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Difficulty settings in games can accommodate gamers looking for a challenge and/or increase the replay value of the games. Generally a higher difficulty setting will have the player-character fighting tougher enemies with less effective weapons at his/her disposal. Enemies have more health and do more damage, your PC does less damage and is weaker. But some games do it differently. Some games force you to use strategy and to put thought into everything you make your PC do. Sometimes the difference in how difficulty settings are handled depends on the genre, e.g. action vs stealth. This article gives some examples to look at how difficulty settings maybe implemented in games, and why I like these examples. These examples are not meant to cover the whole spectrum of ways in which the said settings can make their appearance.
This game (as well as the original) is generally difficult. The game is from those times where the player's hand is not held in the manner it generally is now, and you are expected to do some research before getting into it if enjoyment is to be had from playing the game. The game mechanics are based on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition rules. The game has five settings - Novice, Normal, Core Rules, Hard and Insane. Each setting increases the damage monsters do; from 50% of normal damage on Novice to 200% on Insane difficulty. There are other important details related to hit rolls, spells and even death that change with difficulty.
First of all, you need to know at least the basics of AD&D rules. It is very important on higher difficulty settings to have a good idea of what your PC is going to be deep into the game and also what kind of NPCs you want in your party. When monsters start doing serious damage it becomes essential to make informed decisions on every attribute point spent (or rolled at character creation, to be accurate), proficiency learnt or when to dual/multi-class. The tactic of war of attrition does not work, but rather know the monsters, your PC and the NPCs. Having spoken of the difficulty, and herein lies why I chose this game, the game does allow for literally countless ways one can customise the party to go adventuring, and these settings encourage to experiment and build interesting teams. Baldur's Gate II added numerous additional classes and specialisations from the original game to build the PC and the NPCs. Finally and most importantly it is always extremely satisfying when your party takes down that terrifying Lich.
On a related note read Adam's post on why Baldur's Gate II is the best RPG ever.
Thief is a revolutionary game in stealth genre. It is one of those unique games that stays true to the genre: the only way to play this game is by stealth. As such this game is not about beating down enemies but is rather about not being seen or heard. The game features three difficulty settings - Easy, Normal, Expert. The Expert difficulty introduces additional objectives that must accomplished to complete the levels. These include not killing any humans and acquiring certain amount of loot and loot items.
As one would expect with difficulty increase the enemy AI alertness and aggression levels increase. One great result of the Expert difficulty setting is that it actually makes you play like a thief. Treading softly and carefully from one shadow to another and looting every shiny object that he comes across without leaving a trace of his presence is what the master thief Garrett is all about, and the Expert difficulty encourages the player to play so. Once the player has played on Expert it only makes sense to try "ghosting." If you are interested read the official ghost rules on Eidos forums.
I chose this game not just for its difficulty settings, but also for the ranking system it employs. The game features Normal, Expert and Professional difficulty settings. In addition to the usual AI improvements, on the Professional difficulty there are no saves and each mission must be completed in one go. As for the ranking system, the game ranks at the end of each mission your performance based on how stealthy and aggressive you were, how many enemies and innocents killed or harmed and how many times you alerted the enemies. The ranks range from Silent Assassin to Mass Murderer.
Yes, the game can be frustrating and feel like a grind with no saves, but the sense of satisfaction after completing the hit(s) in one of the many possible creative ways is completely worth it. While you can go on a total rampage and kill everyone in your path or mix stealth and aggression, only scoring the Silent Assassin rank nets you some cool rewards. This requires not raising any alarms and not killing anyone except the target(s). Of course Silent Assassin on Professional difficulty is challenging. But nothing beats sniping two targets on the first floor (second floor in the US) of a restaurant, then walking in wearing a disguise and plant an amulet next to the bodies to frame someone else, and then walk out of the place, no one ever noticing the dead targets all the while. It makes you feel like a true hitman.
Many games feature a new game plus to increase the replay value. I feel that difficulty settings can also serve an effective tool for that purpose. Rather than just making the enemies tougher and the PC softer, increase in difficulty should focus on mastering the game mechanics and encourage creativity.