Syphon Filter was one of the first games I ever rented. My Dad didn’t really see the point of renting, but I got Syphon Filter for a short but glorious week back in 1999. If the timeline fits, I had already met the love of my life Metal Gear Solid the year before. Chances are good that I’d finished it, which meant I needed a fix. Syphon Filter was that.
I got a little obsessed with this game for three reasons. Reason one: I got a walk-through free with one of my PlayStation magazines and read on buses and in school way more than once. Definitely more than ten times. Actually, It was a pretty interesting read – a bit like an action novel with the plot bits stripped out and written in the imperative. Reason two: Dad scored me a door-length poster from X-tra vision. It was shaped like a monolith, heavy and glossy. Mam hated it, so I loved it. Reason Three: Taser. Hidden fourth reason: Mega thriller intro music. Drink it in:
Syphon Filter felt like a departure from Metal Gear Solid because you could do a dive roll and shoot while moving. That, and you could aim your gun where you wanted. Massive difference. Suddenly I wasn’t a faceless man in grey crawling along the ground and growling, I was a faceless man in grey rolling around, shooting and aiming. For all of Metal Gears’ self-involvement, Syphon Filter had shlocky spy action. It also had a taser weapon where you fired a silvery string into an opponent and electrocuted them. The bad guys wiggled and shook as they got shocked. If you held the square button down, they caught fire and screamed. Then the fire went out, but they didn’t stop wiggling. As an adult, that’s a bit disturbing. As a child, it was pretty funny. This didn’t appeal to just me though. The internet found it too:
I could only rent Syphon Filter. I only got, at most, ten hands-on days with the game. That wasn’t enough to finish it, but more than enough to idealise it. Flash forward to quite recently when I took a notion and bought some PlayStation Store credit. I scrolled through the ‘Classics’ section and saw this beauty. I downloaded it for a fiver and set off on an adventure to Taser everyone to death.
Coming back to it was a nostalgic thrill, but it didn’t hold up for me too well. Like I said, the main character, Gabriel ‘Gabe’ Logan, is grey and growly and faceless. He’s just like Solid Snake without all the history and angst. That, and the virus in this game is genetically engineered to attack certain DNA. FoxDie anyone? The action was fun. You can run around and dive-roll and enemies die in one hit if you shoot them in the head. The first obligatory stealth level was a bit of a mess, though. You have to follow a guy to a place in a museum and not get seen. If you’re spotted, you fail. That’s okay, but the problem is that the guards’ awareness settings aren’t consistent.
Some of them can detect you from what feels like unbelievably far away. Others might as well be wearing potato sacks on their heads. How you should behave isn’t clear. Also, sometimes guards just pop in out of nowhere. I was sneak-crouching around a corner and a guard just appeared in front of me, coming my way. He was one of the potato-sack ones, but he still saw me. After some trial and error, I realised I triggered the guard by being in that spot. If you’re running when you trigger him, he’ll hear you. Without the surprise guards and fail-state, the level would take seconds.
This started to look like a pattern. Hidden insta-kill pits, levels in darkness, and hidden enemies all felt like ways to slow the player down. Some enemies had ‘flak jackets’ that meant you had to only shoot them in the head. During most of the game this is manageable because the aiming controls are precise. The third act of the game gives every enemy flak jackets. That doesn’t heighten tension, it makes things more annoying and artificially difficult. I did actually want to do a taser run, but ended up using cheats for a one-shot-kill grenade launcher. Ain’t nobody got time for flak jackets. The best level is one where you have to sneak into a nuclear facility. You start outside it and it’s snowing. All the guards are in white, and swarm you until you die if you get spotted. Curiously like another game I loved.
Even though I felt like they’re crazily similar, apparently Syphon Filter had nothing to do with Metal Gear Solid. John Garvin worked as creative director on the game and said in an interview with Sony:
“Metal Gear Solid actually had nothing to do with the genesis of Syphon Filter. We had been in development for quite a while before we had even heard of it. The idea originally came from a producer at Sony’s (then) 989 Studios who had written a one page synopsis that he called “Syphon Filter” which had zero meaning, i.e. there was no plot, no character, and no story, just an idea for settings, mechanics and gameplay.“
If you play through it, Syphon Filter has a very similar feel to MGS, but both games paved the way for games like Splinter Cell, and Watch_Dogs (two games with growly men in dark clothes). Even if I didn’t love it instantly this year, it was a sleeper hit for the studio on release. Garvin said:
‘We didn’t know we had something special until after we shipped and sales took off like crazy, surpassing everyone’s expectations. I think we sold over a million units that first year. It was amazing. Players seemed to really appreciate doing something new — sneaking around, fighting terrorists while dodging subway cars, shooting a taser halfway down a city block and making a terrorist burst into flame. Things players had never before experienced. This kind of thing may be common now, but back then it was still all pretty new.’
Maybe my problem is not appreciating Syphon Filter’s context. It, along with Metal Gear, paved the way for a whole new genre. That genre and it’s tropes might be something we can take for granted now, but SF is a little slice of broken ground. Ultimately, playing through it was a little masochistic, but it was made by 13 people who had nothing to compare it to.
Now, let’s see how Syphon Filter 2 holds up…