Thoughts on Difficulty Settings

Written by Joe Martin

April 22, 2010 | 10:42

Tags: #deus-ex #difficulty #game-design #mass-effect #our-thoughts #review-process #serious-sam #thief #thoughts-on

I may as well start off by saying that I don’t usually like my games to be too difficult and that, if I’m sitting down to play a game for my own enjoyment, I’ll almost never, ever put it on Hard difficulty. In fact, I’m more likely to play it on Easy.

There’s a lot of people who’ll baulk at that; the type of people who label themselves as ‘hardcore’ gamers with an inflated sense of pride and dismiss the majority of titles as ‘baby-games’, most likely. Despite what they think though, I think my reasons for opting for a lesser difficulty are pretty good ones.

It comes down to a matter of taste and what you’re looking for – and what I usually look for in the games I play at home is a good story and the chance to have some fun. Sticking the game on maximum difficulty is something that’s more likely to get in the way of that than facilitate it and the worst fear I have with any new game is that I’ll play it on Hard, love the story, reach an impassable boss and then get stuck. In that situation I’d be more likely to put the game down and move on than to replay on a lower skill setting – and I’d hate to miss out on a tale I’d otherwise enjoy.
Thoughts on Difficulty Settings
Piece of cake

That’s not to say that I never up the difficulty though, if I think it’s worth it or if I’m trying to get something new out of an older game. I’d definitely play Deus Ex on maximum difficulty (and would create play restrictions to liven it up too), for example, and I’ve just finished Mass Effect 2 on Insanity difficulty. When I review games I never play them on Easy either – I always opt for the Normal skill setting as a matter of principle; it seems the way that the game is supposed to be played. It’s what the developers think the majority of players will want.

There have been some times when I’ve been really disappointed with how games support difficulty levels. When I first finished Half-Life 2 on Normal I immediately went back and tried it on Hard because I’d found it a bit easy on the whole and had determined to play it again anyway. In the end though, I couldn’t actually notice a difference between Easy, Normal or Hard. The same number of enemies, the same placements, same approximate of bullets required. Boring.

There are only two games I can think of where the difficulty settings have been perfectly implemented – and they are practically polar opposites too; Thief and Serious Sam.

The way Serious Sam tackled game difficulty was to make an option for every single type of player possible, with the usual Easy, Normal, Hard settings bookended by more inventive modes; Tourist and Mental. If you could successfully gun your way through Serious Sam’s huge hordes of horrors then Mental mode would be the ultimate challenge for you; your attacks would do half damage, enemies would do double and they were all invisible to boot.

Thoughts on Difficulty Settings

If you were struggling with the usual selection of settings though then Tourist made the game a walk in the park; you’d do double damage, enemies would do half and your health would regenerate. You couldn’t fail even if you eschewed the minigun and rocket launcher and opted to rely only on the knife.

Thief’s approach was a bit different and was the only logical response to the increasing difficulty that didn’t require guards to have super-hearing and x-ray vision. When you’ve built such a tense and brilliantly balanced game why would you want to ruin it on harder settings by making enemies react unconvincingly? You wouldn’t, so the best way to make the game harder would be to give players new things to do – which is what Thief did. On Easy you might only need to run in and grab one bit of loot, but on Expert mode you’d need to pilfer many more pockets and make a successful escape in the process, usually without killing anyone too.

It’s a shame that most games can’t or don’t follow those examples, because increasingly I find myself dissatisfied with the way that games handle the process of challenging the player – probably a side-effect of making modern titles ever more accessible. Having to click the crosshair an extra once or twice to win a fight isn’t a real increase in challenge – or not one I’m interested in anyway.
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