Ah, the grand old days of the PS1. We hearken back to these old times to remember when gameplay took precedence over graphics; when adventure games had substance, and RPGs had lush, rich environments, and when everyone’s favorite operative was walking like he was shot in the leg. Yes, the Syphon Filter games are cult hits in their own right, but only one game has made it to current-gen consoles (Omega Strain for the PS2). Thankfully, the team at Sony decided to pump yet another iteration of this series onto the market, this time for the PSP. And while we are sadly missing the wobbly, hobbling walk of Gabe Logan of earlier games, we do have what I would call the killer app for the PSP. This is the must-have game for the system for many reasons (not just because of the lack of fresh games on the system), and anyone with a PSP should have it in their library. Don’t even read this review, just go out and get it.
The story of Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror revolves around the all-around good guy and ruthless operative Gabe Logan, a soldier in the vein of Sam Fisher (but not quite the same – nobody can touch the Fishman). Gabe, along with his team (which consists of heroine operative Lian and code-cracker Teresa), is dispatched to a remote oil refinery on what appears to be a routine operation, but they soon realize that they have just stumbled into something much bigger. While putting the pieces together, Gabe is reunited with an old lover, Addison Hargrove, who had left the agency years before, and must subsequently deal with Addison and discover her role in the conspiracy surrounding a mysterious project known as Dark Mirror.
The game has a multitude of options. Single player campaigns are the meat of the game, with a story mode (obviously), a training mode (more useful than you’d think), and a highly entertaining mission mode, in which you can go back and replay old missions while completing certain objectives, earning you new weapons to take through the other missions. This may sound tedious, but this is one of the only games in which replaying old levels is genuinely satisfying, as opposed to mere filler. As you go through the missions, you can attempt a certain number of kills or goals throughout the level (for example, a menu may say that you have completed 10 out of 25 stealth kills available in the level). The reason that this is so addictive is that the level design seems completely new with every attempt made at a certain number of kills. Replaying a level with your sniper rifle trying to get 15 head shots is completely different from going through a level with your knife, going for stealth or combat knife kills. And don’t worry – you only need a percentage of a certain goal to unlock a new item. For instance, if you can only make 20 out of 25 dart kills in a level, it will factor those 20 into your career percentage, and unlock the items from that particular goal type accordingly. You can also search for precariously-placed Hidden Evidence throughout each stage, which will give you new insight into the story and unlock genuinely satisfying options such as character/level art, movies, soundtracks, etc.
Weapon selection in the game is fantastic, though you can only carry 4 guns at a time, based on their category (one special weapon, one sidearm, etc.). On your missions, you will find a wide variety of guns and upgrades with which to disperse of many unfortunate enemies. Weapons range from your trusty MB-150 sniper rifle (which, along with bullets, fires taser, neurotoxin, and explosive darts), to high-powered shotguns like the M1 Super 90, to tried and true rifles such as the AK-47 (or Kalashnikov, to gun enthusiasts), and even experimental weapons such as the Calico (an explosive sniper pistol), Flare Gun (sets your enemies on fire), and Jackhammer (explosive shotgun!). Of course, you also get to use your trusty K-Bar combat knife for grisly close-quarters kills, and your EDT, a cabled taser that incapacitates an enemy and, if held for long enough, makes them erupt into flames, which is by far the most entertaining way to take out an opponent covertly.
The game takes place over the course of seven chapters, each with a good number of missions to complete. Each chapter occurs in a new area, from smoldering military complexes to mountaintop fortresses, and each mission therein takes anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to complete, though it is far longer if you attempt the goals in mission mode. There are even bonus missions, in which you get to try scenarios from unseen parts of the game, such as going up against the Triad, or assassinating Gabe’s oft-maligned nemesis, Mara Aramov. Sadly, while you do get to play as Lian Xing and even agency hitman Gary “Stone” Stoneman, their sections are somewhat brisk and last for only two missions apiece. Most of the time, you will be controlling Gabe.
Not to say that that’s a bad thing. Gabe no longer has the charming stagger he had in past Syphon Filter games, but he’s still the gruff, battle-hardened warrior we’ve become acquainted with. The classic characters, such as Gabe and Lian, come to life in the fantastically orchestrated plot elements. This is helped along by some truly cinematic moments (such as the final battle, in which the dialogue has all the impact), wonderful character development, and top-notch voice acting, which are all compounded by the fantastic dialogue. You really get to identify with each character in the game, from the times when they are revealing their innermost selves to the times when they’re blowing random crap up.
Speaking of which, did I mention ragdoll physics? Yes, Syphon Filter features true ragdoll physics for every character. This means that you get to watch bodies flail in the air and bounce on impact, and even fly back in a crumpled heap when attacked with a high-powered weapon (bouncing “invincible” characters around in the air with the Jackhammer is tons of fun). Physics aside, you can feel the impact of bullets and explosions thanks to subtle effects such as screen shakes. A handy indicator shows you from where the lethal rounds are flying, and any impact creates a small blot of blood to add to the realism. Surprisingly, this computing power is not a very big strain on the battery, and it will last you just as long as other titles.
The AI in this game is for the most part smart. Occasionally, you will see some cringing, absurdly stupid, hey-let’s-go-rush-the-guy-with-the-shotgun-after-exposing-ourselves-from-reliable-cover moments, but for the most part, the enemies are actually quite smart. They will seek and use cover effectively, avoid exploding barrels for the most part, and even use tactics against you (I actually saw displays of some soldiers using suppressing fire while others flanked my position). This is a welcome change from the wholly mediocre AI found in other shooters. Thankfully, the camera in the game helps you to even the odds a bit more. It is situated right behind Gabe, revealing the upper half of your body, and when you snap to cover, it switches and allows you to peek out from a number of directions and quickly fire back at your enemies. Furthermore, the game features a spot-on targeting system that makes targeting a breeze and increases your accuracy realistically (the longer you are locked on, when you crouch instead of stand, etc).
The levels are astounding, to put it frankly. Not only are they large enough to support long levels and grand firefights, but the design of the levels is intuitive enough so that you never need to be shown where to go next, but you can still locate items and enemies easily, if not by the naked eye, then by the use of your assorted goggles (EDSU helps you locate electronic and plot-intensive items, infrared helps you see enemies through walls and locate flammable materials, and night vision is self explanatory, but often underused). And for all this, loading times are remarkably short, usually about 30 seconds long, but while you load the game, you are given a briefing and summary of both your mission and situation, which is always fun to read no matter how many times you have played the level.
The controls for this game are so good that you barely even notice the absence of a second analog stick. Not only are they tight and responsive, but they are also very effective for what they do, and only cumbersome if you cannot bear the idea of moving your thumbs off the analog stick for a split second. The analog stick is used for moving and strafing, and by flicking it up while near a wall, you snap to it, and then slide along the wall and shoot from cover. Pressing down on the control pad makes you crouch, which helps your accuracy, lets you sneak up for stealth kills, and lets you hide behind low cover (and pressing it after a fall makes you roll and take less damage… As Peppy Hare would say, “Do a barrel roll!”). Pressing up will perform a context-sensitive action or reload your gun. The L trigger activates the lock on, and the right trigger fires. Pressing and holding left or right will bring up a menu of four items to choose apiece (left will choose your goggles, right will choose your weapon), and then you press one of the face buttons to select your weapon. This is far more efficient than scrolling through guns or menus, and works quite well for on-the-fly swaps. The face buttons are used for aiming, and are surprisingly efficient for this purpose. Of course, a second analog stick would be welcome, but as mentioned before, you’ll hardly notice the absence thanks to the lock-on and relative ease of use when it comes to aiming with the face button. Even aiming with lock-on disabled it still effective, mostly when firing from cover. You do have a handy map system to tell you where everyone is, but one addition that might have been nice would have been a quick turn button. If an enemy sneaks up on you, it can take up to a full second to turn around, but enemies very rarely get behind you – For the most part, it’s a forward rampage.
Graphically, Dark Mirror is on par with PS2 games. By far, these are the best graphics on the PSP (barring games like Ridge Racer, in which graphics are paramount). Textures are crisp and clear, character models are varied and vivid, and you can pull off a headshot from all the way across the map thanks to how clear the resolution is, even from a distance (the generous hit detection doesn’t hurt). There is no fading or blurring of any kind during the action, and each bit of equipment is both visible on your body and rendered in fine detail. Environments are usually somewhat uniform in their color palettes, but they have more than enough detail, so you will never get lost. The design of the levels and situations complement the game and weaponry. I could go on complimenting it – these points bear repeating – but it would only get more redundant from here on out, so it might be better to just say that it is more similar to Omega Strain than any of the PS1 versions. I still miss Gabe’s awkward walk, though.
The quality of the sound, in terms of simple crispness, is just as good as any other game on the PSP. What makes this stand out, though, is the quality of the actual recordings. Sound effects are varied enough to simply suffice, but the voice acting is spectacular. Even while spouting some of Gabe’s cornier lines or Lian’s concerns, the actors do a convincing job and help to move the story along. The score, though, is what truly shines. Sony didn’t settle for mindless rock or electronica, but instead went the classical route. Many of the original scores in the game are grand and orchestrated, and fit the mood correctly, while the battle themes are more on the pulse-pounding, fast-paced side. Even when you stealth a level, there is still an original score for those sections. The soundtrack is evocative of both the game as a whole and of your character’s current actions, and the composition is breathtaking. One of the best soundtracks in a shooter this side of the consoles (barring maybe a portable Halo, but if Marty O’Donnell worked on this game… Oh, we can dream, can’t we?).
If the robust single player options weren’t enough, Dark Mirror features an extensive multiplayer mode. You get to take control of an agency operative or a mercenary, and you can then fight with up to seven other people in both infrastructure and ad-hoc mode. The amount of modes is respectable, featuring shooter staples such as deathmatch and team deathmatch, but it also features unique modes such as rogue agent or objective. It even features an extensive array of options such as in-game email, leaderboards, and honest to goodness clan support (they call them “cells”). Furthermore, you can gain new weapons and abilities by gaining badges, just like in the single player campaign, thereby giving yourself an advantage in online games. There are always people online, and many of them on an equal skill level. At some times, I found nearly 100 games up at a time. There are little to no hiccups if you have a decent wireless connection, and it even features voice chat if you have the microphone headset. The experience of playing these large online games is similar to that when playing console games online, with expertly-designed maps and player know-how governing the outcome of a match. It provides an excellent amount of replay value, especially with so few infrastructure games for the PSP, and the interface is better than any other online PSP game available.
Is this game the second coming of shooters? Not by a long shot. Is it the second coming of shooters on the PSP? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. With a robust online selection and a meaty single player campaign, Dark Mirror is well worth your forty bucks, more so than most other games out there. I know that a score of 100% may seem overzealous, and I’ll admit that I am a bit apprehensive about giving this score, but not only did I not find anything significantly wrong with the game, but it actually wowed me in many respects. Maybe I’m just a little too happy to have a great shooter/stealth game on the PSP, and maybe I can’t voice every little reason why you should get this game, but trust me – this is the best couple of bucks you could spend on that shiny little handheld. See you online.
Playing Hints and Tips
Stealth kills work with EDT darts, so use those when you can’t get close enough to use the knife.
Using the flare gun actually counts as an environmental kill, so it’s a great way to rack those up at a record pace.
Try using the gas and explosive darts to booby trap an enemy patrol. Fire it at the ground, hide, and detonate as they pass over it.
When going for headshot kills or anything else that requires a lot of enemies, trigger as many enemy spawns as you can to get as many subjects for the goal.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
The best graphics in a shooter on the PSP to date. On par with console games, though the game is much more than a port.
The music is great, and the quality of the voice acting is of the highest caliber. And the actual sound quality ain’t bad, either.
The single player is a blast, as is the multiplayer. One of the most entertaining buys on the system.
Online play and weapon collecting will keep you hooked for a good, long time. It’s hard to get around to other reviews while I still have this game. Send help!