Rejoice! Finally, a video game has come along that brings together all of the best aspects from games such as Splinter Cell, 007, and Metal Gear Solid. I'm talking about Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror for the PlayStation Portable.
We've been enjoying the action-stealth genre for years now, but, let's face it, every time we play a new entry in the genre we can't help but notice what's missing.
Splinter Cell could use more action, Metal Gear Solid needs dirtier tricks and better gadgets, the cinematic aspects of the 007 games are weak… and so on and so forth.
After having played Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror for a few days, I'm convinced that the development team behind it played all of those other games, came to the same conclusions, and decided to try their hands at concocting the perfect action-stealth game. That's because everything that is missing from those games is in here, not to mention a little Tomb Raider for good measure.
Players control a fictional counter-terrorism agent named Gabe Logan in missions that dole out a well-balanced mix of 3D exploration, sneaking, gunplay, and melee fighting. Typically, each mission, which is broken into multiple parts, involves slowly working through the environment, dealing with on a split-second basis whatever opposition forces, traps, switches, or obstacles you may encounter. The goal is to complete the mission as quickly and stealthily as possible, before enemy bullets deplete Gabe's body armor and health. Many missions also involve pairing up with a CPU-controlled teammate, who will generally do a good job of returning fire and staying alive, although you will be called to protect and back them up on occasion.
It really is insane (in the awesome sense) how much Gabe can do. This guy can climb and crawl like Lara Croft, shimmy around corners and break necks like Sam Fisher, perform more martial arts moves and knife attacks than Solid Snake, and he has access to a wider variety of weapons and gadgets than James Bond.
If a group of three or four terrorists appears out of a doorway, you can run at them guns-a-blazing or back up against something, lean out, and take them out with sniper bullets.
If you need to take out a terrorist quietly, you can do so at a distance with a silenced pistol or gas and tazer bullets, or sneak up to him and use Gabe's knife or a melee attack.
If a heavily-armed target is patrolling a compound, you can setup a proximity or remote-detonation mine to take him out without engaging in a dangerous exchange of gunfire.
If you encounter a wall, tunnel, ladder, or zip line in the environment, you can interact with those features to climb over and sail past obstacles. The same goes for traps like locked doors and explosives, which you can "unlock" by inputting a code or holding the disarm button for a length of time.
Throughout it all, players also have access to dozens of weapons–knives, pistols, rifles, grenades, rocket launchers, mines–as well as a handful of gadgets, like various goggle attachments and a hilarious short-range tazer weapon.
As you can see, there are many "ifs" and numerous ways to handle those situations. That's the great thing about missions in Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror; your actions have a significant impact on how each mission plays out. By using a melee attack or a gas bullet to take out a solitary sentry, you'll prevent him from calling in backup. A group of terrorists may call in reinforcements if you don't kill them quickly enough, so you can crouch and shimmy along a wall to move closer to them before attacking, thus eliminating the time they have to find cover or call for help. Sometimes, by looking around, you'll notice a small tunnel or a zip line that you can use to take an alternative route past enemies and traps.
Unlike so many other stealth-heavy games, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror isn't slow paced. Many people will spend their first few hours playing the game developing the alertness that's required to handle all of the game's split-second hazards, along with the awareness that's necessary to spot hidden switches and zip lines in the environment. In the beginning, it'll seem like you can't prevent guards from calling in backup or that you're constantly ignoring some helpful shortcut. Give it some time, though, and you'll manifest the skills to lay out those loners and spot those unobtrusive switches and zip lines.
Adaptive A.I. behavior and intricate, yet user-friendly controls are the glue that holds it all together. The CPU-controlled terrorists will split up and take cover when you attack, and they'll try to move up or outflank you when you take cover. By the same token, though, they'll also follow their pre-ordained patrol routes and seek out the source of any noises, giving you the opportunity to hide mines in their path or distract them long enough to run by unnoticed. As for the controls, they're a modified take on the FPS style layouts we've seen in other PSP games. Manual movement and aiming are handled using the analog stick and main buttons, but you can automatically lock-on to targets by pressing the L-button and back up behind cover by holding up on the analog stick next to a wall or crate. Weapons-cycling seems complicated at first, until you memorize the digital pad and button combinations that allow you to switch weapons and ammunition loads literally in the time it takes to blink your eyes. Would it be better if the PSP had another analog stick and a couple more buttons? Sure, but the PSP's layout serves this game wonderfully.
Being Gabe Logan is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the game's top-notch presentation, which features an intelligently-concocted story and visuals and audio that are as artistically impressive as they are technically so.
Gabe is such a fun character, a fictional counter-terrorism agent with a personality that's 70% Solid Snake and 30% James Bond. He's no-nonsense, he's highly trained, and he's just a little bit cocky. Joining him are two female support agents, a field operative named Lian, who is sarcastic in voice and methodical in action, and a remote ops manager named Teresa, who constantly broadcasts on the radio to offer advice and point out useful items. The story starts out as your typical espionage yarn involving government officials and foreign powers scheming to create a deadly virus, but, not long after Gabe's insertion into an Alaskan oil refinery that's been taken over by terrorists, the plot takes a compelling twist that puts Gabe and his friends on the business end of a double-cross.
Extravagant cinematic sequences and wonderfully-spoken dialogue advance the story along. We're talking Hollywood-level quality here, with camera angles and busy action shots depicting plane crashes, gun fights, and explosions the likes of which only a few other games in the genre have managed. Keep in mind, this is on the PSP. We're accustomed to games on the PS2 that portray massive worlds on a grand cinematic scale; thanks to such lavish productions as Metal Gear Solid 3 and God of War; but this is the first game on the PSP to achieve the same lofty production values.
In-game graphics and audio are equally lavish. The 3D environments are large, filled with diverse types of structures, and employ sight lines that tend to open up the player's view as opposed to claustrophobically boxing players in like similar games often do. There isn't a set first-person or third-person perspctive. Instead, the game adjusts between multiple camera views depending on what's happening. Generally, the first-person view is used for shooting and sniping, while the third-person view is used for sneaking, climbing, and melee combat. On the whole, the graphics are crisp, the textures are detailed, and the animation is smooth. Character models exhibit a TON of detail (uniforms, body armor, facial characteristics, weapons). The variety of death and reaction animations is fairly good too. It's hilarious to tag a paramilitary terrorist in the head and watch their helmet fly into the air. Should you find a moment to take a look around, you'll also notice a wealth of subtle details, such as shrapnel effects, fire jets, reflections, flowing water, and wildlife. Similar praise is due the audio, which consists of a prolific number of sound effects, vocal comments, and tense musical cues. Mark Snow, of X-Files fame, helped craft some of the game's music, so that should give you some idea of how delicious the soundtrack is.
The single player mode provides one heck of a ride. It contains more than 30 missions spread across eight chapters, clocking in at around 20 hours or so of first-run play. Once you complete a mission, you can replay it any time you want in order to set top times and find hidden "evidence" files, which unlock a slew of bonus content (missions, weapons, movie clips, developer diaries, etc.).
Online play greatly extends the disc's replay value, transforming the game from a two-week-long indulgence into a social phenomenon that you can enjoy day-in and day-out for at least a few months (or longer, depending on your personal attention span). Anyone can create a game on the server, which as many as 8 players can join. Free-for-all modes include deathmatch and a variation of tag called "rogue agent." Team modes include objective and deathmatch. Objective play is compelling, in that each mission provides a different pair of contrasting goals for the two teams to achieve. For instance, while you and your pals are busy trying to reach a room on the opposition's side, the other team is hard at work trying to reach the top of a tower on your side. Teamwork is required in order to keep the enemy at bay and reach the goal in their zone. Every aspect of team play was implemented the right way. The server automatically keeps track of numerous stats and allows players to join and manage clans (which are referred to as "cells"). During games, you can communicate to teammates using text-chat macros or by speaking into the voice-headset (sold seperately).
If you have been waiting for a reason to shell out the $60 or so necessary to purchase a wireless router that will allow you to share your Internet connection with your PSP, this game is it.
Taken as the sum of its parts, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror isn't just one of the best games on the PSP; it's one of the best games to come out for any platform, period. Somehow, Sony's studio in Bend, Oregon has managed the unthinkable, they've put together an action-stealth game that's simultaneously intricate, cinematic, and fun to play. After the embarrassment that was Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain on the PS2, it's nice to see the franchise back on track again.