This generation has been marked for the number of games that let players manipulate time. From the instantly forgettable TimeShift to the divisive F.E.A.R. 2, time has been the go-to mechanic for many a "next-gen" developer. Even racing games have meddled in time: GRID allowed players to rewind time and retry their rubbish driving. It's all The Matrix's fault, of course. Before Neo had even landed after dodging that Agent spray of bullets in the skyscraper rooftop scene, game designers were no doubt working out how to get it into their games. The question is, are we bored of time manipulation? Is it time for a change?
Raven Software doesn't think so. The two games it's showing off at Activision's pre-E3 event both have time manipulation in one shape or form. Wolfenstein lets you slow down time in order to better deal with the game's occult Nazi bad guys (check out our hands-on preview here). In Singularity, time is once again the headline feature, But, Raven insists, this time it is different. This time we should care about time.
It's all down to the Time Manipulation Device (TMD), Singularity's Gravity Gun, if you will. With it you're able to time revert and age not only objects, but enemies too. Take, for example, a simple broken crate. Fire the TMD at it with it set to revert, and it'll go back in time, magically reforming in front of your very eyes. Now you're presented with a brand spanking new crate, straight off the video game crate conveyor belt. And what are crates for in video games? For breaking, that's what. So you break it. And what do you find in crates in video games? Ammo, that's what. Wala.
That's reverting, but what about ageing? Picture this: you're faced with a group of enemies dug in behind impenetrable cover. Normally in games, you'd need to flank them or lob some grenades to flush them out. In Singularity, you won't need to bother. In Singularity, you'll be able to fire the TMD at cover, age the brick or metal or whatever the cover is made out of and watch it crumble. Cue the panic of bad guys as you show them the meaning of the term "sitting duck".
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to come up with some pretty cool applications of the TMD. Staircases can be rebuilt and walls can be crumbled to open new passageways. In fact, a decent chunk of the game will be puzzle solving, with ageing and reverting key to progress. At one point you're able to channel power from two Time Rods and time revert ruins into an entire building that becomes a brand new area to explore.
You're thinking, "What about the enemies? Can I turn battle-hardened soldiers into babies? Can I turn chisel-jawed marines into bones and ash?" The answer is, rather excitingly, yes. Hit an enemy soldier with the TMD and you'll do one of two things. Revert it and it transforms into a Zek, a beast that looks like a Feral Ghoul from Fallout 3. While not quite as cool as a baby, and, technically it doesn't make much sense, a Zek has its uses. It'll attack anything on sight, including enemy soldiers. You get the idea.
Age soldiers, however, and they'll do the expected: disintegrate. While not quite as interesting as turning soldiers into beasties, it'll do for when you're feeling particularly aggressive. You're also able to use what's called Chrono Light (Chrono Trigger, anyone?), a power that lets you see objects that are in a different time. You're then able to pull them into your time with the TMD.
Since we've avoided it so far, you might be wondering whether Singularity has anything other than the TMD that's worth getting excited about, like a decent story, characters, graphics and all that other stuff that makes up a video game. The story, actually, sounds good. Set in 2010, Singularity follows X, a pilot who crash lands on a fictional remote Soviet island called Katorga-12 after being sent to the place to recon some mysterious goings on. He finds himself embroiled in a two-way war between the Zaks and soldiers sent in to contain them, but the real threat comes from a mysterious mad man who's trying to recreate the 1950 Soviet Cold War experiment that caused the island to go all time doolally in the first place.
You end up bullied by time, pushed back and forth through it like Bill and Ted. The Unreal Engine 3-powered graphics are great, with an art style straight out of the "how to do disturbing" environment design handbook. Some of the most impressive graphical moments come about as a result of the instability of the island. Corridors age around you, the walls crumbling in-game as time waves pass through. Flashbacks, called "Echo Events", sprout up at random, showing a bunch of ghost-like apparitions recreating what they were up to around about the time of the original experiment. Worse are Null Zones, effectively areas that transport you back to 1950. Inside unfortunate souls are trapped, forced to relive the failed experiment in an endless, hellish loop of suffering.
If the sound of Echo Events and Nul Zones and crumbling 1950s decor rekindles a memory, it's probably of 2K's tremendous BioShock. Singularity bears a striking resemblance to the underwater adventure, from the opening crash landing, flashbacks and the Cold War time period in which it's occasionally set, to the general tone and creepy atmosphere. And the similarities don't stop there. Singularity's got audio logs, just like BioShock, that reveal the story in garbled messages sent through time rifts. Weapons and items that you're able to pick up glow gold. The TMD even allows you to catch grenades and rockets telekinesis style, freeze them in time so they don't blow up in your face, and toss them around like your own explosive Frisbees. If Raven hasn't taken inspiration from BioShock, it's at least played it.
Our main concern, however, stems not from the mechanics the game shares with BioShock, but from the TMD itself. We're sold on the look and feel of the game, and the story is certainly intriguing, but we fear the TMD could end up a gimmick. Right now, watching soldiers crumble and cover disintegrate and entire buildings reform makes you think, wow, this is going to be cool, but how long will that feeling last when you're playing the game? We've only seen a snippet of Singularity so far, so Raven may well be saving the game's best bits for later reveals. If so, Singularity could not only be one of the surprise hits of 2009, but it could make time cool again.
Singularity is due out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC later this year.