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.)