Time to change the filter.
Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain is the latest in a line of lackluster sequels to the classic Syphon Filter for the PSX. While the developers apparently tried to raise the Syphon Filter standard with an interesting new emphasis on cooperative online play, poor balance between the single and multiplayer as well as a host of old maladies will prevent this Strain from spreading like it should.
To date, Syphon Filter's only lasting achievement has been its dynamic plot. Even though the basic story plays out like a Tom Clancy novel with tons of predictable double crosses and exhausting plot turns, its presentation is marvelous in that you can piece everything together through the extensive Zeus Files, which include several diverse sources such as media clippings and political papers.
The story itself is a little unsettling given recent real-world events. Gabe Logan and friends are now official and work for Uncle Sam as the International Presidential Consulting Agency, or I.P.C.A. This is essentially a top secret group allowed to operate with extreme prejudice in order to whack terrorists and hunt for the deadly Syphon Filter virus. Hmm'killing terrorists and looking for a WMD? How far fetched!
Anyway, this time you don't reprise your traditional role as Gabe Logan, but instead step into the combat boots of an I.P.C.A. rookie. What this rookie looks like is up to you thanks to Syphon Filter's mediocre player creator. Although you aren't presented with nearly enough customizable features from the outset, you can eventually unlock more hairstyles, shirts and weapons.
Your character begins the game with just a hand-gun and a stun baton, the bottom of the barrel in terms of firepower. As you beat levels and complete objectives, you'll gain new weapons, and so the gamer who completes the most objectives and gains the most experience will earn the right to wield the wickedest weapons.
Not that it really matters much, though, due to Syphon Filter's primordial play mechanics. The game is played from the third-person, but instead of using the left stick to strafe and the right stick to aim and steer, Omega Strain employs the same L2/R2 strafing dynamic it has used since its heyday on the PSX.
This has got to go. The control scheme is so convoluted and the right stick so wasted that there is no easy way to change weapons. Instead of quickly tapping R or L, you have to hold Select first. Argh. Another answer would have been to either pause gameplay ala Metal Gear or drastically slow it down ala James Bond: Everything or Nothing. Unfortunately, Sony seems unwilling to incorporate new ideas, and so their game is stuck in the 90s.
Most of the game's 17 missions can be played both offline and online " any mission beaten online is considered beaten in the single-player as well. The idea here is that if you find a single-player level too difficult, you can hop online, find up to three other players to co-op with, beat the mission, then go back to your single-player game and continue to the next mission.
Unfortunately, the play balance is terrible and results in overly difficult single-player levels. For example, each level has an overall time limit which supposedly scales depending on how many people are playing. In some cases, a level's enemy numbers and obstacles will make it reasonable for a team of three or four players, but when attempted solo, the level will be virtually impossible.
Making matters worse are the respawning enemies. This gives the multiplayer game some life as it keeps teammates working together - one player will keep the enemies busy, while the other player completes the objective. But if you're playing alone, it's impossible and hellish. I know terrorists are everywhere, but here it's a bit ridiculous. In failing to balance Syphon Filter correctly, Sony has eliminated its viability as a single-player game.
Syphon Filter works much better when playing with others. Though the matchmaking scheme isn't great (there's no master list for available games, only level by level), things work well once you find a good match. Before the level starts you enter an ante-chamber where you and your teammates can lay down a plan of attack, including who should take on which objectives. This makes clearing levels much faster and easier since most objectives only require one person's attention. Working in pairs has its benefits as well, as certain areas and objectives can only be accessed by two people working together. This is clearly how the game was meant to be played.
Though you can only unlock a few extra levels, the reward system includes tons of new guns and customization options, which effectively become the game's ranking system. You'll play a level online and see a guy running around with crazy blue hair and some wacky gun, which tells you he's a bad mofo. It's a good system, but should have appeared in a better game.
Syphon Filter doesn't look awful thanks to a steady framerate, but neither the environments nor the character models are particularly impressive. There are no interesting lighting effects or textures. Not an award-winner. The sound is pretty cut-rate as well, with a typically bad musical score, mediocre gun sounds, and irritating voice acting.
While it's surprising that the clunky gameplay mechanics haven't received a facelift, it's even more surprising that Sony has failed to include a decent single-player experience. It can be fun playing online, but if you do not get help, this virus will kill you over and over again.