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Posted on Dec 8th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Syphon Filter, 989 Studios, Eidetic, stealth action, spy fiction, Gabe Logan, Lian Xing

It's a good thing I bought this game based on the demo, not the cover art.

I have a very strong memory of when I first learned about Syphon Filter. It was probably late summer, or early fall, 1999. I was visiting a friend's house, and he was showing me his relatively new PlayStation console. I had previously played Twisted Metal, and Mortal Kombat Trilogy in college, but at this time, I had only recently acquired my own PlayStation, due to playing Tekken 2 at my cousin's house, and finding that I wanted to get something new, in terms of a game console. My friend showed me a PlayStation demo disc he had, and this cool new "spy action" game called Syphon Filter. I watched him play it for a few minutes, and thought it looked really cool. Then, when he was called downstairs to help finish getting dinner ready, he passed the controller over to me, and I dove in. From that point forward, I knew I had to have this game.

The title screen theme is still lodged deep within my subconscious.

Fast forward a couple months, and after getting my own console and a few games, I stumbled across this game, used, for a very good price. I immediately picked it up, and took it home. After getting back into the mechanics, based on my time with the demo, I began to play it frequently, trying to get through each mission, and having a lot of fun exploring the different weapons and mechanics. Since my wife worked third shift at the time, I often stayed up too late playing this game, stuck in that, "One more try!" sort of mode. Friday nights were notoriously late, as I would stay up as late as I could, so that when she came home, we would both be closer to the same sleep schedule. Friday nights when I wasn't re-watching The Fifth Element for the hundredth time, for a few months anyway, I was playing Syphon Filter.

Remember when these graphics were amazing?

Needless to say, I dove right into the sequel as soon as I got it, which wasn't long, considering it released the following year. I played through it quickly, devouring every second of gameplay it had to offer, and loving the experience. New mechanics were added, and the mission scenarios became even more interesting and varied. The story was more convoluted, in true Ian Fleming-style spy fiction fashion, and the overwrought voice acting just added to the campy charm of it all. By the time Syphon Filter 3 came out, I had got caught up playing Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and its sequel, and having moved mid-year, and then moving again later in the year, I didn't actually get around to playing it until a year or so later. I remember it being especially difficult, and it didn't quite grab me the way the first two games had. When I later picked up the PS2 game, it felt like a different game, and didn't grab me at all. I now own the entire series, including the well-regarded PSP titles, but I've always been apprehensive about diving into those, given my love for the original games, not wanting to tarnish that reputation in my own mind.

Gabe Logan likes his terrorists extra crispy.

Seeing that the original Syphon Filter was selected for inclusion on the PlayStation Classic, it got me nostalgic for the game again. All those good memories of late nights and marathon sessions came rushing back, and I got the itch to play it. I pulled it off the shelf, put it in my console, and fired it up. Having beat the game now, I can safely say that I had forgotten some of the details of the game. In particular, a fair number of late game levels and specifics. I was fully prepared for the game to not hold up, but to still enjoy it for many of the reasons I loved it nearly 20 years ago. I discovered that, though it's definitely flawed, and has some glaring issues, the game is still quite playable.

The Mars exhibit just got hot, yo!

In brief, Syphon Filter sees you controlling super spy Gabriel Logan, for "The Agency" - a shadowy government espionage body that either works on a black budget, or with little oversight. Despite the allusions to the CIA, and the CDC (the agency working to help clean up the biological agents in the game is called the 'CBDC'), the government agency Gabe works for is never specifically named. You're sent on a mission to go after a terrorst named Erich Rhoemer, who, along with fellow scumbags Anton Girdeaux, Paval Kravitch, Jorge Marcos, Vladislav Gabrek, and Mara Aramov, have launched a plot to take over the world, or something like that, using a genetically engineered virus. You don't know that right off the bat, however, only that Rhoemer is using biological weapons and terrorist goons to cause havoc. As the best agent for the job, you take on Rhoemer's entire forces, with the help of partner and comms officer, Lian Xing, to guide you through various mission objectives. She will feed you with maps, objectives, and information, to help you along the way.

In one of the more brutal elements of the game, Gabe is tasked with
assassinating scientists responsible for the proliferation of the Sypon
Filter virus. Most of them are unarmed and totally defenseless.

One feature of the game that I remember being better than it actually was, is the analog control. This game was designed to work with the stock original PlayStation pad, so while analog control was included, it seems like it was maybe more of an afterthought, or at least something that was adapted to the existing control scheme. I still think it plays better with the analog stick, versus the directional inputs, but it's nowhere near as fine-tuned as I remember it being, nor as much as I would like. And you only have access to the left analog stick, which means all movement, AND all aiming, will be done with the same stick. That is part of what gives the game its challenge: you need to learn to navigate the game's enemy-populated areas and be able to quickly aim and snipe foes, while not taking too much damage, lest you run out of armor (known in this game as a Flak Jacket), and put yourself in a situation where you have only a scant bit of health to rely on, should a stray bullet travel your direction. I seem to remember the second and/or third game in the series may have added better dual-stick controls, but I'd have to go back and play them again to verify that.

Escort missions mostly suck. Can I get an amen?

If it wasn't already painfully obvious, by the screenshots and gifs, the graphics in this game haven't aged well. There are games from the 32-bit era that still have a lot of charm, like the Spyro the Dragon trilogy, most anything with well done 2D graphics, or a game like NiGHTS: Into Dreams on the Sega Saturn. Syphon Filter hasn't fared as well. The animation is goofy, and always has been, even though I remember being impressed by how it looked at the time. There's a ton of clipping, and that can affect the camera, which can hamper your ability to properly aim weapons. The effect where you climb down a ledge, and the camera spins and zooms around to get behind Gabe is still a nice touch, though. I also found there are a handful of spots in the game where, with enough going on in the graphics, the game's framerate can drop somewhat. Not so dramatically that it's a huge distraction, but in the era of "1080P 60FPS" kind of expectations, it's interesting to note that even older games struggled on their native platforms. In addition, the tile sets used to overlay the polygons are quite low-resolution, and outside of the intro animation that plays before the title screen, the facial animations and designs are almost nonexistent. That does improve in future games, thankfully.

Halo didn't invent the head shot....Gabe Logan did.

Sound design is very mixed. The music, while providing some atmosphere, is largely forgettable, save for the title screen theme, and is initially set very low, to where you have to turn that up in the options. I do like the fact that, if you encounter enemies in sections of a level where there's a lull, or during a part that's supposed to be more stealthy, the music will ramp up, get faster and more energetic, and keep pace with the action. It's a nice touch, and something you didn't get much of prior to this generation, and even something that wasn't prevalent until years later. Sound effects are all still pretty good, I feel, with satisfying gun sounds, especially the shotgun, with its deep boom. As I eluded to earlier, the voice acting can be corny and not spectacular, but it works well enough with the James Bond-style setting and overall vibe. I actually like the overdone voice acting for Gabe Logan, because it gives the character a distinctive personality. Similarly, the villains are all overacted, mostly with fairly predictable accents, but again, it works with the setting. The voice actress who plays Lian Xing is much more measured, and sounds a bit clinical at times, but as the comms officer, I would expect her to be as matter of fact as possible all the time, so it doesn't really bother me. Again, this is another element that I think improves a bit as the series progresses.

See that fancy chandelier? You can shoot it, and bring it down on top of enemies.

One of the things that impressed me with the game, at the time, is the limited degree of interactivity with your surroundings. You can shoot out windows, to allow you to climb through a window, or if there's a full-height glass door or pane, just waltz right through it! In the first stage, there's a bar, where you can shoot beer bottles on the tables and countertops, which is a nice touch. Later in the game, you can break glass cases in the museum, and even destroy artifacts on display, or shoot bottles of chemicals in the Pharcom warehouse to disable or kill an enemy soldier. We take these kinds of things for granted today, with games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild having ridiculously robust physics and elemental engines, but these details were still new to games of this type, so it's cool to recognize these details, all these years later, and realize how innovative they were at the time. If you shoot the walls, you'll see bullet hole damage. Throw a grenade and it detonates against a wall or floor, and that area will be blackened. Is anything on the screen burning? Don't touch it! You'll probably catch on fire. You can also shoot out street lights and search lights, a feature that comes in very handy around halfway through the game.

For enemies that aren't wearing Flak Jackets, auto-targeting can be very handy.

In terms of difficulty, there are spots in this game that can be maddening, until you figure out the trick to a particular area. There are spots where, because it had been so long since I played it, I thought were nigh impossible. Then, once I either looked up a strategy guide, or just hammered away at it a bit, I realized that it was just a matter of using the right weapon, triggering the right event at a certain time, etc. Enemy patterns and AI in the game is somewhat rudimentary: there are many times when an enemy will hold their position, even when it's obvious you just walked around the corner, because they just didn't have any more movements programmed in. That's helpful for making the game easier to get through, though real challenge seekers might find the game overall a bit too easy. There are places where the enemy can be particularly cheap, such as the final encounter with Rhoemer - if you're not prepared for it, he will mow you down in two seconds. Otherwise, stealth is often the key, if not an outright necessity, depending on the mission. Slow and steady wins the race, in most cases. Unlike Metal Gear Solid, where it's actually better if you only engage in combat when you absolutely have to, Syphon Filter gives you a ton of weapons, and encourages open combat much of the time, but it's generally better to pace yourself whenever possible. Taking on one or two enemies at a time is doable, even if they both have Flak Jackets, once you have command of the controls, and know what your best weapon choices are.

Anton Girdeaux doesn't mess around: he brings the heat!

Speaking of control, as I mentioned, you only have access to the left analog stick, but there are lots of control options in the game. The analog stick or directional buttons move Logan back and forward, or turn him left or right. You can use the the L2 and R2 buttons to strafe, the L1 button to manually target your weapon, or the R1 button to auto-target an enemy. Keep pressing R2 to cycle through multiple enemies on your radar. Square fires your weapon, and Triangle acts as your "action" button, which will also reload your weapon to its maximum magazine/clip capacity, from whatever stock of ammo you have. The X button will crouch, which allows you to crawl slowly, and make less noise, and the Circle button performs a roll, which is handy in a number of situations. Select will toggle to the next weapon in your arsenal, and if you hold down Select, you can then use the L2 and R2 buttons to cycle through weapons to the left and right, respectively, and even choose optional items, like the flashlight. After just a few minutes of playing, I took to the controls again quickly, and I don't think it would take long for anyone to get accustomed to them, outside of the inconvenience of not having that right analog stick available for aiming or looking around.

Gabe Logan seems like a pretty chill dude, who just likes to hang out.

At the end of the day, whether or not you'll get on with Syphon Filter in 2018 (and beyond) is really a personal preference sort of thing. If you find it hard even going back to PS2-era games, with their cruder graphics, and less refined control schemes, this game will do nothing to convince you that it holds up any better. For those who have nostalgia for it, it may be a welcome return to a familiar friend, much like it was for me. If you've never played it, I would encourage at least a cursory glance, via a YouTube play-through, or checking it out via a friend, if you don't already own a copy. Not that acquiring this game is a problem. It sold gangbusters in its time, so copies are plentiful in the wild, and the game shouldn't set you back more than $5 or $8 for a complete copy. It's also long enough to feel like you're getting your money's worth, but not too long to where you begin to wonder if the game will ever end. It also differs itself enough from the other, more recognized title from its era, which is of course, Hideo Kojima's calling card. However, Syphon Filter is the slightly campy, mostly serious spy thriller to Metal Gear Solid's stealth action fever dream. If you have any interest at all in the development of the genre, as it would go on into the successive console generations to the later MGS games, or the Splinter Cell series, then I would say Syphon Filter is still well worth a look, if even just for historical purposes. As for me, I'm inspired to possibly play through 2 & 3 again, especially since my memories of Gabe and Lian's third outing are quite hazy.

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I remember playing this game frequently. One of my friends owned it and we learned that you could just about snipe with the taser. So we'd roast people across the map, shoot out the street lights to be more stealthy, and then we'd barbecue every one of our enemies.
I fell in love with this game from an included demo, which I must have played for hours.  I'll have to dig it out again, but instead I may just pick up the first game again.  I remember loving how Logan steered through corners like he was getting ready to drift or something, but I also remember (vaguely) the game getting fairly difficult towards the end, with multiple enemies at once requiring headshots.

On another note, man I really want to dig into some demos again.  I can't tell you how many games I bought in the past just down to the fun I had in the non-gimped demo (Armored Core represent!).
@SirPsycho: Haha, yeah! I had WAY too much fun with the taser when I first played through the game, and ended many a stealth level by tasering someone in too close a proximity to others, to where they could hear the dude scream, and it set of alarm bells. Good times.

@bombatomba: The game does get quite difficult toward the end. Most of the time, you have time to take your time, and often use cover so you can aim and do headshots. I do remember that in the second game, you're kind of thrown to the wolves right away in the first sequence, when you parachute into enemy territory. You almost immediately have to stick and move, and get headshots on dudes in an open area. It's a difficult opening sequence to an otherwise relatively balanced game.

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