This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Singularity.
Let's face it: real history is boring. It's just a load of idiots eating too much of a cow, and killing each other over which nostril Christ was breathing out of on the cross. So I can understand the appeal of alternate history fiction. Imagine if the Persians had won the Battle of Salamis. The present day would be almost completely the same. Or if King John had signed the Magna Carta while wearing bunny ears. The possibilities are endless!
So why in the name of bollock burgers do we keep coming back to the same alternate history where the Cold War escalated? I know how disappointing it was that we didn't get to have another big fancy war like in the forties, but if you're fine with rewriting history so that Americans are actually heroic underdogs rather than both sides being dicks to a precisely equal degree, why don't we ever see games where the Viet Cong have laser guns or the Taliban have giant robot snakes? Is the entire games industry being blackmailed by the Russian voice actors' union?
Anyway, Singularity is good news for alternate history fans, because the time travel thing means it goes through a whole mess of different alternate histories before it's over. These particular ones are driven by the Russians discovering a mysterious new element called
"plot device" "Element 99" which can manipulate time and space and mutate living things into zombies, Gamera, or anything in between and can no doubt also tenderise meat and shine your shoes and whatever else is convenient.
It also enhanced my burgeoning powers of clairvoyance. After the intro cinematic set up the first alternate history and explained how you, a black ops American soldier, are being sent in to investigate the abandoned island where the convenium experiments took place sixty years ago, I instantly knew what was going to happen next. The screen was going to fade up on me sitting in a helicopter directly opposite a support character with the doors irresponsibly hanging wide open to show us the scenery we're going to spend the next 10 hours ruining. And lo, was it so! Then I got bonus points when the helicopter crashed two seconds later.
Now, I know what you're thinking (what with my precognitive powers and everything.) You're thinking, "Ooh, a first-person shooter themed around time manipulation. This wouldn't happen to manifest as some kind of slow-motion ability, would it?" Surprisingly, no. Didn't you hear? Bullet-time is so yesterday, granddad. Instead, at certain fixed moments in the plot, you travel back in time to 1955 to make specific changes to the world of the present and to ensure your parents hook up at the Enchantment Under the Sea da - oh, wait.
And, naturally, the plot ends up with more holes than Blackburn, Lancashire. If all the history after 1955 gets changed, then why am I still in the present? How do all the other characters know that history was changed? Actually, they do explain that: someone left a note. Now, I don't know about you, but I like to think of myself as credulous enough to not form international secret societies at the behest of time-travel conspiracy theories on random pieces of paper. It'd be like seeing some bathroom graffiti and forming a religion around Big Hank.
The other time-based mechanic is your ability to age and revert selected objects. Most of the time this just acts as the "continue game" button. You know, I need to take a flight of stairs but they're all broken in, but not to worry, I'll just use my all-powerful time manipulation device to youthen it to back to before it was broken, rather than, say, fetch a couple of planks. It does have tactical applications, too, but aging an enemy to dust is just an instakill, while making them younger turns them into a mindless, slavering beast, and hey, I've got an idea: why don't we go back in time and change history so that makes any kind of fucking sense! Maybe it's meant to be an allegory for the teenage years.
I would have respected the game if you could turn enemies into babies. Then maybe you could give them a grenade to suck on and chuck them at his mates just to show you're not fucking around. Basically, the age/revert thing does whatever it needs to do at the time, like a separate "use" button, and strategically less useful than, say, some kind of handheld device that launches small pieces of metal at high speed towards whatever enemies you point it at.
Stripped of its rather pointless gimmick, Singularity is a game that can't decide if it wants to be BioShock, Half-Life, or TimeShift and is inferior to all three. BioShock is probably the game it was sitting directly behind in the exam room, with audio logs and the RPG elements and E99 instead of ADAM as all-purpose plot dietary fiber. It's even got those cute, '50s public information cartoons that BioShock ripped off from Fallout. It's like a magnificent human centipede stretching through gaming history.
And I now find myself having to explain what RPG elements are for to a company that has developed games since I was nine. You see, in BioShock the superpowers and upgrades were appropriate because combat was intense and unforgiving and you needed every edge you could get. But in Singularity you fight the same enemies throughout and hot lead never loses effectiveness in the wrecking up of the shit. How exactly is reducing my shotgun's reload speed by a tenth of a second going to be the game-changer than justifies having me sift through a mutant's belly button fluff looking for upgrade points?
But the very last way Singularity imitates BioShock, like a small child with two broken legs attempting to copy his dad's powerful stride, is in the plot twist, which is presented identically as BioShock 's, right down to the little flashy montage of clues from throughout the game for the slow of remembering. And get your biggest tampons ready, because I'm about to be a massive cunt and reveal Singularity 's plot twist.
At the start of the game, when you first flash back to 1955, you save a random scientist from a burning building. Seconds later, when you flash back to 2010, the world is under Russian rule and there are big statues of the random scientist all over the place. And then, at the end, the truth is grandly revealed: that history was changed because of you saving that guy. Then, after checking to make sure I hadn't turned over two pages at once, I said, "Are you shitting me? You're passing as the big twist the thing that was established half-an-hour in? I was expecting the bad guy to be the good guy or to be me from the future or made entirely of asparagus." Maybe it's a plot twist designed specifically for people who intermittently fell asleep while playing the game. In which case, hearty congratulations for understanding your audience, Raven Software!
But on the other hand it's better than Wolfenstein: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Personally if I had access to time travel my first target would be the bloke who wore the bear costume at Flambards Amusement Park, Cornwall on the day I lost my innocence
My precognitive powers tell me this video will shortly end