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Dissatisfying Difficulty in the Digital Domain!

Video Games

Dissatisfying Difficulty in the Digital Domain!

This is going to be a quick one folks. Partially because A) I’d like to see if that’s possible, and B) I’m in the middle of Catherine, and boy is it . . . interesting.

Catherine, Vincent with Sheep

Catherine‘s version of “interesting” involves a LOT of sheep.

So I was originally going to review Captain America: Super Soldier, but I obtained a copy too late to write a timely review (ironic seeing as Cap first appeared in Timely comics, but I digress).

Besides, after playing through it . . . there’s just not that much to talk about. It’s basically Captain America: Arkham Asylum. No, seriously. The game’s combat system apes the now classic 2009 “I am the Bat” simulator so fully it could be prosecuted for infringement if such a thing were possible. It’s not though, which is why this thing tends to happen in gaming all the time.

The game does have a few differences from the curse-breaking Batman game, both good and bad. On the good side, the use of Cap’s shield is a pretty solid risk/reward battle mechanic. Holding onto it gives you extra defensive options (including the ability to bounce bullets back at baddies), but it’s also a very useful weapon to knock out groups of weaker foes, and disrupt the larger ones at a range. This addition that’s definitive of the character actually gives the combat something unique and may actually just make it better than Arkham’s system.

On the other hand, Arkham Asylum wasn’t just combat, it also had excellent stealth segments and puzzle solving, both core elements of Batman’s characterization. Super Soldier doesn’t know what to do to make up for this really, only offering some very lame acrobatic sections to capture Cap’s athletic prowess, and nothing to represent his leadership skills. Thus the only thing the game has going for it is the combat, which would get repetitive if the game weren’t so short. So if you can’t wait for Arkham City, go ahead and rent it, but do not buy by any means. Other than that . . . it’s just another movie tie in, better than the majority, but not great by any means.

Like I said, not too much to say.

Captain America Picture

Other than the supremely inappropriate irony of making a video game about a Nazi smasher which has the abbreviated subtitle “S.S.”

Well, except for one thing, and it’s going to be the issue brought before the committee today: DIFFICULTY.

No, this isn’t going to be about how games have gotten easier over time (they really haven’t, they’ve just branched into differing genres to accommodate tastes). This is about how game developers tend to portray difficulty selection in games, and how they usually do it wrong.

You see, one of the aspects Super Soldier also copies from Arkham Asylum is how the difficulty selections work. As with most games you pick up, at the start you’re given a choice between three options: Easy, Medium (or Normal) and Hard. This is very standard stuff, seen as far back as Doom, Commander Keen, and Wolfenstein 3D.

Wolfenstein 3D Difficulty Selections

Though back then, games had no qualms about making fun of you for playing the game on “Easy”.

So it’s not the options themselves that are novel, far from it, these are more vanilla than Robert Mathew Van Winkle. Rather, it’s how these options are implemented that makes them interesting.

Normally when you make a selection in a game on difficulty, it usually changes exactly ONE THING: relative health of the player and damage dealt by the enemies. It might also change how much recovery items recover, or possibly how many supplies you obtain in general if they’re thinking it through a bit more. Rarely, it will also affect enemy capability, but this usually done rather simply as well; in shooters the enemy accuracy gets better, and in some action games, foes move more quickly.

For the vast majority of games though, difficulty selections still only affect that ONE THING: health and damage scaling.

Knights of the Round Table Boss

You know what they say: Larger feats mean longer health bars.

Ignoring the fact that this is just boring because it’s ubiquitous (it’s tempting to say this is the core problem, but standard techniques are usually that way for a reason), this method of altering difficulty feels . . . rather unsatisfactory to me. Mostly because it has such a narrow focus.

If a game has literally only one aspect to it, say combat, then changing the health parameters on different settings works fine. But most games don’t just feature combat. Most games also challenge the player’s ability to explore, solve puzzles or avoid instant death traps and hazards. A damage scaling system does nothing to affect the player’s ability to overcome these problems.

Sure, putting Doom on hard will make all the enemies tougher, but it does nothing to help the player find the red key they need to progress. In Call of Duty, yes on higher difficulties you will get shot more quickly, but the hidden intel items are just as difficult to find on “Recruit” as they are on “Veteran”. Then there’s just the simple fact that Lava pits are still pretty much death, no matter how hard or easy you set a game.

MArio in the Lava Pit

Lava = Dead. Even on the cover of the game.

So if your game features elements of exploration, non-combat challenges, or player controlled acrobatics (not the uber simple Prince of Persia 2K8 kind) then difficulty selection that only affects the combat isn’t really doing its job properly. Why is this something which doesn’t have to be a problem? Well, that takes us back to Captain America: Super Soldier actually.

In Super Soldier, changing the difficulty alters a heck of a lot more than just Cap’s ability to take a hit or the HYDRA soldier’s ability to do likewise. For one, it removes the medium and easy level health regeneration entirely, and this forces the player to rely on Cap’s special abilities to regain health mid-fight, which has the effect of entirely changing how you play the game. But more importantly, it borrows the Arkham method of adding or subtracting visual cues to the game.

See, when on “normal” or “easy” in both games, when a baddie is about to punch your hero a little warning symbol appears. In Arkham it was, naturally, a Batman logo. In Super Soldier, this takes the form of different colored rings that flash around the enemy indicating whether an attack can be dodged, blocked or countered. Playing on hard in both games removes these cues entirely, which does make it more difficult to battle enemies (as you have to rely on watching enemy animations for tells), but you also get the immediate benefit of a much cleaner presentation. Action sequences look a lot nicer without a bunch of random colors and symbols flying all over the place.

Batman Kapow

Not being seen when this is on screen: someone getting punched.

So far this is just another way of affecting the combat, but that’s when the developers of Super Soldier actually thought things through a step further. As these visual cues also apply to the game’s collectibles and interactive objects. On normal, you get little highlights around these items. On hard, you don’t. This means that the game actually DOES make exploration and item finding easier for those who want it, and harder for those who don’t want the help. Thus, actually addressing difficulty for more aspects of the game other than just the combat!

Good job Next Level Games! You get it. I’d give you some pie, but you’re Canadian . . . so Poutine?

Poutine is kinda gross looking.

How is it that this is a Canadian staple, yet it’s the U.S. with the obesity issues? Oh no, wait. I remember. It’s because we made the Double Down, isn’t it?

The last time I actually saw something similar was way back in 2008, in Bionic Commando Re-Armed. Actually, I still consider that game’s difficulty modifiers to be one of the best examples of how to do them properly.

You see, in BCR, difficulty affected every aspect of the game. Sure enemies had more health and did more damage, but it also added a whole lot more to their actual abilities too. On higher difficulties, they also gained the ability to toss grenades and shoot diagonally, or even chase you from place to place, putting greater pressure on the player. Easier modes also gave you unlimited lives. But every difficulty selection affected the hacking mini-game (which you did at least once a level) dramatically.

On easy the mini-game, which was sort of like a weird game of labyrinth in a cyberspace Rubik’s Cube, could usually be solved in three or four moves, and there was no time limit. On harder modes, it got far more complex, added extra elements (like teleportation), and had a time limit on top of it.

Most interestingly though, were the ways the game improved safety while swinging around on easier difficulties. Here, extra platforms were actually added to levels, some over deadly pits and traps that would otherwise kill you outright. If you played the game on a tougher mode, these objects were simply excised, so you wouldn’t even notice there was anything amiss. THIS is how you do difficulty folks!

Bionic Commando Rearmed Poster

Oh and the rest of the game is like, totally amazing and stuff.

So why do most developers not go above the norm? Why is it we usually get only the simple system of “hard means you shoot the baddie six times instead of three”?

Well, as with most apparent oversights in game development, time is the most likely culprit, along with the belief that it’s just not worth the effort. Crafting unique ways to aid the player or altered situations based on difficulty requires extra work done on ALL aspects of the game. Yet, since people usually only play a game once (and most won’t even finish them) the unique content on the other difficulties they won’t play, is also content they won’t see. So why bother making things that a third to two thirds of your audience won’t even know is there in the first place?

It’s much, much simpler to just fiddle with a few ratios and sliders here and there, and alter a couple of preexisting background statistics. Keep difficulty on it’s simple focus on health rates. Besides, at this point it’s an almost completely accepted, dare I say it . . . TRADITION?!

looks around


I was afraid for a sec.

You see, if you ever say “TRADITION!” too loud, this weird milkman comes by an-

Personally, I prefer “If I Were A Rich Man”.

Wow, how did we stray into musical territory? Tevye!!! Curse you and your catchy refrains!

Anyway, I think I speak for the rest of the Metro City council when I say that the “traditional” system DOES work, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hope for more. So I’m just going to say propose a simple recommendation of commendation.

It is hereby recognized by the council of Metro City, that should any developer(s) go above and beyond the call of duty, and break with the time honored (if uninspired) tradition of only creating a system of difficulty modifiers based on health and/or damage scaling, and instead create a more novel and interesting system based on multiple factors and covering all aspects of the game’s mechanics, they are to be commended. Doing so will immediately put the developer’s works for immediate consideration of an official seal of approval from this governing body. In addition, it entitles said developer(s) to one entry ticket into the Monthly Metro City Raffle. Winners will receive one (1) Certificate of Mayoral Pardon, which will legally spare them a single punch from in the face should they make a future error in judgement, and also one (1) free pair of Mayoral Slacks pictured below.

Mike Haggar Slacks

So until next time everyone, just remember that just because it’s tradition, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow it.

Strive for the best! Reach for the pants!

As one of the unfortunate few born with three first names, Adam endured years of taunting on the mean streets of Los Angeles in order to become the cynical malcontent he is today. A gamer since the age of four, he has attempted to remain diverse in his awareness of the arts, and remain active in current theater, film, literary and musical trends when not otherwise writing or acting himself. He now offers his knowledge in these areas up to the "California Literary Review," who still haven't decided what exactly they want to do with him yet. He prefers to be disagreed with in a traditional "Missile Command" high score contest, and can be challenged this way via his Xbox LIVE Gamertag of AtomGone, and if you want to "follow" him on twitter, look for Adam Robert Thomas @TheCromulentMan

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