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Syphon Filter 3 (PlayStation) artwork

Syphon Filter 3 (PlayStation) review

"It was an afterthought of a game, tacked on at the last gasp of a console rich in glory but slowly fading away. So it’s not surprising that Syphon Filter 3 lacked the tantalizing lure that made its two predecessors huge sellers -- folks were already too busy ogling PS2 titles like Metal Gear Solid 2. But SF3 certainly deserved better than to be passed over like that -- while players were anticipating the dawn of some new era of gaming, they missed the last dim star in the tw..."

It was an afterthought of a game, tacked on at the last gasp of a console rich in glory but slowly fading away. So it’s not surprising that Syphon Filter 3 lacked the tantalizing lure that made its two predecessors huge sellers -- folks were already too busy ogling PS2 titles like Metal Gear Solid 2. But SF3 certainly deserved better than to be passed over like that -- while players were anticipating the dawn of some new era of gaming, they missed the last dim star in the twilight days of the PlayStation.

A hyperbolic assessment? Perhaps. SF3 is hardly a masterpiece, suffering as much from a simple lack of ambition or greatness or innovation as it does from debilitating flaws, but it’s a good time nonetheless. The core gameplay that made Syphon Filter popular is renewed, even improved here. And compared to the other dreck being offered up for the PlayStation at the time, it was a godsend for anyone who hadn’t yet made the upgrade.

Gabriel Logan, the truculent yet good-hearted protagonist of the series, in this installment takes a moment to reminisce, in the form of a congressional inquest. The topic is per the usual for this series: once again Gabe’s responsible for ensuring that the deadly Syphon Filter virus does not fall into malevolent hands. With excerpts of testimony serving as introduction to each of the game’s levels, the game follows the hearing, letting us fight out the main actions of the operation in an agreeable and different “reflective” manner. A warped series of plot twists narrowly avoids turning the game into a farce, but one emerges with the desired sense of completeness.

It’s been said that SF3 plays more like an expansion pack to SF2, and indeed this is true: virtually every element of the gameplay returns intact. Pick up a controller for one of the two games, and you likely won’t be able to determine which you’re playing until you recognize some familiar landmark in your surroundings -- indeed, different levels are about the only way to distinguish the games. Fortunately, SF3 offers up a set of new environments that are stunning.

After a gimme first level, you’ll find yourself on a plantation in Costa Rica. Immediately, you’ll notice that this is a more difficult game than the first two: machine gun turrets strafe you with fire as you try to approach the plantation, and snipers inhabit the jungle trees. The way out is no easier, as you’ll need to carefully pick through an array of landmines. The next level proves that this is no fluke: even as it begins, you’re under fire from soldiers with automatics, so you must be quick on the draw. The rattle of enemy fire and the piercing blasts of snipers taking potshots are your constant companions; flashing tracers and the sparks thrown up as projectiles carom off rocks and walls are enough to help light your path. SF3 everywhere has enemies that come out of nowhere, and you’ll sometimes wonder how so many snipers manage not to hit each other -- this is challenging and invigorating action.

Sadly, the graphic design of these levels is as uninspired as the gameplay design is creative and entrancing. Released into an exciting time of new technology and visual excellence, the drab surroundings and blocky, two-dimensional scenery simply feels backward. Everything takes place at night, perhaps just an excuse for the developers to use a half-price palette including only green, brown, and gray -- at least, that seems the limit of their artistic vision. Don’t let your PS2-influence mind allow technology to excuse this, either: SF2 looked a lot better. It’s not devastating, as poor presentation never limits the gameplay, but it is boring. SF3 takes us across continents to visit an enormous variety of locations -- so why do African game reserves, the Australian outback, and Costa Rica all look the same? I’d expect more from a game developed by the goliath Sony -- although, strong gameplay and shoddy presentation is the reverse of what Sony’s in-house titles usually offer, and I suppose this way is better.

Following the previous games in the series, SF3 offers a perfect asymmetry of faceless enemies and distinctive weaponry: foes whose deaths will not offend your conscience, potent arms to make those deaths as painful as possible. Of particular note is the signature air taser: not the most destructive item in Gabe’s arsenal, but perhaps the most useful. Launching a small projectile into any opponent unlucky enough to appear in Gabe’s path, the taser transfers an electric charge sufficient to light up a small town, sending any sentry to sweet unconsciousness. Even better, hold the trigger for a second or so, and watch your target explode in flames -- a second’s pressure differentiating a humane knockout and a pyrotechnic execution. Excessively caustic, perhaps, but a satisfying way to dispose of rent-a-cops and diabolical evildoers alike. Other standbys will be the Falcon, an insanely powerful pistol, and the Mil 15, an exploding-bullets terror.

At times very entertaining -- particularly when you’re frying foes with your taser -- this title is nevertheless plagued by trivial flaws. In the midst of brutal, tactically demanding environments, a few depressing levels offer boring and repetitive kill-these-enemies or destroy-this-objective action -- the minefields, sniper traps, and enemy-packed subways enliven the game but from time to time feel like the exception rather than the rule. It’s just not the top-to-bottom thrilling experience that SF2 was. And inheriting a big flaw of its immediate forerunner, SF3 fails to provide the crack multiplayer shooter the PlayStation so desperately needed; in fact, the two-player mode is most notable for its complete lack of depth. A paucity of game options, and play that is simply ripped from Goldeneye three years late and without any of the charm, means you’re unlikely to show this one to your friends.

The careful reader will have noticed references to a great many similarities between this title and its two predecessors, and it must be underscored again: not much has changed. There’s simply no better barometer of your feelings on this title than how much you enjoyed the first two.

The most significant addition to this third chapter is a series of minigame training missions, similar to Metal Gear Solid’s VR missions, which have you attempting simple tasks like taking out sentries or snatching an attache case full of classified documents. One mission even replicates an Olympic biathlon, requiring you to move from position to position sniping targets. While entertaining in the same sense that MGS’s minigames were, offering well-designed endeavors in a “diet” format with a strong sense of brevity, a handful of them doesn’t add much to the title. It does, however, give the player the dose of stealth that is missing in the main storyline. They benefit enormously from fittingly tense and spooky music -- far better stuff than the ambient background noise featured throughout most of the title.

Practically carbon-copied for a third run, the Syphon Filter formula is getting a bit dogged, and the series will surely benefit greatly from the changes that must come as it transcends this era of hardware. Nor does SF3 have the gusto of its predecessors -- while SF2 was a two-disc orgy of levels, weapons, and plot twists, this title has likely suffered from being crammed into just one disc. But this old horse still has one run left in its tired bones -- and the developers have fittingly tied it to a platform that was itself an aged veteran seeking a graceful exit. For all it gave Sony, the workhorse PlayStation merited a fitting eulogy, and with Syphon Filter 3, the console received the last rites it deserved.

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Community review by denouement (July 03, 2004)

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