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I remember a time when the ideal of near-PS2-quality games in the palm of your hand was a part of the PSP dream, not a symptom of the overall malaise that has so spoilt the Sony handheld’s software library. On occasion, games have actually delivered something amazingly close to that description: Virtua Tennis, Ridge Racer, WipEout Pure and Daxter springing instantly to mind. However, these shining moments are almost swamped by a deluge of overambitious failures and half-baked compromises – think Prince of Persia: Revelations or Splinter Cell: Essentials, or just about anything with EA branding on it. These games attempt to give you the same experience on a handheld that you would get on a TV-based console, without doing anything to solve the issues that are always going to bedevil the PSP: the controls, the slow loading times, those tricky memory limitations. You end up with a game that looks great in screenshots, but suffers from pitifully poor frame rates or huge pauses for UMD access or sudden stalls in the gameplay or a woefully inadequate control system. Or – if you’re really lucky – all of the above.
All of which makes it tempting to get over-excited about Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror. This is a PSP action game with intelligent controls, impressive fluid visuals and heaps of well thought out gameplay. In fact, it’s tempting to slap a 9 on it and urge you to rush out and buy it immediately.
But I won’t. It’s not that Dark Mirror isn’t an excellent game – it is. It’s just that I can’t help thinking that the fact that it doesn’t fall into the same traps as 95 per cent of PSP games doesn’t automatically make it an all-time classic. Yes, you’ll be amazed that the game can map running, crouching, crawling, hand-to-hand combat, aiming, sniping, wall-sidling, corner-peaking, climbing, weapon selection and three types of goggle to the PSP’s analogue stick, D-pad, face buttons and shoulder buttons and still create a control system so slick and intuitive that you’ll have mastered it by the end of the first couple of missions. Yes, it’s almost unbelievable that the PSP can handle multiple opponents, busy locations and some surprisingly advanced fog and lighting effects without ever seeming to struggle or lose a frame. In fact the level of polish is astonishing. The game packs in a relatively complex plot linked together by in-game engine rendered cut-scenes, a suitably moody score and gritty dialogue onto that little UMD. And once the initial load is over, the game doesn’t even leave you waiting long between missions. You just have time to read the briefing before you’re straight back into the action.