The first few hours of Just Cause 2 were fantastic. I was blowing up bases, hopping out of helicopters, and basically turning the island of Panau into my personal chaos-fueled playground. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was too good to last, and I was right. At around the five-hour mark the difficulty ramped up and it felt like a whole different game. A game that wasn’t any fun. I wasn’t able to dink around and experiment, because enemies were sniping me with shotguns. If I hijacked a helicopter it would be shot down in seconds. Basically, I couldn’t pull off any of the awesome stuff that was hyped to death in the trailers because enemies were too aggressive, too plentiful and too unforgiving.

Maybe I shouldn’t have picked the Experienced difficulty setting, after all.

I ended up starting over again from scratch on the Normal setting, which meant I lost all of my progress. Those collectables? Uncollected. Liberated villages? Deliberated. Those awful cutscenes? I had to watch ‘em again, because they can’t all be skipped.

Now that I’m past where I got on my initial session, I’m having a great time again. Enemies definitely pose a threat, but they’re not the insanely overpowered marksmen they were before. I can run into a situation and try out crazy things. If it looks like I’m going to die, I can easily flee to safety and recover my health. It’s exactly the game I was hoping for in the first place.

It’s interesting that one of the first decisions players face when starting a new game is often the one that has the most long-lasting effects. With Just Cause 2, I chose Experienced based on the description that the game gave. Why, yes, I do play action games on a regular basis and I enjoy being challenged. Challenge is subjective though, and what I might enjoy in a typical FPS might be extremely annoying in a sandbox game. Once you choose your setting in Just Cause 2, you’re locked in. If you decide it’s too hard (or too easy), too bad.

Call of Duty games handle this situation well. Players can dial back the difficulty as they progress through the campaign. The same goes with Red Faction: Guerilla, which I enjoyed immeasurably more on the easy setting. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Fallout 3 let players adjust difficulty along a sliding scale. Locking down difficulty is simply too restrictive. I don’t mind missing out on achievements or whatever. Just let me cry uncle every once in a while without losing all of my progress.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that people can’t or won’t have the same experience by playing on the harder difficulty settings. It’s just that easing Just Cause 2’s difficulty down to default definitely aligns closer with the way I want to play the game, which is mildly drunk.