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Gamers Month ver. 3 - Syphon Filter
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Aug 2006

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Old Mar 5, 2011, 05:56 PM 3 #1 of 2
Gamers Month ver. 3 - Syphon Filter

Developer: Eidetic
Publisher: 989 Studios (Sony Computer Entertainment)
Platform: PlayStation
Release Date: 1999
Genre: third-person shooter

No, those aren't thumbnails; stop clicking. This is old-school PlayStation, baby! This game ran in glorious 320x240p. This was back in the late 90s when "high-res" meant 480i, videogame ads were hilariously edgy and IN YOUR FACE, and the PS1 was called the PSX because I guess that was more extreme or something. But in this case it actually was extreme! I mean, Syphon Filter was, anyway. Is extreme, I should say, because this game still kicks all kinds of ass.

But before I begin, let me clear something up. This game came out after Metal Gear Solid, so of course everyone went into conniptions and said it was an inferior rip-off of Kojima-san's tactical espionage masterpiece. "It's just Tenchu with guns!" my friend similarly exclaimed. No, shut up. Look, I understand the fanboy allegiances that develop when you count your game purchases per year instead of per week, but honestly people, this game came out a mere four months after MGS dropped. I'm sure there was some cross-pollination in terms of inspiration, late-development additions, and most certainly marketing, but come on. Other than both being 3D games that involve some shooting and sneaking, their resemblances are more thematic than mechanical. In other words, they play very differently. And hell, what's wrong with being derivative anyway? I'd buy two MGS-esque games at the same time if they were both good.

Unlike MGS, Syphon Filter is first and foremost a third-person shooter. Although you can be sneaky in your use of cover, popping in and out like a gopher as you try get that perfect headshot, there's simply no hiding from most of the enemies. They know where you are and will try to shoot you if a direct line of sight is possible. When you're out in the open, you get a little "danger" bar on your HUD that slowly fills up the longer you're exposed. Running and rolling can slow it down or decrease it, but when it's full, their shots stop missing and start hitting. By the same token, you have a "target" bar that fills up when you lock on to them, but in your case the bar indicates an increasing chance-to-hit percentage. Kneeling and remaining motionless will make it fill up more quickly. One-handed weapons, like pistols, will give you a near-360-degree ability to lock on, but with two-handed weapons you have to at be pointed in the general direction of the enemy.

None of this is particularly realistic, but it's an intuitive system that allows for several tactical approaches in most firefights. In the early levels, you can run-and-gun with ease, locking on to everyone without breaking stride and blowing them away before they draw a bead on you. As the game progresses and the danger bar starts to fill up more quickly, you find yourself relying more on cover and manual first-person aiming to pick off enemies without exposing yourself. Also, you start encountering more and more enemies with body armor, which makes the lock-on almost useless, and headshots become a necessity. But, the danger bar still provides time pressure, so you can't take too long in lining up your shots. However, if you get the gun that fires armor-piercing rounds, running and gunning can once again be the easiest way to get out of some tough situations. Overall, the game's not terribly hard, but you do have to master the combat system, knowing when to move and when to be a quick draw, and when to use certain weapons. If you let yourself get surrounded, all the ducking and rolling in the world won't save you.

And then there are the stealth missions. First of all, despite what I said above, stealth does play a role in many encounters. Even in the "normal" missions, you often have a chance to take out an enemy before he's noticed you, it's just that not much changes if you charge in guns blazing. Maybe he'll try to hide behind a box or corner, and then you fight it out that way, but then the level continues as normal. Anyway, by "stealth missions" I mean that kind that everyone complains about--instant mission failure if you get spotted. But Syphon Filter gets them right for a few reasons. One, you get to shoot the guards in the head. Seriously, this is a big deal for me when compared to the fussy no-contact-with-the-enemy stealth missions you get in other games. Instead of trying to memorize a bunch of patrol paths and dodge everyone without leaving a single trace, you get to sneak up on dudes and cap them with your silenced pistol. Sweet, sweet catharsis. Two, it's usually not instant failure unless the guards actually get an unsilenced shot off, so if they spot you, you can still take them down if you're really quick. Hell, in the main stealth mission of the game, you won't even fail the mission if they fire at you. Sure, the alarm gets raised and guards start spawning near you, but you can still blast your way through to the end of the level if you want. Third, the enemies don't have superhuman senses. If anything they're a bit myopic, as video game guards tend to be, and they're certainly not going to win any awards for peripheral vision or attention to movement. But, they can still spot you from quite a distance, and will hear you if you run near them or do anything else that's stupidly noisy. Fortunately, your own abilities are pretty cool. You're silent when crouch-walking or rolling, you can clamber up on boxes and ledges, and you can shimmy your way across pipes and such. The climbing bits are a big part of the game, in fact. They take a definite backseat to the action, but even the non-stealth missions often have some minor puzzle aspect where you have to figure out where to go and how to get up (or down) to that location. These sections are realistically handled (no absurd drops or superhuman leaps here) and a nice change of pace.

You know, with all this shooting and climbing, this game reminds of something... some modern game, with lavish production values and a blockbuster action movie feel... aw, fuck it, I'm just going to say it: Syphon Filter was the PS1 generation's Uncharted. I'm sure there will be scoffers, but the analytic dudes know what I'm talking about. If you look at how the games play, there is straight line from here to there. Don't be distracted by the thematic differences or the obvious temptation to point at Tomb Raider instead. If you focus on the mechanics, you'll see it. Even more so in Uncharted 2, when they brought in the stealth parts.

But anyway, in Syphon Filter, you some get neat toys to garnish all this sneaking and climbing and hanging and running and shooting. Most of the guns are standard fare (assault rifles and shotguns and so on) with a few standout exceptions. The M-79 grenade launcher is pretty cool for being a one-handed weapon that you can use on the run to blow entire groups of enemies to hell. The gas grenades are pretty sweet in that they offer a silent way to take out more than one enemy at a time, though you can kill yourself with the gas if you're not careful. If you look at the green screenshot up top, you can see the nightvision rifle in action, as promised by the cover art. That's pretty cool--nothing groundbreaking for the PS1 at this point, but a snazzy effect regardless. The real star of the show, though, is the taser:
Are you laughing? You should be laughing because that is a ridiculous weapon to have in a video game. I remember everyone talking about it when this game first came out. "Dude, have you seen that game Syphon Filter? You get this taser gun thing, and if you taser people long enough, you can set them ON FIRE." I like to imagine that the taser started as a weird graphical glitch, and when they saw that there was a way to shoot out a thin little line at enemies, they decided they had to do something with it. Something awesome.

Speaking of graphics, you might be thinking from these screenshots and video that this game is dog-ugly. And you would be correct, in some respects. The people look like they are made from jointed shoeboxes, the animations are pretty goofy, the decals float over the textures, and the textures themselves are not only blurry but suffer from that PS1 texture warping that plagued so many games. Everything is blocky. Still, there is a lot to be said for this engine. It's got colored, dynamic lighting. You can shoot out light bulbs to make areas darker or turn on your flashlight to make areas brighter. You can fire the M-79 or taser down a hallway and see how it lights up the walls as it goes. You get particle effects like sparks and blood. Explosions make the ground and walls turn black. The fact that you get bullet hole decals at all is notable for a PS1 game, even if they don't look so hot. You can inflict location-specific damage on enemies, with red spots appearing on the limb that you shot. And yeah, the animations can be goofy, but they're fairly smooth and cover a lot of behaviors. Most importantly, the game almost always stays at a decent frame rate, which is more than I can say for a lot of PS1 titles (I'm looking at you, Tomb Raider). The overall presentation is also very slick, with stylish menus and loading screens. These emulated screenshots should be a little easier on your eyes:

Might as well just go into "feature list" mode, now:

-The electronic soundtrack is, if not exactly memorable, certainly atmospheric. It's also dynamic--each level has a "danger theme" that fades in and out depending on how much shooting is going on. Intense.

-Occasionally there are screaming dudes on fire that run at you, threatening to hug you if you don't drop them with a headshot. Extreme.

-The character names are great. James Boring? Solid Snore? No, we get a protagonist manly enough to get away with the name Gabriel (more like GAYbrielle amirite) Logan. Along the way you'll meet Girdeaux, Aramov, Phagan, Rhoemer, Gabrek, Marcos, and Xing. I'm pretty sure even the United Nations doesn't represent as many countries as this game. Progressive.

-The levels vary in pacing and design. One level might be set in a burning warehouse (cue the screaming dudes), the next might be in a tunnel after a power outage (remember the nightvision rifle!). Aside from the aforementioned stealth missions and puzzly bits, you also get timed sections and boss fights, some of which are little puzzles themselves. Maybe I should put "puzzles" in quotation marks--I mean, does anyone need to be told how to kill the armored guy with a flamethrower? I think you can all guess how that one ends. There are also a few minibosses, and what's cool about them is that you can still kill them in one headshot if you're fast enough ("So realistic!" my friends and I cheered). Creative.

-In one level, your mission objective is to kill helpless scientists that kneel down, put their hands behind their heads, and say, "Don't kill me. I'm unarmed." That's fucking raw. Gabe Logan is a raw dude. Badass.

-There is a cheat code that only makes the game harder. That's what counted as a bonus in my day. Great generation or greatest generation?

-Oh, and the sequel to this game is great, too. A couple things are better, a couple things are worse, but it's basically more of what the fans liked about the first game. Syphon Filter 3, on the other hand, can eat a dick.

In case it's not obvious by now, let me state that I fucking loved this game growing up. Easily one of my top five PS1 games, though of course I am biased towards games that involve shooting people. But yeah, I don't know how many times I played through it--at least half a dozen, maybe ten, maybe more? And that's not counting the number of times I loaded it up just to play an individual level again. I bought it after seeing it at my friend's house, and I remember being astounded to learn years later that he never finished it! I think he got stuck on one of the later levels or something. Whatever.

One amusing thing I remember doing with this game was attempting a self-imposed challenge my brother and I termed TASER ASSAULT. See, even though the taser doesn't usually work on enemies with body armor, if you aim in first person and shoot them in the face, it turns out you can still tase them! Upon learning this, it seemed theoretically possible to go through the entire game using nothing but the taser, excepting the few bosses and such that were immune, and the stealth sections where it would immediately cause an alert. Thus, TASER ASSAULT was born. I think I finished it, too! I know I got through at least 18 levels out of 20... not sure if I managed to push through the last couple. Oh well.

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Last edited by Worm; Mar 5, 2011 at 06:28 PM.
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Old Jun 8, 2011, 07:45 AM #2 of 2
Yes, I'm late to the ball - but I just wanted to say how much I love the original Syphon Filter. I beat it but don't remember what the ending was at all. I loved using the taser and frying people for incredible amounts of time too. I liked this a lot more than MGS, because it was a little more "straight faced" about the story and a little less IM AN ANGRY JAMES BOND AND HERES SOME SUPERPOWERED VILLIANS anime bullshit.

I have SF2 but never got far. Maybe I'll crack that open over the weekend...

There's nowhere I can't reach.

Last edited by Misogynyst Gynecologist; Jun 8, 2011 at 07:52 AM.

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