For Retro Month, I decided to look back on the life and times of one of my favorite franchises of all time, Syphon Filter. I took a look back on the trials and tribulations that went to making the original trilogy, and why it’s worth not only your time to play it, but another shot at love in gaming’s current crazed remastering era, even if it’s very unlikely.
The name Gabriel Logan rings dull in ears at present. From a long dormant franchise asleep now for 13 years, Syphon Filter only provides fun memories of what was and some “Oh yeah!” moments when brought up in reminiscing. But I’ll be real before I get on my soapbox: I’m biased. This was a franchise that I was late to but still grew up on, and as a kid (who shouldn’t have been playing these but who didn’t do that?) Syphon Filter piqued my interest in storytelling, drama, and action. It was my first real dive into something that wasn’t fully focused on platforming, mascots, or brands. A full on tale that I could bury myself into, an action movie with enough thought to pull you through its twists and turns, and a franchise that has stayed in the minds of many, despite it’s longed absence in the gaming world.
Footnote: This article contains spoilers for 20+ year old games, but you should definitely still play them.
The Fall and Rise of Sony’s Goldeneye
While the success of Syphon Filter is noted in the near 2 million plus units shipped over the first title’s lifespan, the path there was anything but successful. Developer Eidetic was reeling from the studio’s first console title, a small project titled Bubsy 3D, which shares a common title amongst pundits as one of the worst video games ever made. The 8-person team had been dealt a tremendously bad hand by not only working on a franchise that was established with three previous titles before it but also the studio’s first transition to 3D gaming. History tells us it didn’t go well.
But even making a title that people hate can be a stepping stone for something more. A year after Bubsy 3D’s completion, a producer from 989 Studios provided an idea for a title called Syphon Filter: no plot, characters, or meaning to the actual title was given; only a few ideas for gameplay mechanics and setting were contributed. But 989 Studios and Sony trusted Eidetic due to their experience in working with 3D technology and an engine that could achieve what the studios were looking for.
The next year and change were buried in missed deadlines, high-end developer exits, and multiple times the game neared cancellation. A company going from a cutesy platformer to what would be introduced as Sony’s response to Nintendo’s Goldeneye 007 was a tall task for the then 13 employees. While the concept of a third-person shooter action game was solidified amongst the staff, they admittedly did not have much experience or direction of how to build it or where to go with it. Multiple scrapped drafts of the game reached as far as saving scientists from building a time machine for an evil corporation, but the Syphon Filter we know today came majorly from the game’s appointed art director and soon after creative director, John Garvin.
Syphon Filter eventually settled upon a third person shooter base with action and stealth mechanics baked into its “super-spy” like plot and characters. As part of the secret government department dubbed only as The Agency, agents Gabriel Logan and Lian Xing investigate multiple mysterious outbreaks around the world as the outbreaks appear targeted and can contain a fatal radius of 100 miles. When Gabe and Lian find a survivor in the midst of an outbreak, terrorist Erich Rhoemer attacks the US to remove The Agency from his trail. As Gabe battles Rhoemer and other terrorist groups all over the world, he must watch his own back as the betrayals and double-crossing hits close to home as the struggle for viral power consumes everyone involved.
Third person shooters nowadays are all inclined to fall under the “cover shooter” mechanic, which was modernized by games like kill.switch and Gears of War. But in the late 1990s, third person shooters were taking cues from first person shooters like Doom and Shadow Warrior. Eidetic had seen other third person titles like Metal Gear Solid, Tomb Raider, and MDK, and looked to branch from the same tree but work to make something completely their own. Enter Syphon Filter’s Targeting system. What was essentially a lock-on feature, the Target gauge would rise when snapped onto a target, but running or rolling would lower the chance of a bullet hitting its target. Crouching or standing still would raise the bar, and thus a better shot could be made, which could also be bypassed by aiming in a first-person catered camera zoom. The targeting system went both ways, as rolling or breaking line of sight would lower the enemy’s target gauge against yourself. This allowed for the riskier run n’ gun action of a Tomb Raider, or a calculated slower approach like a Metal Gear.
The stealth levels included devolved into more of a “tail this guy without being seen” style, but it really pushed the James Bond like style that was sought after, especially during the New York mission in the PHARCOM Exposition Center. Syphon Filter sent the agents throughout east coast America, as well as Kazakhstan and Ukraine, through bunker strongholds, hidden catacombs, and missile silos. The size and scale, as well as the tailored gameplay and overarching plot resonated with action fans, and set 989 Studios and Sony with not only a best-selling title, but it gave Eidetic the ability to show its development chops on sequel they could set up properly from beginning to end, for the first time in their console development history.
Success, and a Quick Turnaround
The critical and commercial success of Syphon Filter had paved the way for Eidetic to continue striking while the iron was hot, releasing Syphon Filter 2 just 14 months later. What was detailed by John Garvin of, “[spending] a weekend and [writing] the entire screenplay,” fellow writer Richard Ham worked to flesh out and detail the second half of the sequel, molding the game to be more of an espionage-style story than its predecessor.
Penned as a direct sequel, Gabe Logan and Lian Xing have become targets of their previous employer, The Agency, after learning of its involvement and interest in using Syphon Filter. As Gabe recovers any and all information regarding Syphon Filter in the PHARCOM Warehouse in Kazakhstan, Lian is captured and taken captive by Agency forces looking to extract her plasma for more research on the virus’ effects. As Gabe and Lian are slandered as enemy terrorists to the American public, Gabe must save Lian from capture and go against the very people he worked for in an attempt to put Syphon Filter away for good.
Much of the same gameplay returned, with little tweaks and fixes to the general palette of content. Different characters were playable this time around, more weapons were introduced, and the plot, while at times hard to keep up with, has enough twists and turns to satisfy a drift enthusiast. If you were a fan of the first game the second only compounded more of what was loved into a sleeker package. More run n’ gun action, better presented stealth missions, more gravely Gabe Logan (John Chacon, if you’re out there, you’re the best), and a beautifully paced campaign. Syphon Filter 2 will always have a special place in my heart for how many damn times I played through its campaign. Syphon Filter 2 delivered on another 21 missions to the original’s 20, but the inclusion of multiplayer brought a big chunk of replayability to the sequel.
Multiplayer also pushed Syphon Filter 2 to a hefty 2-disc package, and rightfully so with how much content was thrown in. While deathmatch and free-for-all were the only game styles, over 25 characters were available to choose alongside 20 different maps, with some maps and characters unlocked through speedrun-like par times for certain levels. In its heyday a fully functional, wildly replayable, and smooth-as-butter multiplayer experience was just what the doctor ordered to bring eyes to a franchise vying to be on Sony’s top bill for shooters.
But critics felt more could’ve been done to improve the package as a whole, with missions feeling too familiar to the previous Syphon Filter and the quick turnaround being a possible detriment to the final product. The sequel endured a sophomore slump, selling almost half a million copies less in the United States and generally receiving lower grades than its predecessors. The critical slump continued even more in what would be the end of the Syphon Filter trilogy and cause a hiatus for the series longer than had ever been pushed before.