Game developers were still figuring out 3D controls when Syphon Filter released in 1999. Bend Studio, then known as Eidetic, were bruised by the critical reception to 1996’s PS1 platformer Bubsy 3D – and wanted to create something truly groundbreaking. Ultimately, both Metal Gear Solid and GoldenEye 007 deployed during the super-spy title’s protracted three-year development cycle, lessening some of its sheen – but this remains a somewhat unique stealth action title today, even if its rudimentary gameplay feels unbelievably dated when observed through a modern lens.
Despite being fiddly, however, you can see the origins of cinematic third-person shooters like Uncharted here. You play as Gabe Logan, a personality vacuum on an impossible mission. Flanked by his trusty associate Lian Xing, this globe-trotting escapade takes you from the mean streets of Washington DC to a cathedral in Ukraine – an elaborate front for a shady underground base, of course – where you’ll be double-crossed with regularity by people with villainous names, like Phagan and Rhoemer.
With the World Health Organisation closely involved, and a deadly virus in the wrong hands, Syphon Filter’s story hits differently in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. But writer John Garvin – who’d go on to pen Days Gone – had his airport fiction hat on for this story, which perfectly encapsulates the late 90s period where Pierce Brosnan played James Bond. While there aren’t too many gadgets here, you do get a Taser that sets enemies on fire, which never really gets old.
One mission even sees you infiltrate a museum, and the environmental variety is impressive for a PS1 era action game. One minute you’ll be silently picking off guards in an Ancient Greece exhibit, and the next shooting through windows next to the moonlander – it’s all brilliantly melodramatic, and is underlined by a soundtrack that has shades of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The campaign does run out of ideas – and, presumably, budget – towards the latter stages of its story, resulting in a slew of dismal catacombs, but the aforementioned gothic cathedral is a real graphical highlight, complete with gargoyles and stained glass windows.
Unfortunately, the control scheme can’t quite carry Bend Studio’s ambition. Logan’s iconic over animated run cycle is tied to up on the d-pad – or, indeed, the left analogue stick if you’re lucky enough to have a DualShock – and you can lean him left and right by slightly pushing to either side. Pulling down prompts him to slowly amble backwards, while left and right twist him on the spot. It’s not quite tank controls, but it’s unresponsive and awkward – a real refresher course on how Tomb Raider and its ilk used to play.
You can strafe by pressing L2 and R2, and this is where Syphon Filter’s movie influences really shine. By holding R1 to target lock, you can effectively run-and-gun – and you can even roll like Tom Cruise by hitting the circle button. Fascinatingly, damage is represented by a ‘Danger’ metre which fills up as enemies fire at you. Let this maximise and you’ll begin to take chip damage to your armour and, latterly, your health until you’re dead. Perform dodge moves like strafing and rolls, however, and you’ll get a temporary reprieve.
Despite being awkward, the first few levels are manageable once you wrap your head around the controls. The game really falls apart when it introduces enemies in Flak Jackets, a way to increase the difficulty, which are effectively bullet sponges. In order to kill these you need to aim for the head using a stop-and-pop first-person perspective that requires you to manually control a cursor. While this is fine in stealth situations, it’s infuriating during action sequences, as it prevents you from using the defensive methods discussed above, and means you’re inevitably going to take damage while desperately dragging an unwieldy green reticule across the screen.
Another issue with the game is that it’s far too obtuse for its own good at times. Some of the levels lack direction, rendering them a maze of samey looking polygonal décor, and it can be difficult to figure out where to go and what to do. While we appreciate the open-ended nature of the maps, it’s incredibly easy to overlook a single switch or computer terminal, which is blended into the background and required to proceed.
But Syphon Filter does deserve credit for pioneering a gameplay style that didn’t really exist at the time. While, as mentioned, Metal Gear Solid and GoldenEye 007 ultimately released while it was in development, Bend Studio’s effort is best considered as a precursor to something like Uncharted. There’s a good mix of stealth and all-out action across its six or so hour running time, as well as a handful of headline set-piece moments – including one in which Logan climbs atop a giant missile which is seconds away from launching.
Syphon Filter’s unwieldy controls make it difficult to play today, but Bend Studio helped pioneer the third-person shooter genre with this memorable 1999 outing. A globe-trotting campaign with large open-ended levels make many of Gabe Logan’s missions memorable, and while the story errs on the side of airport fiction with its ludicrous double-crosses and ham-fisted voice acting, there still aren’t many games that make you feel like James Bond quite like this one does.