Difficulty Settings Part 2: Current Gen

If you played any game from my golden age of video games (8-bit era) then you know that each game had its own unique level of  challenge. I am sure that there is a lot of revisionist history when it comes to nostalgic games, but any gamer that grew up around a NES knows what I am talking about. Those gamers also know that the current generation of games are vastly different when it comes to graphical appearance, music & sound, style and difficulty. Previously, I discussed examples of difficult games in the classic sense of the word. Next, I’d like to discuss difficulty in the modern era by focusing on Epic’s biggest franchise, the best selling franchise of this generation and two modern RPG franchises. Let’s keep in mind, thought, that comparing difficulty levels across these eras is like comparing apples to grenades.

First person shooting never trained me for this

Gears of War is the first current game that comes to mind when I think about difficulty settings. The biggest reason is because of the end boss, General Ramm. I will debate with anyone that he is one of the most difficult end bosses of this generation of games. My first frustration with Ramm had to do with his overall health. It took a shitload of bullets to defeat that guy (and no, I did not use just a torque bow, I did it the hard way) even on a normal difficulty setting. Ramm would also use kryll (a bat like creature that is only featured in the first game) as a shield which just increased the amount hits it took to kill him. After using the kryll for protection, Ramm would throw them at you as a weapon. It’s downright cruel.

General Raam

I challenge any modern boss to a death match!

Speaking of those damned kryll, I also had a lot of trouble with a mid-game mission where you had to use the light on a tank to kill the creatures as they flew at you. I had a hell of time getting through that section. The frustration with this section was due to my inability to  see the enemies as they came at me. When I purchased my 360, I still owned a tube television that I bought while I was in college. Eventually, I had to upgrade, and once I purchased my HDTV, navigating that section was a breeze.

Gears of War introduced a lot of 3rd person shooter gameplay mechanics that have been built upon for the rest of this console generation. Initially, I was very frustrated as I took the time to learn its sophisticated cover system to go along with the smooth, third-person, over the shoulder gameplay. It was new and fresh, but it did take me a while to get over the hump. In the first act, I had a hell of a time trying to get through the first swarm of Wretches (quick, wall-crawling enemies that can surround you before you know where they are); it was really difficult trying to locate these little bastards. Once I discovered how useful the shotgun is against them, things got much easier. I will admit that I still have a hard time with Wretches. I am also a little sad that Gears walked away from the sections requiring you to navigate between lighted and dark areas. Those were (and could be) some of the most genuinely hard parts of the series.

I have come to the conclusion that Gears is extremely fun, but wasn’t extremely hard on any of the settings. The AI was smarter than your average drone, but was a few credits short of graduation. It didn’t take much planning to advance through a wave of enemies. Don’t get me wrong, Gears is one of my favorite current generation series, but I don’t remember the game for its challenge, even if the learning curve threw me at first. I am a fan of Gears because of its story, style, sound and graphics. Gears isn’t as hard as a classic like Ikari Warriors; while both games feature 2 player co-op, the challenge level between the two isn’t close and comes from an entirely different set of skills.

Modern arcade warfare

It's flashy, but not hard.

Finding direct comparisons from classic games and modern games isn’t always easy. Last time I talked about Castlevania‘s difficulty and what it meant to the classic genre. For the modern era, it’s logical to take a look at its best seller, Call of Duty. If you were to name any Call of Duty, I would tell you that the series does not even remotely compare to the games of yester-year. There is nothing about the most popular gaming franchise in history that can be described as “difficult.” If you want to try and tell me that multiplayer is hard, I will respond to you by saying that multiplayer difficulty is relative. Your performance in an online match has many factors. How you finish is dependent on your skill versus the skill of the others playing, not of the game itself. You also have to hope that no one in the lobby is using one of the many infamous exploits that Call of Duty‘s multiplayer is known for. Obviously, if your skill level is higher than most of the competitors in your lobby, you have a good chance of overcoming the other factors. On the other side of the coin, if your skill level is relatively low compared to everyone else, you are most likely screwed.

Contra

This is what a hard shooter looks like.

When it comes to single player, the Call of Duty formula is to battle huge waves of drone enemies and advance to the next section (or wave) of drones. That is it. Battle one wave of bots with learning disabilities and move on to the next (insert random vehicle or bombing raid to predictably change things up).  Now, some of these drone waves can be challenging depending on the environment or specific portion of the current level. Recently in Black Ops, there was a level that required you to move down a hill full of enemies that are dug deep into trenches. If you attempt to eliminate every opposing soldier, you will never advance. The game will continually send reinforcements to replace the soldiers you eliminated. Once you find out the trick or grow balls of steel, you are able to advance through the area. After proceeding through these tricky areas, you will typically discover that the section is not as difficult as previously thought. This ends up making the overall difficulty of the game lose a lot of its long term impact. The series also lacks the presence of stage bosses or mini bosses. (I will not accept shooting guided missiles at tanks or shooting enemies from aircraft as any type of boss). Boss battles are a classic aspect to video games that I miss. I still hold the opinion that ending a level with a solid boss challenge potentially makes a game harder and usually makes the overall game experience more enjoyable. Challenge is not word that should be associated with Call of Duty. The difficulty of any Call of Duty game cannot be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Contra or Jackal. The first level of Contra or Jackal is more difficult than any level of any Call of Duty game.

Expansive options are overwhelming, but not hard

The RPG has grown up right along with the video game industry and progressed from experience point grinds to the first person western RPG’s of today. Western RPG’s like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion are not as tough as some past RPG’s like the standard bearers of Final Fantasy 1 through 6 (which are all about the previously mentioned grind.) More often than not, you will experience a point in those games that is impassable because your characters are not at the appropriate levels. These sections are usually greeted by a dungeon, bad ass boss battle or both. You’re then forced to spend hours advancing your characters to move the story forward. Once you hit the right level, you typically pass the dungeon or boss by the skin of your teeth. You will find with a western RPG, though, that the challenge is acute…but is also tied directly to the level of your character. Like the classic RPG’s, the higher level you are at when you arrive to the ‘difficult’ section, the easier the area is to navigate. The key to these new age RPG’s is figuring out the leveling system. In the past, games would automatically level up your party for you. Now leveling up is filled with options. You are expected to assign your own attribute points. This is good: you can mold your character to fit your play style and allows you to craft your character in a manner that will allow you to avoid particularly difficult areas. In Fallout 3, for example, you can make your character great at sneaking. With this trait, you can get past a large group of enemies without even making a peep. Older games had the random battle generator. As you explored a world, you would be randomly dropped into a battle. The only was to avoid a battle was to run away and risk dropping items. Later stages of games typically made running away virtually impossible. The player never had control of the battle or the enemies they would get to face, which made games much harder.

Fallout 3

Who knew the apacolypse would require this much math?

Today’s RPGs contain lots of options when it comes to gear and molding your character.  Final Fantasy had a mere fraction of the gear compared to Oblivion. The clothing options alone make the warriors of light almost seem naked. Weaponry is far more complicated (and at times overpowered) in comparison to the basic weapons of the past. For example: Almost every RPG had a sword-wielding character. Every game would start you with a basic sword. After your starter weapon, each subsequent sword would have a clever name like ‘Flame Sword’. What would make each sword special was the increased damage. Very few weapons would feature an elemental modifier. Fast forward to Oblivion and you can create weapons with major elemental modifiers, not to mention that each race seems to have its own line of weapons. The amount of options is just mind boggling.

The most difficult part of modern games for me is juggling my inventory. I end up being a pack rat and holding on to everything that I can. Most older RPG’s had no gear/weight restrictions; the game would never force you to drop your items to prevent overencumbrance. Leveling up automatically distributed attribute points for you (for the most part) as opposed to the myriad options you’re given now. Since the right gear in a modern RPG can drastically change the scope of any battle (Fat Man anyone?), knowing how to properly level your character up is critical. (As I said before: you can even choose sneak past enemies now!). The first game I can remember avoiding fight is Zelda II: The Adventures of Link and that only lasted for so long.

Modern RPG’s generally lack the most important ingredient to a difficult RPG: frustration. Neither Fallout, Oblivion nor any current gen RPG has (or can create) the level of frustration found in the classics. No modern RPG has a level even approaching the difficulty or frustration of Death Mountain in Zelda II. The game asks so damn much of you at such an early stage in the game. You are forced to navigate a huge maze, with minimal life, while the game throws everything, INCLUDING the kitchen sink, at you.  The difficulty level was so high, the likelihood of finishing these earlier RPG’s was not high. Some of these games still sit mocking me for my inability to withstand their difficulty. (Specifically Zelda II and Final Fantasy.) The same cannot be said about any RPG I have played since the Xbox. Modern RPG’s only present a steep learning curve to understanding the customizations that later only have a minor effect on the difficulty of your experience.

What does it all mean?

Star Tropics

I love any opprotunity to mention StarTropics.

There simply aren’t current gen games with the same level of an difficulty as older games except those that have specifically set out to do be just that hard (Super Meat Boy and Demon’s Souls, for example). Naturally, games today are very different in many aspects compared to older games, technology notwithstanding. The majority of games from the NES were side scrolling adventure games while the majority of modern games seem to be vast and wide open for exploration. There were very few wide open adventure games in the past. The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Warrior, and StarTropics pretty much encompass the early sandbox experiences. Even though you were allowed to explore, the games still remained extremely linear (although they remained extremely difficult!) Tooling a modern game to feature the type of challenge provided by the NES is also more difficult than you would think, but I am sure that featuring that type of challenge can be done and should be done (or at least considered). Current generation examples have started invoking old school challenges, but it remains to be seen if that is only be a short lived fad. Unfortunately, difficulty sliders that add and subtract statistical attributes from you and/or the AI have become the accepted means to change the overall difficulty in a game (from easy to hard). Instead of using statistical variants to increase difficulty, I’d like to see games incorporate difficulty more into their overall designs in order to make a hard game from start to finish.

In part three, I will look the effects of difficulty sliders on the harder games of this generation.

Sources:

Giant Bomb (images)