Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain Preview

The fight against the deadly virus will finally hit the PlayStation 2 next month.

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So far, Sony has generally done a good job of bringing its biggest PlayStation properties to the PS2, but one popular franchise from the latter days of the PS has remained bafflingly absent: Syphon Filter. Thankfully the tactical action series is finally ready to make the jump to the current generation with Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain. We've spent some time with a near-final build of this long-awaited update, which doesn't make any radical changes to the core gameplay that defined the three previous titles; rather, it dresses up that core with modern-day graphics, online capabilities, and a handful of solid new features, which all add up to sound like the formula for a winning sequel to us.

The Syphon Filter virus once again threatens the world, and only you can stop it.
The Syphon Filter virus once again threatens the world, and only you can stop it.

The basic storyline in The Omega Strain--the global fight against the killer Syphon Filter virus--remains intact from the preceding games, and square-jawed series hero Gabe Logan will, of course, return to continue his battle against those who would use the deadly bioweapon for nefarious ends. There's one big change this time around, though: You won't actually be playing as Gabe. It seems Mr. Logan moved up into a management role when he founded Black Box, his own agency devoted to stopping Syphon Filter and protecting the world. You'll take on the role of a new Black Box grunt hired to do Gabe's dirty work out in the field. The game will let you extensively customize the appearance of your male or female operative before you begin the game. Options are available for body type, skin tone, hairstyle and color, and facial features, among others; you won't have trouble fashioning an international crime fighter that looks just like you, in other words. Of course, other series mainstays like Lian and Mujari will also be returning to spice up the storyline in the game, so don't think that playing a user-created character will stifle the story by any means.

Even though you won't be playing Gabe Logan himself, you'll find the gameplay here to be quite familiar. Mechanically, The Omega Strain plays more or less identically to the three previous games on the PlayStation, so if you were a fan of those you'll feel right at home. Newcomers may find the control scheme a little hard to adopt at first, since it differs a fair amount from many recent action games; however, after you spend some time with it you'll find that it suits the action pretty well. As before, you'll use shoulder buttons to control strafing while you run in all directions with the analog stick. A lock-on button will keep your crosshairs pinned to a particular enemy target, and this reticle will color-cycle to let you know how likely you are to score a hit.

This control scheme, which allows you to run in any direction while maintaining a bead on your enemy, has given the Syphon Filter games a unique feel that's hard to describe but should be perfectly familiar to fans of previous games. Rest assured that this game maintains that same free-form feel. As before, you can roll in any direction as you run to evade enemy fire, even while maintaining your target lock. Add a first-person aiming mode that lets you target even more specifically (which is a must, since some enemies wear body armor), and you've got quite capable combat abilities at your disposal.

You won't play as Gabe Logan in The Omega Strain, but you'll be working for his new agency, Black Box.
You won't play as Gabe Logan in The Omega Strain, but you'll be working for his new agency, Black Box.

No good international operative can get his or her job done without the proper tools, and of course, The Omega Strain aims to satisfy in this department. At the beginning of a mission you'll select your weapons and equipment loadout, assigning a weapon to each of several available slots. The sidearm slot, for instance, can hold one of a bevy of pistols, while the back slot will accept a heavier weapon, like a shotgun or rifle. You'll occasionally require a nonlethal solution, such as a stun baton, to solve problems. (One imaginative scenario has you fighting alongside good-guy officers who don't know you're one of them but nevertheless must be protected. The solution? Stun them to keep them out of harm's way.)

You'll hardly be limited to your initial armament, though--in fact, some of the best weapons will be picked up from dead enemies midmission. You'll only be able to hold a total of four weapons at a time, so you'll often have to make critical choices on the fly, like deciding if a shiny new FAMAS rifle is more important than the trusty combat shotgun you've been laying waste with. The weapons have a pretty solid feel to them (enhanced by meaty sound effects) and seem to do a good job of icing the bad guys--assuming your aim is any good.

The action in The Omega Strain is spread across 17 globetrotting missions that will take you from humdrum locations like Japan and Yemen to more exotic locales such as the wilds of Michigan. As in the previous games, you'll go into a mission with a briefing and a basic set of specific mission objectives, but since you'll be in radio contact with your superiors, your goals tend to change fluidly throughout the levels. This keeps you on your toes and constantly searching the expansive mission areas to figure out how to complete your newly assigned goals without losing your head. In a first for the series, most of the single-player missions can also be played online with up to four players in a cooperative mode that should make the missions an even more dynamic experience. What's more, there are many areas that you'll only be able to access with the help of a teammate--you might hoist a friend up to a ledge and then have him pull you up, for instance. The game features seamless integration of voice chat via USB headset, which we've found to be essential in coordinating strategy with teammates while trying to work through a level.

It's been a long time in coming, but Syphon Filter will finally be hitting the PlayStation 2 soon.
It's been a long time in coming, but Syphon Filter will finally be hitting the PlayStation 2 soon.

As the first Syphon Filter to appear on a next-gen platform, The Omega Strain is looking pretty darn solid. The environments are certainly a lot more detailed and interactive than in any of the PlayStation games, and the character models are highly detailed and seem to animate nicely--which is especially important, given the way your character can run one direction while aiming another. The effect is hard to describe, but it has a way of looking realistic without being overtly showy. And even though our build of the game isn't quite final, the frame rate has also been highly stable throughout (always a plus).

From what we've heard so far, it seems Sony has made good on its promise to raise the quality of the series' previously iffy production values. The voice acting here sounds considerably more believable than in past games, which often came off as a little hokey. We've even heard some shadowy figures speaking in Russian and French, and while we ourselves aren't fluent in those languages, the lines definitely sound authentic and convey their sinister intent. The game's music (which, last we heard, was being composed by The X-Files' Mark Snow) is also dramatic without being cheesy and seems tastefully suited to the action so far.

If Sony had to make fans languish for so long without a PS2 update to this series, at least it looks like Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain will have been worth the wait. So far, the game seems to be holding up its end of the bargain on all fronts--it plays as well as any Syphon Filter game, and its visual and aural presentation has matured smoothly, taking good advantage of the power of the PlayStation 2. The online co-op mode is certainly a welcome feature as well, and we've heard rumblings that the PlayStation 2 hard drive may even be supported to make extra content available postrelease. In any event, we'll bring you more coverage on the game as its early-May release date approaches.

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