Thursday, January 8, 2009

Difficulty Done Right - Part 2

I meant to have this up sooner, but I wanted to play more Prince of Persia first and ended up playing, well, all of it.

A lot of reviews I read for Prince of Persia made it sound as if the game practically played itself. I suppose to the jaded reviewer tasked with reviewing five games a week, the game is easy to blow through quickly. For myself, I still found plenty of occasion to get annoyed at myself when I messed up a tricky platforming segment, or missed a quick time event during a boss battle.

Many of the game's achievements on the Xbox 360 (and, I assume, the trophies on the PS3) are comically easy to get, but some of them do require a bit more skill, or, at least, patience to acquire. Beating the game under 12 hours is easy if you only get enough light seeds to beat the game and don't bother with the side conversations between the Prince and Elika. Using all of the combos in the game is easy if you use the list provided in the menus, but the certain situations make it so a combo doesn't "count." Probably the trickiest achievement is having Elika rescue you fewer than 100 times during the course of the game.

Even so, the game is easy compared to most triple-A games being released, and I'm not sure that adding difficulty through achievements or trophies really counts as adding difficulty. The platforming doesn't require the precision and timing of Super Mario Galaxy or LittleBigPlanet. Bosses can regenerate health during fights, but only a few times. I confess that I found the boss fights frustratingly drawn out until I realized how to string combos together to take out large chunks of an enemy's health. I think the hardest part of the game is tracking down all the light seeds that end up scattered around each area after a boss fight.

Overall, the game is welcoming to newcomers, and the platforming looks and feels good enough that someone who prefers a harder game may forgive the low barrier to entry. The combat at least benefits from learning the combos, but if nothing else the enemies can be killed through slow attrition. Ubisoft made it much easier for people to play, but they perhaps didn't do enough to make it appealing to the more hardcore gamer.

So we've discussed Call of Duty on Veteran and how only the most skilled and dedicated are able to complete it. Burnout Paradise rewards exploration and knowledge of the city more than straight reflexes, but those reflexes are still necessary to progress. Prince of Persia is a pretty easy game compared to most, perhaps too easy for many. Is there any game that casts a net wide enough to catch those looking for a more casual experience along with something to appeal to the masochists out there?

I believe one has at least come close.

As I've played Super Mario Galaxy, I've been struck by how the game is structured to include multiple difficulty levels around collecting all 120 of its power stars. Each of the game's six observatories has several galaxies. As you collect stars, you unlock new galaxies. Later galaxies in the observatory are generally more difficult than the earlier ones. Many galaxies contain hidden stars, and finding them takes more observation than simply completing the level. Even when you know where a hidden star is, the route there may be far more treacherous than the rest of the level.

In addition, many levels will have a star that you can only acquire when a comet shows up. The comets take a previously played level and change it somehow. Sometimes you have to race the clock. Sometimes enemies are sped up. Sometimes you have to fight a boss with only one slice of health. Sometimes you have to race a doppelganger of Mario to the star. All of them require at least a passing familiarity with how a level is structured.

As you collect Star Bits, the in-game currency, you can unlock other galaxies that are outside of the normal observatories. These levels are also generally more difficult than normal. Finally, there are three hidden green stars that unlock the trial galaxies. When I decided to do the final boss fight, I had between 80 and 90 stars total, and the three trial galaxy stars were the most difficult to acquire. They required all of the skills gained throughout the game, and two of them had no checkpoints at all. If I died at the end of the level, I had to do the whole thing again.

The great thing about these varying difficulty levels is that it's completely up to the player whether or not to attempt them. Only 60 stars are required to defeat Bowser, but the game encourages you to get more by hinting at the rewards that will be unlocked. Earning stars unlocks chapters in the storybook, which explains the origins of the enigmatic Princess Rosalina. Even opening up new galaxies is a reward in itself. I was constantly wondering if the game could top the previous levels I had played, and it almost always did. A red star sits atop the library in the hub world, teasing you with, "I have a secret! But I'm not telling you." Get enough stars, and you'll eventually learn what that secret is. Getting all 120 allows you to play the game as Luigi. There always seems to be another reward to shoot for.The game accommodates multiple skill levels from the outset while encouraging players to push themselves further to see what they will be presented with next. Burnout Paradise, as much as I like it, really only presents completion itself as a reward for progression. There are dozens of cars to unlock, but only a few balanced enough to use regularly.

Obviously, a certain amount of skill is required for even the easiest levels. My mom has a DS and New Super Mario Brothers. She enjoyed it, but wasn't able to get very far in the game. When visiting I could often hear her yelling "Come on Mario!" when she missed a jump. When I showed her Super Mario Galaxy, she loved how it looked, but didn't even want to give the game a try. I think she assumed that she'd have no chance at doing well in the game's 3D environment, especially in levels where gravity and the camera are constantly shifting around. I can't blame her for thinking that way.

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