PC, PS3, XB360
If you back Buried Treasure at the £20 or £50/m tiers, you gain the ability to force me to review anything. Literally anything, be it the wings of a blackbird, your favourite Lebanese movie, or even something so esoteric as a game. That was the choice of one such backer, who believes that Raven’s Singularity is an unfairly forgotten great, from a team that deserves to be doing more than Call Of Duty sequels.
I reviewed Singularity on its release in 2010. I honestly haven’t the faintest idea what I wrote about it, because I have the memory of a sieve with head injuries. I’ve not gone back to read it, instead deciding to review the game again some 11 years later, to see if I agree with myself. I’m fascinated to read my own review after I’m done.
Playing Singularity in 2021, there are a great many features that stand out as excellent. The storyline, while often incomprehensible and told in a frustratingly piecemeal way, is fantastically silly. The level design is as fantastic as you’d expect from Raven. The time manipulation effects are splendid, still looking great today. And it’s backed with thumping weapons, an ever-growing roster of powers and abilities, and some half-way decent attempts to learn from BioShock in its structure. The one thing it isn’t, incredibly strangely, is a very good shooter.
Raven is a developer that gave us the likes of Heretic, Hexen, Star Trek: Voyager – Elite Force, Jedi Knight II and even the revolting Soldier Of Fortune games. Years of producing some of the best ever FPS games, always in some sense seeming like id’s supply teacher, but still giving us brilliance. And then… nothing but Call Of Duty, working on fourteen of them, for the last decade. FOURTEEN. Now, why this happened clearly isn’t simple, and financial difficulties around the time of Singularity’s development were stark and saw dozens of employees laid off. Yet, having replayed Singularity over the last few days, I’m still made to feel very sad that this inventive studio is now exclusively doing support work at the COD factory.
OK, the plot. Let me try my best. There’s an island, once Soviet, now abandoned, called Katorga-12. After some sort of odd explosion, a bunch of US marines head in, but crash their helicopter after another energy surge. You, a chap called Renko, find yourself time shifting between the present day and 1955, where you save a scientist, Demichev, from dying in a fire. Doing so rather enormously changes history, seeing the Russians become a dominant world force, invading most of the globe, and wouldn’t you know it, Demichev now RULES THE WORLD. You then get a magic time gun, and start shooting your way through the two timezones, in an attempt to prevent all these shenanigans from having taken place. (It is utterly bewildering at the very end of the game when it’s announced to you, with breathless shock, that it might just have been your rescuing Demichev that changed everything! Um…)
There’s also a lady called Kathryn, who appears to be there because Half-Life 2 had Alyx, and for no other given reason. And there’s Barisov, who invented the Time Manipulation Device (TMD/magic time gun), whom you save from being killed by Demichev in the past. And oh my. This story is told to you in shouted voice over, occasional in-person chats, and an absolutely infuriating number of notes and voice recordings (the latter of which can only be heard if you stand immediately next to the player for their dreary duration, which no one ever will do. ALL GAMES! LET US HEAR RECORDINGS AS WE CARRY ON PLAYING!) But really you’re hear to kill all the soldiers and mutant soldiers (mutated by time wibbles), using your arsenal of guns and powers.
The powers are where Singularity is most interesting. You can rewind or fast-forward objects that have been created using a substance called E-99. Sadly this mostly involves uncrushing crates or rebuilding staircases, and is woefully underused as a cool device. But where it is used, it remains cool. While they never managed to think of a second puzzle after “put crushed crate under barrier, uncrush crate, go under barrier”, it’s still a cool puzzle! It’s very satisfying watching containers reassemble themselves from their rusty ruin, or steps rebuilt and fly back together. (And if you’re thinking, “Gosh, this sounds a lot like TimeShift!” then I can only imagine how Saber Interactive must have felt.)
What’s less satisfying is definitely the shooting, which is very odd for a Raven game. You’re limited to two weapons at a time, but there’s no good reason for it, not least when there are so many weapon lockers and spare guns absolutely everywhere that it’s mostly just an inconvenience rather than a system. Aiming is fine, enemy AI is dumb enough not to be annoying, but there’s just very little sense of hitting. There’s a real lack of impact, especially on the mutants, who just rush you until they fall over. Enemies all have perfect aims, all the time, and the lack of autoheal (while not something I crave) means you’re incessantly spamming health packs, even if very rarely dying.
This is especially sad since it gives almost no incentive to play with the time tricks you have. About halfway in you can create time bubbles, that are used for precisely one puzzle, and then there to let you trap enemies and shoot while they slo-mo scramble. Except, you never really need to use it, and it’s faster and more efficient just to shoot them straight.
That is, of course, except for The Bit With The Spiders. Because some weird ancient Mayan curse means that all FPS games are forced to include a scuttling/flying irritant bug-like enemy, despite no one on planet Earth enjoying their inclusion in any shooter ever, Singularity has exploding spiders. Mostly they’re fine, you just shoot them from a distance, but in one scene, in the sewers, they are not. It’s especially tedious because the game’s lack of quicksave means you’re required to go around the same chamber, fast-forwarding time on the same dozen spider eggs to prevent their hatching, collecting the same ammo and restoring the same health pack container, only to press the switch that releases seven billion of the damn things at once, killing you almost instantly. Over and over. It turns out the answer is to stand on a concrete block a foot off the ground, and then mysteriously they barely hurt you. I learned this reading a decade-old thread of people having exactly the same issue all them years ago.
That time-frozen thread is illustrative of the sadness that surrounds Singularity as Raven’s last self-created game. When I installed it, the first thing I did was head to PC Gaming Wiki to see what mods I could add, and what patches both official and unofficial could be installed. But there were none. Nothing at all! Despite being an Unreal Engine game, it doesn’t have an attached community, nor an array of fixes and changes made in the years since release. NexusMods has a lone HUD switch mod, and nothing else. ModDB has a grand total of zip. Incredibly, there aren’t even any cheats for the game! It’s so, so peculiar. (This is the same developer who went so far as to release the source codes for their Jedi Knight games after the LucasArts closure.)
I had fun playing Singularity! I think that’s the most important thing to report. The shooting is mediocre, but there’s a lot else going on, and it’s certainly packed with spectacle. I desperately wish it did more with the time manipulation, and it’s utterly bizarre that it didn’t. It’s dated-looking, obviously, but good art is good art, and the scale is impressive. The BioShock influences are mostly positive, and the three-way ending choices are all equally silly and dumb, which I enjoyed. Plus the sound is fantastic, its melancholy score and grumbling ambience enough to have my son only listen to it before declaring, “This isn’t a game for little boys!” and run out the room.
It’s a real shame it’s still £15 on Steam and GOG. I’m ancient enough to remember when all big budget games would get a £10, then £5 version in the couple of years after release, and it bums me out to see this principle abandoned forever. But then, Activision owns it, so it’s not surprising. It’s not worth £15 at this point, not least when the developers who made it won’t see a penny of it. Oh, and I just saw that the US version is apparently $30! Methinks no one’s repriced this one in a very long while. But I’m sure it drops down a long way during the bi-weekly sales on either site, and then it’s definitely worth grabbing.
Right, now to go read my original review.
Ha ha! Almost exactly the same, even down to some of the snark. Well, at least I’m still me.
- Raven Software / Activision
- Steam, GOG
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“The one thing it is, incredibly strangely, is a very good shooter.”
From context, I take it that should be an “isn’t” ?
I also didn’t get that, second paragraph isn’t supported by the rest of the text
Nevertheless a fun review, I remember finding this rather ignored game around 5 or 6 years ago, probably due to something you wrote
I sure hope somebody orchestrates a prison break and frees Raven from the CoD-mines. Now that id’s making doomclones again and retroshooters are back on the menu I do think that the world deserves another Heretic.