Version tested: PSP
Well, now we feel a little guilty. Firstly, we'd begun to think that Sony's gorgeous slab of PSP might not have been the future of handheld consoles after all. I mean, I'm still playing Lumines, Everybody's Golf and ahem, Midway Arcade Treasures, but ports of old PSone games and watered down multiformat titles just haven't done it for me. And then along comes Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror, which you'd be forgiven for thinking might be a combination of the two, a watered down home console offering based on old PSone titles. But no, this is all built specifically for the PSP and it's good. Bloody hell, this is rather good indeed.
And there's the second reason why we feel so guilty - we'd all but lost touch with Gabe Logan and his Precision Strike gang. Like an old friend we'd failed to ring for a few years, we meant to drop him a line, but we've been hanging out with Snake and Fisher. I mean, we noticed Omega Strain on PS2 a couple of years back but, well, it wasn't very memorable was it? Sorry for not getting back in touch sooner. But it's good to see you, you look great. And if you don't mind me saying so, you feel great too. Been working out?
All of which vaguely homoerotic fan fiction is a clumsy way of saying Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror is perhaps the best traditional action game on the PSP. It's not going to change the way we play videogames, but you'll likely enjoy playing every minute of it. And that's not something you can say about many games on any format.
You should know the drill by now - terrorists are bad, and good guys need to teach them a lesson with a combination of guns and gadgets, stealth, shooting, and the odd wisecrack. That's the story covered then. Fortunately, Dark Mirror isn't about story, no matter how well produced the cut-scenes are. It's all about action.
The biggest stand out achievement of Dark Mirror is the simplicity of the control method and the sheer amount of function that has been tweaked around it. It's quite astonishing how many moves, features, pieces of equipment and functions have been mapped to the PSP buttons without control descending to a clumsy farce. The analog nub moves your character, face buttons are used to look and aim, and the d-pad is on hand for weapons, equipment and interacting with the environment. The game takes care to introduce each element and what should be bewildering actually turns out to be so intuitive it puts a number of other action games on the PSP to deep shame.
The amount of weapons and gadgetry on offer again is impressive, and its ease of use is testament to that same control scheme. Multiple fancy goggles, rifles with different ammo, guns with scopes, a selection of mines and a range of deadly hand-to-hand moves all come in to play, and each has its own rewards. With a few flicks of a button you'll equip UV vision, snap a guards' neck, equip a sniper rifle with explosive darts, slide down a zip line and spray lead at enemy grunts in the space of a minute with barely any button confusion. It's all about fluidity and ease of use and it's nice to see that a development team has spent so much time getting it right.
That said, there are some issues, and when they do crop up they stand out in stark contrast. Gabe won't always hug a wall when you want him too, or else he'll get up nice and tight when you wanted him to flick a switch instead. Aiming from behind cover takes a little too much time, especially with such aggressive AI that doesn't hesitate to put the pressure on and advance on your position. But it's a feature we'd definitely rather have than not. Rotating through 360 degrees can also feel slow, but again, these terrorists aren't the type to sit on their arses waiting to be killed. They ain't dumb goons - they've got guns and they know how to use 'em and we're thankful of the challenge.
Where games such as Metal Gear have tried something completely different on the PSP, Syphon Filter has played it safe by sticking with what it knows best. The action is very familiar, but it's also very well executed. There's a good variety of gung-ho action and controlled creeping, so that explosives and submachine guns are just as important as tiptoes and silent kills. Each mission makes liberal use of checkpoints to feel concise and punchy for on the go play, and there's barely any backtracking. But there's no escaping the fact that switches have to be pulled, key codes discovered and tricky jets of flames negotiated in order to progress. There are some variations on a theme, such as using thermal goggles to blast enemies through ceiling titles, but it's all familiar if you've played an action game in the past couple of years. Multiplayer games follow the same template, but again there's an impressive amount of functions including buddy lists, clans, text and voice chat, that it's clearly a well thought out addition, not a last minute mode shoved onto the disc.
The overall presentation matches the attention to detail found elsewhere, and it easily stands shoulder to shoulder with some of EA's finest. In-game graphics are chunky and clean, where it's possible to adjust your targeting reticule and get a head shot with a weapon that doesn't support a scope, highlighting good vision, lighting and level design. Animation is smooth, with Gabe stooping the more kit he carries (this is a man with three different types of goggle, two sniper rifles, a machine gun and a pistol loading him down) and a range of lovely effects, from blazing flames to falling snow. The first time you electrocute a guard until he bursts into flames is particularly visceral and there are these kinds of touches throughout the game. Even the generic warehouses look nice, and how many of them have we seen over the past decade? The voice acting is okay and there are plenty of dialogue exchanges when the action calms down (with liberal use of big boys swearing), so you'll either be entertained or clued-up on your next goal within seconds. Dark Mirror doesn't slow down from one mission to the next.
Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror is a title stuffed full of quality. It's a damn good action game for the PSP and quite possibly the best in the genre. It does suffer from familiarity, with objectives, settings and gameplay that we've tackled many times, but it's so well put together that you can't help enjoy the entertainment on offer first and foremost. With so many games promising the Earth and only serving up dirt, it's reassuring to know that good old-fashioned balls-out action, when produced with such care and skill, is still as reliable and thrilling as it should be.
7 / 10