Raven Software has been creating first person shooters longer than some Call of Duty players have even been alive, but they have never been able to find the massive success that long-running developers like Bungie, Epic, or id Software have. They're wholly owned by Activision and have managed to put together some solid games in recent years - last year's Wolverine is probably the best example, and more fun than the movie it was attached to. Now, their first entirely new game in over a decade is being released.
Singularity puts you in charge of Captain Renko, an American soldier infiltrating an island off of the coast of Russia called Katorga-12. After a spectacular crash landing, you quickly find out that the rumored Russian experiments on this island were real and were ambitious enough that they could have easily tipped the balance of the Cold War - the discovery of a new element called E99 has allowed for massive increases in weaponry as well as things like manipulating time. There was a strange turn of events on the island, along with a huge catastrophe, that prevented the Russians' experiments from coming to fruition and closed off the door for Russian domination of the world. Well, that changes once Renko comes along.
Raven Software has put together a very solid shooter with a charming backstory, interesting characters, impressive visuals, some very fun sci-fi toys to play with, and most importantly, a great first person shooter feel. The guns start off as pretty standard fare and sadly do stay that way until the end, but even the basic guns are a blast to use; it's been a while since I had so much fun wielding a basic AK-47-style assault rifle for so much of the game. There's good feedback, great sound, and some fantastic results when firing your weapons right into an enemy's face. The whole set of weapons is impressively fun to use, and a couple of the later ones use some cool sci-fi abilities that keep you coming back to them over and over.
Between the many types of mutants that the E99 meltdown event created, along with soldiers from today as well as ones from 1955, you'll find a pretty decent mix of enemies to deal with, and while their AI isn't exactly stellar, it's not entirely braindead, either. Raven have used their veteran level designers to craft entirely scripted and linear levels, but they've got great pacing. The action is cranked up for long enough to get your heart pumping, and then it's squelched at just the right time for a quiet, light puzzle moment.
The island of Katorga-12 is a great sight to see, although there's a pretty serious bug with the PC version of the game that causes many textures to display in very low detail. And for those of you wondering: yes, this is the Unreal engine, but you've never seen UE3's well-documented texture pop-in issues quite like this, because here the high-quality textures never actually pop in. There is a user-made fix for this bug, but it requires some rather serious work with a hex editor and the method doesn't seem to work on the Steam copy of the game, which puts this fix out of the reach of most people who experience it. What's worse to me, though, is that it seems this bug affects a huge amount of players, and it starts happening in glaringly obvious ways all over the place after about 30 minutes into the game. Somehow, Activision's QA team never seemed to notice it. Let's hope a patch is forthcoming, because this bug makes an otherwise great-looking game horribly ugly.
It's still damn fun to actually play, though, and creates some interesting time paradoxes as you go - as you fiddle with things in 1955, the story will give you consequences in 2010. And the final mind-bending finale with three endings was great, too, and the game lets you go back and try all three if you like. Or, I suppose you could just go and check YouTube, too.
Shoehorned into all of this is a decent, but fairly lightweight RPG system. Once you gain the Time Manipulation Device to attach to your left hand, you'll start being able to enhance Renko's body with abilities bought with found E99 - that means the old-school searches for secret areas are back, and I always love a good, well-hidden secret. I just wish there were more interesting rewards, as most of the upgrades are just numerical increases rather than new abilities. You can find blueprints and formulae for new upgrades, and even use special kits found throughout levels to upgrade your weapons. The only disappointment for me with weapon upgrades is that the weapons only get two levels of stat increases that can increase damage, reload time, and clip size, and that's for all the weapons - they don't get wildly new abilities like we've seen in, say, the BioShock games.
Multiplayer in Singularity is interesting, but I doubt that people will play it much or for very long. It's got a level-up system and teams of solders versus mutants with different classes (well, in the mutants' cases, it's entirely different monsters from the single player game) and some mildly entertaining mods and maps to play on. It won't be winning any awards, but it is fun for an evening or two.
As well-built as Singularity is, it does follow a lot of the hallmarks of your standard six-to-eight-hour FPS, which may feel just a little too familiar for today's jaded gamer. There's a plot twist at the end with hints the whole way, quick and easy puzzles every 15-20 minutes, sewer levels with little annoying fast-moving crawlies that attack you (these are undoubtedly the worst parts of Singularity, which I could have told Raven before even playing it if I heard a description of these levels), and a solid, but mostly pretty standard arsenal of weaponry. But Raven did put everything together very well with a great story and a very interesting premise. Considering that the industry is in a sales slump (almost every new game released in the last two months underperformed) and Activision had Singularity released right in the shadow of E3 - never a good time to release a game - it doesn't seem terribly likely that we'll see a sequel. But if it ever does happen, I'll certainly be looking forward to it.