Version tested: Xbox 360
When did it stop being OK for first-person shooters to be silly? Once upon a time you just rocked up, ran down some corridors with increasingly powerful weapons and shot guys. Most of those guys chose to defend themselves by dancing left and right, and they came from places like Stroggos.
Not these days. These days you have to wrestle with mentalist ideologues and make choices with profound repercussions. BioShock gave us Randian objectivism and attacked our notions of free will in video games. Modern Warfare 2 was about... Well, nobody knows what Modern Warfare 2 was about, but you shot some civilians in an airport, which was a bit weird.
Meanwhile, Raven Software has been making Singularity - the first new IP to come out of the studio in a decade. It's about a guy who is sent to a secret Russian island, Katorga 12, where mad scientists experimented with a rare element called E99 in the 1950s and it all went wrong. Now it's full of mutants, zombies and, predictably, angry Russian soldiers.
Guess what you use to subdue them? Increasingly powerful weapons! There's a machine gun, and a shotgun, and a sniper rifle, and a minigun, and a grenade launcher, and they're all really fun to use. Some have excellent alternative fire modes. The grenade launcher alt-fire spits out a grenade ball that you can roll around with the left stick until you find someone to blow up. There's even a special gun that fires bullets you can pilot with the right stick, a bit like the Redeemer in Unreal Tournament.
We may have to refer back to a game from 1999 for context, but after a while playing Singularity you realise that it's quite contemporary too. There's an upgrade system, there are exotic set-piece boss fights on trains falling off bridges and walkabout bits where a friendly mad scientist briefs you on what's happening next, and there are lots of audio logs and reels of spoof USSR propaganda to watch.
Sometimes it's a lot like BioShock. It even looks like BioShock. Unreal Engine 3 has a (slightly unfair) reputation for turning out games that are similar in appearance, but Singularity only calls one game to mind with its cracked tiles, water effects, rust and rot. All the pickups have that effervescent halo effect on them, and even the HUD's the same. The level of polish is also similar, to Raven's credit.
You also have a special arm attachment called a Time Manipulation Device, which you get periodic upgrades for and which you need to inject energy into when its little meter is empty, plasmid-style. You can use the TMD to make things older or younger, and this is handy in combat, where you can turn a Russian soldier into a skeleton or a shambling zombie.
It's also the solution to many of the game's basic puzzles, most of which involve ageing a crate between two states - rusty and compact, and strong and shiny - in order to jack open doors. (And trust Raven, veteran magpies of the FPS genre, to make time-travelling crates a key component of their first new game for a generation.)
The TMD can also spit out shockwaves to repel encroaching enemies and balls of time-freezing energy that can be used to - PC gamers from 1997 will see this one coming - stop spinning fan blades so you can pass through them. For reasons that aren't explained terribly well, it also ends up being a gravity gun. The reasons don't matter, of course, because gravity guns are excellent.
So it's a bit Half-Life 2 as well. In fact, it's more than a bit Half-Life 2, because it does that clever Valve thing of changing up the way you play often enough to avoid fatigue setting in. There are plenty of run-and-gun sections, but then you get a new weapon, or you're given some advice that changes the way you play.
You're told that all the zombie enemies in one section are blind, for example, so rather than continue worrying about shotgun ammo you just tread carefully, with the tension heightened by your compulsion to gather all the upgrade canisters you can see resting very close to blind monsters in a feeding frenzy.
Then there's a massive spider-like boss that stalks you through the sewers. And the bit where you have to raise a sunken ship, climb aboard and then rescue a secret bomb from the cargo hold while it sinks again. Sometimes you go back in time and have to rewrite history by shooting someone who you saved in an earlier flashback to a burning building. Later the timelines start overlapping. It's bonkers.
The story does make some sense, but mostly it's pantomime silliness, and it's all the better for it. There's a mysterious woman with a cut-glass British accent, who is a representative of some sort of secret tin-hat organisation with a scary website, and the man you find yourself running errands for is trying to stop an evil Russian chancellor who wants to manipulate time to take over the world. (Or is he trying to stop him? Etc. etc.) Some of the accents are borderline Python.
On the downside, the upgrade systems for weapon and player are a bit perfunctory, although good enough to keep you ticking along. Also, like almost every FPS game ever made, there are times that you become acutely aware that you're running down a long mazy corridor with fireworks in it, spending a disproportionate amount of time collecting shiny objects. And some of the enemies are slightly annoying, like the knee-high exploding spider things.
But there's no sense of needing to persevere; no resistance to sticking with it beyond the next checkpoint rather than switching off and going to bed. Singularity is a straightforward, frivolous game where something new and entertaining is always just around the corner, whether it's a sniper rifle with a slow-motion zoom function, or a gaggle of giant mutant komodo dragons that shoot rockets from their eyes.
Very little here hasn't been seen elsewhere before, but Singularity has more to recommend it than simply being a polished, entertaining collection of well-executed clichés and set-pieces. It's the first game I've played in ages that realises first-person shooters can bundle in as much philosophy and as many moral dilemmas as they like, but fundamentally they're still about shooting monsters in the face, and so what it lacks in originality it makes up for in variety, pacing and exuberance. First-person shooters are always silly! Well done to Raven for making one that likes being silly.
8 / 10
Nobody was online to play Singularity multiplayer at the time of review, but there are two modes, Extermination and Creatures vs. Soldiers, the latter of which puts one team in control of the game's menagerie of nasties while the human team wields the TMD.