If the hottest buzzwords at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo were "Action RPG" and "World War II shooter", then "counter-terrorist shooter" (of both the solo and squad-based variety) were probably the shoo-in for third place. The show floor and game store shelves seem to be filled to the brim with games where players take on the role of covert military operatives charged with bringing down the Osama Bin Ladens of the virtual universe. One of the more highly anticipated titles in this genre was Sony Bend's Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain.

Omega Strain marks the first appearance of the franchise on the PlayStation 2—and while the hardware allows for a lot of new gameplay enhancements (including online play with several other people), the end result is a severely flawed game that never works quite as well as it should.

The original Syphon Filter titles allowed players to thwart evil plots as special agent Gabe Logan. As far as videogame icons go, Logan was nothing overly special—he could have been dreamed up by a group of bored college kids during the commercial breaks of Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Logan was your typical tough talking cliché—but he worked well enough within the confines of the series. Omega Strain makes the mistake of relegating our man Gabe to a more managerial role (which was probably so that every guy online didn't try to be Gabe Logan…) while players are forced to create their own unique operative. This sounds interesting in theory (and the create-an-agent mode is fairly extensive and becomes even more customizable as players advance), but the created agents simply have no real personality. While Gabe may be a walking videogame cliché, at least he had personality…something the created avatars never develop.

If this were Omega Strain's only issue, I could have dealt with it. However, this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This game features one of the worst control schemes I've seen in a long time—something far more heinous than the lack of a playable Gabe Logan (and, to be fair, you can be Gabe in, like, one mission). Omega Strain uses every button on the DualShock 2 controller, and there's no real way to set them up to be intuitive. The finger gymnastics required to run and change weapons result in more cheap deaths than I care to think about. —And forget trying to run, change weapons, and talk in the online game—you'd need a third hand. For a game with numerous run-and-gun scenarios, this convoluted and overly complex control scheme is a major hindrance. Players will find themselves rolling when they want to jump, ducking when they want to aim, and constantly hitting the fire button when they want to be doing something else. None of this even takes into account the lackluster aiming system. Trying to line up a shot can be an exercise in aggravation.

For a "next gen" game coming late in the life of this console cycle, Omega Strain is a surprisingly ugly game. The title features tons of low-res and low polygon environments that would look more at home on the Dreamcast than the PS2. Character models are nicely developed despite the fact that they tend to float through the game instead of moving like real people. At any rate, the graphics aren't a gamebreaker, at least not when compared with the game's other issues, but they are yet another letdown.

Most of these problems would be manageable in a game that offered up a compelling gameplay experience. Unfortunately, Omega Strain misses the mark in this regard as well.

The title has a fairly steep learning curve, compounded by the fact that players will need the better part of an hour to become serviceable with the control scheme. The game is broken down into missions—each mission has objectives and sub-objectives. Completing the mains opens the next mission—completing the subs gives you better gear for the next one. The game sticks it to players early by arming them with a paltry pistol and stun gun combo. The enemies are better armed, so the main objective in most stages is run and kill an enemy as quickly as possible so that you can take his gun. Failure to complete sub-objectives in a timely manner means players will lack some of the better weapons for later missions, which brings up yet another design flaw—there's no option to restart a mission while in it. If the player misses a vital sub-objective and wants to restart the mission, he must go through a tedious process in order to try again. Why is this? I have no idea.

The one area where the game manages to actually rise above mediocrity is in the online component—and even then, a more streamlined and user-friendly interface would have been appreciated.

The game's online element allows multiple players to team up in various offline missions. The catch is that some of the offline missions have areas that can't be reached and objectives that can't be completed without help—Therefore, going online and teaming up with others is the only way to see and do everything Omega Strain has to offer. Like all online games, this is ultimately a double-edged sword. The online component is actually pretty entertaining when played with several like-minded and skilled individuals. However, end up with the "uber-leet" power gamer or the annoying "griefer" and the experience will leave players yearning for the offline mode. I know I'll be a happy camper when someone finally creates a way for me to reach through my phone line and punch these guys in the face—Until then, prepare to meet a lot of socially inept individuals in the online arena.

Ultimately, Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain is a pretty mediocre game. In a sea of militaristic shooters, Sony's latest outing does next to nothing to set itself apart from the competition. It's not as pretty as Splinter Cell, it's not as engaging as SOCOM 2, and it features a frustration factor that's almost in the realm of Ninja Gaiden—without the rewards. I'm sure there are people out there who will enjoy this game—I am not one of them. Syphon Filter: The Omega Strain is worthy of a rental at best. Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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