Review – Singularity

Singularity

Singularity came out around a year ago but I didn’t get around to picking it up until the Steam sale earlier this summer. In the game you play Special Forces operative Captain Nathanial Renko. You and your partner are sent to the island of Kotorga-12, located off the coast of Russia, to investigate the source of an electromagnetic pulse which disabled an American spy satellite. A second pulse disables the helicopter in which you are riding and you must find your way through the island and uncover the mysteries there in order to escape.

For the most part the game is a standard FPS. You run through a more-or-less linear collection of corridors and rooms while fighting enemies and the occasional boss. The game attempts to set itself apart through its story and through a series of puzzles involving something called a “Temporal Manipulation Device” or TMD.

The story is interesting. After making your way to shore you soon find that during the Cold War the Soviet Union discovered a substance known as “Element 99” on Katorga-12 and a research installation was built there to uncover its properties. You do this by reading notes and listening to voice logs (left on large reel-to-reel tape recorders) as you make your way through the base. This is probably the most atmospheric part of the game, as you make your way though ruined labs and classrooms. You learn that even though Katorga-12 was presented as a workers paradise, in reality there was a dark underside where the scientists were carrying on secret experiments on the workers and even the children in the school. Element 99 (or “E-99”) turned out to have mutagenic properties on animals and humans and to have the ability to affect time itself.

This second property soon manifests itself. There is another electromagnetic pulse and the player finds themselves thrown back in time to the 1950s. The lab is on fire and someone within yells for help. Entering, the player finds a scientists trapped in a burning room. The scientist is rescued, even as someone yells for the player to not save them. The player takes the scientist to safety and is returned to their own time…

…only to find that everything has changed. The person the player rescued was the project leader, a scientist named Demechev. Having survived the fire in the lab, Demechev was able to fully harness the power of E-99 and with it allow the Soviet Union to conquer the United States. Demechev is now the supreme dictator of the world.

Demechev has the player’s partner executed and is about to execute the player themselves when they are rescued by a woman named Katheryn. Katheryn claims to be part of a group named Mir-12, which has been waiting for the arrival of Renko as they believe that he is the only one who can stop Demechev. To do this, they need to somehow prevent the death of the other lead scientist, a man named Barisov. To do this they provide the player with Barisov’s invention; the TMD.

The TMD

With the TMD the puzzle aspects of the game come into play. The TMD has multiple uses. First, it can be used to age or de-age certain things. This can be used to, for example, move a tree that is blocking an entrance by “de-aging” it back to a sapling or to open a stuck grate by putting a crushed crate under it then “de-aging” it to its original state, forcing the door open.

Another option is to create a time bubble; a sphere in which time does not pass or passes very slowly. This is used to do things like freeze a spinning blade, allowing the player to walk past it.

Both of these can also be used in combat. Aging/de-aging will kill an opponent (except during one section of the game when it bizarrely changes them into mindless creatures) or you can use the time bubble to freeze an opponent, plant several explosive barrels around them, shoot the barrels then retreat to a safe distance before dispelling the bubble and watching the fun. There is also a “force push” type effect that can be used to shove opponents away.

Taken together, the game feels like it should be somewhere between Bioshock and Portal. You are exploring the ruins of a place trying to determine what happened (and what your connection to it is) while solving puzzles and seeing the effects of scientific experimentation gone wrong. But somehow it fails to measure up to both.

As I said earlier, the best part of the game is early on when you are exploring the ruins of Katorga-12 and trying to discover what happened there. The voice recordings are a big part of this, though why people where carrying around huge reel-to-reel tape recorders to record their thoughts while running for their lives makes even less sense than the cassette recorders from Bioshock. (Both games featured “ghosts” repeating events from the past; why couldn’t both impart their story points that way?) Unfortunately, this part of the story pretty much exists only in the first third of the game. It then fades away and the last third is mostly a standard FPS with some puzzle elements.

Except for the very end, which I’ll get to in a bit.

The other problem I had with the story is that while it is set in Russia or an alternate Soviet Union it doesn’t feel like it. I have played a number of games now from Russia/former Soviet Union/Eastern European developers (STALKER, Metro 2033, Precusors, Pathologic or The Witcher, to name a handful) to know that those games have a unique “feel” to them. Singularity, despite its setting, doesn’t “feel” as if it is set in that world.

The puzzles are OK, but are far more limited than Portal. The TMD does more than the Portal gun, but how you can use it is more limited. Here’s a half-closed grate, I need to find a ruined crate to stick under it to raise it. Here’s a spinning fan, I need to time bubble it. Here’s a ruined catwalk, I need to de-age it to repair it. The uses are so obvious every time you see them that it feels less of a puzzle and more as if some designer said “oh yeah, we better let them use the TMD again”.

The game is also somewhat short. I am hardly the fastest player in the world and even I finished the game in about 8 hours.

All that said, I thought aspects of the ending were quite interesting. I’m going to spoil the ending here, so skip down past the spoiler bird if you want to continue.

Spoiled Bird

After you have rescued Barisov he decides that the way to stop Demechev is to use an E-99 bomb to blow up the island. To get the bomb, the player and Katheryn go back in time to when a ship carrying such a bomb sank in the harbor. The player does this and returns but Katheryn is left in the past.

Upon returning, the player discovers that nothing has changed. Demechev simply rebuilt the facility after it was destroyed. The player now faces both Barisov and Demechev, who offers the player a place in his empire.

Barisov and Demechev

There are now three possible choices. The player can shoot Demechev. If they do, Barisov sends them back in time again to prevent themselves from rescuing Demechev in the first place. That person yelling at you not to rescue Demechev at the very beginning? That was you. But, since you didn’t listen to yourself you have no choice but to… shoot yourself. (Shooting Demechev as you rescue him causes a loop where you have to keep repeating the same action until you shoot yourself.)

When you do, the scene from the start of the game repeats itself with the player going to investigate an electromagnetic pulse from Kotoraga-12; except now the player is part of the Soviet military. With Demechev out of the way Barisov uses the TMD to take over the Soviet Union and then the world.

As a second choice, the player can shoot Barisov. Demechev makes good on his offer to give the player a place in his empire as second-in-command, but the player begins to gain more respect from Demechev’s followers and a new Cold War comes into existence with the player controlling the Soviet Union and Demechev controlling the United Socialist States of America, except this time both sides are armed with E-99 weapons.

For the final choice, the player can shoot both Barisov and Demechev. The player then wanders off. Demechev’s global empire collapses, a collapse made more rapid when Katorga-12 explodes. Hundreds of warring states emerge but one, apparently led by the player and aided by the TMD, begins to again take over the world.

What I like about this is that none of the choices lead back to the world as it exists at the beginning of the game. Once the player changes the timeline the original timeline is gone and can never be recovered. I thought that was an interesting conceit and one that I didn’t expect.

One final note. If you sit through the credits there is a final scene in the 1950s during the fire at the lab where an injured and dying Katheryn makes he way into the offices of the Moscow Institute for Research (MIR). There, she leaves the notes telling them that Demechev must be stopped and that the player is the only one who can do so, not realizing that the player is the one who caused the situation in the first place and that their aid to the player is what made things worse.

So I guess the final story is… messing around with time is never a good idea.

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