Saturday, July 16, 2011

Siren: Sigh-Rendering Tedium

When it comes to survival-horror, only a handful of elite titles manage to evoke a sense of genuine dread and terror in their audiences. These are high aspirations that many contenders struggle to achieve. Going into a survival-horror game, a player has certain expectations: to be scared while drowning in suspense. The good news is that Siren actually succeeds in eliciting dread and terror---just not in ways that would satisfy your expectations. Siren's horror comes from putting up with disjointed pacing and frustrating gameplay.

Siren makes a few attempts to provide a uniquely compelling experience, and these are principally honorable efforts.  Unfortunately, the game's unique elements are ultimately what make it or break it. Some players may find Siren a refreshing take on survival-horror, but others are perhaps more likely to become frustrated and impatient with it. Unless you're really craving something unique, it's best to take the game's own advice and "resist the call."  

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Siren is a game I really want to enjoy. I'm usually very receptive towards and appreciative of games that take risks on the tried-and-true formula. I usually prefer a unique [if flawed] experience than a generic, formulaic experience. It's especially tragic in Siren's case, because it seems to understand some mechanics that make for good survival-horror, while completely missing the rest.  

One of the unique aspects of Siren is that the story is told out of chronological order from the multiple perspectives of different playable characters, which helps to add some depth to the experience as you try to piece together the greater story. However, this is also one of the reasons that I find Siren so difficult to get into. The player has no sense of what's going on because they're essentially just doing random tasks as random characters at random times in random places. The continuity and flow keeps getting disrupted, making it require determined external motivation to keep playing. There's no reason to care about these characters or what's going on, at least when you're just starting out, so you just have to grit your teeth and keep playing, hoping it'll get better later.

The next thing about Siren is the player's unique ability to "sightjack"  Sightjacking lets you shift your perspective to see things from your enemies' perspectives. The idea is to use this tool to avoid enemy detection by following their patterns and scouting the map ahead of you. Supposedly it also adds to the suspense as you watch enemies stalking you through the level, but in practice this doesn't happen because once an enemy sees you you're basically dead. You have to manually "tune" into your enemies' eyes, like tuning into a radio station, by moving the left joystick. You can then assign a shortcut to particular enemies to quickly bring up their perspective, switching between up to four perspectives on the fly.
Sightjacking: About to get sniped in the face.

Sightjacking, however, is not particularly easy or effective to use. Given that this is on the PS2, designed for a 4:3 aspect ratio, enemy perspectives are so narrow that you can only see in straight lines directly in front of them---you get zero peripheral vision. Whenever your character is on screen, a blue icon appears marking your location relative to the enemy perspective. But because of the narrow field of view, you often don't get to see where you are unless you sit there for two or three minutes waiting for the enemy to go through its entire routine cycle. It's also somewhat time-consuming to tune to each enemy in the level as you go through it, which gets especially tiring doing it over again every time you die and start over.

The levels themselves are mission-based---instead of playing a continually-flowing adventure, you're dropped into instanced maps with a primary objective that, when completed, ends the mission. Primary objectives are usually "get from point A to point B," which is inherently bland and not a very compelling reason to play a mission. However, the missions themselves also boil down to a lot of trial-and-error. You don't get any clues or suggestions about where to go or what to do, so you end up doing a lot of time-consuming stealth and sightjacking just trying to explore the environment and figure out what you have to do. And then you die and have to do it all over again, just to make a little more progress until you die again. The map doesn't help much, either, because there's no compass indicating your location or where you're looking, so you have to estimate based on notable landmarks, which are sometimes few and far between.

Normally I like it when a game doesn't hold my hand, but Siren is unforgiving to the point that it just becomes a chore to play. You don't usually learn anything helpful whenever you die---well, you might learn that there's a patrolling enemy somewhere that you didn't know about---but usually you get killed without finding anything useful in the environment, or you get screwed by gameplay limitations and unfair scenarios. For example, enemy snipers are placed in tactical positions that require you sneak around them. You sightjack into their perspective and see your blue cross on the screen, but otherwise there's so much fog and darkness that you can't see yourself at all. And yet, these snipers can detect you at incredible range and hit you with 100% accuracy. Fifteen minutes or careful work can be undone in two seconds if a sniper magically sees you. Other times you're expected to know that performing a context-sensitive action around a certain object will do something, when there's no reason to even think that anything important might happen there.
Run away from the psychotic enemy.

For the most part, the combat is functional. It's only meant to be a last resort, because you're so weak that you're better off avoiding enemies. Even still, when you need to use it there are definite consistency issues that can get you killed due to no fault of your own. One character---a 70-year old man---comes equipped with a rifle with which to defend himself. I accidentally alerted an enemy and lined up three headshots, only to have the bullet mysteriously miss each time, and then for me to get killed in a single hit. Aiming for the body, by contrast, seemed to hit every single time and incapacitate the enemy. (It's worth mentioning now that enemies never permanently die; after a few minutes they get back up and continue searching for you, which further adds to the tedium when trial-and-error strikes.) In another instance, I had a wrench and was trying to clobber an enemy, only to have my attack clip through him without doing any damage, leaving me exposed to get shot in the face at point-blank range.

To summarize, basically every aspect of Siren contributes to an overall feeling of tedium. They're like an inter-woven web of exacerbating functions. One thing by itself isn't much of an issue, but they compound on each other and make the grand problem greater than the sum of its parts. Just trying to get through a mission, you're bombarded with a bunch of frustrations that make each subsequent one worse. A 10-minute mission can end up taking 30-minutes of repetition to finally succeed at. And because the story is told out of chronological order, there's no real incentive to put up with these things. 

If I weren't so busy in life, and especially if I didn't already have so many other games to try, I might be able to stick with Siren and determine if it gets any better, or if the early frustrations become worth it. I get the impression from community forums, though, that the game actually gets worse, requiring you to replay the same maps and missions you've already played with a different character, searching for even more vague and obscure secondary objectives. All-the-while doing sequences out of order, not knowing how one thing is going to affect other players. 

But besides all of the tedious gameplay frustrations, Siren doesn't even remotely succeed at being survival-horror. The instanced missions ruin the feeling of survival because there's virtually no continuity between missions; taking damage or using all of your items in Mission A isn't going to leave you worse-off when approaching Mission B. Meanwhile, the trial-and-error based gameplay has you replaying the same sections over and over again to the point that you're so familiar with everything that there's nothing to be scared of, and you begin to see the game in terms of its underwhelming and frustrating mechanics, instead of for its suspense.

Siren is therefore just not fun to play, no matter how you try to approach it. There's enough potential here that an extremely devout individual might be able to enjoy the experience, but for most people there are better ways to spend your time. 

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