Games 7/20/10: Singularity, N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights, Limbo

Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Raven Software/Activision
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

There’s something a little bittersweet about the moment “Singularity” transforms, very early on, from a scary fight between your humble pistol and some fierce monsters to a solid but considerably less tense first-person shooter with typical weapons and typical human enemies.

Fortunately, the bland latter scenario doesn’t last. And even the former scenario doesn’t hold a candle to what happens once “Singularity” lifts the veil and shows what it can really do.

Set both in the 1950s as well as 2010, “Singularity” tells the story of how technology in the wrong hands in the past led to a dramatically different global climate in the present. We’ve all heard that one before, but what “Singularity” lacks in originality, it redeems in thoroughness, combining environmental designs, supporting characters, audio recordings, journal entries and even filmstrips to tell one engrossing story.

Most importantly, following those two early segments, it allows players to harness that technology.

“Singularity’s” TMD device will draw comparisons to the plasmids in “Bioshock,” and some of its powers — telekinesis and a devastating force push, to name two — are straight out of “Bioshock’s” playbook.

But the TMD also gives players the power to age and revert objects in the environment. Technology that lies in ruin in 2010 can, for instance, be restored to its 1955 shape without traveling back to 1955. The trick also works in combat: Players can age enemies and quickly undo the aging to mutate them into enemies of their former allies.

Though it occasionally shifts players between time periods — a pretty cool trick when it offers insights into an environment’s past versus its present — “Singularity” mostly reserves the time control for combat and puzzle solving. You might, for instance, age a bridge to grab an unattainable object beneath it before placing the object atop the rubble, restoring the bridge and carrying the object across the bridge.

Unfortunately, the puzzles rarely require this much imagination, and the vast majority are too similar to be mentally taxing at all. Most involve using the same type of crate one of two ways, and after a while, the only head-scratcher comes from evaluating just how much potential has gone to waste as time passes.

The stunted puzzle growth is part of “Singularity’s” unfortunate campaign to undermine itself with brief but bizarre forays into bad design. An early mini-boss encounter drags too long without ever being remotely tense, while a few areas spawn enemies out of nowhere to deliver cheap, unavoidable attacks from behind. There’s a puzzle that’s tricky only because of the poor layout of a window, there’s a very boring swimming segment, and there’s the occasional frustration of not being able to hear dialogue because the music’s too loud and the game lacks optional subtitles.

With all that said, though, “Singularity” remains a perfectly fun shooter, combining excellent combat with a story that goes all out and delivers a great finish. The flaws are annoying and the unrealized potential of the TMD device is enormous, but too much of the game remains too rewarding for “Singularity” to be completely undermined by all it doesn’t do.

“Singularity’s” multiplayer (12 players), by contrast, is rather ordinary. But because it’s there to supplement the lengthy main course, and because the same solid mechanics still apply, it serves its purpose as a summertime diversion before the fall heavyweights appear. If nothing else, it gives players an opportunity to use the game’s unique weapons and technology to punish their friends instead of just the A.I.


N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights
For: Xbox 360
From: Konami
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, partial nudity, violence)

Even bad games generally tend to have some redeeming quality — however faint or fleeting or even ironic — that makes the experience of playing them at least tolerable or understandable, if not fun.

Unfortunately for “N3II: Ninety-Nine Nights,” the only instance of this lies in a rather pretty title screen, which disappears after pressing the start button and gives way to a game that has nothing else going for it on any level.

Like the first “Ninety-Nine Nights” game — and like all those “Dynasty Warriors” games it mimics — “N3II” sounds like a can’t-miss on paper. The story is a dull mishmash of fantasy cliches, but the gist of the game has players singlehandedly taking on hundreds of enemy soldiers at a time and using weapons and spells to thoroughly decimate them at a rate of dozens at a time. Any given mission finds players racking up a kill count in the thousands, and with “N3II” unafraid to show its bloody side, this should add up to a walk through heaven for the truly bloodthirsty.

In actuality, it never comes close. “N3II’s” enemies almost all look the same, and most of them display no artificial intelligence whatsoever. That makes the fights mindlessly dull, and because the game’s battle animations completely fail to convey the impact of a sword swipe capable of knocking 20 soldiers over at once, it lacks any kind of satisfying look or feel even on the “dumb fun” level. You might as well be chopping down stalks of virtual corn instead of enemy armies.

“N3II” injects some challenge in similarly artless fashion by being absurdly stingy with health pickups and giving certain enemies the ability to knock players down repeatedly without giving them any chance to get up or even counter the attack. No one really fights intelligently, but a swarm of enemies and enough cheap hits can be fatal — which, thanks to a lousy checkpoint system, can mean repeating long stretches of the game that weren’t fun the first time.

Nor are they fun the second, fifth, or 300th time. But because “N3II” essentially repeats itself ad nauseam over 20-plus hours, that’s what lies in store. The story goes places — nowhere interesting, but it advances — and that advancement allows players to unlock four additional characters and carry out their concurrent campaigns. But while each character has his or her own weapons, attributes and fighting style, the act of controlling them is identical down the line, and the nature of the fights in hour one is indistinguishable from that of hour 20. “N3II’s” action feels tired before the very first mission is even a fraction of the way finished, and repeating that exercise for the entirety of the game is an exercise in tedium so torturously dull as to turn someone off video games for good.


For: Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade
From: Playdead
ESRB Rating: Teen (animated blood, mild violence)

With respect to the entirely welcome revival of point-and-click adventure games, none of them come close to realizing the awesome possibilities of merging adventuring and puzzle-solving the way “Limbo” does. Played like a sidescroller and presented via a monochrome visual style straight out of the silent films era, “Limbo” begins almost completely free of storytelling and instruction, and it’s up to players to figure out what to do next. Like most sidescrollers, it assumes players know that the joystick is for running and the A button for jumping. But unlike most games of any kind, “Limbo” also assumes players can
rely solely on their own intuition to solve the succession of riddles that stand in the way of forward progress. And this is where “Limbo” absolutely beams: The puzzles are legitimately challenging, but because everything needed for the solution exists within the environment and in the general vicinity, the solution never lies out of reach no matter how elaborate the problem may be. “Limbo” achieves a perfect difficulty balance — not so difficult as to devolve into a guessing game, but rarely so easy that the solution immediately leaps out. And because it’s a sidescroller instead of a point-and-click game, it can challenge players to move quickly and jump precisely while also deciphering the puzzles that block the progress. The net result is one of the most intellectually gratifying games to surface this year, and players craving a true mental workout (that, as a bonus, looks absolutely magnificent) must check this one out.