A strong reflection.
Listen, I know what a siphon is. It’s something we use in California so that we don’t have to pay three dollars a gallon at the pump. And I know what a filter is as well. It’s what keeps me from saying rude things in my girlfriend’s presence. Put those two together, and you’ve got video game magic.
Okay, so that doesn’t make much sense. Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror doesn’t make much sense either. The plot is so formulaic that it barely exists; the characters are all as stiff and wooden as cardboard cutouts of action figures, and Project Dark Mirror itself, well, let’s just say it involves orchids. But Syphon Filter doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to make explosions and lots of dead terrorists.
And that it does. In one of the best PSP games released to date, Dark Mirror cashes in on the floundering Syphon Filter franchise by supporting a fully-realized original game. From the ragdoll physics to the awesome sound effects to the deep online multiplayer, Dark Mirror takes full advantage of the PSP’s potential. It also makes Metal Gear’s decision to turn Snake into a card game look embarrassing. Go Fish.
Granted, the story is absurd in an 80’s action-adventure sort of way. You reprise your role as Gabe Logan, this time tracking down a rogue terrorist organization named Red Section. They have apparently gotten their hands on something very dangerous that involves flowering plants and you are employed to stop them. Along the way some revelations about Gabe’s relationships with Lian Xing and a woman known only as “???” add a little heat, but not much personality, to the square-jawed dryness of Mr. Logan. The man has friends, but don’t expect any benefits.
The missions are of the go from-x-to-y variety. In getting from one spot to another, you will kill a lot of bad guys, and you will do it in a variety of ways. Stealth kills are available, as you can use a Metal Gear style radar to help sneak around undetected. But no matter how stealthy you are, the action quickly devolves into all-out firefights. Then you’ll be in the thick of it, aiming at targets from behind your cover, popping out to cap them, and then ducking back under to reload. The fighting can be furious and intense, especially in later levels when you have to aim around your enemies’ armor.
And aiming is remarkably well-adjusted here. There are several button configurations, though the default setting seems to work about right. In that setting, you aim using the facepad buttons and strafe using the left analog stick. You can lock-on to a target using the right trigger, which is useful when your target is moving.
Which happens often, as the bad guys in Dark Mirror are endowed with above-simian levels of artificial intelligence. If you are hunkered behind a bunker reloading, one of the bad guys will charge while his buddy provides cover fire. If you have a bad guy pinned behind a rock, he will slip around the back side to shoot you in your blind side. You will still have the advantage, though, as Gabe is both better equipped and a better shot.
Speaking of shots, when you land a lethal one to an enemy’s head, legs, or any other body part you feel particularly hostile towards, you’ll find that the ragdoll physics are pretty good – bodies bleed and flop around convincingly as you fill them with leaden death. Different weapons pack different kinds of punches, and a sniped gas dart to the head can be as satisfying as a shotgun blast to the gut.
Some of the more ingenious weapons in the game involve triggered detonations. Three of the sniper rifle’s ammunition options require you to fire darts, either filled with gas or explosives or electricity, and then to trigger them later. While not wholly integrated into the missions, its one example of how deep the weaponry runs, and that’s just the sniper rifle.
The missions, too, are remarkably deep. While all of them are linear, they require more than just quick thumbs. For example, during one stretch you will have to escort a frightened U.N. soldier to safety, lighting his way with your flashlight and directing him to either take cover or advance as you clear him a path. In another, you will tell your partner to provide covering fire as you pick your way through a maze of obstacles to reach the gun turret pinning you down. Later, you will use that same gun turret to cover your partner as she . . . err. . . picks orchids.
It ain’t all flower-picking though, and many missions require you to use your three special goggles to find clues. Each of these goggles—nightvision, electromagnetic vision, and infrared—can see some things and miss others. For example, you may want to use the electromagnetic goggles to see tripwires, but you won’t see the guards around the corner. On the other hand, you might use the infrared goggles to spot enemies through walls and doors, but you’ll miss the booby-trap next to them. Frequently you will shuttle between these goggles using the directional pad, and their inclusion just makes the gameplay that much more complex, and rewarding as well. Gabe’s future’s so bright he’s got to wear shades.
Alongside this remarkably deep single-player campaign is similarly developed online multiplayer content. There are plenty of game modes and quite a few tracked statistics. One match type, Rogue Agent, is an interesting variation on King of the Hill. One player begins as a more beefed-up soldier, and whomever he kills counts as a point in his favor. When someone manages to kill the rogue agent, they take his place, wracking up as many kills as they can.
The other modes are equally or more fun to play, but less original, including capture the flag, deathmatch, and objective based matches. The only big downside here is that you have nearly as many maps as modes – there are only five. Still, getting online is easy, and the games are smooth, especially if you have a PSP head-set and mic, because Dark Mirror supports voice chat. This is an online shooter with a full clip.
So you know it has good graphics. The cutscenes are pre-rendered and appropriately pretty. But also the in-game engine does a fine job of animating movement and environments. As you creep around the snowy mountain fortress, weightless flakes flutter around you. You can hear the guards discuss their soon to be foreshortened lives, as you shimmy across the ledge below them. The graphics are still at PSone levels, but that’s a high PSone. A PSone and a half, maybe.
The sounds make up for that half a generation, though. All of the characters are voiced, including the bad guys, and for an action game, the music is well orchestrated. It’s also tastefully restrained, as the harmonies never intrude on the main themes: weapons fire and explosions. And in Dark Mirror, if you’ve heard one gun you haven’t heard them all, because each type sounds as different as it shoots. This game strikes a major chord.
As does the entire effort. Unlike so many awkward ports that don’t quite know how they got there or why, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror is right at home on the PSP. It combines engrossing and detailed online play with a smart and difficult single player campaign, and wraps both packages up in style, with solid graphics and great audio. So make like Narcissus, and get lost in this reflection.