Reviewed: April 29, 2006
Released: March 14, 2006
Let me just get this out of the way early; Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror is the best PSP game I have ever played and in many ways outclasses dozens of games in competing genres on the larger consoles. So there you have my position that the rest of this review will be coming from, so you can either discount this as the ramblings of a fan boy or an intricate and insightful look into a flawlessly executed action-adventure title by somebody who has played them all.
I probably shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the best games for each system typically come from first-party developers so who better to create the perfect PSP game than Sony. What did surprise me was just how good this game was. I was a fan of the original Syphon Filter back on the original PlayStation, yet when the Omega Strain sequel arrived for the PS2 it failed to capture my attention for more than an hour. It was hardly next-gen and not that entertaining.
But back to Dark Mirror. Typically, during a normal week I will cycle out a dozen or more PSP titles, whether they are being reviewed or for personal entertainment. For the past three weeks nothing has been in my PSP but Dark Mirror. I started looking forward to lunches, breaks, long red lights, any substantial length of time where I could “wake-up” my PSP and save the world.
Once again (for those familiar with the Syphon Filter franchise) you step into the combat boots of Gabe Logan, a hotshot military agent not unlike Sam Fisher. You have a wide assortment of gadgets and a wider assortment of weapons at your disposal as you progress through 30 challenging missions to uncover the secret of Dark Mirror.
Dark Mirror offers an optional tutorial that I highly recommend you play, even if you are master of all things gaming. Even if you don’t learn a single thing (which you will – don’t kid yourself), the conversations between Gabe, his handler, and the poor guy who acts as your “training dummy” is priceless. I’d quote some of the more memorable dialogue but I don’t dare ruin the fun.
There are four training levels and each has a time to beat. Doing so will unlock a special bonus mission. This reward system carries over into the main game as well with numerous Dark Mirror secret files stashed in dark corners and out-of-the-way locations you might not normally search in the course of logical gameplay.
Typically, I don’t approve of gimmicks like this that have you “break character” to go on mindless scavenger hunts, and for that reason I only found about half the secret documents. You’ll need to find them all on each level to unlock bonuses for that level, which means thoroughly exploring every nook and cranny of every level, or finding a good walkthrough.
I was totally amazed out how complicated Dark Mirror’s command system is, yet how effortlessly it functions. You move your character around with the A-pad and the camera with the four face buttons. The left trigger locks target and the right fires the currently selected weapon. The D-pad is the core of the rest of the game. Down toggles your stance while up interacts with objects or manually reloads your weapon. If you have a scoped weapon and are holding down the left trigger these two buttons zoom in and out.
Left on the D-pad takes you to the Goggle select where you can choose from three sets of goggles or a flashlight using the face buttons. Once selected you can toggle that gear with taps of the left button. The right button works the same only for weapons. You can also use the left and right triggers during goggle and weapons selection for alternate hard points. Example: Left on the D-pad and then left trigger will use a med kit if you have one. Right on the D-pad and right trigger will select a knife or taser. Weapons that have multiple modes or fire rates can be cycled with further presses of the right D-pad button.
As you can tell, there is a lot of command potential, but the learning curve is extremely short thanks to intuitive design and gameplay that gradually introduces new concepts as the story progresses. You’ll welcome the ease of controls because the game gets quite demanding.
We’re all used to those fancy vision modes thanks to countless Tom Clancy titles, but no other game has integrated them into the gameplay quite like Dark Mirror. You’ll use the night vision mode for exploring dark areas obviously, but the EM goggles are able to show you anything emitting a power signature, so you can track energy sources, reveal traps, or even highlight a button on a wall you might not have noticed. Then you have your heat (predator) vision that actually allows you to see through walls.
There are numerous levels where you find yourself in the pattern of going into a new area with EM (red) goggles on to search for traps and once you know you won’t blow up you switch to thermal to spot enemies. One particularly inventive level has you escorting a young soldier through dark treacherous corridors. Since he doesn’t have night vision you have to move ahead then turn back and light the path for him with your flashlight, always keeping the beam slightly ahead of him and aimed towards his feet. Simple yet brilliant.
Combat is totally fluid making use of manual target lock and a fantastic cover system that for once doesn’t rely on you tapping a button to stick to a wall. Just push into a wall or box and you “assume the position”. You can then shift toward the corner and using the left trigger, peek around and take shots at the enemy.
Combat is range and stance sensitive so the closer you are the more accurate. You’ll also be more accurate if you are not moving and even better, crouched. This is all indicated by a scaling reticule that determines your current accuracy. If your target gets into melee range you’ll simply whack him with the butt of your weapon, knocking him to the ground where you can finish him off with a few quick rounds.
Later in the game things get a bit trickier when you encounter soldiers with special EM shielding. With these guys you have to temporarily drain their shield, either with taser fire or EMP grenades, then for the few short seconds their shield is down, unload into them with your most powerful weapons.
The mission design, the enemy AI, and the very nature of the gameplay lends itself to slow and meticulous exploration and stealth tactics. If you run through this game with guns blazing you will quickly find your gun saying, “click…click…click”, and yourself saying “oh crap” just before you head for the reload mission button. Ammo is a precious commodity and it’s important to know what weapons to keep and when to use them. As with most games like this, you’ll want to use what the enemy is using mainly because you can scarf their ammo.
There are frequent ammo crates scattered about that will offer up fresh body armor and full ammo for all your weapons. First Aid kits are stashed around the levels as well, but you can only carry one. It is guaranteed to heal you completely so the trick is saving it till the last minute before cashing it in.
There are a few instances where you get to play an alternate character working in tandem with Gabe, and a few other times when you have limited control over a secondary character to the point where you can give “Stay” and “Follow” orders or possibly, “Open this Door”, or “Provide Cover Fire”, all handled with the Select button.
As with any action game there are a few “wow moments”. Most memorable other than the aforementioned flashlight escort would be sliding down any of numerous zip lines targeting and killing men along the way. Another great gameplay moment was working with a computer tech to power-on a computer. He was up in the ceiling and I had to use my thermal goggles to match his position to the computer he was working on and flip switches, then defend him from enemy attack by shooting through the ceiling panels using only my goggles for targeting.
Of course the biggest WOW moment of them all is the closing cutscene, no I mean the one AFTER the credits, so for those of you that turn off your games when the credits start to roll – think twice and keep watching.
Even if Dark Mirror was a solo game it would still be the best thing on the PSP planet, but Sony was determined to let you share the fun with up to seven other players using Ad-Hoc local or online Internet multiplayer. This is easily the best multiplayer title for the PSP and the second to use the PSP chat headset, SOCOM being the other.
You have all the traditional gameplay modes like Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Objective where teams work together to accomplish set goals. This mode uses special maps with special objectives that really mixes up the formula of just killing everybody. Of course my personal favorite is Rogue Agent where everybody starts on the same team and some object in the level can turn one of you into a Rogue Agent with the ability to kill your former teammates. Kill as many as you can before they kill you.
Hooking up online is a breeze thanks to a great interface, lobby, and intuitive menu for setting up a game, joining others, forming a cell (clan) and maintain your buddy list. You can also check out leaderboards, a message board, and private mail. Simply Awesome! This is console quality content and gameplay in the palm of your hand and with hardly any lag, at least in the six and eight player games I participated in.
The movies in Dark Mirror are second to none – yes they even beat out those X-Men Legends II movies from Blur Studios – sorry guys. And I’m not just talking CG quality, which is in every way right up there with Square and Capcom, but in cinematic direction, camera cuts, and special effects. Normally when you have movies this good they are there to hide a poor game, but Dark Mirror’s mind-blowing movies only complement the solid gameplay.
The cutscenes aren’t merely rewards for winning one mission and moving on to the next, although they could be. Instead, these movies seamlessly blend the action with the narrative and combine to tell a thoroughly engaging story of intrigue and espionage, and much like a great book, this game is hard to put down, at least until you reach the end of a chapter.
The gameplay graphics are just as impressive with lifelike character animation, great level design worthy of a console game, and all sorts of subtle yet impressive special effects like snow and rain, and real-time lighting and shadows, fire, explosions, smoke. A few of the levels are overly dark and hard to play in natural light, but that’s what night vision goggles are for.
Throughout the entire time I was playing Dark Mirror I kept asking myself, “Who did this music…it’s amazing?” Give you a clue…X-Files. Yep – that’s right, Mark Snow, a composer I hold right up there with Tommy Tallarico, Chris Tilton, and Michael Giacchino, has created a majestic piece of art that easily stands alone. If a soundtrack is every made available, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. And there is nothing like bringing in the Slovak Philharmonic Choir to give your game that full on Hollywood treatment.
The voice acting is AAA Hollywood quality, better than most anything in the video game industry and even surpassing a lot of recent movies. The voices and attitude match the look of each character, which is of utmost importance and they maintain that attitude consistently throughout the entire game.
Sound effects rock the house with riotous gunfire, powerful explosions, then you have the subtle hum of electronics or the click of a weapon reload, and plenty of special effects like reverb to make you think you are in cavernous areas. Best sound in the game – the SPLAT when you shove the guard into the centrifuge and subsequent splats on each rotation afterwards. Wear some good headphones or better yet, jack your PSP into your home theater for a real treat.
There are seven chapters, each divided into several sub-parts totaling about 30 missions in all. If you are playing for fun and not secrets you can finish the game in 12-15 hours. Expect about 20+ if you are going for those hidden documents. I failed to get all of them on any one level so I can’t vouch for the quality of the bonus material, but if the rest of the game is any indication, I’m betting there is some cool stuff hidden there.
Of course the awesome multiplayer will keep you playing long after you have saved the world…again. Thankfully, the online gameplay is super-easy to get going so you don’t have to rely on local Ad-hoc and having all your friends get the game, but if you are a real friend you will talk them into it right away. Just show them your copy – it’ll be easy.
Hopefully, everything between my opening statement and this closing paragraph has supported my claim that Syphon Filter; Dark Mirror is the best game currently available for the PSP, assuming you are into that whole kill-the-bad-guys-save-the-world thing. And even if you never touch the multiplayer, the solo game packs more action and adventure than an entire summer of blockbuster movies.
Sony has set the bar high with this one, and hopefully we can start to see some future PSP and even some big console titles strive toward reaching the same high standards that Dark Mirror is offering on the PSP.