Man, I'm really going to try not to gush all over this one, but in a world where PS2 ports and buggy sports games are the norm on the PSP, the Syphon Filter series is truly a breath of fresh air. I mean, Sony Bend came out of nowhere with Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, a game which I expected to be another crappy shooter, yet turned out to be possibly the best game on the PSP. And now, heck, it looks like they've proven that the last game wasn't a fluke. Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow delivers, even with the bar set so high by Dark Mirror's imposing presence. Well, let's not be fanboys here: there ARE some minor problems. But if they can keep this train a-chuggin' while fixing what's broke, I think Gabe will find himself up there with Snake and Sam on the superspy radar.
Now, as I'm sure you must have seen in any advertisement run for this game, Logan's Shadow has a considerately more developed plot than the last game, written by best-selling author Greg Rucka. Now, personally, I'm not familiar with any of Rucka's literature, but he did a damn good job with the story, which now feels like a more Tom Clancy-esque mishmash of government secrecy, covert agencies, double-crosses and international espionage. Without spoiling anything, here's the skinny: You're Agency spy Gabe Logan (duh), and you've been asked to take care of a group of thugs led by Syrian terrorist Hassan al Bitar, who have boarded a US naval ship to secure the highly-secretive contents of cargo hold five. You arrive on the ship and dispatch the thugs, and it soon becomes apparent that you're being kept out of the loop - the situation goes to hell in a handbasket. Then, faster than you can say “Bloated Government Bureaucracy”, your agency is shut down amidst the startling revelation that it may have been compromised by a double agent, and while searching for the truth, it comes to light that a number of world powers are vying for whatever was in cargo hold five, and it may have something to do with Lian's past. It gets bigger from there, but not without some major spoilers. All in all, it's a great story. Perhaps not as engrossing as a Splinter Cell game, where the weight of your actions is slightly more tangible, but Rucka did a fantastic job nonetheless, both with providing a compelling backdrop and fleshing out a few characters.
Gunplay and level design are largely the same as Dark Mirror, but Sony Bend added a few, much-appreciated tweaks. There are a few minor additions, like a new system to make you more aware of nearby grenades, but it's the more significant upgrades that stand out. You now have a Gears of War style blind fire system, where you can spray randomly from cover without the risk of being hit, which, while inaccurate, can oftentimes nail incoming enemies and force them back to cover. And, again, like Gears, instead of the last game's health kit system, Gabe now has health recovery armor. If you get damaged, find some cover, wait a few seconds, and you'll begin regenerating health. It's a lot more useful than ye olde health kits, and man, will you ever need it. The difficulty level is the same as the previous game in normal mode, but Hard mode, which was only a slight step up in difficulty in the first game, makes you work for your rewards this time around. Enemies are now crack shots with high damage. Some enemies with scoped pistols can take you out in a single well-placed head shot, and one burst of fire can sap all of your body armor. Series vets will want to beat the game on Normal mode first, if only to get acquainted with the levels and bosses. The final boss on Hard mode is, without a doubt, one of the most frustrating foes I've ever had the displeasure of trying to dispatch.
One more interesting new mechanic is the grapple system. Now, instead of just sneaking up and knifing enemies or snapping their necks, you can grapple with them. This allows you to use them as human shields while fighting other enemies, and, while it's a novel concept, the execution is iffy. Enemies have a rather short time in which you can successfully hold them as shields, after which they'll break free of your grasp and attack again. It leaves little to no time to take out other enemies and make use of your new “cover” if you're looking to score precise shots, and, if you decide to subdue them once they're about to break free, it requires a random button prompt to execute, lest you be left open to attack. There's really no time when it's practical to use as opposed to simply knifing or tasering them, or just popping them from cover.
But, since we're on that note already, I'll just wrap up a number of grievances. The enemy AI can sometimes be pretty dumb when it comes to cover and tactics. The games' new T rating means that there's no satisfying spurts anymore with stealth knife kills, and the taser no longer sets people on fire. And they decided to add new God of War style button sequences. ATTENTION GAME DEVELOPERS: WE ARE TIRED OF THE FRIGGIN' BUTTON SEQUENCES. It was novel when Resident Evil 4 and God of War did it, but honestly, enough is enough. They seem forced and don't help the interactivity at all here. Especially for something as mundane as pushing a barrel off a ledge or turning a valve, as opposed to, say, ripping an eyeball out of a Cyclops. If you're gonna do it, do it right.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's get back to the goodness. Probably the biggest new addition is the underwater combat, which actually takes up a surprisingly decent portion of the game. Better yet, it's done well. After the tutorial, underwater combat is second nature, and actually surprisingly realistic. Normal weapon fire is severely slowed, meaning that fighting underwater will require either fisticuffs or bolt pistols/spearguns, and movement is quite natural in all dimensions. It can be incorporated into stealth play, such as firing from the cover of water or popping up near ledges to drag enemy combatants down with you. But, most of all, it doesn't feel like a gimmick. It's actually very well implemented, and quite enjoyable. A dedicated button for rising in the water would have been nice, though. Also, how the hell can somebody pull off a two-handed sniper shot in the water? Gabe must have some energy legs. Kudos if you get that terrible, terrible reference.
Now, don't be put off by anything negative about any of the above: Logan's Shadow plays like a dream. The level design is fantastic, and has you venturing off to every corner of the map to collect secret evidence. There are many different styles of play that'll work. Sometimes, the aforementioned button sequences during cutscenes can even change the development of the level (such as waking up in jail cell without your weapons if you fail an interrogation sequence). Stealth, though, has been downplayed. Enemies oftentimes automatically know where you are, and there aren't many levels like the last game where using stealth exclusively will drastically change the feel of the level (like the Casino). Almost every change is welcome – I just wish that, perhaps, the game was a little bit longer, and that it offered more of an impact for your actions.
Multiplayer is, thankfully, still intact, and still as robust as ever. Everything that the previous game did correctly is present in Logan's Shadow, with two new modes to boot (a CTF-style Retrieval and an objective-oriented Sabotage). It even implements things like the underwater exploration from the single-player game, and has some welcome new balance tweaks such as selective spawn-points, manual or timed respawns, and the even dispersal of skilled players. The only problems I noticed were the abundance of exploding barrels (enough with the exploding barrels already!), and the reports of laggier online gameplay when not using the new model of the PSP. I can't confirm this, since I don't have both systems, but it's a little jarring.
Lastly, the extras this time around are just as good as the first. Finding hidden evidence and getting more varieties of kills yields some cool stuff, like level art, soundtrack clips, and new levels that both expand on the story and offer behind-the-scenes looks at the game. There's even a playable sneak preview for a new multiplayer add-on. Though the game is a little short, there's a ton of replay value in Logan's Shadow, which is pretty rare for a shooter.
Just as well, Logan's Shadow controls fantastically. Everything feels (man, how often have I used this phrase?) tight and responsive. Shooting, even with the face buttons, is still dead accurate, and gives you a lot of leeway when going for those long-distance headshots. Even frantic action is made bearable by the lock-on system. However, to compensate, again, for the lack of a second analog stick, some of the gameplay feels like a stop-n'-pop gallery, where you can just find cover and keep picking off enemies until they stop showing up. It gets a little bit repetitive after a while, to be blunt, but not when taking into account the tactics juggling during the battles. One other complaint is for sniping. There seems to be a sensitivity issue where you'll randomly back out of the sniper scope, which gets annoying, and some enemies with weak points might not register correctly (such as when you need to shoot out power supplies on their backs). But these are mostly minor issues.
Graphically, the game is right up there with the best of them. Since it's the same engine as Dark Mirror, the graphical quality is only slightly improved, but even the first game looks fantastic. The underwater levels in particular look authentic and beautiful, and, hey, ragdoll physics are always good fun (especially with grenades, tee-hee). Lighting is better, the HUD is cleaner, and oh my God are the animations good. The underwater animations are unbelievable by themselves, but the whole game is just as fluid. Sony Bend really outdid themselves on this one.
Again, everything is just as fantastic with the sound as it was in Dark Mirror, but the soundtrack is a little bit different this time around. Sony Bend picked up Azam Ali for the soundtrack, who has a number of big Hollywood productions to brag about (hint: one of them had everyone yelling “SPARTAAAA” for about a month straight). As a result, the music is very moody and atmospheric, rising and falling with the action onscreen, or playing a haunting vocal melody during the quiet, tense moments (with a fitting middle-eastern theme to it all). Sound effects are just as impressive, with great voice acting all around (though you'll hear the same terrorist banter plenty of times throughout the game), and Gabe's lovably stiff, gruff delivery thankfully intact, and dialog is perfectly scripted for the character development, whether serious or amusing (read: Dane Bishop).
Though there are a couple of gripes stated above, some more apparent than others, remember that this is mostly reporting the addition and implementation of all the new features in the game – you can just add it to any review of the last Syphon Filter for the whole picture. Everything that underlies the new mechanics is entertaining, engrossing, and just plain fun. Anything that seems like it should detract from the game experience on pen and paper is downplayed during the game experience. Logan's Shadow is another serving of Dark Mirror with some decent new toppings, and that would make it a damn good game. And, with the cliffhanger ending, we're practically promised a new installment. So with the portable series now batting nearly a thousand on quality, it looks like we'll be in for more top-notch spy-thrillery. Is that a word? Whatever. It is now.
Speaking of the ending – and please, wait past the credits – holy molly, if we don't get another game after THAT, I think I might have to go try a few taser tricks of my own at Sony HQ.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Fantastic graphics, especially the new underwater areas, and the animations are unbelievably realistic.
Not only are the sound effects and voice acting great, but also the soundtrack fits the mood of the game perfectly.
Barring a couple of frustrating moments on Hard mode (i.e. Final boss, YARGH), the game is extremely fun. With flaws, yes, but the positive aspects ultimately shine brighter than the faults.
Not incredibly addictive, per se, but damn fun. The unlockables will keep you playing if the multiplayer doesn't (and if the new multiplayer elements aren't your cup of tea, the first game still has a large online community).