- The Washington Times - Monday, July 19, 2010

Superhero and cartoon characters are integral parts of the electronic entertainment industry. With this in mind, I salute the meld of pop-culture character and video games with a look at Singularity (from Activision; reviewed for Xbox 360; rated M for Mature; $59.99).

Pseudo-history collides with horror and science fiction in this first-person shooter as a single player uncovers a world-changing conspiracy and must contain the unraveling of time itself while shifting between the Cold War and the present day on a mysterious island.

What’s the story: Paraphrased from the game’s website:

In the cold, dark winter of 1949, Josef Stalin, the brutal leader of the Soviet Union, knew he needed a military advantage over the United States. The chance discovery of a new element on an island off the southeastern coast of Russia offered an energy source of unparalleled power. Unfortunately, the contamination risk associated with it eventually would doom the island’s researchers through a catastrophic incident set off by one of their own.

The world has had no memory of the island, named Katorga-12, or its inhabitants’ discoveries — until now.

It’s 2010, and activity in the desolate region is detected and confirmed. America’s answer is to scramble a Special Forces reconnaissance squad to investigate the abandoned research station.

Play the role: Become Special Forces Capt. Nathaniel Renko and eventually control time itself while stuck in this virtual dark theme-park ride, which keeps the creep factor high. The player roams the broken-down locations of the former research facility, including lab corridors, freight elevators, a rickety schoolhouse, vents and mazes built from warehouse debris. Renko finds himself in a fight for his life between flashbacks of what happened to Katorga-12.

Constantly dealing with the results of Element 99, which can alter the time states of everything it touches, our hero is under almost constant attack by mutated humans and creatures along with soldiers from the present and past.

Mixing in some interaction with non-playable characters — such as helping the infamous Dr. Victor Barisov (who knows the secrets of the island) — environmental puzzle-solving and a steady stream of aggressive encounters keeps the tension and player’s interest peaked.

Get to the action: Firepower is abundant and ranges from Soviet-made shotguns, assault rifles and the E99-fueled Centurion pistol to an assortment of specialized guns found scattered about the environment. These include a rolling grenade launcher (maneuvering the projectile like a marble) and the Seeker, which uses controllable explosive bullets to hone into targets.

If all that was available were the guns, I would be satisfied, but the developers tossed in a time manipulation device (TMD), too.

Attached to the wrist on top of a glove, it captures objects and living things in a temporal sphere, shoots shock waves, pings to illuminate footsteps to help find paths, manipulates the gravity of objects and, best of all, degenerates or restores physical states of enemies and items.

That means aging an enemy and watching it turn to dust or uncrushing a box to collect health packs or ammunition or to climb upon it.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Watching robotics in action during my first upgrade of the TMD device; using a sniper rifle in tandem with a slowing temporal distortion to eliminate a Soviet soldier long-range; taking a crane ride while in the middle of a firefight; killing a fluorescent, pus-spewing creature as ugly and tough as a Uruk Hai; exploring a sewer infested with hives of exploding ticks (think Halo Tickers); taking down a group of Brood-like, bulbous-headed brutes with an exploding tank; fighting a harrowing, collapsing train battle; turning a human enemy into an acidic-vomit-spewing mutant and having it attack its kind.

Violent encounters: Mixing in the claustrophobic scariness of flesh-hungry creatures jumping out from nowhere are an equal number of blood-splattering deaths dealt to heavily armed soldiers and mutants.

Part of the issue here is the aggressive persistence of most of the adversaries. The effective method of termination always involves a nasty head shot, setting them on fire or blowing them up. Simply shooting them in the appendages does little damage and even causes some to continue to crawl toward Renko and attack.

Overall, the blood-spurting fountains and stream of appendages flying about rival a Monty Python skit and relegate the action to very-mature-only status.

Read all about it: Image Comics put together a one-shot prequel tied to the Singularity game. It was relegated to the status of a preorder bonus on Amazon.

Pixel-popping scale: 8.0 out of 10. Plenty of back story is brought out through multimedia helpers such as cut scenes. Also, user-activated slide shows, propaganda video, notes and recordings bring this B movie to life. High production values of the gross, graphically violent creatures are not for the squeamish, while the locations take on an eerie retro feel not soon forgotten.

Unlockables: Use a combination of found E99 Tech canisters and Weapon Tech boxes to enhance armaments’ clip capacity, reload speed and damage capability, and find TMD power stations throughout the island to enhance the cool tool’s powers.

Multiplayer: Of course, the lineup of creatures and humans cries out for multiplayer squad matches, and Singularity does not disappoint. Up to 12 online warriors form teams and take part in death matches and a type of capture-the-flag exercise (turn on the beacon) as they choose to become such monstrosities as mutants with toxic vomit and tongue-whipping freaks of nature.

What’s it worth: After a decent-sized break from the first-person shooters that flooded the market earlier in the year, I left my burnout and vertigo behind and found plenty to appreciate in Singularity. With a sci-fi horror angle and retro multimedia homage to Bioshock, it should keep the player’s adrenaline pumping and hands sweaty, especially if the lights are off.

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