Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror just does not feel like a handheld game, PSP or otherwise. Dark Mirror hit store shelves almost exactly one year after the PSP's launch. We have seen some pretty good titles in that year, (mainly at launch) but nothing like Dark Mirror. I cannot stress enough the fact that this feels like a PS2 game. Scratch that, a good PS2 game.
The Syphon Filter series has seen better days. Syphon Filter and Syphon Filter 2 on the PS1 were hot titles. Syphon filter 3, the last of the series on the PS1, didn't seem to hit those same high notes as the first two. But it was still a fun game. Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain, for the PS2, can only be described as a series let down. Maybe this is why Dark Mirror comes along as such an astonishing revival of the series.
Once again, you are Gabe Logan, handling situations for the U.S. government that are too hot for official business. Stealth is the name of the game, but run-and-gun is peppered for a good balance. You are rewarded for being stealthy, though I suppose you could play the entire game Rambo-style if you wanted to.
This time around you are up against a band of terrorists (again?) who are mysteriously attacking chemical plants. This story is getting old. It has been beat to death. Dark Mirror's only saving grace here is that it is presented in a refreshing manor. And most importantly, the cinematic and flashbacks move the story along very well, and do not disjoint you from playing the game. That, in and of itself, is more than can be said about the majority of games of this ilk.
This "been there, done that" techno-thriller is also accented by excellent voice acting, and a superb musical score composed by none other than The X Files' Mark Snow. Between the pacing of the story and intensity of the score, the suspense stays high all the way through. Video game music is usually relegated to that of a second-class citizen, but that is not the case here.
Your journey starts in Alaska, but takes you to South America, and many places in Europe. Each environment is varied, and the attention to detail shows. Sony Bend has seemingly squeezed every ounce of graphical power out of the PSP. Character models get the same overall sheen, as you can see weapon and cloth detail to a degree not yet seen on this system.
Before you head off to rid the world of terrorist, you are presented with four helpful training missions. Each tackles a different aspect of the game, including multiplayer. Although the time spent explaining the controls is nice, they hardly need explaining. They just work. If you think the PSP needs a second analog nub, you need to play this game.
The analog nub handles movement, while aiming is done with the four face buttons. It is a system that is instantly familiar and just feels solid the first time you try it. The devil is in the simplicity, and more games should use this control scheme. While others have tried "faking" the dual-analog controls on the PSP, none have been this successful.
Other maneuvers are contextual, and again do not feel forced on the PSP. You equip different goggles by pressing left on the d-pad. While pressed, you select different goggles by pressing one of the four face buttons. Tapping left again turns the goggles on/off. Selecting your weapon is handled in exactly the same fashion, this is mapped to the right button of the d-pad. Tapping right changes the rate of fire.
Climbing is accomplished by a combination of the analog nub and up, crouching/crawling is the same, using down on the d-pad. Holding the L trigger will auto-aim, or bring up a scope if available. Changing magnification is done with up/down on the d-pad. Pulling the R trigger shoots.
Your interactions with the environment are also contextual. When you are close to an obstacle that you can jump over, the "up" icon appears on screen. When presented with a zip-line, you push X to use it. Sticking to a wall is as easy as pushing up against it. Peeking around or ever something and firing off a few rounds has never been this smooth on the PSP.
The single-player story takes you through seven missions, each with many episodes. Finding hidden evidence allows you to unlock extras for multiplayer such as extra health and the ability to dual wield. Once you beat the game, five extra episodes are unlocked.
Depending on the difficulty setting you select, the game takes eight to 10 hours to complete. Although some may call this "short," this is the right length with no added filler. The extra unlockables for finding the hidden evidence are worth hunting for, however. This extends the game somewhat, and it is a joy to make your way through the game again.
There is much more to Dark Mirror after completion of the single-player campaign. Multiplayer is set out over both Ad-Hoc and Infrastructure mode. Another technology not used enough on the PSP, Game Sharing, will allow a friend to experience the (single-player only) game.
The bar has been set extremely high with Dark Mirror. Not just in single-player, but also in Infrastructure multiplayer. This game's online component rivals many Xbox and PC games. Dark Mirror supports up to eight players with full voice chat with a PSP headset. It also has clans, a buddy list, leaderbords, message boards and a mailbox. Some of these features were thought to be casualties of handheld gaming, but Dark Mirror keeps proving us wrong on all fronts.
The slick menu system from single-player is just as beautiful in multiplayer. Yes the menu system in Dark Mirror is beautiful. It is strait-forward, intuitive, and displays all the information you need.
Connecting to the online lobby is hastened by auto fill of your user name and password. This is small, but a welcomed feature, especially on a handheld. Navigating the menus here is done with the L and R triggers. The first screen, Join Game, shows a browser of all active games, connected users, and a message window.
As I write this, there are 266 players logged in with 37 games active. I have never seen numbers like this in a PSP game, especially considering this is not the weekend, and it is past the "wow" factor of a brand new release. The public beta test period of Dark Mirror no doubt contributed to this strong online following, as well as squashing any bugs.
Next in the menu is Host Game, where you are given a number of options. You can chose between five maps. The maps themselves are large enough to accommodate eight player firefights, but it would have been nice to have more. But the overall experience found online negates any shortcomings of map choices.
The obligatory Deathmatch and Team Deathmath are here. You also have Objective, where two teams are trying to pull off the same mission simultaneously. The Objective games lead to some frantic play. Rounding things off is Rogue Agent, where only one player can score kills, the rest are just out to stop that person.
Next in the menu is Create Cell, these are clans in Dark Mirror. You even get to choose from 60 different patches to use as your insignia.
The Buddy List in Dark Mirror offers useful information -- more than just names. It shows player rank, game type, and host of current games people are in. The Community tab includes (very detailed) Learderboards, your Mail Box, and a Message Board. Navigating forums and threads is all handled well. The game uses its own keyboard (thankfully) and that is handled as good as it could be on the PSP.
Jumping into a game with eight players and full voice chat is an abnormal experience on the PSP. This is something we do on the Xbox 360 every day, but not on the PSP. It goes without saying that you do not feel like you are "trapped inside" a PSP game when playing Dark Mirror, especially online.
As for glitches or lag, there are virtually none of the above. I noticed a hiccup or two, but it has been smooth sailing.
I cannot wait for another PSP game to challenge Dark Mirror in either its online or offline (and hopefully both) completeness. I just don't see that happening anytime soon. This game goes beyond everything we have come to expect from the PSP, and is without a doubt one of the best games on the system.
I find it amazing that it has taken a developer, especially one under Sony's umbrella, this long to deliver a game experience like this (for the PSP). But it had to start some time, and this seems to be the time. The PSP is seeing a rash of must-buy titles lately, and Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror should be at the very top of your list.
(***** out of *****)