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Editorial   

Rage Quit: Hard Mode

Enough with the laziness already!

I’m not a particularly angry person. Oh sure, stuff gets me upset every now and again, but when it comes to games I don’t see the point in getting out-and-out angry over stuff. I mean these are games, right? Sometimes though, things just collide in such a way where my honest reaction is anger; and right now I’m there.

If there’s one thing that gets me upset it’s laziness, and I had a pretty obvious encounter with developer laziness in my recent playthrough of Darksiders as chronicled in Backloggers Anonymous. Since it was my second time through the game, I decided to chase an achievement and play on the hardest difficulty, called Apocalyptic. Want to guess what changed about the game?

Absolutely nothing.

I fought the same enemies using the same tactics with no discernable difference. If the enemies hit harder, the damage was mitigated by the fact that I had completed the Abyssal Armor set in my initial playthrough. If the enemies took a few more hits to dispatch, it wasn’t noticeable. Healing items didn't become scarce, less potent, or more expensive. The prices for upgrades didn't change, nor did the amount of currency I received for dispatching my enemies.  Apocalyptic difficulty certainly didn't live up to it's name. In fact, in my experience, the game didn't change in the slightest, and that sucks.

Abyssal Armor

Darksiders did what many games do when it comes to difficult these days; they took the easy way out. Think about it, how many games throw your enemies an HP boost and call it “hard?” Even some of the games I champion for their brilliant contributions to the medium, like Bioshock are guilty of this, and it really pisses me off. It’s not fun, it’s lazy, and it made my experience feel like a waste of time.

What happened to difficulty settings? Going as far back as I can remember, higher difficulties were there to offer replay value in a game. Even before they became options, the earliest games I played, Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, both greeted those who were victorious with altered second quests that raised the difficulty level in creative ways. Super Mario Brothers swapped easier enemies out for more difficult ones. Zelda’s changes were even more dramatic. Tougher enemies greeted the player earlier on in the game. Locations for shops, dungeons, and items were moved around, making them harder to find. The dungeons themselves were completely re-designed and sometimes contained invisible walls.

The first game I remember playing with an actual selectable difficulty, Mega Man 2, actually went so far as to change some of the enemies, in addition to an HP boost. This was in the '80s people! It’s been over 20 years and most games don’t even give us the common decency of at least changing enemy placement? Come on!

ZELDA

I’m no programmer, but I know it can be done with only a little effort. Most players aren’t looking for much - just something to motivate them. Lock some optional rooms off and make them available in hard mode only (Crimson Shroud did this). Give us some new enemy types; I’d even settle for a palette swap of already existing enemies that act differently and make me think more about my actions. Do something creative besides dangling achievements or trophies over our heads.

I hate to do it, but I can’t talk about this without mentioning the Looking Glass Thief games, which had one of the best difficulty systems I’ve ever seen. Before playing each mission, you selected what difficulty you wanted to play the mission on, and the objectives were completely different depending on the difficulty selected.

For example, here’s the objectives from mission 5 of Thief 2:

Normal

  • Overhear the sheriff's conversation at midnight
  • Steal at least 800 worth of loot
  • Make a copy of the key and return the key to where you found it

Hard

  • Overhear the sheriff's conversation at midnight
  • Steal at least 1,000 worth of loot
  • Make a copy of the key and return the key to where you found it
  • Do not kill any innocent bystanders

Expert

  • Overhear the sheriff's conversation at midnight
  • Steal at least 1,200 worth of loot
  • Make a copy of the key and return the key to where you found it
  • Kill no one

The need to collect more loot and the added challenge of being less lethal in your approach, made for a more complex and challenging experience. More loot required meant you needed to go off the path leading to your objectives more often, which meant you would encounter more enemies and traps than before.

Thief

Let me emphasize this again: you play in the same world. The enemies weren’t even any more difficult, but the rules changed enough to keep the game interesting. I understand the need to save a buck or two, but you can at least be creative about it!

Here's another, more recent example. Fire Emblem Awakening is out now and is getting a lot of praise for its handling of this very subject. When starting a new game, the player is prompted to choose between normal, hard, and the aptly-named, lunatic difficulty level. You may expect this will cause the enemies to gain more HP and hit harder, but that's not the case. Instead, it makes every decision matter more by boosting both yours and your enemies attack strength. This means your enemies as well as your allies will die quicker, putting a higher emphasis on your tactical decisions. Lunatic difficulty often makes attacks a one hit kill, so you can imagine how much that changes how you approach the game.

Additionally, Fire Emblem Awakening will then prompt you for a second selection, classic or casual, which turns permanent death for you troops either on or off, and allows or denies you the ability to save during a battle. Again, this completely changes how you approach the game. Casual will pretty clearly remove most of the challenge from the game, allowing you to just experience it however you want, while permadeath makes you slow down and weigh every decision as failure now has dire consequences. These are all minor programming tweaks that make the user completely rethink how they play. It's just a matter of the designers thinking through what makes the game what it is, and bending the rules to force the players to re-evaluate their behavior. It's brilliant.  

Fire Emblem Awakening

A better difficulty setting may not have saved Darksiders from being the digital incarnation of mediocrity that it is. Developer laziness permeates far deeper than that alone, but it’s touches like this that separate the men from the boys when it comes to development. There are plenty of other people out there besides me that point to Thief as one of their all-time favorite games, and their excellent level design and creative approach to difficulty are one reason why. On the other side, I can’t think of anybody that would cite Darksiders as even being in their top 50, and THQ’s decision to allow Vigil to cut corners in ways like this hurt them big time.

Developers, next time you think about taking the easy way out and just buffing up the baddies for an added challenge, I hope you remember what happened to THQ. The people who play your games, your customers, require more than just the same old boring approach to things. If you create a middling title, it will sell like one and likely be forgotten in a year or two, but with a little effort and creativity, you can create a legendary franchise that fans will remember fondly even after a decade has passed.


 

Comments

GeminiMan78

03/20/2013 at 09:06 PM Reply | Permalink | Report

With modern games I think AI is a factor too. A lot of games have enemies that are using some reasonably smart AI, changing an enemies aggressiveness or tactics can be a good way to increase the difficulty. Or just different attacks or attack patterns. For example Borderlands 2, admittedly going from normal to True Vault Hunter mode for most enemies just swaps pallets and adds to their hp. But some enemies and bosses get some new moves or tactics. Bloodwing is way harder in TVM than normal because she has completely different tactics and they also add acid spitting skags to the fight.

Mass Effect also makes enemes fight smarter and more aggresively on the harder difficulties. I think it depends on the game, but a combination of all the above should be factored into a games difficulty. I think making difficulty more customizable would be cool too.

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

03/21/2013 at 11:52 AM Reply | Permalink | Report

Yeah, that's exactly what I'm talking about. An HP boost just means you do the same thing you did before, only it takes longer. That's not fun. You have to switch something up to keep it interesting or it's just not fun to play the game a second time. Dragging things out is not entertaining.

ArugulaZ

03/20/2013 at 09:12 PM Reply | Permalink | Report

I almost never use the higher difficulty settings. Now I understand the hunger for a challenge, but it's gotten to the point where players are just tormenting themselves for the sake of bragging rights and achievements, and I'm not really down with that. My view is that it's the developers' jobs to entertain me, not my job to jump through their many flaming hoops in perfect sequence.

What I really hate is when games don't have a smooth or logical progression of difficulty. King of Fighters XIII is a pretty good example; it's a pushover for 90% of the arcade mode, only to drop an insanely overpowered boss in your path at the end.  I know, it's SNK, but they've had over twenty years to do a boss fight right, and they've only made them worse.  Then there's Street Fighter X Tekken, which is ridiculously easy in the arcade mode but infuriating in the mission mode.  Come on, for the sake of my sanity, find some middle ground here!

V4Viewtiful

03/20/2013 at 09:32 PM Reply | Permalink | Report

Glad i'm not the only one who has a problem with SNK bossesCool

AkaiNeko4

03/21/2013 at 01:54 AM Reply | Permalink | Report

Good use of FMA up there.

I rarely flip things to Hard Mode; I tend to go through once on Normal or whatever, and then I move to teh next 100+ hour game on my list. But When I do, I like to feel it; I've already beaten teh final boss, make me work for this next round, dammit!

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

03/21/2013 at 11:42 AM Reply | Permalink | Report

I don't honestly use hard mode too often either, but when I do, I'd like it to actually mean something.

Jesse Miller Features Editor

03/21/2013 at 08:57 AM Reply | Permalink | Report

Just like Angelo, I too miss harder difficulty settings that offer some greater amount of variation to the gameplay.  I feel that today's games rely on Achievements and Trophies as a substitute for difficulty, which to me, is lazy.

trefingers

03/21/2013 at 01:32 PM Reply | Permalink | Report

I've taken to playing the Bioshocks, Uncharteds, God of Wars and Dishonoreds of the world on hard mode right off the bat.  The first few hours take some getting used to, but once you acclimate, it doesn't feel much different from normal mode.  Which I guess is the point of your rant...

 

As a side note, I felt like Darksiders was a decidedly mediocre game.  Don't quite understand the plaudits it received in the gaming press... I mean, Zelda+GoW is kind of a neat idea, I suppose, but in execution, I wasn't feeling it.  And I'm a big fan of both series.

 

As for replayability, I really like how Dishonored handled it.  Rather than give you specific objectives that increase with difficulty a la Thief (or 007 Goldeneye on 64; blast from the past), you can complete your objectives in all sorts of ways... I can't wait to go back through and try a different (and undoubtedly harder) method of play next time.

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

03/21/2013 at 02:09 PM Reply | Permalink | Report

Oh I do love me some Dishonored. 

sakusakusakura

03/22/2013 at 04:11 AM Reply | Permalink | Report

I like to play games on normal mode the first time through, and then I might try a different difficuly later if I don't sell the game right after beating it.  I can do hard mode on fighting games once I get the timing down and memorize some special moves usually.  Elder Scrolls: Oblivion is the one game I have where I have to play on easy.  I messed up levelling up my dark elf mage somewhere and now she really sucks in combat.  

Angelo Grant Staff Writer

03/22/2013 at 10:49 AM Reply | Permalink | Report

I normally don't have issues with Elder Scrolls games, but generally speaking I do the same thing unless the game is so easy it's just no fun to play on normal. If there's not some level of difficulty present I find it difficult to engage with a game. Usually, I reserve the hardest difficulty for a second playthrough, which is why I was so disappointed when Darksiders was the exact same game when I played it again.

Temperance

03/22/2013 at 01:33 PM Reply | Permalink | Report

I agree: Darksiders' Apocalyptic mode was poorly designed.  When I sat down to play this game, I knew from the start that I wanted to acquire all the achievements.  So, I started on Apocalyptic from the beginning and was treated to some of the poorest balancing I've seen in a very long time.  Without the Abyssal armor to back me up (until late in the game), I was consistently being abused by the game's middling combat and lock-on system.  Between the amount of enemies that were sent at me and the absurd damage they were dealing (getting through the early portions with a single lifebar was exhausting), death was frequent.  Of course, the developers must have known how sloppy it was because of the density of check-points and how many enemies wouldn't respawn with you.

I just don't understand why they even included a difficulty system.  Apocalyptic offers nothing over the other modes and actually brings greater focus to the game's faults (being surrounded constantly by those four-legged wretches who could take off a single health bar per hit was unnecessary).

Anonymous

03/31/2013 at 09:01 AM Reply | Permalink | Report

I Personally thought that Kid Icarus: Uprising, for the 3DS did a great job with The difficulty adjustments. At the Start of each level you put a certain amount of 'hearts' (your Currency) into a cauldron - for a higher difficulty, you had to place more hearts (vice versa); this worked on a scale from 1-10 on a decimal system.If you died, those hearts you place in the cauldron were lost. this created a really unique gamble to really keep a greater incentive to stay alive ( as apposed to many games where you dont care if you die, you can just respawn at one of the copius checkpoints throughout the level). 


The best part however were the doorways that had Numbers on them, only unlocking if your chosen difficulty level was equal to or greater then the displayed number - unlocking hidden unique items, alternative pathways, and unique gameplay dialogue aswell.
 

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