Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain Online Impressions

We try out Omega Strain's network mode.

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During a visit to Sony's development studio in Bend, Oregon, we recently had the chance to try out the online portion of Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain. The forthcoming game is the latest installment in the popular franchise that first started on the original PlayStation. While we've seen the game on and off since its debut at last year's E3, this is the first time we have had the opportunity to get some hands-on time with an online-enabled version of the game. While we had some idea of what to expect from the game's online mode, we have to say we were still pleasantly surprised by what we saw. Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain's online modes offer an ambitious and engaging experience that's a unique change of pace from the norm.

While most of the online modes found in console games revolve around your standard assortment of deathmatch-style modes, Syphon Filter's will not. The game will instead revolve around a cooperative play experience that will complement the single-player game. Nine of the single-player game's 17 levels will be playable online by up to four players. The co-op levels will feature design elements geared toward four players working together and, more importantly, gameplay elements only possible with additional players. For example, in the game's first level you'll come to an ambulance that you'll be able to climb on top of if you have another player nearby to help boost you up. Once you're on top of the car, you'll be able to reach down and pull your partner up. While on top of the ambulance, you'll be able to collect an item and gain entrance to a building by shooting out its windows and then leaping through them by jumping from the vehicle.

The online levels will also be quite dense in terms of the objectives. Each level will have multiple tasks that you'll be able to review by calling up a 3D map of the level you're on and then cycling through the objectives. When you find one you'd like to tackle, you can back out of the map, while making sure the objective is highlighted. This will cause it to show up on your radar. In addition to the objectives you'll need to complete the game, Syphon Filter will also feature a secondary set of objectives that, when completed, will go toward improving your agency rating. This relates to your proficiency in a variety of skills. For example, if you go through a level while using a sniper rifle, you'll earn a higher rating in sniping, which will eventually unlock a new weapon for you to use. You'll find a total of four ratings in each of the different proficiency rewards. As you master them by meeting their various requirements, you'll earn new weapons and moves, such as the ability to use two pistols at once or the ability to break the necks of your enemies. While you'll be able to do much of these on your own, some of the ratings apply to your performance in the co-op game, such as the completion time for missions, and require you to clock in some time online with other players.

One of the things members of the development team are thinking will happen is that players will form four-man squads, much like PC game clans, that will work together to master the various missions. One of the key elements in the online game will be coordination, because getting the best times will require players to sniff out the most efficient ways of getting through a level and meeting its objectives. Such coordination will require more than just finding the best path through the large levels. You'll also have to settle on the best weapons to take with you. As a result, you'll have to make liberal use of the PlayStation 2 headset, and you'll have to check in with your teammates constantly. Close communication will likely begin before you even start a level, since you'll be able to talk to your teammates on the loadout screen while you pick which weapons to take to the mission.

One of the sly twists to the online experience in Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain is that your progress in the single-player game will determine what you have going on in the online mode. If you host a game, you'll only be able to play in levels that you've cleared, and you'll only be able to use the weapons that you've earned. Your agent's appearance will also reflect your progress in the game, so in addition to unlocking weapons and moves, you'll also unlock new items for customizing your agent, including badges that reflect your agency ranking.

While Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain is still coming together--and the online-enabled version we played was a work in progress--the game's performance was pretty smooth. There were definitely some rough spots during play, but so far, the game handles well online. The only catch is that it appears that the game will only support broadband, so modem users will have to upgrade if they want to work some online action.

From what we've played so far, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain's online modes seem poised to add a unique and challenging new dimension to the rich Syphon Filter formula. The co-op modes and the meaty list of agency rankings to earn should pose a challenge to players who are looking to unlock the game's arsenal of weapons. While the game is currently slated to ship this May, a public beta test will begin soon. Look for more on the game in the coming months.

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