid nitrogen (in addition of course to blowing them up with the exploding barrels). I have to say, freezing a soldier then shattering him in slow motion with the sniper rifle creates a rain of glittering shards of ice that's quite impressive, as well as very morbid.

I think one of the most interesting things about this game is that I experienced so many memorable gaming moments that weren't large set pieces, but more subtle in-game affairs. The gameplay is great fun thanks to the use of non-regenerating health and some great weapons, and will perhaps appeal to more old-fashioned gamers for the same reasons. Finally, the story is engrossing and well presented, with some genuinely unique moments.

Overall I give it a 9 out of 10: while it has a number of shortcomings, these are more than offset by some genuinely great moments.

Some may find that Singularity starts too slowly, that it takes too long to get to the action. Personally I felt it worked extremely well - a hell of a lot happens before you even get to pick up a gun, including what I consider one of the game's most memorable moments (for me, it was probably one of the most memorable gaming moments I've experienced). If you don't want that spoiled for you, please stop reading now!

The game starts with you in a helicopter, so obviously it's not long before you crash (but not before you're treated to the view of a giant hand holding a sickle rising from the sea). Exploring the crash site, you find a visitors centre featuring a large statue of Stalin's head in the lobby. There's plenty to see here, including a scale model of the island and an orientation video for new arrivals. If you take the time, you'll get an idea of what the island was for and how it worked. Suddenly there's a bright flash, and everything has changed. The broken down walls are back up, there's people everywhere. Oh, and the building is on fire.

You see a man fall as the ground gives way beneath him, managing to grab on to the edge with one hand. You lift him up and start to carry him to safety. There's fire everywhere, people dying left and right, but eventually you carry him to the relative safety of the lobby where survivors have gathered, and place him in front of the statue where a medic is waiting. A moment later the light returns, and you're back in the present.

But suddenly it hits you: the statue has changed! Stalin's head has been replaced by a statue of... the man you just saved? Crap.

One moment I was happy, proud even, that I had managed to saved someone, the next I was hit by the realisation that my actions had far greater consequences than I had imagined. Yes, I know it was all pre-scripted so they weren't "my" actions. And yes, even as I carried the man to safety I knew that I was changing things. But while the thought occurred to me, while I was expecting to be confronted as some point with the information that I had changed history somehow, I was busy playing and was certainly not expecting such an immediate and impressive display of how large the changes were. What's more, it's not read out, explained to you as if you're some sort of idiot, rather it's there in front of you and you are left to come to your own realisations.

As the game progresses you move back and forth in time and make more changes, and each time the world seems to get stranger. The second time I screwed with the timeline, I jumped back to find strange glowing plants had taken root all over the island. The third time, I stepped outside, looked up and saw a flock of luminescent ethereal microbe-like creatures gently floating across the sky, like a cloud of other-worldly dandelion seeds. At that point I actually stopped for a moment and said to myself "What the hell am I doing to the world?". And that was something special.

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