When I write about old games, I tell myself to put nostalgia aside and be objective. I usually fail miserably. And since Syphon Filter was recently re-released for the PS4 and PS5, I felt I had to experience it on modern hardware. The new versions contain a few nice additions, including trophies. But despite the extras, Syphon Filter is a nearly 25 year old game. It also hails from the early 3D console era. Many would call this the worst era for gaming, at least as far as graphics are concerned. So with all of this in mind, we’ll take a look at how Syphon Filter holds up today. And I promise not to gush too hard about scoring headshots with a taser from fifty feet away.
The introductory cutscene shows an unnamed terrorist group led by the ruthless Erich Rhoemer. He orders the equally ruthless Mara Aramov to execute a member of The Agency, a covert organization within the US Government. Rhoemer also has his French, flamethrower-wielding companion Anton Girdeaux torch the nearby crops. The crops have something to do with a viral outbreak, which leads directly into the first mission.
The game begins on a Washington D.C. city street. Gabe Logan is on the scene, and Lian Xing assists him over the radio. The Agency has dispatched them to get to the heart of the terrorist operation. The CBDC is also on the scene, a government response team that deals with disease and biological agents. For some reason they all wield M-16s, but we really shouldn’t complain. Gabe will need all the help he can get, as the game has no shortage of bad guys to contend with. Lastly, Rhoemer’s men have invaded the subway, and they’re planning to release a virus that could kill anyone within a hundred miles.
The backdrop of a viral outbreak is woven deep within the Syphon Filter story, and Gabe and Lian are the Agency members tasked with getting to the heart of it. As each mission unfolds, the duo will find that not everyone is who they claim to be. And there is more to this viral outbreak than they would have initially imagined.
"The backdrop of a viral outbreak is woven deep within the Syphon Filter story"
None of the story beats are necessarily unique. But the way the story is presented is. The game makes a noble effort at being cinematic. You can expect a lot of dialogue and exposition to be contained within the cutscenes. Lian also provides communication to Gabe throughout each mission. But her role in this plot is not just to deliver the mission objectives. The two of them are slowly peeling back the layers of the story, discovering where this viral outbreak stemmed from, and who’s at the heart of it.
For me, it’s the gameplay that brings me back to Syphon Filter. On the surface, the game is another third-person shooter. But there’s a balance that the game demands of you. You won’t succeed by simply running in front of enemies. At times you’ll need to sneak in order to evade the enemy. Other times you’ll need to dodge their aim by running or rolling. And yet again, you might need to find cover to get an accurate shot. With all of this in mind, Syphon Filter is more than just a shooter. The game has a lot of nuance, and it forces you to consider multiple strategies for taking down the enemies.
As for the shooting, you have two options: manually aim your gun or use auto-aim. Locking onto an enemy with auto-aim displays a “target” bar, showing how quickly Gabe is lining up his shot. The longer you fill the bar, the more likely Gabe is to score the shot. Certain movements will determine how quickly the bar fills. Walking or running will cause Gabe to lose his aim, whereas crouching or sitting still will cause the bar to fill quickly.
On top of this, Gabe has a flak jacket and a health bar. The flak jacket is refillable, but the health bar is not. So if your health falls below half and you manage to refill your flak jacket, your underlying health will remain at half throughout the entirety of the level. Since some levels flow immediately into next, you might be stuck with half health for several missions in a row. So if you lose a significant amount of health, you may want to restart at the last checkpoint.
Strategizing Against the Enemies
Gabe has an inverse of the target bar, which shows on screen as a “danger” bar. This tells you how accurate the enemy’s aim is. If it’s full, you can bet that they’ll land a shot on you. The danger bar presents one of the most critical elements of Syphon Filter’s game play. You must dodge enemies to lower the “danger” bar. In the beginning, you can get away with standing in the middle of the street, letting your flak jacket sponge up some bullets. In the late game segments, you’ll die very quickly for doing so. WIth all of this in mind, running and rolling are the two most effective ways to break the enemy’s aim.
Manually aiming your gun gives you the freedom to score headshots. In the later game, you won’t have a choice. Enemies will be wearing flak jackets, so you have to score headshots. The good news is that when using manual aim, the crosshair is at the height of the enemy’s head. This means you only have to aim horizontally to score a headshot, which is most easily achieved with the d-pad. Using the joystick will make aiming horizontally much harder, because moving the joystick will likely also move the crosshair vertically.
On a similar note, I found the d-pad on the DualSense to be too clicky. Because of this, I could never get the timing right when I used it. So I wound up using my DualShock 4 to play the game on my PS5. The d-pad on the DualShock 4 is a bit more forgiving on older games like this. The biggest downside is that in order to use the DualShock 4, you must download the PS4 version. Your save files are not transferable between these versions either. So if you’re someone who’s picky about using a d-pad, you may want to test the controller first before you fully dive into the game.
Without the stealth elements Syphon Filter would be just another third-person shooter. Namely, the ability to crouch gives the player certain freedoms. Although you might get away with a run-n-gun mentality in the beginning, the later sections of the game will punish you for it. Crouching to quiet your footsteps will go a long way towards your success.
Part stealth, Part action, Part Cover-Shooter
I don’t think Syphon Filter was originally designed to be a cover shooter. I don’t think people even used the term cover shooter when it first came out. But playing it today, this feels like an appropriate way to describe the game. As the enemies become harder, it becomes necessary to hide and find as many cheap headshots as possible. I feel no shame in taking advantage of the enemy’s poor line of sight to score an easy headshot. They would do the same to me, after all.
On that note, Syphon Filter is a headshot fest. Aiming at an enemy’s head shows a wireframe indicator. So when the level is dark and the enemy is outside of your visibility, you might still be able to score a headshot if you aim correctly. The same is true with the sniper rifles. The night vision sniper rifle gives you an obvious advantage in dark spaces. But the standard sniper rifle offers an extra perk as well. If you aim at an enemy, the scope will indicate which body part you’re aiming at. While this might seem superfluous at first, it can be used to snipe enemies who are outside of the game’s draw distance.
Syphon Filter has 16 playable weapons. The silenced 9mm is my go-to. It’s the ideal stealth weapon, and it’s perfect for quick headshots. On this playthrough, I used it on every level until I exhausted its ammo. The grenade launcher and the gas grenades are particularly useful. But their ammo is scarce, so they should be used sparingly. The BIZ-2 and the G-18 have very high rates of fire. Since Gabe’s default aim is level with the enemy’s heads, these can be used to swipe across the screen, scoring multiple headshots at once.
Throughout the game, Gabe and Lian will visit Washington D.C., New York City, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Each area offers a slightly different setting for our main characters to unravel who is behind the viral outbreak. New players can expect a nice variety in the missions.
I think even new players will find that this game offers a nostalgia kick, particularly with the music. The suspense-filled synthesizer tunes will keep you sweaty as you navigate the missions.
Syphon Filter holds up today as a solid stealth action-shooter. Each time I revisit this game, I’m reminded of how much I enjoy the characters. Watching them navigate through the happenings of this viral outbreak, coupled with the mixture of stealth and cover shooting, makes for an enjoyable experience. All of this is in spite of the blocky graphics of the time. While many will either love or hate the PS1 3D graphics, I think fans of action games who have not experienced this gem will not be disappointed to see what Syphon Filter has to offer.