Sunday, December 28, 2008

Difficulty Done Right - Part 1

I don't enjoy overly difficult games. Challenging games are fine, but it's a rare game that strikes the perfect balance between just tough enough and soul crushingly difficult. I don't usually play games on "Hard" or whatever the game calls it. I'm usually more interested in the narrative and experience of playing than I am in conquering whatever sadistic difficulty level the developers put in. I want to have fun! It's a highly subjective thing, of course, but I doubt I will ever play Ninja Gaiden 2 or Ikaruga for this reason.

While I generally play on the default difficulty in games, there have been a few exceptions. Before Halo 3 came out, I read that the Heroic difficulty was the way the game was "meant to be played." This piqued my curiosity for some reason, and I decided to start the game at that difficulty setting. I found it painfully frustrating, but I was able to push through. After completing the story, I went back on Normal difficulty to get a few skulls I missed, and was struck at how much easier the game was. The difficulty curve from Normal to Heroic is steep, and I think I would have enjoyed the game more the first time if I had played on Normal. Heroic was hard enough that when I pushed through a level or particularly difficult fight, I simply felt drained, rather than accomplished. I did eventually complete the game on Legendary, but that was with a group of four people in co-op, making the game ridiculously easy.

The Xbox 360's Achievements are what really inspired me to start playing games on harder difficulties in the first place. I picked up my 360 a month after it launched, and one of the games I got with it was Call of Duty 2. I played and finished it pretty quickly on the default difficulty, but my friend at work started on Veteran difficulty and got every achievement in the game. I felt I had to match his accomplishment, so I began a new game.

For those of you who haven't experienced it, Veteran difficulty in the Call of Duty games is one of the most punishing and soul-crushing experiences in modern gaming you can have. You only take one or two shots before dying (just like real life!), enemies instantly spot you and are 99% accurate, and their endlessly spawning waves mean you can't simply camp in one spot and clear out everyone in an area. You end up learning exactly where the spawn points and script triggers are because you hve to play each segment over and over and over. I've had Call of Duty 2 since December 2005, and I still haven't finished it on Veteran. My Achievement list for the game is a timeline chronicling the periods of my life where I felt the urge to wallow in misery. Some of the dates in the list are separated by more than a year.

Because of experiences like that, I usually sample a game's hardest difficulty level, but rarely complete it. Other games don't have a difficulty setting, but rather ramp up in difficulty as the game progresses. Burnout Paradise is one example of this.

Burnout Paradise presents you with an open city for you to explore, with various events at every stoplight. Completing these events unlocks new and better cars for you to use. There are traditional races, Burning Route events where you have to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of time, Stunt Runs, Marked Man events where you must get to the finish line while being pursued by opponents trying to take you down, and Road Rage events where you try to take out as many of your competitors as possible in the time allowed without taking too much damage yourself. In addition to that, each road in the game has a Road Rule time to beat getting from one end to the other, and a Showtime mode where you must flip your car down the road causing as much damage as possible.

In short, there is a ton of things to do in the game. If a particular event is giving you a headache, try destroying everything in your path in Showtime. If you lose a race, try linking together three barrel rolls, a 720 degree flat spin, and three seconds of air time in a Stunt Run. There is a certain way to enjoy the game, and whining about having to drive back to the start of each event is not it. The game reduces frustration by giving you an abundance of things to do. Of course, as you near the end of the game, you find less and less to do, but by that point you're generally good enough that the final few events aren't too much trouble. Also, all events can be accessed at any time, even if they no longer contribute towards your progression. Road Rage is a great way to decompress after work.

While each event type requires mastering a particular set of skills, the most important thing is to learn the layout of the city. Compared to the previous game in the series, Burnout Revenge, the AI is more forgiving. Most racing games quickly become utterly intolerant of mistakes as you progress. In Paradise, you can crash once, twice, sometimes even three times in a race and still end up winning. The reason is that having a completely open city allows you to find your own route. The game will give you a path to follow, and it's the path that your opponents will take, but it's rarely the fastest or the best path to take. The biggest reward in the game is learning where the shortcuts, hidden jumps, and best paths are throughout the city. Since all events end at one of eight locations, you learn fairly quickly the main thruways of the game. The other necessary skills like learning how to handle each car and how to pull off the various tricks don't matter if you don't know the best path in which to use those skills.

Since learning the city is the key to winning the events, doing well in the game is much more on the player's shoulders than other games. It still relies on quick reflexes, and the regular traffic in the streets adds a bit of luck to everything you do. On the whole, though, balancing the use of boost and knowing when a turn and/or shortcut is coming up is the most important skill to have.

I think this is part of why I enjoyed Burnout Paradise so much. Unlike Revenge's brutal difficulty late in the game or Call of Duty's Veteran mode, I actually felt like I had a chance at doing well at the higher difficulty levels. The game challenged me and encouraged me to do well, instead of kicking me in the face repeatedly when I did poorly. If I can just make that turn and nail that jump this time, I know I'll come out ahead this time. Like I said before, the sheer amount of things to do means it's hard to be frustrated for long. It may be the only game that I've gotten 100% completion in, and it's in large part because the game made me feel like I could actually do so.

While writing this, Michael Abbott put a post up about Prince of Persia that dovetails nicely with this subject. In my next post, I'll give some thoughts about that game, and also talk about the game that I think has perfectly nailed the idea of multiple difficulties in games.

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