Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Syphon Filter Dark Mirror

Syphon Filter Dark Mirror
Developer: Sony Bend
Publisher: SCEA
Action - Playstation Portable
1 player / 2-8 player Ad-Hoc & Infrastructure
Syphon Filter Dark Mirror

I'll be honest. I've never played Syphon Filter, but I always got the impression that it was a sub-par knockoff of the stealth-action genre that Metal Gear Solid created. But the PSP versions were said to be different. They were said to be good. IGN gave Dark Mirror the 2006 PSP Game of the Year award - a dubious source, I know, but it's worth noting. And since I was craving a shooter at the time, it was reason enough to check it out.

From what I can tell, Syphon Filter Dark Mirror is a 3rd person shooter, with some stealth elements at times. MGS has a higher emphasis on stealth, because it's designed to be able to go through each stage undetected, and that aspect of gameplay is fleshed out better. Instead, SFDM might be more like Goldeneye 007 in that certain parts, you are automatically detected and other parts, you have a choice to use stealth techniques or go with guns blazing. Unlike First-Person Shooters though, there's some elements of climbing, shimmying, grappling, etc that you can do which helps for area exploration.

As an action game, Dark Mirror is competent, and generally varied enough to be entertaining. There's a host of different weapons you can collect and use. There is a decent amount of interactivity with the environments that you can use to your advantage, like the typical oil canisters that explode if you shoot them or activating switches that electricute enemies. Scoped weapons allow you to zoom in and make one-hit-kill headshots, or cripple enemies by shooting their legs. All the necessary ingredients are there, but it feels like it lacks something to make it truly special.

Perhaps the defining feature of the game is its use of goggles. You can equip one of 3 different types of goggles and knowing when and where to use them will be monumental in how you approach a stage. The "EDSU Goggles" generally help you figure out what items you can interact with, and can reveal things that are hidden. The "IR Goggles" help you to sense heat, and thus makes enemies visible even behind solid objects. This is very handy for scouting out the next room before you even open the door. Finally there's Night Vision, which helps to see in dark areas. There's also a flashlight, which doesn't illuminate as well as the NV goggles, and alerts enemies that you're there, so I'm not really sure why it's in the game. At first I found the goggles cumbersome, but once I figured out the nuances, strengths and limitations of each pair, I realize they are pretty integral to the gameplay, particularly if you want to use stealth techniques.

One of the things I had to get used to was its mix of stealth and action. On one hand, I feel Dark Mirror doesn't know what it wants to be. It's ok to give the player a choice on how to approach each situation. But there are segments where the game forces an action sequence, so it is inconsistent. On the other hand, what makes everything work together are the "achievements". I really feel like this is the one area where the game shines brightest. For each stage in the game, there are the same six goals. They require you to do things like get 20 stealth kills, or kill 30 people with headshots, or kill 15 people with a knife. If you're obsessive about this stuff like me, it'll force you to play stages over and over but the upside is that you get to fully understand the design of each stage. It is only then that you come to really appreciate each situation. Particularly for the stealth sections, it's almost like a puzzle to figure out how to kill X number of people without being detected. Fulfilling these goals will net you some unlockable weapons and bonus stages, but for me, fulfilling these goals made the game that much deeper in of itself.

The other major triumph of Dark Mirror is its control scheme. It has historical significance on the PSP because it was a huge step forward for having intuitive controls on the awkward PSP. With the standard configuration, the nub controls movement, the face buttons control your aim, and holding the D-pad brings up a subscreen where you can easily pick an item or weapon with the face buttons. It is a control scheme that would be adopted and become the standard for all such games on the system, including the Metal Gear Solid series. And it works. It feels just as intuitive as a dual analog setup, and the D-pad inventory management allows you quick and easy access to what you need, when you need it.

If you play the game strictly for its story mode, Syphon Filter Dark Mirror is a decent diversion. It has its cool moments, but mostly feels like you're going through the motions. But if you take the time to pursue all of the available goals, you will develop a greater appreciation for what the game has to offer. There's a ton of unlockable content to be had, including 5 bonus stages, early development videos, etc. While I'm convinced that SFDM falls short of brilliance, no one could accuse Sony Bend of skimping out on the details.