I have a confession: I don’t always play games at the highest difficulty. As a matter of fact, I sometimes play games in easy mode.
I would have never admitted this in my youth. Back then, I took pride in my neighborhood-renowned NES skills. But as I've grown older, and my time has become more precious, I've often found myself thinking about the easy way out.
It’s not that I fear higher difficulty settings: As a matter of fact, I don't find anything more satisfying than completing a game with a finely-tuned, ultra-difficult mode. And although my twitch skills have undoubtedly declined with age, I still have a grasp on what is normal. My real issue is that games don't scale anymore.
Tougher difficulties often substitute fun for frustration. They present a number of challenges, but too often they make bad choices. It's wonderful when they get it right, but it's horribly frustrating when they get it wrong.
Doubling the number of enemies while cutting the available ammo in half isn’t challenging, it’s maddening. The famous "monster closet" has to be the most heinous sin imaginable. Re-spawning mobs makes a lot of sense in MMOs and Gauntlet, but that’s about the extent of their applicability.
It’s horribly frustrating to slowly and carefully clear a room of bad guys only to have them pop up again before you can continue. If I have to run like a little girl in hopes of hitting the next checkpoint, you’re doing it wrong.
Extreme enemy damage
I understand if you can’t take beatings in hard mode like you can on easier settings, but a single gunshot wound to the foot shouldn't kill me. Boosting enemy damage tables is the easiest way to boost the difficulty, but it's also the least imaginative. It doesn’t add anything to the experience in terms of skill. Instead, I just kind of tires me out.
Extreme enemy resilience
Nobody can take 10 direct gunshots to the chest and keep going -- not even Arnold in his prime. I’m fine with faster, stronger enemies, but just don’t make them God-like bullet sponges, please.
Cheap A.I. comes in a lot of different flavors, but when the bad guys seem to be able to see through walls and predict every move you make, that's no good. I like fighting smarter enemies, but don’t give them the ability to ignore the rules of physics.
When they get it right, though....
It’s magical. Some of the most satisfying gaming experiences I have had came courtesy of the highest difficulty settings: Uncharted, Uncharted 2, andBatman: Arkham Asylum. When you finish one of these on hard mode, you really feel like you've accomplished something.
One game that I find really epitomizes the idea of a finely tuned difficulty curve is BioShock. If you think it's easy, go ahead and turn on the hardest difficulty (without the Vita-Chambers). Early on, you can't just unload your arsenal into the Big Daddies. You have to set traps, think ahead, and use all the tools at your disposal. It's a ton of fun. Sure, the Big Daddies are bullet sponges, but since BioShock is so booby trap focused, it makes sense.
BioShock's highest difficulty setting doesn't introduce more enemies, nor does it endow the bad guys with invincibility and supernatural intelligence. It was one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in recent years.
What are your thoughts on super-difficult game settings? Can you think of any examples, either bad or good?