Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Review: Singularity (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

The difficulty that lies in reviewing a game like Singularity is that it’s impossible not to reference other, higher profiles in the first-person shooter genre to the point where it seems like the game is not being judged on it’s own merits. Indeed, players familiar with the Bioshock, Half-Life and F.E.A.R. games will immediately see similarities when playing Singularity, but where it succeeds is combining some of the best elements of all aforementioned games and creating a fun and engrossing FPS experience. Tired of multiplayer-focused shooters with a tacked-on campaign? Singularity might just be the game for you.

The backdrop to Singularity is the bleak and murky terrain of Katorga-12, a remote and largely unknown island in the Soviet Union on which the Stalin regime performed disastrous scientific experiments during the Cold War. They were experimenting with an unknown substance called E99 that would give them the most powerful weapon in the world and shift the balance of power and advance the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, E99 proved to be more volatile than anyone had imagined and the inhabitants of Katorga-12 have been transformed into mutants and psychos as a result. Flash forward to 2010 and you play as a US Air Force Pilot who investigates the strong radiation coming from the island and the game begins proper, with you having to unravel the history of Katorga-12 by traveling between the 1950’s and the present day with the aid of time portals and your Time Manipulation Device (TMD), a device attached to your left wrist that allows you to move time forward or backwards depending on your objectives. The story is further progressed through flashbacks and audio devices, wall scribblings and dilapidated chalk boards scattered throughout the game, giving fans of Bioshock a serious case of deja-vu.

The story involves the typical stock villains, double-crosses and some interesting sci-fi elements, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. In truth, the stories in most FPS games serves as little more than a binding element to tie the action and setpiece battles together, so Singularity must rely on it’s gameplay to sustain it as a worthy title. In that capacity, it succeeds in giving players an immersive FPS experience that is more focused on a single player campaign than a chaotic multiplayer that other shooters have on offer. The weapons are the usual mix of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles and explosives launchers, all of which can be upgraded by collecting E99 throughout the levels. The unique addition is the TMD, which allows you to rewind time and repair broken stairs and manipulate environmental obstacles, or move time ahead to rot the doors off of safes or turn enemies into dust. The most useful addition is the force field that throws down a bubble that slows down enemies and allows you to shoot them with ease, though this allows you to be cheap and lazily rely on it. The enemies you fight are a mix of mutants, army soldiers and a few bosses that are noticeably easier than the enemies you find throughout the game. The most difficult enemies by far are the exploding ticks that swarm you and explode, draining large quantities of your health. Strategic gameplay and smart use of your TMD is key to survival.

The gameplay and control scheme in Singularity is similar to other FPS titles, so genre veterans will have no trouble jumping into the action. Compared to other shooters, Singularity stands out as more of a story-based action game, very much in the vein of Bioshock and F.E.A.R. 2. The murky environments you traverse are effectively creepy, the open spaces and dilapidated buildings provide some variety in the setting and the on-rails segments do provide some heart-pumping moments. If there is a problem with the gameplay, it’s the static difficulty that doesn’t really ramp up as you progress through the game, so the multiple upgrades and character perks you obtain will leave you grossly overpowered and the enemies you encounter late in the game will pose little challenge. Even on the higher difficulty levels, most gamers of any skill level should be able to make it through unscathed.

Visually, Singularity is not going to win any awards for design or sound, and those weaned on the cinematic qualities of Call of Duty will no doubt find this game to be dated. However, the smoothness of the Unreal 3 game engine and the stutter-free gameplay makes up for any graphical shortcomings. The music in the game is understated but effective in accenting the mood of the particular scene, while the voice acting is a laughable mix of stereotypical Russian accents and poorly written dialogue, but it is forgivable given that the other elements in the game are more up to par.

The order of the day for most FPS titles is a robust multiplayer component, but sadly this is exactly what Singularity lacks. There are a few modes along the line of team death match and capture the flag, and the ability to play as both human and monsters is novel, but it doesn’t work well here. Playing as humans will leave you feeling underpowered and weak, plus the level progression does not provide any real sense of becoming more powerful. The same can be said for playing as the monsters, since the learning curve for using their abilities is high and their special attacks don’t seem as powerful as one would expect. Compounding this problem is the fact that the servers are sparsely populated, so you will be waiting a long time to find a match and even longer to get into one. This is clearly not the game of choice for those competitive players looking for a rich multiplayer experience.

Singularity is a solid shooter that most players have overlooked in favour of other, higher-profile titles, so hopefully more will give this a chance and enjoy the great gaming experience that it offers. In truth, it is derivative and does nothing new or innovative, but not every game has to; sometimes being good is good enough. Given that this is a budget title now and available across multiple platforms, there is little to lose in giving Singularity a chance. Multipayer-obsessed gamers need not apply, but those looking for a good single-player experience will be well served with this title.

Rating: 7.5/10

Friday, March 4, 2011

You're calling me a nerd? Why, thank you!

I received a private message today from somebody I never met, unsure of how he even knew me or anything I’ve done, and it was so funny and laughable that I thought it warranted a blog post to explain my viewpoint on the subject. The subject matter of his message was not positive, rather it was an attempt to troll me for my interests in what are traditionally considered “nerdy” hobbies. His message was one sentence long, typed in unforgivably bad grammar with little attention paid to spelling and punctuation, and it simply called me out for being a nerd. References to my being a virgin, having no life and even a few choice expletives also tagged along for the ride. This actually made my day, believe it or not., and I’ve been laughing out loud because of it.

Defending myself or rebutting against this stupidity is a fool’s errand, so I thought I would examine the meaning behind his words and why this troll, albeit unintentionally, is paying me a complement by calling me a nerd. As a follower of several movie, video game, comic book and science fiction blogs and video channels, I see comments like these popping up all the time and it makes me wonder why these trolls think that calling people a nerd is an insult. The answer is simple, these trolls are from a generation in which some (not all mind you) consider nerdiness a bad thing, most likely between the 12 to 16 age demographic in which social pressure is at it’s highest. I remember those years well and I remember the stigma that nerds, dweebs, geeks and poindexters (remember that one?) had around the school. These were the kids who hung around in small groups, or were perfectly content to walk alone, reading comics and science-fiction novels, playing Magic cards or reading Anime novels. They were often bullied, made fun of and shunned by girls. These were also the kids who excelled in school and are probably making large salaries in cushy jobs now, while the jocks and bullies that picked on them are likely serving their fries whilst wearing a paper hat. Still, back in the day, most people didn’t want to be considered nerds or be seen associating with them, so to an extent I understand why it’s a negative thing to this demographic.

So why is calling me a nerd considered a complement? Simple, because it’s amazing how cool being a nerd becomes as you get older. Once you get past the pressure of conformity that high school imposes on you, your mentality and outlook on life changes and you suddenly realize that there is nothing wrong in indulging in these kinds of things. I have plenty of friends who are fans of video games, Star Trek and Star Wars, Anime and comic books, and these are some of the coolest and most intelligent people I know. I have also met some younger people online, through Youtube and a few of the forums I frequent, who share the same qualities. We all grew up with these hobbies and we now have the income and the time to properly enjoy them as adults. Video gamers are also hugely popular with people of all ages and backgrounds, so it’s no longer considered a solitary hobby that only lonely people engage in. In short, I’m a 30 year old nerd and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Contrary to what some might think, being a nerd has not impacted my life in any negative way; I have a job, plenty of friends and a loving girlfriend. Not bad for a dweeb, eh?

In light of the fact that these people probably don’t know any better, calling them trolls might be a little harsh; maybe ignorant or misguided is a better way to describe them. By specifically calling me a nerd, this guy has vindicated himself because he either wants to feel like he’s above my hobbies or it gives him some juvenile thrill. I venture that most of the things that this guys has accused me of, such as not getting laid or having no life, are exactly what he is guilty of himself. If not, why would he be taking the time to send these spurious, hate-filled messages when his time is better spent doing other things…like having a life? Riddle me that. So my response to this anonymous hater is to embrace nerds or at least be nicer to them. The nerd you pick on today could end up being your boss tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Everyone's a Critic! The Pros and Cons of Game Reviews.

When trying to determine if a particular product worth checking out, I tend to look at online reviews not so much as a deciding factor but rather something to give me a better idea of what I might be getting into. For music and movies, I rarely look at critical reviews since tastes are so subjective that I can only decide for myself, but this is not so much the case for video games. The risk that comes with buying a $10 DVD or CD is minimal compared to blowing $60 in what could be a substandard game, so checking reviews is often a necessary evil.

So what value do video game reviews have to the average consumer? Simple, they break down elements of the game and present them in a way that is intended to give the viewer an idea of the gameplay, graphics, mechanics and any associated bugs, glitches and gameplay shortfalls. In this area, not all reviewers are equal and there are some sources I trust more than others. It’s important to remember that a review is a subjective opinion of one person, so buying a game based strictly on a 5-star review is not always wise. What constitutes an excellent game in the eyes of Gamespot or IGN might not sit as well with me, as was the case with many highly rated titles like Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV and Halo: Reach. I see why people like these games and I want to like them as well, but in the end I find them to be overrated and grossly over-hyped. On the flip-side, I have found many games that received marginal reviews but I turned out enjoying immensely, such as Nier, God Hand and Viking: Battle for Asgard. This leads me to approach reviews with some degree of scepticism, however the value comes in determining if there are any serious issues with a game. Broken controls, game-ending bugs and glitches, poor camera and imprecise hit detection are difficult to forgive for any gamer, so this is the kind of stuff I want to know when reading or watching a review. Hearing the reviewer gush about how much of a masterpiece the game is, I tend to be less interested in that. When it comes to game reviews, objectivity is more useful the fanfare and I try to follow this logic when writing reviews of my own.

User reviews are an entirely different matter. I currently post reviews on Amazon.com as a hobby and I am amazed at the variances in the quality of the user reviews they allow to be posted. Some are very well thought out, intelligently written and full of useful information that proves helpful because it’s from an actual gamer. On the other hand, the good reviews often get buried under useless, one-sentence fanboy/hater reviews that provide little in the way of substance. For example, the page for Call of Duty: Black Ops is full of people who gushed over the game without insight into why it’s good, while others hated it simply because it wasn’t Modern Warfare 2 and they couldn’t get past their disliking for Treyarch. Other titles, the majority of them in fact, have the same problem. None of these reviews were helpful and I think it boils down to the fact that user reviews are often based on emotion rather than logic. Someone getting overly excited about a game will lead to a 5-star “Best Game Ever!” review, while a bad experience in an otherwise solid game leads someone to posting a 1-star diatribe about how much the game sucks. This makes user reviews dubious and unreliable at the best of times, so approach the opinions of others with caution.

Many people I know would consider being a game reviewer to be their dream job, but to be honest, there are many aspects of their job that I don’t envy in the least. Having to play tons of games, many of which are terrible, and having to be hyper-analytical can wear you down, plus there is the backlash from game fans who slam the reviewer if they happen to disagree with their score. Watching a video from Gamespot, IGN or even a non-professional reviewer and viewing the comments section will give you a good idea of what I mean, with loads of ignorant comments from people who can’t accept the fact that the reviewer didn’t jive with their fanfare or hatred of a particular game. What these people overlook is that the job of a critic is to analyze a game and present the viewer with a balanced view of a title’s strengths and weaknesses. Their job is not to kiss the asses of gamers and give token scores to games based on popularity, although there have been unsubstantiated accusations towards Gamespot and IGN for giving favourable reviews to game companies who advertise more on their site.

At the end of the day, it’s important that people rely on their own taste and judgment when purchasing anything, especially games that cost upwards of $60. A high recommendation from a gaming site is reason to be intrigued but not the sole reason to purchase a title, since hype can lead you down the wrong alley and you’ll end up with a game you don’t like. I think reviews have a place and they can be useful, but people tend to take them too seriously in either following their word mindlessly or getting belligerent when they disagree. At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of opinion and it should be treated as such.