A solid debut outing for the PlayStation icon that suffers from a few issues of poor pacing, but otherwise offers an enjoyably bombastic time.
World-building & Story
A globe-trotting adventure focused on stopping a deadly biological weapon, Syphon Filter follows super spy Gabe Logan and his Agency partner Lian Xing as they investigate a series of outbreaks across the world. They soon find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy that grows deeper at every turn, offering some thrilling moments despite some wonky pacing.
Syphon Filter attempts to tell a grand tale and it’s certainly ambitious for the PS1, seeing Gabe and Lian visit a variety of locations ranging from Washington DC to Kazakhstan chasing after the virus. There are some brilliant set pieces in here – stalking a terrorist through a misty city park is incredibly tense, while escaping an exploding military base is a real rush. The plot moves at breakneck speed giving it the feel of a true spy thriller as you slowly unravel new parts of the mystery.
At the same time, storytelling suffers from this rapid pace. There were points where I was unsure what was going on and names were thrown at me quite often which failed to make any impact – Girdeux, Phagan and Rhoemer were all major players but it took me a good while to figure out who was who and what their relevance was to the overall plot. In general character development is fairly poor – Gabe is portrayed as a standard mercenary and agency big-wigs are no better, although Lian shows occasional flourishes of human emotion.
Inevitably the plot will be compared to the PS1’s magnum opus of espionage storytelling Metal Gear Solid and sadly Syphon Filter is a good few steps behind, feeling more disjointed and messy by comparison. Ideas are thrown around but never truly expanded on and you don’t quite get a proper feel of the overall picture – still, I did enjoy the game for what it was trying to do (a ‘stop the viral outbreak’ tale years before 24) and it certainly kept me interested enough throughout.
The world Gabe’s adventures take place in is based heavily on reality, with a few heightened elements to keep things interesting. It’s probably the best thing about the title – familiar locations like city streets mix in with more fantastical elements like a biological lab inside a monastery, but everywhere is always fun to explore thanks to some smart design and a good sense of exploration.
Presentation & Sound
While it’s not quite up to the high standards set by some of the PS1’s most attractive titles, Syphon Filter is a generally acceptable-looking game with a few rough edges that haven’t quite held up over time – still, it gets the job done.
The CG cutscenes still look quite good, helped by some smart direction that uses distant camera angles and plenty of cuts. They’re unlikely to rival the breathtaking moments of something like Final Fantasy VIII and frustratingly mostly take place inside a meeting room within the Agency, but otherwise they work pretty well.
What is decidedly less impressive is the in-game character models. Similar to Metal Gear Solid, they’re quite blurry with undefined features meaning encountering Lian or Phagan for the first time is an underwhelming experience. Gabe runs and moves rather poorly too, with seemingly clunky animations although I have to credit the developers for implementing proper shooting animations. It’s also a Syphon Filter staple to set foes on fire with the taser and oddly these moments are some of the more visually pleasing ones, plus I appreciated that Gabe’s outfit changes depending on the mission he’s on.
Environments are fairly impressive for the hardware they’re running on – everywhere you visit is easily recognisable and some places like the city streets are genuinely interesting places to look around, with bad guys sniping you from rooftops around every corner. Other levels like a military base are impressive in terms of their scale and scope, allowing fairly free-form exploration which is let down by a questionable draw distance – although this is used to the game’s advantage in other areas like a misty city park where vision is limited.
They’re more disappointing in some of the more minute details – while each area is generally unique, there’s a lot of repetition in environmental objects and design which makes them feel less like distinct spaces and more like purpose-built arenas. While the game uses colour fairly well, there are problems with this too such as a number of overused skyboxes which appear vibrant but feature blurry texturework making them seem more like non-distinct shapes. Despite all these issues, I did think Syphon Filter did a fairly good job at representing its world.
Sound is an interesting point – music is pretty decent and adds to the atmosphere on numerous occasions, while effects also work and are amplified by the whelp of enemies as you take them down in traditional Wilhelm scream-style. The actual voice acting is a bit lacking though – Gabe is your traditional gruff hero but seems to be rushing through his lines, while other characters like Aramov are generic stereotypes. Again, Lian comes off best, but in general it’s easy to tell the era the title was made in.
Gameplay & Content
By and large Syphon Filter is a stealth game that lets you play however you like – you’re heavily encouraged to take your time and slowly scope out a level, but you’re given the option of just running and gunning it too. This offers a surprising level of freedom, but unfortunately the gameplay has been designed solely around only one of these methods.
You’ll control secret agent Gabe Logan at all times and he’s easy to get to grips with – he can run and shoot at the same time (something Solid Snake couldn’t do, plus you can enter a stationary first-person aiming mode for better precision) and is capable of acrobatic feats such as vaulting over boxes or ducking behind cover. One of his major movement mechanics is the ability to strafe and unfortunately on Vita this is mapped to the rear touch which is frustrating to use and there’s not really a better way to bind the controls.
You’ll undertake missions in a variety of locations ranging from a missile silo to a museum expo and each features a number of objectives to achieve – these are always different including stalking a target without being spotted, finding a way to disarm a laser barrier or injecting patients with a serum designed to neutralise the syphon filter virus. Each level includes a handy map that you can use to keep track of these objectives as well as to find your next route forward, making navigation easy.
Early on, Syphon Filter strikes an incredible balance in design – long and short missions alternate extremely well and there’s a brilliant flow to the game, assisted by some truly memorable set pieces. A particular highlight involves chasing an assassin down a subway, weaving in and out of oncoming trains to try and close the gap – it’s tense and exciting and the game is full of moments like this, but runs into difficulties maintaining this pace after a while.
Past the halfway point you’re given a series of missions in a monastery and the title loses a lot of steam at this point – these levels are long-winded and honestly quite dull, without the thrills the early game contained. It culminates in an absolutely infuriating mission in some catacombs where you’re required to tail a target without being spotted – it’s poorly checkpoint, the AI is absymal (which is surprising since in general the enemies are surprisingly challenging targets often ducking out of your sight) and it goes on for far too long, taking a lot of wind out of Syphon Filter‘s sails.
It’s a shame too as the later levels do recover the pacing, but whether you’ll last until this point is another question. A further frustration comes whenever you’re given mandatory run ‘n’ gun missions – they’re not awful but the lock-on aiming can be erratic at best and when you’re given flak jacket enemies that require headshots to take down, the shaky first-person viewpoint falls apart as you don’t have the luxury of time to aim up your shots like you do when playing stealthily.
Aside from these problems alongside the fact that the game has obviously aged next to modern shooters, there is still a lot of fun to be had with Syphon Filter. It really nails the atmosphere and set pieces to make you feel like a spy and slowly picking off guards while making your way through an enemy stronghold has a great sense of excitement to it. Rather than feeling like it’s aping Metal Gear Solid, the game crafts its own brand of stealth-action that’s sorely missing from the market today.
Length-wise, you’re looking at 8-10 hours for a playthrough and although there’s no immediate replayability, I have found myself returning to Syphon Filter every few years just to have a bit of fun with it – so it’s definitely worth the price of admission and keeping around on your memory card.
Carefully blending action and stealth elements alongside an intriguing plot, Syphon Filter is a clever first entry in the franchise that offers some brilliant set piece moments to make a truly memorable time. It also suffers from some issues ranging from some rapid plotting to poor pacing past the halfway point and these will impact your enjoyment of the game, but if you can get through these you’ll be treated to one of the PS1’s gems that’s definitely worth revisiting on Vita.