Wednesday, 31 August 2011


Post-Launch Review
Singularity (PC)
Developer: Raven Software
Publisher: Activision
Released: June 29 2010

Singularity is a first-person shooter following Captain Renko, an American soldier sent to investigate a radiation surge on a Russian island. He discovers an abandoned research facility that had been working on a new material called E-99 with incredible energy and reality-bending properties. Renko quickly discovers the alarming time-shifting effects of E-99 when he is sent to the past and screws up the timeline, so he sets out to fix what he's broken, fighting his way through mutants and soldiers alike, hopping between 2010 and 1955, and slowly discovering that everything is not as it seems, even after considering all the time travel anomalies.

At Launch
The game received generally favourable reviews. Some criticized it for its resemblance to other shooters (notably Bioshock) while others praised it for taking elements from other games and making them its own. Others criticized Singularity for forcing the awesomely versatile time travel mechanic into the linearity of a first person shooter.

Post Launch
Singularity received only one patch to fix a texture bug at high resolutions and a networking bug. In early 2011, Singularity was nominated for the Writers' Guild Video Game Writing Award, but did not win.

The Good
Opening Sequence
After a nice intro video placing the game's fictional history within the context of real history, your recon team crash-lands on the forgotten Katorga-12 research facility. The first location you encounter is the island's welcome centre. It's full of old propaganda: very upbeat and anti-US. It's neat to see a bit of the other side of the Cold War, which in North America is traditionally depicted as the good guys (United States) versus the evil bad guys (Russian communists). You find some audio recordings giving hints to the history of the facility, such as how it went into decline after the head scientist died in a fire. It's all very Bioshock, in a good way: a once-glorious abandoned facility with bits and pieces of history scattered around.
Then you get your first hint of time travel. After a blast of energy you find yourself in the middle of a fire. Without thinking, you pull a man out, saving his life. Turns out you just rescued the head scientist who had died in the fire — except now he hasn't. When you return to your time, the room is different and you find an audio recording about how well the facility is doing since the head scientist was saved from that fire. DUN DUN DUNNNNNN.

Writing & Pacing
The writing in Singularity is superb. Everything is interrelated and timestreams cross each other at every opportunity, but it all makes sense if you puzzle it out. There are lots of little moments that work really well — at one point they managed to make me afraid of a room full of children. The plot blazes right along, introducing the alternate history along with the dangers and effects of time travel all in the opening level.
You start off in exploration mode, with a destination in mind but searching for information and clues on the way. When you meet back up with a squadmate you go into action-sequence escort mode — but he won't move forward without you, which gives you time to look for hidden stuff.
You hop back and forth between 1955 and 2010, creating a very complicated but awesome timeline and further messing with it in various ways. I saved a guy, then went back in time and killed him again, because it turned out that saving him screwed up the timestream.
You find cryptic messages written on the walls, seeming to have been written by someone with knowledge of the future. Especially towards the end, these messages make you stop and think — one asks, “what if this was supposed to happen?”, forcing you to question how you determine which time stream is the “right” one, and whether “fixing” the time stream is the right thing to do in the first place.

Time Manipulation
The ability to age or de-age certain objects at will is awesome and makes for some neat puzzles. For example, there's a door stuck almost closed, so I age a crate so that it crumples flat, place it under the door, and de-age it again to force the door up. It is fairly liner and specific in that only certain objects can be manipulated, but it makes me FEEL like I have a lot more control, especially since only a few things are mandatory to advance, while others give you neat little insights into what went on at Katorga.
Also worth mentioning, the TMD (time manipulation device) is a great-looking prop. I kind of want to build a replica with lights and tubes and stuff.

It's been a while since I played a first-person shooter with a really different assortment of weapons. There's a sniper rifle where you manually guide the bullet; a grenade launcher where you manually roll the bomb to its destination; a sniper rifle that can slow time for a moment to better allow you to line up your shots; and an explosive railgun with an infrared scope, as well as your standard pistol/assault rifle/shotgun/rocket launcher. The minigun is also fairly awesome.

Colour Palette
Singularity mostly takes place in dark, dank ruins, but you frequently get big splashes of blue and orange, with the colours varying between the time and the tech involved. The present is mostly dark and glowy-orange, helping emphasize the decay, while the past is brighter, cleaner, and glowy-blue. But those are just overall averages — there are plenty of exceptions and a few variations.

F.E.A.R. + Bioshock
Much as I hate labelling things, Singularity looks and plays like a mix between F.E.A.R. and Bioshock: a run-down old facility, but atmospherically much darker and scarier than Bioshock's Rapture. And since both of those games were very good, Singularity turns out very well. But it's not just a mashup of two different games — the time travel mechanic and plot are very effective at making this game stand out and feel like its own thing.

The game has three endings. When you get to the end it might seem as though there are only two options, but there is a third. One ending tends towards the more “evil” kind of video game ending, but with its own neat complications that arise. There's a “selfish” or “neutral” ending that's more ambiguous as to its morality. But here's what really got me: the “good” ending manages to throw in just a little bit of doubt as to whether it was the right thing to do. I can't say too much more without spoiling things, so I'll leave it at that.

The Neutral
I put this under neutral because it's not a bad thing for me, but you can decide for yourself. Singularity is pretty easy. I played on normal difficulty, as I always do. I only died once and always ran a surplus of health kits, energy packs, and ammo. I purchased more upgrades than I could actually equip, and maxed out multiple weapons. The difficulty especially breaks down when you find and upgrade the minigun, which is given to you as a standard weapon. At its height the minigun gets 100 rounds per magazine with 500 in reserve, and the damage upgrade combined with the accuracy upgrade mean it takes a maximum of four seconds of sustained fire to kill any non-boss, and you can do so from across the map.
I get the impression that the difficulty was scaled for the lower accuracy and response of a controller, and was not adjusted for the PC version.

The Bad
Poor Console Port
I started up the game and noticed it was at a low resolution by default. That's fine, I'll turn it up. Except the dropdown menu only went up to 1280x720 for me — a bit of research indicates that the game fails to recognize many non-standard laptop display resolutions, ie, anything between 720p and 1080p. I had to search out a fix, which was going into the Windows registry and editing two files for X and Y resolution. Follow the link for a Windows 7 fix: Additionally, the game's textures are only 720p, so if you run at a higher resolution, they start to look jagged and/or blurry. Antialiasing is not available at all on the PC version. Also, as mentioned above, the game is pretty easy.

It had some neat ideas — the soldiers play in first-person while the mutants play in third-person, for example — but it wasn't different or varied enough to stand up for long. Which is probably why PC multiplayer is pretty much dead.

The Verdict
Recommendation: play it.
Yes, it's a linear FPS — but it often makes you feel as though it's not, or that you have more control than you really do. The plot is pretty awesome and brings up a lot of questions and implications about time travel morality and mechanics. The weapons are pretty unique. What more could you want from a first-person shooter?
The only thing I'd recommend is to consider on which platform you'll play. It's still $30 on Steam. Play it on the PC if you don't like shooters on the console, but otherwise it'd probably be better to get an XBox or PS3 copy — less bugs to worry about, and it might pose more of a challenge. If you're lucky you can probably find it for a fair bit cheaper than on Steam.


  1. Excellent review! :D I have pretty much the same compliments and criticisms regarding this game.

    I found it very enjoyable, I loved the setting, the story and the weapons... but the last third of the game was too easy.

    I've played the game on both PC and PS3 and think you are right, the gameplay difficulty was balanced for more sluggish console controls; it is easy to mow down soldiers with a mouse and keyboard. Though I didn't find the PS3 version terribly hard either, mainly because there are plentiful health kits, weapon upgrades and E99 tech all over the place, so you become an unstoppable superman 3/4 of the way through the game.

    There's also the fact that the humans can be killed by just a couple of bullets from your assault rifle or minigun, and if you upgrade the damage they don't stand a chance. (The monsters are quite tough though.)

    I'd have preferred it if it the soldiers were closer to the toughness of the monsters. Like Half-Life 1 in hard mode. Or in TimeShift, where the bulky body armour and helmets actually worked and let them shrug off large amounts of bullets, forcing you to use your special powers and unusual weapons for an advantage. But I recall some people criticising the super-resiliant soldiers in TimeShift, so I guess there's no way to please everyone!

    The biggest reason the game is easy is the Deadlock time freezing power. It is very useful, and yet it has the cheapest upgrades in the game. At first you can only freeze a couple of enemies for a few seconds, but when you upgrade it you can freeze an entire room full of enemies for 20 seconds. It makes it an "I win" button.

    I replayed the game and did not upgrade the Deadlock power, and did not upgrade the damage of the assault rifle or minigun, and the game was still fun and occasionally challenging towards the end.

    The game is worth checking out in hard mode. The first bit with Phase Ticks is a nightmare, but other than that the game feels better balanced in hard mode. The plentiful health kits make sense when any hits you take cause you to lose a huge chunk of your health bar.

    It's a shame about the problem with non-standard laptop resolutions; I played on my desktop computer and the game worked great. Also, graphics quality can be improved by going into your computer's Nvidia or ATI graphics control centre and forcing on anti-aliasing.

    So yeah, the game is slightly better on console, but it is still good on PC. Messing with your graphics card settings will let you make the game look pretty good. And if you are an experienced gamer, just go straight to Hard difficulty setting.

  2. Thanks for the comment, especially the bit about forcing antialiasing. I'd always heard that forcing AA (or other settings) through the video card is much worse for performance than using the application settings -- do you know anything about that?

  3. That's probably true, it is usually better to use a game's own setting rather than forcing it on through the graphics card control panel. But if game doesn't have menu options for something, there's no harm in trying forcing it on and seeing what happens. That's exactly why there is an Nvidia/ATI control panel. Can play good old Half-Life 1 or Quake 2 with 16x antialiasing!

    When I played Singularity I forced on AA, and I think I may also have had to force on anisotropic filtering and vsynch, can't remember which settings the game does and doesn't have. Game still ran fast and smooth. My computer's quite powerful, but I don't think Singularity is a very hardware-demanding game. On console it has natural built in anti-aliasing.

    Also, despite having console-port problems like limited graphics options, I was impressed at how it was completely bug-free. I've never had a crash or encountered weird physics or had something not work as it should. (When the game was released there was a texture problem, but the version 1.1 patch fixed that.)

    I'd have liked the option to disable the glowing, shining effects on objects and ammo pick-ups etc. I think that was a menu option in Bioshock, but in Singularity there's no option to get rid of it. Exploration would be more fun if useful objects didn't glow brightly!