At a time when PSOne owners were clamoring for more Metal Gear Solid action, 989 Studios and Sony's release of the original Syphon Filter game was a stroke of genius. Not only did it become a huge seller, and being incredibly popular on message boards, but it was also different enough from Snake's adventures to keep critics happy. Unfortunately, a few lackluster sequels later and the Syphon Filter shine became quite dull. When the series eventually made the jump to the PS2, one-time fans knew better and stayed away in drove. Luckily, this new iteration is not only a return to greatness and unquestionably the best entry in the series, but it is also the best reason to own a PSP. While other games and franchises have dumbed-down and simplified their controls for the portable system's lack of two analog sticks, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror simply re-invents how 3D games are going to be played with the hardware provided. The PSP's first killer application? You bet.
While Dark Mirror's story features the obligatory tones of political intrigue and high stakes espionage and double-crosses we've seen in every other game of its ilk (Metal Gear, Syphon Filter, Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, etc), the games isn't really about what ties its levels together, but the levels themselves and the numerous things you'll have to accomplish to get through them. The game follows the exploits of Gabe Logan and his fellow operatives as the gather information, sabotage various objects, liberate hostages, snipe terrorists and quietly liberate the world. Although most levels come down to shooting matches, there is always more to each mission than dispensing bullets.
The single player portion begins with a great tutorial that will immediately make you forget you're on a handheld. Rarely, if ever, has a handheld had a tutorial so well done, with great voice-over work, visuals and replay value. From there you will be treated to the first of a few cutscenes which will make you feel like you are watching a movie. These are on par with the best Final Fantasy CG movies and are truly wonderful. The single player missions are divided into seven episodes, which are in turn divided into smaller missions. The missions are always split up in an intelligent way and can vary in length depending on their objectives. While this may seem like a short single player game, it's not. The seven episodes can be completed over a weekend of hardcore gaming, there is reason enough to experience each individual mission over. Each contains predetermined objectives and hidden files that must be completed in order to unlock rankings and extra content. This allows you to replay each mission in a different way, opting for more covert tactics or all-out action.
If the single player campaign wasn't meaty enough, the multiplayer contents manages to trump it in every way. The first thing immediately evident when you connect using infrastructure mode is that this really doesn't feel like a PSP title. In fact, the online menus and content of the multiplayer portion put even most X360 games to shame. Dark Mirror creates its own world and community with its own agency cell support (clans), message boards, rankings, patches, buddy lists, game lobbies, real-time voice communication, etc. Add to this the various game modes (objective mode, team deathmatch, standard deathmatch and rogue agent), game options and the ability to view other player's resumes and anyone with even a mild interest for handheld multiplayer games will become hooked. Whether playing the single player campaign or online, Dark Mirror offers more modes and replay value than a slew of other titles combined.
But even with all the modes and replay value included, things wouldn't seem fun if not for great controls. And this is where Dark Mirror truly shines. Eschewing the need for a second analog stick, Dark Mirror simply maps out the traditional right-thumbstick aiming controls to the triangle, square, circle and X buttons. Your movement is controlled by the left analog stick and the right trigger is used for attacks (weapons and melee). The control scheme is simple, clever, elegant and works perfectly. This leaves the digital buttons free to manage weapon selection, gadget selection (and Dark Mirror features some of the coolest gadgets and goggles around), weapon zooming, fire modes, item interaction and stance. If that seems like more commands than can possibly be assigned to four buttons, it is. But Dark Mirror does a great job of discerning between a tap and a press and allows to that many actions to map out to four buttons.
While this control scheme will seem odd to some at first, simply because it's unorthodox on a handheld, it is easy to learn and not only fixes the control issues, but also the camera issue which plagues so many 3D handheld titles. It soon becomes a joy to control the various gadgets, guns and goggles within the game. In the process, Dark Mirror even manages to put a lot of platform games to shame with its breadth of gameplay mechanics. In short, it simply proves that first and third person shooters are quite possible on the PSP and that the process simply required a little bit of creativity.
Graphically, Dark Mirror is quite possibly the most impressive PSP title we've ever seen (and this includes Tekken, Daxter and Metal Gear Acid). Not only are the environments and levels well designed and populated, but they are rendered in full 3D with almost no graphical glitches in sight. Couple the weight of full 3D rendering with a movable 3rd person camera, no obvious slowdowns, great effects, nice enemy animations and more goggle views than anyone knew possible and Dark Mirror quickly (and seamlessly) shows off the true power of the handheld device. While there are a few long load times at the beginning of levels, they are always masked with information screens that take longer to read than the game does to load.
In the audio department, Dark Mirror features a great score that is always fitting and powerful. But the voice-work easily steals the show here. With great, believable dialogue delivered with just the right blend of tongue-in-cheek seriousness, even playing through levels over and over and hearing the same lines again and again doesn't hurt the game. Great voice work and a great script really elevate the audio portion well beyond what handheld games have delivered in the past.
In the end, whether your looking for single player content and replay value, multiplayer goodness or just a place to read message boards all day, Dark Mirror has you covered. With superlative controls, a fun and deep single player experience and enough online options to keep you entertained for a long time, Dark Mirror is a strong contender for best game on the PSP. While this may be a question of personal preference, it is still hard to deny that Dark Mirror revolutionizes the way games will control on the PSP and will no doubt set the trend for many titles to come. That it also trumps others in term of presentation, voice work and graphics is just a bonus.