Syphon Filter: The PSX Trilogy
by Polly

The Syphon Filter PSX Trilogy

Gabe Logan
Solid Snake
Back in the beautifully blocky PSX days, comparisons between the Syphon Filter and Metal Gear Solid series were inescapable. The first Syphon Filter game was released only a mere three months after the release of the juggernaut that was Metal Gear Solid and both games featured more than a few passing resemblances to one another. Whether intentional or not, Sony's (989 Studios) Syphon Filter, its characters, and the world of espionage and shady government organizations it took place in, though not wacky and melodramatic as Metal Gear Solid would become, can seem eerily similar at times.

Both games feature a gravely-voiced main protagonist who is a one man army tasked with saving the world, both are efficient in combat ops as well as stealth, both are betrayed on a number of occasions throughout their stories and become outlaws, both games have an ex-KGB agent that REFUSES to die, and even the Syphon Filter Virus itself almost 100% mimics Metal Gear Solid's FoxDie retrovirus. (PRETTY SURE I HEARD THE WORD "NANOMACHINES" IN THERE AT SOME POINT TOO!) Rather than pointing fingers at one another, both sides have, on occasion, given little shout outs to one another via little easter eggs in backgrounds or direct dialog.

While a few of my friends were busy being wrapped up in the debate about whether Syphon Filter was in fact a rip off or not, I was busy thinking they were idiots. Though both series share a great deal of similarities in their subject matter, gameplay-wise, Syphon Filter is faaaaaar more action-oriented, challenging, and reflex-intensive than Metal Gear Solid would ever be. I may even be so bold as to say its gunplay and rudimentary cover mechanics could be seen as sewn seeds for games that would come later such as the highly-underrated Kill.Switch and Uncharted. By the end of the third game, Gabe Logan's body count is almost enough to make even the most battle hardened of Contra doods feel just a little insecure. Don't get me wrong, stealth is a common theme in these games, but sometimes it's best to simply let your accumulated arsenal do the talking, and many of Syphon Filter's all-out lead-chucking parties are some of the real highlights of the trilogy.

For a short while, it seemed like both series fed off one another for a little bit, however they quickly splinter(CELL HAHAHA!)ed off in vastly different directions. Metal Gear Solid essentially became a supremely large-budgeted Japanese Cartoon with out of this world cartoon characters (A FUCKING VAMPIRE!) and a story that can be almost facepalmingly stupid at times, while Syphon Filter clung tightly to its roots of urban warfare, bioterrorism, and the influence from secret agent action flicks of the west. Syphon Filter never quite had the lofty budget that Metal Gear Solid games commanded, but it's always remained fairly consistent with the works that inspired it as well as its own world's mythology. Given that it was so often lumped in together with Metal Gear Solid (GOD, EVEN I'M DOING IT!) Syphon Filter always had to try a bit harder to impress, and though the scope of its ongoing narrative may not be quite as grandiose or melodramatic, this trilogy remained fairly solid (Ugh!) throughout its original PSX run.

Syphon Filter's story follows the exploits of a shadow organization known as The Agency and one of its top dogs in the field Gabriel Logan. Beginning with the first game, The Agency is hot on the trail of an international terrorist who is on the verge of planning something big involving viral weapons research. From there, the events of the series play out through three games almost non-stop, with the player focused almost entirely on the goings-on of The Agency as well as Gabe and his various compatriots. We're never allowed to get too close to these characters, and for the type story it's trying to tell, this works just fine. Gabe won't be lecturing you on whether love can bloom on a battlefield, bosses lives end quite mercilessly at the end of a gun barrel without twenty-minute speeches, and there are no humorous interludes or fourth wall shattering moments over your communicator to lighten the mood. Syphon Filter is all business all the time, and the detachment from these characters' psyches makes their roles in the story as operatives doing their jobs and international terrorists bent on any destruction they can cause all the more believable.

Something that'll make this entire write-up fairly easy to do is that all three games are essentially the same game. If the amount of effort that went into creating each installment of the story and the various locations and missions had been anything less, it'd be easy to see the two sequels as add-on mission packs for the first game. All three games in the series share the same engine, the same controls, the same HUD, and the same in-game graphics style throughout, with each game adding only a tiny bit to the overall formula, such as new weapons, a Vs. Mode, and other various minor tweaks. As a fan, it was easy to jump into each new installment and have your bearings, but at the same time, it was a little disappointing. But, I guess if it ain't broke, don't fix it, yeah?

Playing through all three of these games in almost one sitting recently, after well over seven years since having touched any of them, it became apparent that time has not been kind to a couple elements.

Firstly, the graphics. PSX-era graphics always had a strange jankety look to me. I always thought they almost universally looked kinda....shaky. It always felt like at any moment, the entire world would come crashing in on itself in a rain of ugly polygons and pixelated to hell textures. Playing these games over ten years after their release on a 44" HDTV was probably NOT the greatest idea. I'm not gonna slam the games for that, because for their time, they did look good. We were fine with block hands, block faces, facial features that didn't move when a character talked, and all that razz. Environments in Syphon Filter look gritty and dark with rough texture maps that would make modern gamers' eyes bleed at first sight, but again, we were fine with this, and in Standard Definition, it still looks fine. Model animation is consistently wonky all around (nothing looks natural AT ALL), and some graphical effects like fire can obscure and clip into other objects, making it hard to determine whether touching it will actually hurt you or not. Not so pretty now, but still relatively passable on the whole.

Another snag more modern day gamers may hit is Syphon Filter's movement controls. When the game was released, DualShock use wasn't all that widespread yet. I remember a friend of mine having to buy one in order to play Gran Turismo a few months before this game came out if that helps as a point of reference. Anyway, all movement and aiming in the game are done via the D-pad and the L2/R2 buttons. No right stick aiming here. Hah! Imagine that shit NOW! This takes quite a while to get used to. I was fucking pimp at these games back in the day, but going back and playing them again, there were things that I simply had to un-learn and re-learn before I got my headshotting motherfuckers all day long mojo back.

You don't really move your operative around so much as you do "steer" them with the D-pad and the R2/L2 buttons. It's hard to get used to Gabe's movement, because he sorta feels like he's underwater at all times, and reaction to your inputs doesn't quite feel immediate. It's an issue, and it can fuck you over quite a few times before you get into the groove of it. And then, it'll probably still fuck you over a few times. Aiming and moving with only the D-Pad is the hardest hurdle to get over, but once you're over it, I think you're in for quite a treat. I can't remember if pressing the Analog button on a PSX DualShock will let you move with the analog stick, but I do know that if you're playing the original discs or using the PSN version of the games on a PS3, you can make this change in the system's control configuration menu.

Other than those two minor snags, getting into Syphon Filter shouldn't be all that hard. All other aspects of controlling Gabe are built to work around the engine and gamepad's limitations and, once learned, feel quite natural and balance the game out.

You're given two options for aiming: Auto-Target and Manual. In Auto-Target mode, Gabe locks onto his nearest target, and tapping the button again will instantly switch to the next. When you're locked on, a green Target gauge begins to fill, and the higher it is, the more likely your Auto-Aimed shots will hit. While locked onto targets, Gabe can freely move around and depending on the weapon he's using, he'll turn his body mid-stride to try and make the shot. Manual Aiming is crucial and is a skill, along with leaning using the L2/R2 buttons, that you should learn from the outset. It's the only way you can score instant-kill headshots, and the only way you'll be able to efficiently deal with enemies wearing armor and some pre-determined boss fights. It may sound complex given what we're used to today, but it works well within these games because it was almost the best that could be done at the time, and is still a pretty fun system to use.

Missions in Syphon Filter games have a tendency to start out rather simple and turn complex the further you advance. Normally, every map will start with one or two large or small overall objectives, however by the time you're 1/4 into the first game, you'll realize things rarely ever remain as focused as the pre-mission briefings make them sound. New mission objectives pop up on a constant basis as you run into new obstacles or situations change drastically that will require you to haul ass all over any given map. Any mission in these games can range from two minutes to half an hour, and that's not taking into account deaths, objective failures, and learning where you need to go. Every game is fairly generous with mission checkpoints which pop up when you complete an objective, but there's always going to be quite a bit of trial and error your first few times through. This may turn a lot of people off, because the routes through each stage don't offer all that much freedom for experimentation. It is possible to find alternative paths, but you'll get the feeling there's a certain way the devs actually intended you to go about it in some, not all, missions. You're going to die, you're going to fail, so you might as well just get used to it.

Though the games are difficult, other than a few choice instances, they never feel unfair or impossible. There's plenty of ammo and armored Flak Jackets to go around in all three games, so you'll never feel under-equipped for any situation. The game determines whether you've been hit or not by a Danger gauge that fills up when Gabe is in the enemy's line of sight, and most of the time you'll only take hits when its maxed. Think of it as the enemy's Target gauge. A well-timed evasive roll or duck behind cover is the key to keeping the Danger gauge low. Enemy AI is dumb as a brick and their best tactics are simply running around shooting, rolling on the ground to avoid headshots, and ducking behind cover. They're not total pushovers, and the introduction of enemies with stronger weapons and grenades, and snipers later in the series, definitely proves this. Stealth missions can sometimes prove irritating until you realize that the enemy soldiers can't hear you AT ALL if you're in sneak mode or rolling. After that, it's merely a case of learning their routes and using the best method of disposal. Other than one glaring case, all three games are pretty balanced to provide the player with lots of various types of situations, whether it be "fish in a barrel" scenarios, full-blown shootouts, escort missions that don't fucking suck because the AI is trained to target Gabe as long as he's in sight, and of course, stealth missions where one fuck up means you're back to the checkpoint.

Lastly, the music and sound effects used in these games is consistently top-notch. There are a number of memorable tunes throughout all three games. They're all cut from the same big budget action movie cloth with high-tension electronica fusing seamlessly with symphonic flourishes to set the mood. The games always make great use of them, whether you're going into an all-out gunfight or trying your best to stay quiet and hidden. The sound effects of guns blazing and explosions roaring always seemed passable, and every weapon has its own unique set of sounds. Again, this helps get the small bit of realism the game wants to have across. The voice acting is also quite consistent throughout the trilogy as well, even if a lot of voice actors/actresses end up being changed from game to game. It doesn't really take much to act the kind of lines these people are spouting back and forth since it's mostly people trying to stay focused on a mission and be as impersonal as possible, but it helps create the "professional" atmosphere they were going for. Sounds like any ol' action movie you could dig up, and that's a-okay with me.

The series' trial and error approach to how things have to be done may be a bit of a turn-off to most who are used to the freedom a lot modern games offer, but I feel the gunplay and ongoing story are enough to make up for the various kinks that the series never quite worked out on the PSX.

So, with all that out of the way, let's have a brief look at some of my overall thoughts of each game in the series.

Syphon Filter

My initial experience with the first Syphon Filter game came on some PlayStation Underground demo disc that I don't even remember how I obtained. It only let you play a very small portion of the first mission and didn't really effectively show off the gameplay other than one very important toy which is a staple of Gabe's arsenal throughout the series....



Beyond that, I wasn't terribly impressed. The demo didn't let me do enough and the game eventually faded to the back of my mind.

Flash-forward to summer of the same year. I went with a friend to an Army recruitment center where his dad worked for some reason or another, and a bunch of shiny faced recruits were huddled around a TV playing a PlayStation. I have a glance over and notice, "Hey, they're playing that taser game!" and stroll on over to have a look. The minutes passed as many "Mission Failed" scrolls appeared on the screen, one by one with each failure, accompanied by various swearing of those the gamepad kept passing back and forth between. They were all stuck on what could possibly be seen as the series' most definiing mission: The Expo Centre, a mission where you must silently tail a target to a meeting and can only pass it by scoring headshots on every target you encounter when your mark isn't in sight.

I probed them for a bit to get the gist of what was going on, and after a few more rounds they let me have a go at it. I didn't ever end up completing the mission, but I did end up getting very far, and in those short few attempts I was granted, I ended up falling in love with the game. Bought it that evening, and by the next morning I was already pulling off split-second headshots in a snowfield, completely hooked into the awesome blend of espionage and Rambo-type action.

What's immediately impressive about Syphon Filter is just how much shit Gabe has to do in any given mission and how varied all of the locations are. All of this was neat at the time and probably made the game seem more complex than it really is. In one night, Gabe quells an urban terrorist attack, rescues agents under fire while they dispose of bombs, gets exploded in a subway, survives the explosion, works his way through the burning wreckage, chases down an enemy agent in the tunnels while avoiding passing trains, disarms viral bombs in a park, puts a single sniper bullet through two peoples' heads to save more friendly agents, and ends his night with a nice, relaxing fight against a psycho in a full suit of armor and a flamethrower (take THAT, The Fury). Every stretch of missions keeps you busy doing lots of various things while traveling all over the world to neutralize the threat of a madman and the spread of a deadly genetically-coded virus.

Story-wise, this is just the beginning, and everything from this point on will tie to events and characters that are introduced in this game. It can almost be a bit too much to grasp as new people get introduced and names are thrown around on a constant basis, and even weirder when people who you think are going to be the main culprit end up knocked-off only seconds later. It keeps you guessing, but the engine is only just getting revved up, and by the time the end credits are rolling, your hand will be reaching for the first disc of Syphon Filter 2 if you're as drawn into the game as I was. Unfortunately, I'd have to wait a year to do so.

The original was a solid foundation that the rest of the series would be built upon. It's a fun and challenging romp through the world of international espionage and definitely the place to start with the series. You can score copies of it pretty cheap on Amazon's Z-Shops and it's a mere $5.99 download on PSN, so you won't be out too much should you think I'm full of shit.

Syphon Filter 2

Day. Damn. One. Purchase right here, son. Day. Damn. One. Not only for myself, but a few others I'd managed to get hooked on the first game went out and picked it up that day and we all worked our way through it over the next couple weeks, exchanging strategies and just being generally enamoured with the whole package.

Of all the games in the original series, Syphon Filter 2 represented the largest leap in terms of overall improvement and polish as well as additional features. Operatives now have an even wider array of weapons with which to dispatch their opponents, including a goddamn machinegun shotgun and a close-range stun gun for nice and stealthy approaches. Sniper rifle mechanincs were cleaned up a bit, aiming grenades was a hell of a lot easier, and the save system was improved to let players stop and save at specific checkpoints within missions, rather than having to start an entire mission over after having to quit for whatever reason. Enemy sharpshooters were also introduced. These are enemies that instantly max the Danger gauge when Gabe or Lian are spotted and is accompanied by a "Head Shot" indicator appearing by the character's head. One hit and its lights out. Sequences where these guys appear en masse may drive some players crazy, because in all honesty, it almost feels like luck when you manage to make it through. So, even though there's still one more game left, this is about as advanced as the series ever got.

Though it's not a huge super-duper awesome addition, the game also features a two-player Vs. Mode (also featured in the next game) where you and a friend try and hunt one another down as various characters from the game across various featured maps. You can unlock more maps and characters in the main game by completing certain hidden objectives. You'll know you've unlocked something when you hear your character say "Got it!" randomly. On a side note, I was so good with just a knife in this mode that my friends refused to ever play with me again after I once went an hour without dying.

Moving onto the story we get the best of the series here. This game picks up exactly where the first left off. After a lengthy introduction scene that sets up the current status of our main players and the virus, Gabe crash lands in the Rocky Mountains to do his thing, as a vast and deadly conspiracy and set of betrayals unfold around him. There's so much happening on camera and behind the scenes that it's hard not to get wrapped up in wondering what the hell could possibly happen next. This game entertains right down to the "It's all going to Hell in a handbasket, and we're in the handbasket doused in gasoline" final half, and crescendoes with a plot twist and final confrontation too batty to spoil. While the first game's story took a backseat to the gameplay for the most part, Syphon Filter 2 nailed the perfect blend of both with the right amount of cutscenes and in-game happenings that slowly reveal the bigger picture.

Keeping things interesting are the missions and the overall top-notch level designs, which are some of the most memorable and easily replayble in the entire series. The layout of each mission is essentially the same as the original, but the objectives and how you go about completing them feel a lot more natural and planned out. Some objectives in the first game felt like busy work, whereas Syphon Filter 2 tries to keep you on point most of the time. You'll spend a fairly equal amount of time performing both stealth and assault operations, so the game doesn't really give you much time to get bored of either, whereas the first game's final stretch of missions felt a little lop-sided toward fast-paced action sequences.

Some may take issue with the game's initial difficulty, which is on-par with how difficult the final few missions in the first game could be. The game wastes no time throwing you into the heat of battle right from the get-go and even sprinkles in those one-hit sniper types in the first ten minutes. Jumping straight into Syphon Filter 2 is in no way at all advisable, because it fully expects you to have honed your skills in the first game enough to hold your own here. You can still manage to learn, but it's going to take a lot longer to make progress, and may lead to frustration if you're the impatient type.

Playing Syphon Filter 2 again felt almost as mind-blowing and fun as it was the first time. Figuring that I was just inflating my opinion of the game in my mind, I really didn't expect to enjoy it enough to wanna play through it again in one sitting. That's what happened, though, and it was still 110% awesome. This is the Syphon Filter series hitting on all cylinders and there's simply not a dull moment. Sony Bend (known as Eidetic back then) amazingly out-did themselves here. They knew their story, gameplay, and engine well enough by this point to craft the crown jewel of the entire series. I'd even be tempted to give it top honors above Metal Gear Solid. Again, $5.99 on PSN and still relatively easy to find on the original discs. Worth every perfect penny.

Also features one of the funniest gaming commercials ever. Because it's actually funny, not because it's so bad it's funny like those awful Zelda commercials.

Syphon Filter 3

Syphon Filter 3 came out in 2001, late in the PSX's lifecycle. By the time it was released, the PS2 was already in full-swing and Metal Gear Solid 2 was released only a week later. Also, I was already addicted to my Dreamcast and Phantasy Star Online and this third installment pretty much slipped under my radar. It took me a few years after the game came out to actually buy it and play it.

There's really not a whole hell of a lot that's new here. The pre-rendered cutscenes were given a dramatic facelift, giving characters a more realistic look, as opposed to the cartoony appearances they had before, and ummm... Well.... In all honesty, the gameplay portions of the game feel just a little phoned in, and it probably should have been a PS2 game with a whole new engine. The largest addition here was the inclusion of minigames, which sorta functioned more like a challenge mode where you could test your skills at various tasks, such as assassinations, stealing briefcases, and all-out massacres just to name a few. They're decently fun, but most people will probably only dig them because a lot of the missions take place not only in Syphon Filter 3's environments, but older areas from the first two games as well. As for the multiplayer, I have no real opinion on it. Again, people refused to play with me. Assholes.

The story this time takes place mostly in the past, with Gabe and Lian testifying before congress concerning the operations they've conducted over the years. Through these missions, we'll learn how everyone met, and even get a few neat glimpses of events that weren't fully explored in the previous games, such as a mission that takes place during the events of the series opening cutscene all the way back in the original. This is the game where the player is finally given most of the answers over the course of about 18 missions taking place in the past before an explosive finale that comes straight off another out of nowhere plot twist in the present which helps to wrap up the PSX saga in a grand fashion, though doesn't quite bring a full resolution to the Syphon Filter virus's role just yet. The storyline goes out on a high-note, leaving the player with a sense of anticipation of what will come in the future.

Missions in Syphon Filter 3 are far more focused on run n' gun tactics than stealth this final time around and the level designs don't feel quite as honed as they were in the second installment. If you were good at the action sequences in the previous games, then this game likely won't present too many problems other than the few escort missions where your AI-controlled partners seem to always jump into your line of fire ending in a quick failure. Given that there's a lot less you have to think about when tackling each stage, Syphon Filter 3 ends up feeling like you've completed it before it even began, even though it contains the same amount of missions as the previous installments. There are still a lot of memorable sequences, but on the whole, it feels like a huge step down from what made Syphon Filter 2's missions so diverse and fun.

Syphon Filter 3 ends up feeling like the most lop-sided of the entire PSX trilogy. The heavy focus on action and almost complete squashing of stealth sorta ends up wearing on you after a while. It's the one time in the original series that I simply felt like I was going through the motions just to see what would happen next. It's by no means a bad game, it just has the unfortunate luck of coming out in the middle of a console transition, and the whole thing feels like maybe the devs just wanted to get it out of the way to begin working on their next-gen follow-up. Just like the first two games, you can have the third installment fairly easy and dirt cheap on disc or for $5.99 on PSN.

You can have all three games for under $20. That's a fucking steal when I consider the amount of fun I had with them, and I paid full price for each one on disc, totaling about $120. Ten years later, it STILL feels worth it to me. Overall, it's hard not to recommend the entire trilogy. It's definitely one of my favorite action series ever, and even though time hasn't been kind to a few of the weaker aspects, these games still offer a lot to those with an itchy trigger finger, a thirst for sneaking around, and a really well done secret agent action-packed story.. The first and second games are some of the best action that could be had on the PSX, and though the third falters a bit, it's still quite a bit of mindless fun.

Surprisingly, the series remained alive through the next decade, finally spawning a not-so-warmly received next-gen PS2 follow-up, The Omega Strain, and has since flourished once again on the PSP with Dark Mirror, Logan's Shadow (both of which are ported to the PS2 as well) and the online-exclusive Combat Ops. Other than Combat Ops (I hate online gaming unless it's co-op), I'll be tearing into the previously mentioned installments of the series sometime in the future for your enjoyment. Because you really care so much!

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