The Bin: Singularity

Some games aren’t worth the $60 release price. Or half as much, for that matter. How many times have you bought a game and told yourself that if it’s terrible, it was only five bucks?  This brings us to the “Bargain Bin” realm of gaming, a second glance at games far enough down that they don’t see light. Guilty pleasures are a blast — so long as no one’s watching.

Singularity is one of the single most forgettable games to have come out this current console generation. Honestly, I just finished the game and I’m still not positive I ever played it. There are some achievements on my gamer card that I must have unlocked at some point, but if I try to think back on my time spent with the game, I only recollect vague snippets before becoming unnaturally concerned that Russians are trying to steal my freedom.  It’s not that it is a bad game, and I certainly had some fun with it for a while, but it is just so insubstantial and uninspired that it is likely something you’ll only play through once before promptly forgetting about forever.

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The story in the game is certifiably bonkers and I can’t get into a detailed description without first donning a tin-foil hat.  Apparently, at some point the Russians spent lots of resources and time researching the mysterious element 99 and its possible application towards time travel. This might explain why they ended up losing the Cold War, because element 99 is actually Einsteinium, an element that we discovered way back in the early 1950s and has proven to be about as useful a catalyst for time travel as baking soda.  You play as mute American soldier Nathaniel Renko, a member of an investigative team that travels to an old, abandoned Russian research facility to look into some recent unexplainable energy spikes. Renko gets sucked into some sort of time warp while he’s there, and (ignoring Doc Brown’s explicit orders) immediately changes the past by rescuing someone that was supposed to die.  Before even pausing to joke about how in communist Russia, time travels you, Renko is thrown back to the present and discovers that Russia has overrun the world and the formerly uninhabited island he was on is now quite fully inhabited by a variety of monsters.  Renko now must not only escape the island, but somehow make up for the fact that he has single-handedly ruined the world with his time travel antics. It would be like if Marty McFly went back in time and accidentally gave the Germans all the allied encryption codes during World War II.

The first couple areas manage to establish this fantastic mood that captures the creepiness and desperation of the situation nicely. Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong on the island, and the game takes a sort of sadistic pleasure in the initial slow unveil. Barely seen enemies phase in and out of a room littered with soldiers’ bodies hung from meat hooks in the rafters, and I had to valiantly fight my urge to start shooting wildly while screaming, “WHERE ARE YOU?”  The very first area you explore is this abandoned school, littered with hysterical messages from kids and little corpses hidden underneath all the desks, and for future reference this pretty much tops the list of ways to make me feel immediately uncomfortable.  A fantastic job is done establishing this creepy, unnatural atmosphere and creating tension, which is why it is such a shame when the game runs out of ideas a couple of hours in and decides to jump aboard the train to generic shooter junction.

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The game seems to get confused as to what it wants to be and starts trying to jump between creepy segments that play off of atmosphere and pacing, and action oriented segments where the focus is on shooting. You switch back between the two with such regularity that the game loses the atmosphere I enjoyed at the beginning as it seems content to flounder between these two different styles without ever really committing to either.  Because of this, Singularity begins to feel somewhat schizophrenic and never seems quite sure if it wants to jump out and scare you or hand you a mega gun and let you terrorize your foes.  Even the notes and audiologs, which I originally enjoyed, become more banal and while the first couple areas detailed how terrified or desperate someone felt, in the later areas I’d find things like shipping manifests and things that are only terrifying if you can relate to overworked sailors.

Luckily, right about the time the story and atmosphere decided they wanted to take a coffee break you pick up a time manipulation device and the actual gameplay gets noticeably better.  The TMD essentially allows you to manipulate time and direct the effects at a specific object.  It has a variety of uses, most of which are basically some variation of “kill that guy”, but it is also integrated into some remedial puzzle solving.  You can either age or revert selected objects, meaning an old, decrepit staircase can be immediately restored to working order and uncover a new path, or an erased blackboard can be reverted back to the time where everything was readable.  It is an interesting concept, but Singularity never quite figures out what to do with it so you are left repeating the same handful of puzzles throughout the entire game.  It loses its novelty quickly, and Renko ends up repairing so many staircases that he is forced to join the carpenter’s union by game’s end.

It isn’t just the TMD, as a lot of other new weapons become available as well, varying from a gun that shoots exploding spears to a rifle with slow motion bullets you control to a freaking minigun that shoots metal death for about a solid minute before you even need to reload.  The problem is that while the variety and quality of weapons does improve, enemies never seem to get the memo that they can upgrade their equipment as well. The TMD itself makes the game too easy, and while the variety it adds to combat is nice, the developers forgot to scale up the difficulty of the enemies appropriately. The TMD allows you to distort time on the enemies in a way specific to the enemy, but it typically ends up working as an all purpose enemy-be-gone. For a soldier, it ages them to dust, which is an instant kill and you don’t even need to aim. It also has the ability to slow down certain enemies, generates spheres where time is stopped completely, and turns some creatures into bombs.  This isn’t even accounting for the actual weapons in the game, and bringing the minigun into combat creates such an uneven playing field that the enemies might as well just be waving around sticks. Goofing around with the TMD and wide variety of stupidly powerful weapons the game provides you with will provide some entertainment before the novelty wears off and you realize that, with the exception of a couple of new toys, this is essentially the same thing as half a dozen other, better games released just within the past couple of years.

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Singularity pretty much exemplifies the kind of game that isn’t worth picking up until you find it in a bargain bin. It is such a shame too, because early on there is some real potential, and there are aspects of both the plot and gameplay that I genuinely enjoyed. Still, the game seems so intent on trying to ape other popular titles and adhering to the conventions of the genre that it never really bothers to develop an identity of its own. If Singularity were an ice cream flavor, it’d be vanilla. If it were a pizza, it’d be cheese only.  If it were a sandwich, it’d be…well, you get the idea. It’s bizarre because this is a game about time traveling mutant Russians and the first word that comes to mind to describe it is “generic”.

  • http://HardcoreGamer.com Steve Hannley

    Even almost three years later, the game looks great and the plot sounds intriguing. The TMD device is interesting as well. It’s a shame the developers (or more likely publisher) was intent on having elements of a generic shooter to appease the general public. Reminds me of “Run Like Hell”.