Friday, September 21, 2007

Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror (PS2) - Review

- this review originally posted on Gamers' Temple

Syphon Filter's first PS2 outing was an online game that offered little of a single player experience reminiscent of the rest of the Syphon Filter series. Later Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror was released for the PSP and achieved high-level status for its interesting story and online multiplayer gameplay. Now Dark Mirror has been brought over to the PS2 but this is no mere straight port like GTA. The PS2 version drops the online multiplayer and adds enhanced graphics as well as enhanced controls.

The story of Syphon Filter throws around many names and organizations and takes Gabe to numerous areas of the world. To summarize the basics of the plot, a para-military group known as "Red Section" uncovers a project known as Dark Mirror. Gabe Logan, along with his partner Lian Xing, is sent to several destinations around the world to infiltrate this group. The story builds with each mission until ultimately the key players are exposed then the plot really takes off for the remainder of the game. It delves a lot more into Gabe's past than one might expect as the main story progresses.

Dark Mirror features a training mode, story mode, and mission mode. Training mode allows a player to get the feel of the gameplay and I would highly recommend starting with this mode since the game doesn't really teach the basics during the story mode. Story mode is the basic single player experience of Dark Mirror. Once each mission in story mode is completed, that mission will be added to mission mode and can be replayed at any time.

Each story mission has a set of objectives that must be completed and will usually offer a checkpoint once each objective is fulfilled. Once each mission is complete the game will automatically autosave then load the next mission. "Hidden Evidence" is strewn throughout each level and can be optionally found to unlock a few bonus extras per mission. There is also a ranking system that judges Gabe based on his approach taken to finishing a level (such as stealth kills, knife kills, certain weapon use, etc.) and this can lead to unlocking a bunch of extra weapons and content.

The gameplay itself is loaded with tons of action, but there are still plenty of stealth opportunities. It's basically up to the player how to handle a situation most of the time. The gunfights in Dark Mirror can get very intense with the smart enemy AI. The enemies can run, climb, use ziplines, and roll all while in pursuit, so most of the time they don't just sit and wait to be shot.

To let you know what this enemy AI is like, one time, I was on the first floor and a guard started to fire at me from the second floor walkway near a column. I quickly crouch and take cover behind the side of a bar table. When I pop out to fire at him from my cover, he quickly moves back behind the column. I think to myself, "OK, I'll just pop him when he decides to shoot again". Well, he darted out from behind the column and ran behind the column across from him then actually ran to the side of the second floor that was up above me and started to fire from the railing. The enemy AI starts to become more aggressive and smarter later in the game such as this little example - they try to take cover as much as possible and can be surprising with their actions.

Shootouts often force Gabe to take cover behind a crate or wall and wait for a chance to shoot during the constant gunfire from the other end. And these shootouts can get quite intense at times making enemy encounters very enjoyable. The levels are set up to where there is almost always an opportunity to take cover behind a wall or other object. While flattened against a wall, Gabe can peak out just a bit and get a steady aim on any advancing enemy then jump out and fire once the target is pinpointed, which works well for quick headshots.

Dark Mirror uses the ragdoll physics engine, so bodies will fly quite easily from gunfire. Shooting enemies in the legs can cripple them - they will actually hobble or move slowly toward Gabe when he shoots them as such. The familiar headshot can still take out just about any enemy in one hit.

There is quite a bit of variety within the shooting action. There are a few escort missions, boss fights, collection missions, and even a few platforming areas - such as grabbing a ledge to move across a gap or climbing some boxes to get up to a high walkway.

The escort missions don't get frustrating like in a few other action games. The allies will listen to commands that can be issued out by Gabe and there are some allies that will run ahead of Gabe and try to take on a situation by themselves. Fortunately Gabe can heal his allies so escort missions never really are annoying like they could be. The ally AI is usually pretty smart and the escort missions are spread out enough to offer variety when needed, so they don't overstay their welcome.

The PSP version used it's four face buttons to control the camera at all times and had a lock-on button (L1) since it was hard to pinpoint shots at times but thanks to the second analog on the PS2 version players can easily make a precise shot at any time by simply moving the right analog without even needing a lock-on button. The aiming icon is always displayed on the screen while moving, so just aim with the right analog and shoot while moving or standing still. The L1 button on the PS2 version provides an over-shoulder view while aiming instead of a lock-on like in the PSP version. Overall, the control setup on the PS2 version feels much more comfortable, allowing one to maintain a greater focus on avoiding and taking cover instead of constant precise targeting.

Gun variety is extremely detailed in Dark Mirror, even more so than past Syphon Filters. There is a whole onslaught of guns to choose from throughout the main game and there are quite a few of unlockable firearms as well. Many guns can be changed to a different setting (such as fully automatic or single fire) or can be loaded with a different type of ammo (such as normal shots, explosive, gas). There is a bunch of variety in the weapons though Gabe can only hold a few at a time. His main inventory is composed of a pistol, automatic weapon, grenade, rifle, heavy weapon, bare hands (fists, knife, taser) - he can carry one of each of those types of weapons.

Gabe now has grapple moves that can help with stealth situations such as a neck break or throat slash much like in Omega Strain. He can also performs melee attacks on enemies from up close, so while advancing toward an enemy - say, when Gabe is out of bullets and needs to reload - he can hit the enemy with the back of his gun, reload, then shoot the grounded enemy before that enemy recovers.

Along with all the extra weapons and combat techniques, Gabe has thermal goggles, EDSU goggles, and the familiar night vision goggles. EDSU goggles allow you to see objects that can be interacted with in the environments. These really help out quite a bunch when you're stuck in a level. All of the headgear is used quite a bit throughout the game. I use the thermal goggles for almost all shootouts since the enemies are usually far away and this helps to make them much more visible.

As already mentioned, the PS2 version offers minor enhancements for the overall environments and character models. All character models and overall environments are sharper and cleaner than the PSP version. The textures for the characters aren't quite up to par with more recent PS2 games, most notably in the faces - this is just about the only area that helps to reveal the fact that this was a PSP game. The controlled character still has that strange lean when he/she runs that is shown in all Syphon Filter games, but it seems much more realistic than the leaning in Omega Strain or previous games in the series.

The environments are rendered very well for a PS2 game and remain solid without any glitching or breaking of polygons. The lighting effects look realistic in the environments, but the flashlight that Gabe can use could have much better lighting effects overall. Instead of lighting up a wall it only seems to project a massive white circle and provides little lighting for the object it is pointed at. The flashlight looked normal in the PSP version and offered actual lighting effects that would light up a dark room, but in the PS2 version the flashlight is rather useless.

The PSP version had a "Mature Audience" rating and the PS2 version has a "Teen" rating. The blood and taser fire (fire resulting from prolonged taser shock) have been removed from the PS2 version in favor of a lower rating. The blood is barely even noticed to be missing from a neck slice or from gunfire since there wasn't that much in the PSP version to begin with, but the taser fire is a bit of a let down. At times, enemies would actually run toward Gabe while on fire after a tasering overload in the PSP version, but they only spasm and fall at all times in the PS2 version. For all other burnings, the bodies simply turn black and smoke a bit.

The sound has many techno tracks and epic scores that help to boost excitement during shootouts or boss fights. Voices seem to fit all the characters rather well. Gabe remains fairly emotionless throughout most of the cutscenes - basically the way his character is almost always portrayed in other Syphon Filters and the way you would expect him to sound.

Dark Mirror is just about everything that you would expect from a solid PS2 game. Whether it is bought on PSP or PS2 this game deserves to be played by an action fan or, for sure, by any fan of the Syphon Filter series. In all honesty, I am not that big of a Syphon Filter fan but this game had me hooked from beginning to end and I even wanted to replay it to unlock hidden content once I was done.

Owners with a PSP and a PS2 that plan to pick up Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror need to decide whether they want a portable version with a multiplayer mode or if they want the full single player experience complete with enhanced graphics and controls. The camera controls for PSP version are not near as bad as one might expect for a PSP game since it uses the face buttons to move the camera, but the right analog still has a more natural feel to it in the case of the PS2 version and it doesn't need an auto-aim whatsoever to compensate for any lack of aiming. Even though the PS2 version drops the multiplayer, the enhanced graphics and (mainly) enhanced controls make the single player experience much better than its PSP counterpart. Whichever version is chosen, Dark Mirror will deliver one of the best action/shooter/stealth experiences out there for either console.

The Good

+ enhanced graphics that match the PS2 rather well (especially environments)
+ enhanced controls that make aiming much more precise than it was in the PSP version
+ engaging story
+ fitting sound that sounds really good with surround speakers

The Bad

- character models aren't quite up to par with current PS2 releases
- no multiplayer mode
- some weapon effects were dropped from the PS2 version in favor of a "Teen" rating (blood from knife and weapon fire, taser burning animation)
- flashlight lighting effects that were fine in the PSP version look downgraded in the PS2 version

Dark Mirror has its ups and downs with the transition over to the PS2, but that still can't change what a solid action game it truly is.

Graphics: 8.5
Controls: 9.0
Sound: 9.0
Gameplay: 9.0

And therefore Berserker dubs thee: 8.9/10


Berserker said...

I'd like to note that I picked up the PSP version of Dark Mirror shortly after finishing the PS2 version - I felt the need to compare.

The censoring is not that big of an issue at all. The only thing that I really missed not seeing in the PS2 version was the taser fire, mainly the enemies running while they were on fire - that was classic!

Nish said...

A very readable and enjoyable review!

I'm gonna have to remind myself to pick up this one (after I complete the first one).

Despite your approval of the PSP version, I think I've leaned towards the PS2 game.

Berserker said...

After playing Dark Mirror, I'm very excited about the upcoming Logan's Shadow for PSP.

I hate having to get used to autoaim once again though, which I'm sure Logan's Shadow will use.

No matter how well integrated the camera system is with the controls for the PSP Dark Mirror, I still have to rely on autoaim for quite a bit of my shots. With the PS2 version, it felt refreshing to play a Syphon Filter without autoaim.