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Bottom of the Shelf: Singularity – Made in duress


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Welcome to Bottom of the Shelf, the series in which I dig through all the trash that you used to find at the very bottom of your local game shop’s pre-owned sections. If it was in a 2 for £20 at some point in time, it’ll probably end up here!

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If you’ve watched any kind of history video on Raven Software or Singularity, every single one of them has summed up the situation as “they now work on Call of Duty”. It’s true, that’s what they do now. They make Call of Duty maps.

Once known for Hexen, Heretic and that Wolfenstein reboot (not that one), Raven Software were kind of the other company during their heyday of the 90s. Heretic and Hexen ran on the DOOM engine, with id Software and Raven being quite close throughout this period.

Everything Raven touched had some id connection even after they got bought up by Activision, where they made a bunch of tie-in games, including Star Wars, X-Men, Star Trek and eventually Quake 4 and Wolfenstein 2009. Most of these games were built on id’s engines, with the companies’ expertise in first-person-shooters eventually leading them to be the go-to for co-developing the last couple Call of Duty games and a majority of the DLC.

However in between all of this lies Singularity, a game that – as many others have put – killed Raven Software’s output of original titles.

Death, taxes and running things into the ground

Now, to say that this killed the Raven everyone knew is kind of boiling sugar to a burnt bottom. Activision is a monolith. The inner-workings of that company span not only Call of Duty, but the entirety of Blizzard, y’know, the World of Warcraft people. Outside of very few titles, Activision only has the regular income from these titles rather than the constant output of new products.

They are a weird company. Since 2010, multiple of their ‘pillars’ fell over completely, with the salvaged remains going on to also fall over. Gone was the Tony Hawk series, Guitar Hero perished, the Toys for Life fad died entirely once even Disney decided it was no longer a worthy investment selling collectible figures. What else? They lost the ability to pump out Marvel games once Disney did a Disney and began to diversify who should make their games.

Even though Activision has nothing to worry about monetary wise – they own King, who makes Candy Crush – there is a need to keep their only unique pillar afloat. Destiny didn’t do them favours, while Blizzard’s output outside of Overwatch has been met with er… dwindling respect?

There’s also the addition of the heinous acts that have been committed by members of staff at Activision.

Activision’s baby is Call of Duty. That thing needs to pump out so many things every year, it is maybe the only game franchise I know that actually rotates developers on a year-by-year basis, with all the other companies that Activision hoovered up over the years doing the bits and pieces that the main team can’t handle all at once.

That’s what Raven does now. They’re part of Activision’s safety net to ensure that Call of Duty does not ever stop.

Look, if it sounds depressing to you, I absolutely gaurentee that a majority of the people who worked on the games you loved as a kid are long gone. Don’t fret about it.

With all this said, what is Singularity?

Well, it’s a first-person-shooter with time mechanics.

Okay, bye!

No, no. Okay. Let’s hop back to 2010 and have a look. Put on your power gloves and do your best Doctor Who noise.

Different times

2010. It’s a weird time to be making games. Japan is in a furvour trying to westernise everything. The first HD era is in full effect, you were on your fourth 360 and your friend was still adamant that Uncharted 2 was good.

Meanwhile, Raven Software have been frantically developing this game for a while and it was a mess. It was on the verge of being cancelled, before a deal was made and they developer came together to push out Singularity in just 10 months.

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Not develop and then ship, they shipped a game that worked in 10 months. I cannot begin to fathom how many hours a week people worked or why the fuck the company did not just cancel the game to prevent this.

It wouldn’t have mattered either way. 40 people lost their jobs after the completion of Singularity and Raven was put onto Call of Duty work.

You can tell throughout the whole game that there’s the lingering ghosts of something bigger. It feels disjointed in a way that you can tell someone came in with a hacksaw to piece something together.

In a column on Polygon, Keith Fuller, a producer said:

“The Marvel team’s creative director – now project lead for Singularity – spent significant time modifying the story, pulling out scenes that were technically challenging and salvaging existing plot points and voice acting wherever possible.”

Biosh- I mean, Singularity

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The game takes place on Katorga-12, an uninhabited island that was once the home to Russian scientists doing things with E-99, a powerful material that they’ve managed to not only create time travel with, but also kill nearly everyone and anyone left is now mutated into horrific beasts. You play as Renco, a soldier who is sent in on a routine mission and ends up getting blasted back to 1955, where he saves a man called Demichev, thus altering the entire history so that the Russians conquered the earth.

I’m assuming this game would have elaborated on the events in cutscenes and lots of standing around for expositionary dialogue. The problem is however with story being on the chopping block, you need to cram that in somewhere. Well, it turns out that Bioshock – a game that on the outside this looks a lot alike – had introduced the concept to the forefront of AAA gaming of audio logs. These collectible bits of exposition allowed developers to put in lore around the world without having to actually animate anything, saving time and money in development.

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However, because of the rushed development, you can tell this was an afterthought. None of these logs play right, placed awkwardly in scenes of urgency or in the middle of standing-around-while-the-story-happens scenes. They also don’t come with you as you explore and fight, meaning you have to hold up everything to hear through these really generic “everything has gone bad” tapes.

The PC port I played doesn’t have subtitles. It does support 4K though, as much as this game was never meant to be seen at a resolution higher than say, 720p on a mid-2000s plasma TV.

Exposition is also told through ghosts of the past, which I assume was the original main method as rooms with tapes will just be empty while this tape plays, instead of telling any modicum of story in the environment.

Then there’s the game itself, a vastly inferior shooter to the competition at the time and filled with so much wasted potential it hurts.

Jack of no trades, master of less

Singularity wants to be both a Bioshock and Half-Life 2. It is not good at either of them and it absolutely does not capitalise on the time manipulation mechanics that the plot revolves around. You can turn people into dust or slow things down, but when your game’s default way to play is just better and easier, why bother?

That’s right! In the game about time travel and manipulation, the boring bit is the time travel and manipulation. Why would I choose a fairly intensive resource hog over say, this minigun that did the same job with less effort? That’s the whole game. If you’re wondering why I’m not using the powers all that often, it’s because Singularity rarely gives the oppurtunity where they might be the better option.

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Even at the end when it does the “Super Gravity Gun” moment from Half-Life 2 and you can just spam it out, it was easier to deal with everything with my minigun and rocket launcher than the infinite palm of death thing.

Human enemies range from man with fast gun to man with slow gun to man in heavy armour with gun or rockets. Monsters range from tall thing that runs at you, gremlin that runs at you, large things that you see too little of and they run at you, fast thing that runs at you and blind things that run at you if they hear you.

All these problems can be solved by just gunning them down. There’s a stealth section that I took pretty seriously, attempting to not get spotted and realising that the game actually noticed my new mechanical keyboard’s actuation of the keys, allowing for foe-analogue movement for a slower pace to sneak around.

However they make a return later on and I just couldn’t be bothered, so I mowed them down with no consequence, leading me to believe that it would have been quicker to just mow them down before.

The game is full of these very obvious moments where you can see where the developers had to compromise on their vision. It’s foul to think that a guy probably worked till midnight on a game that wasn’t the original vision of the team, because it was hampered by development issues of hardware that just were quickly expiring as the top-notch machines they were five years beforehand.

Fuller writes:

“At least half of Singularity’s maps didn’t run on the PS3, several didn’t fit in memory on the 360, and even on high-end PCs we would see the framerate slow to a crawl during many combat sequences. This was after the deadline for the second Alpha had long since passed.”

A gun called the Seeker is strewn about to liven up gun fights with slow motion, but instead of interesting scenarios where you’d have to use it to curve a bullet around a particular enemy, it just kills them in one hit as they… all run towards you.

These ideas of all these individual weapons doing something different around this island scream out in pain as you toss away the remote controlled grenade launcher after the single ‘puzzle’ it was meant for. Raven needed a modern day atmosphere to bring back a keyboard line full of weapons to collect and use, instead you can swap out any time you find a locker to facilitate your tastes.

But because the game is so simply designed – again, even by 2010 standards – of linear hallways, enemies that just run into you or take cover waiting their turn to explode, there was never a point where I wanted anything other than the two largest, most upgraded guns that I could carry and that would dispatch everything quickly.

Game in distress

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“When players recall the game fondly — and this happens with surprising regularity — they remember those moments of inspired play and the few mechanics that survived the initial vision. The lasting legacy of Singularity may be that you can pull at least a pyrrhic victory from the toughest projects with smart use of resources and the ability to focus on a few solid, executable concepts.”

Fuller

The entire time I was playing Singularity, I could see the bigger picture. The original intentions, the lost pieces of a game that ironically, was in the wrong time. Activision was shifting gears, the AAA industry was in a malaise that I still think it hasn’t truly pulled itself out of and Singularity, well, it just wasn’t meant to be.

I think a great example of this would be the ending. Throughout the game you’re guided by a scientist, Barisov, who saw you when you get blasted back into 1955 and the villain, Demichev, while often referred to and consistently sending his forces, you never see outside of the introduction to the game where he kills your partner.

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They make a speech and stand side by side as you’re asked to make a choice of who to side with. A no point in the game is there any ‘morality’ or ‘choice’ system. It’s a linear shooter with zero wiggle room for experimentation after a horrific 10 month development cycle. All I know is that one is bad and the other is the only character fleshed out in any capacity.

I assume in the original vision for the game, the villain would have made frequent appearances, but with a lot of cut content and salvaging, it made no sense for him to be in contact with you to try earn your trust through the game.

I can sort of picture it being the present day is Berisev edging you closer to his side, while Demichev talks to you in 1955.

Anyway, I gunned them both down and got what the game calls the ‘ugly ending’.

Singularity is not a bad game. It’s a boring one and I can’t figure out why it’s remembered fondly – maybe because it was one of the only games at the time to do anything remotely different.

It was a game made under duress. You can see the seams and they’re were leaking blood. I think Singularity is a lesson that the industry has not yet learnt and one I fear it won’t ever learn.


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