To paraphrase an old slogan, “You can’t keep a good biotoxin down.” Five years ago, SCEA introduced PlayStation owners to the deadly Syphon Filter virus, an engineered weapon so destructive that it could turn targeted areas into uninhabitable wastelands. Needless to say, the devastation that could be unleashed by fanatics or terrorists could eliminate all life on earth, were it not for the efforts of covert agents Gabe Logan and Lian Xing. Thanks to them, the conspiracy to release the virus was exposed and the samples of the virus were eliminated … or were they? Three years after the threat, a new form of Syphon Filter has reared its head, and it’s up to players to stop Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain as it infects PS2s everywhere.
Creatively, the focus of Omega Strain is no longer Gabe and Lian’s adventures around the world to stop the Syphon Filter Virus. Having faced off against the bacterial agent numerous times before, Gabe and Lian have earned a much needed rest from the field: Gabe’s been promoted to Commander of I.P.C.A (or International Presidential Consulting Agency), while Lian serves as his Chief of Operations. Far from cushy desk jockeys, both Gabe and Lian have to oversee foreign and domestic sorties against terrorists with a core of veterans and fresh recruits. Players take on the role of a newly added member of the I.P.C.A. force whose first mission is to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak in Carthage, Michigan. Of course, once on the scene, players discover that there’s much more to the outbreak than it seems.
Once the intro movie plays, players are immediately taken to the character creation page where they design their agent. While there is a certain level of variety, such as choosing from 100 body types with differing levels of skin tone, facial structures and even face paint, the initial options are still somewhat limited. This also extends to the type of weaponry you can take into your first assignment. You’re given a pistol, knife or stun gun, and are deployed into the middle of a war zone. Yet there are two reasons for restricting new recruits from total freedom with regards to agent customization – The first is enforcing a certain level of resourcefulness upon the player, requiring them to respond to situations on the fly and arm themselves appropriately. Often, this involves scavenging fallen enemies, finding hidden equipment stashes and acquiring field research or intelligence pertaining to Syphon Filter epidemic.
The other reason is because you access additional options and items by fulfilling specific goals during each mission. Some of them are rather generic, such as completing a level under a set time level, while others are more event triggered, such as protecting people from being killed. At the end of every assignment, each character is debriefed and their accomplishments are tallied and added to their personal dossier. Successful completion of goals will unlock additional items like sunglasses or tactical outfits. Your character will also be evaluated on their actions, which can earn them merit badges and new weapons. For instance, players who use non-violent means to incapacitate enemies gain access to newer non-lethal weapons like gas grenades, while players who excel at headshots receive sniper rifles and scopes. Thanks to this system, Omega Strain places an emphasis in replaying certain levels to gain additional arms and emblems. These can be used as character-specific bragging rights amongst fellow agents or as an indication of a player’s in-game approach to completing a mission, which is important information for online games.
This last sentence is extremely vital, because Omega Strain requires both single player and cooperative online multiplayer action to complete the game. There are 17 operations within the game, and nine of them have some objective that can only be achieved by going online and working with up to three fellow agents to solve missions. For instance, there’s a laptop within a bank that you can recover in the first mission. However, there’s one little problem: The laptop is behind a wall of fire, and turning on the sprinklers to douse the flames will also ruin the computer if left on too long. Only by coordinating with fellow players can you retrieve the machine. Squad mates will be able to stay in constant contact with each other thanks to voice communication via headset, and successfully fulfilling missions can unlock further assignments for both single and multiplayer games.
Omega Strain holds onto the graphical style found in previous Syphon Filter titles. That actually winds up being somewhat of a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, cutscenes look great, and previously introduced characters like Gabe and Lian look exactly like you’d remember them. On the other hand, considering that this is the first foray onto the PS2 for the espionage series, much of the gameplay still looks like it’s derived from the preceding PlayStation titles. Many of the textures are rather generic representations of buildings or other environments, and while character models are much larger than before, many of their facial details are basic and non-expressive. While they do animate nicely, there are some oddities. The strange swivel of the hips while turning and the impression of ice skating when running are two standouts.
Sound does make up for some of the graphical shortcomings, as sound effects are distinct and unique to each weapon. You’ll also find that the included music is rather decent when you can hear it over the sound effects, headset comments from fellow players. Unfortunately, you’ll hear many more comments from ranking officers that’ll drown out all of these. That’s right, Imani, I’m talking to you. If I hear that what I’m doing is too slow one more time, I’m going to track you down and shoot you myself…
In fact, there are often times when you’ll want to be slow. Since you can return to levels over and over again (and often will to acquire new equipment and badges), it’s worth it to take a run or two through a level as methodically as possible to learn the layout of objectives, enemies and items. However, even this facet of play has a few notable flaws within it. First of all, if you want to replay or restart a mission, you have to completely quit out of the level and re-enter it all over again. It’s annoying and unnecessary, particularly within single player mode. Secondly, you’ll quickly discover as you play through that the amount of backtracking that’s often included within missions really has no particular rhyme or reason, which complicates the desire to fully accomplish certain tasks. What’s more, the ability to constantly return to levels over and over allows the crafty (or the bored) player with a lot of time on their hands to focus on acquiring just about every badge and piece of equipment without actually progressing through the story. This somewhat undermines the merit system established within the game.
Actually, while you can grab all of this equipment by continual replays, you still have to deal with a clunky control system that complicates the ability to switch weapons in the middle of gunfights and especially locking onto the enemy. The included auto-lock on opponents is rather abysmal because it doesn’t track threats well, and players would do much better to learn how to target their enemies manually than rely on this system. What’s more, it’s much easier to fire off a headshot this way. These one shot, one kill eliminations are key for two reasons. First of all, enemies are incomprehensibly resistant to direct fire for some reason, and even the strongest pistol will need to be fired a number of times before a soldier will fall. The other reason is that enemies will incessantly respawn in places, particularly behind you in enough time to take a well-placed potshot at you. Not only does it not make sense, it’s extremely annoying when you think you’ve safely entered a pre-explored area only to get tagged in the back.
While the concept behind the included online play is decent, there are a few hang-ups with it as well. First of all, online play doesn’t require total cooperation between squad mates. In fact, it’s often easier for players to discuss specific targets they want to concentrate on in the game lobby and go on their own way during in-game play. That way, they can accomplish all of the required online goals in a faster time and all share in the spoils. What’s more, the lobby interface could’ve been cleaner, because you have to choose a mission before seeing which games are open to be joined.
What Omega Strain inevitably turns out to be is a mixed bag of decent ideas that aren’t fully implemented. The off and online modes of play are good concepts, but unfortunately have enough hiccups to make either one completely enjoyable. Fans of the series and online addicts may want to add this game to their collections, but other gamers may want to rent it for curiosity’s sake before committing to fighting for Mr. Logan.