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Normal difficulty steals all the glory. It makes sense that most developers would tune their base difficulty for the average player, because that’s the mode that the majority of their audience is going to see. The Hard and I Hate Myself difficulties just don’t get the same amount of attention from players (which is explored further in Ben Reeves' article on difficulty). Few games go beyond the call of turning the enemies into bullet sponges and halving the player’s health bar. But the most creative games rise above that standard and develop harder modes that benefit the package as a whole. Here are a few games that nailed their alternative difficulties and were better for it.
Batman: Arkham Asylum/City/KnightDifficulty setting: HardWhat it does: Erases counter notifications and shortens counter windowWhy it’s great: The Arkham games, if nothing else, fulfilled one fantasy: They let you become the Bat. Every mode lets you feel like Batman, but Hard mode goes one step further by stripping out the blue lightning bolts that foreshadow incoming knuckle sandwiches. This requires you to look more closely at threats and demands you know what enemy animations to look for within a giant crowd of aggressive, meaty men. It’s a lot to take in, even with the counter notifications, but the Arkham games give players responsive controls (that’s important) to deal with these threats and improve on a more dexterous level. Asking players to look more intently and react more quickly is fitting because it lets the player feel a bit more like Batman, who fights goons all the time without any sort of overt visual warning.
Dead Space 2Difficulty setting: Hard Core ModeWhat it does: No checkpoints, three save points, and fewer resourcesWhy it’s great: Hard Core Mode allows Dead Space 2 to live up to the challenging legacy of horror games where tensions arose from uncomfortable camera angles, fiddly controls, and infrequent save points that were byproducts of the hardware limitations. Contemporary game design has neutered these dated ways the genre used to use to make the player feel uneasy. Dead Space 2 has modernized design and fluid action-horror shooting, but the spirit of Hard Core Mode evokes a very old school-style of tension missing from the lower difficulties. Few save points and no checkpoints means one wrong move could flush several hours down the toilet, a gut-wrenching feeling that Resident Evil veterans know quite well. Managing your saves as you creep through the necromorph-laden hallways in Dead Space 2 imitates the feeling of managing your ink ribbons in Resident Evil 2. It just doesn’t also have the clumsy tank controls and a frustrating static camera.
Splinter Cell: BlacklistDifficulty setting: PerfectionistWhat it does: Takes away sonar (x-ray) goggles, Mark and Execute (auto-kill), and in-mission restockingWhy it’s great: Stealth games were founded upon mechanics like stiff controls and punishing alert phases that, while perfectly acceptable back then, show their age in the current market. Splinter Cell: Blacklist, one of the smoothest stealth games around, found a fitting middle ground between old and new ideologies in its Perfectionist difficulty. Replaying sequences over and over for that perfect, undetected run doesn’t fly in the modern era of stealth games, but this mode brings that mentality back with all the calculated design of the current day. Losing the sonar goggles and not being able to auto-kill using Mark and Execute slows down the pacing to be more in line with Fisher’s PS2-era outings. Shooting is more responsive and accurate, but smart and deadly enemies ensure that tactic is only a last resort, and a weak one at that. This puts a lot more pressure on the good ol’ fashioned sneak-and-stab that Sam Fisher built his career on.
Hitman AbsolutionDifficulty setting: PuristWhat it does: No hints, checkpoints, or HUD; Instinct mode (ability to see through walls and track enemies) drains more quickly and doesn’t refill; and more enemiesWhy it’s great: Sam Fisher’s balder, barcoded brother, Agent 47, was put in a similar predicament. The first three Hitman games were predicated on trial-and-error gameplay. The hits were good, but players only succeeded after multiple fail-ridden restarts. While Hitman’s hardcore user base feeds on that feeling, that abusive cycle is not the best way to welcome new players, which is where Hitman Absolution comes in. Absolution has the most assists out of the series, but it is also the hardest game in the series thanks to its spectrum of difficulty modes. Purist forces you to emulate the Hitman games of yore; the easier difficulties allow you to be a little reckless, but that kind of sloppy assassin work isn’t tolerated once you crank it up to Purist. Planning and careful execution are once again king.
Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 2Difficulty setting: 1998 ModeWhat it does: Takes out pathfinding arrow and all lethal offensive optionsWhy it’s great: Bioshock Infinite is hardly a stealth game, but its second DLC episode of Burial at Sea evokes classic stealth nostalgia. Its clever limitations change how you play Bioshock and make it feel like a completely different game. Direct confrontation takes a back seat to sneaking and hiding, and Burial at Sea is open enough to fully support that style of play. It’s both a clever tribute to Thief: Deadly Shadows (which a few people at Irrational worked on) and an inventive way to replay Bioshock Infinite’s best piece of DLC.
Far Cry PrimalDifficulty setting: Survivor ModeWhat it does: Night is darker, the wildlife is more aggressive, traveling takes more resources, the mini-map is gone, crafting happens in real-time, strong upgrades are blocked off, permadeath is optional, and moreWhy it’s great: Far Cry Primal’s Survivor Mode rips out most of its modern game luxuries, which makes sense given its harsh setting. The exhaustive list of changes emphasizes the unforgiving world and how fragile it is to be a nearly-naked man running around with a club. Ubiblog editor Mikel Reparaz says it “doesn’t just make the game tougher; it fundamentally changes the experience and way you play.” And he’s right. Darker nights and the lack of a mini-map showcase a fear of the unknown that helps elicit a sense of vulnerability that our ancestors undoubtedly felt on a daily basis, especially after dusk. Less-harsh difficulties also have the illusion of a merciless prehistoric world, but Survivor Mode fully realizes this and makes you feel it.
The Last of UsDifficulty setting: Grounded ModeWhat it does: Strips out HUD, numerous checkpoints, and Listen Mode (x-ray vision); and fewer crafting suppliesWhy it’s great: The Last of Us was already built upon the foundation of apocalypse-based oppression, where every supply was precious and every enemy a threat. But Naughty Dog’s checkpoint-heavy design mitigated much of the tension associated with death. Grounded Mode removes a few of the game’s helpful crutches and gives death more weight since fewer checkpoints send you further back if you bite the dust. Actually listening – thanks to the sublime audio design – replaces Listen Mode, mentally counting bullets substitutes looking at the now-absent ammo counter, and paying attention to Joel’s physical state becomes your new invisible health bar. Couple this with often only having a single shotgun shell, half a shiv, and a brick to clear out (or sneak past) a room of creepy Clickers, and you have a gameplay dynamic that finally fully mirrors The Last of Us’ ruthless universe.
There’s an important, overarching feature in all of these games: They’re all incredibly well designed. Flimsy mechanics snap in half under the extreme duress these modes specialize in. That’s why Captain America: Super Soldier on Hard is a tedious slog and Batman: Arkham City on Hard is brilliant. Solid design is often not enough though, as evidenced by the number of games that only opt to toss in more resilient enemies as you jump to a higher setting. Games should be better than that and try to add modes that match their themes, mood, or genre. Not everyone likes to willingly jump into the meat grinder with their favorite games (like what Javy points out in this article), but creative difficulty modes give the hardest of the hardcore fans one final test to pass.
For a look into how some developers craft difficulty, check out Jeff Marchiafava's piece here.
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