You Have Chosen Expert Mode – A videogames self-experiment

14 Jul

As much as I love games and am willing to repeatedly write hundreds of words about them to put on a website with an audience of (for all I- know) about two, I can be pretty atrocious at them. Alone in one my desk drawers sits the first three Crash Bandicoot games on the original Playstation, each one uncompleted due to my ineptitude at boss fights that didn’t go away until I was twelve. These days I’m somewhat better, but the failures of my childhood have forever scarred me and so whenever I try a new game, I will nearly always go for the easiest difficulty option.

Why? Maybe I’m just scared of death. Perhaps I’m too thick to conceive sly and cunning in-game tactics that defeat my opponents with wits rather than defeat my opponents with heavy-calibre bullets. Maybe I’m just lazy. Whatever it is, the fact remains that the online multiplayer component of videogames is huge, easily dwarfing (in terms of regular players) the one-person campaigns of their singleplayer counterparts. If I am, as the OED puts it, to ‘pwn n00bs’ over the Internet without going through the tedious rigmarole of starting my own server so I can memorise the maps and the best places to hide and take cheap shots at passers-by without being attacked, then I’m going to have to up my game to the harder modes.

I’ve beaten COD4 on the second-hardest difficulty level, Left 4 Dead on Advanced and Ratchet And Clank Future on the middle-est difficulty level – those are pretty much my only adventures beyond Normal and Easy modes or equivalent. Well, my only successful adventures – I might make a go of Left 4 Dead on Expert mode, but only with human-controlled teammates. And I always die before the end, consistently having to watch as my buddies board the waiting rescue transport without me. Fuck that. Here’s my challenge – Play four randomly-selected PC games on the hardest possible difficulty and compare how I do with my normal playing.

I’ll be scoring them on three things:

Time from first enemy contact to death – The time it takes from me first spotting an enemy (which is able to attack me, and vice-versa) to the time I die, after which I move onto the next game.

Butt-Fuck Rating – How much the game screws me over, out of a possible 10 – factors to consider include wasted advantages offered to me (more means a lower score), availability of weapons and ammo (more means a lower score) and enemy influence (if they manage to headshot me from half a mile, it’s gonna be a high score)

Death Scene – Not really relevant to a game’s worth, but since I tend to die so often on harder difficulties I’d prefer it to be entertaining.

Game 1: Half Life 2 Episode 2

Previously played on: Easy (1/3)

This was one of the first games I played on the PC, so did it on Easy so I could get used to the alien concept of clicking a mouse button to kill someone. Like all Half Life games it takes me a while to find a fightable enemy combatant, and when I do, they’re fighting each other. I settle their differences by lobbing some explosives at them. Maybe this’ll be easier than I thought.

As the clock ticks I’m treated to a lengthy sequence in which my female companion gets shanked in the fairly well-endowed chest by a tripedal alien-robot thing and left to die. Both she and I (I was trapped under some rubble, which annoyingly took off 40% of my health) were saved by a different kind of alien, from some aliens. I wonder what genre this game is. As soon as I am free I disregard both my saviour and dying friend and run off to shoot some bugs, who are sort of like the ones on Starship Troopers, except I can kills fuckloads single-handedly. On easy.

Dropping into a mine shaft, not one but two bugs fly away from me once I’ve shot them once. Cowards! I attempt to show them the error of their ways by tossing highly-flammable barrels at them but am stopped in my tracks by a new kind of bug. This one shoots poisonous acid at you that will take away most of your health, but only temporarily – the biohazard suit you’re wearing injects you with the antidote it happened to know in case you were attacked with that specific kin of acid. The main problem these bugs cause is that you’re highly vulnerable to damage from other, less temporary sources of hurt. But on their own? They’re a support class bug at best. I take aim, it retaliates with acid, and – at 82 health out of 100 – I am instantly killed. Well, arse.

Contact to Death time: 9:26. Not bad for a first go, and would have been longer if I stuck around to hear if my barely-living love interest was going to be okay.

Butt-Fuck Rating: 6/10. The insta-kill acid attack was Pound Shop cheap, though I did have a gun, a crowbar and a machine that can pick up barrels and turn them into Rocket-Propelled Grenade rounds.

Death Scene: 3/10. I fall down, the screen goes red, and for some reason I can still look around like a paranoid schizophrenic on his fifth coffee. On the plus side there’s a nice flat lining sound effect. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP

Game 2: Left 4 Dead

Previously played on: Advanced (3/4)

I didn’t have high hopes for this, despite my relatively higher-difficulty experience. In the interests of consistency and fairness I didn’t allow my teammates to heal me – I could only do that myself. Since I’d become accustomed to my pals bailing me out with their own medkits, going without medical support was a tall order – though it would make it more like the other games I’ll be playing.

I load up the airport level and am quickly in a greenhouse filled with the undead. A distarctionary pipe bomb clears the way and things go pretty well – my AI team can aim well, and will endeavour to save me when I go down unlike the pricks on anonymous online server who’ll leave you to die, maybe throwing a Molotov cocktail on you for good measure.

Speaking of which, I had just fallen off the roof. Well, actually I was constricted by the special Infected who can grab survivors with his blatantly compensating bungee-cord of a tongue and pulled off the edge. Twenty seconds later a Hunter lands on my head from the top of the building I was in the doorway of and incapacitates me, and I need to be pulled up again. Another twenty seconds and I’m vomited on by the Boomer, whose bile attracts hordes of sprinting vampire pricks. I go down again.

This isn’t going well. In the space of clearing one building I’ve been incapped three times – rules state that one more and I’m down for good. The screen fades to black and white as I spot the safehouse.

l4d_airport01_greenhouse0003

All we had to do was cross the road and enter the theatre – I had a health pack, but it seemed pointless when salvation was sixty feet away and the next batch of super-powered zombies were due to respawn. Any of them could grab – and thus kill – me as I took five precious seconds to apply elastoplasts and gauze. I decide to keep the pack for later and make for the door. I could easily avoid the medium-ish group of infected on the opposite end of the road, completely unaware of my presence.

Here my team decided they wouldn’t be so helpful in the future. Francis the misanthropic biker opens fire, hits a car, activates its alarm, and summons legions of me-hungry zombies. Cheers, Francis. I make it roughly three-quarters the way across the road before I succumb to their swipes, kicks and bites. Knew I should have used that health pack.

Contact to Death time: 4:10. Worse than HL2E2, but then again the latter had no swarms of grumpy zombies. Just the one-shot-murdering insects.

Butt-Fuck Rating: 6/10 – Getting attacked by three Specials in a row stings the pride. Dying because of a thick teammate creates seething hatred. Nonetheless I can’t be too harsh – I had both high-powered weaponry and a perfectly good health pack I neglected to use.

Death Scene: 7/10 – Much better – a battered African-American ragdoll is sent spinning into the side of the car that led to his demise, all gloriously rendered in third-person.

Game: Crysis

Previously played on: Easy (1/4)

I’ve heard terrible things about Crysis’ ‘Delta’ mode, the gaming equivalent of getting kerb-stomped by a fat bloke in stilettos. I powered through anyway – all I had to do was utilise my magical powers of invisibility, granted to me by my bleeding-edge Nanosuit.

Of course, it only works for a few seconds if you’re moving, so I still had to fight some Koreans to prevent them sending reinforcements after the American guy in the enchanted armour. I do well at first, even when I select the wrong suit mode – accidently choosing super-speed (it does that was well) and , instead of ghosting around an enemy patrol, I sprint right into them. It was pretty hilarious actually, I practically came from nowhere – one guy was so shocked he stumbled backwards, giving me ample opportunity to hit him upside the head with my rifle. My other dude opened fire, breaching my suit’s armour (it’s severely weakened in Speed mode) and injuring me. I respond by breaching his internal organs.

Soon, I’ve not-died long enough to spot my objective – a radio jammer on the coast that needs disabling. There are three guys walking around and a patrol boat guarding the beach. I’m coming from behind – I can cloak into the nearest building, recharge, cloak back out and kidnap each of the three guards in turn (in Crysis you can grab enemies by the throat, even when invisible – besides being stealthy, the look on their faces makes it a worthwhile tactic), knock them out in the safety of the shack, then switch to MAXIMUM ARMOUR and snipe the machine gunner on the boat. Simple!

I go all see-through and leg it towards the shack. It was all going to plan until the nearest grunt suddenly swivelled around, unknowingly eyeing where I planned to decloak. What happened then was such a rapid, forceful annihilation of my plan that my eyes were spinning several seconds after the ‘Game Over’ screen popped up. I was forced to duck behind a small rock to recharge my cloak, my original spot now guarded by an depressingly unaware North Korean solider. He couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see him, the boat could see us both. I felt the wrath of Delta Mode, a wrath I had thus far managed to avoid – my cloak ran out, the boat gunner opened fire, my energy-drained armour failed, and I was killed in two hits. The NK soldier simply glanced around, confused and clueless. And I didn’t even have a chance to take a screenshot.

Contact to Death time: 7:30 – Pretty good at first glance, but we must consider two things – one, a large part of the opening level consists primarily of walking, presumably so the developers could force you to admire the scenery, supposedly the best in any game, as you whisper “The rumours were true!” Secondly, the actual time it took me to go from full health to death at the hands of the boat was around sixteen milliseconds, narrowly beating HL2E2’s acid-tossers.

Butt-Fuck Rating: 8/10 – Whilst I did have the most sophisticated military equipment in the world, regenerating health, and a goddamn cloaking device, having instant death as a penalty for being within the field of view of a boat is too far, man.

Death Scene: 5/10 – Similar to HL2E2, except a) the beeping noise was replaced by your character’s pained yelp and b) you can see your hands, arms and legs as they go limp. Only I couldn’t see mine this time, but it’s a nice if grim touch.

Game: Half Life Source

Previously played on: Easy (1/3)

Dammit, Valve Software. Besides making up most of my games collection, you had (at least when this was made) a very skewed perception of what ‘Easy’ meant. I remember crawling through this game with 20 health and no armour power left, limping from encounter to encounter (which I got through with cowardly hit-and-run tactics) until the next glorious recharging station. I remember the Marines who not only outnumbered you 4000-1 but could also take roughly as many bullets as you, and were more accurate with that MP5 that jumped around in my hands like a horny rabbit. Suffice to say, I didn’t have high hopes for this one.

I cheated a bit by skipping to the third chapter (though it’s okay because the first two remain completely enemy-free, offering a unique gameplay experience at the cost of being as mundane as a Jacobs cream cracker, or reading this site). Rather than fight, as I had done in the other games involved in this experiment, I decided to run – I’d been killed too many times on Easy mode, I wasn’t going to multiply that by a factor of three. The explosive introduction of, umm, a weak cannon-fodder enemy had a wet towel thrown over it by me, a terrified bespectacled theoretical physicist (maybe that’s why this game’s so hard) in an orange exoskeleton. It was the first and only enemy I saw for a while – if I hadn’t played this game before I’d have thought they were actively discouraging combat – until I came upon a security guard fending off zombies. These aren’t the sprinting , stomping, clawing Parkour-stiffs of Left 4 Dead, but the classically shuffling recently dead. With aliens stuck on their heads.

I let the guard deal with them as I was only armed with a crowbar, and their fingernails looked hella sharp. Shortly afterwards, after the guard (and, more importantly, his gun) neglected to follow me, I rounded a corner and bumped into some more. They blocked the way. Me and my crowbar-wielding arse were dead, until I masterfully bobbed and weaved them into each other’s paths, expertly losing most of my health doing so, and then hoofing it past them. Only then did I find a gun. Yay.

Shooting my way through the next few aliens, bizarre cyclopean puppies that somehow emitted harmful sonic waves, was fairly easy owing to the fact that a) I had twice as many eyes as them and b) I wussed out and took pot shots at them from afar. The only cost was I had three bullets left. With an expectant sigh a bigger, badder alien that shoots lightning like Zeus kicked a door in and took aim at my gonads. I managed to empty my pistol into him but he was still alive, and presumably quite annoyed. I quickly hatched an emergency plan to hide behind a barrel, and rough him up crowbar-style once he came around it. I decided not to duck, as the barrel covered most of my body and last-gen computer game enemies are usually dumb enough to aim only at your chest. This enemy was not so dumb. A crack of yellow light punctured my face miraculously not killing me, but rendering my barrel-cover seemingly useless. Not knowing what else to do I make a break for it back the way I came, but I can’t outun lightning and he gets me in the back. 3 totally unexpected deaths out of four? I’m starting to think this was a bad idea.

Contact to Death time: 2:45 – Ouch. I’ll spare an explanation, but will say that I’m so very, very ashamed.

Butt-Fuck Rating: 7/10 – I had a crowbar and seemingly the weakest gun in virtual history. I never missed a shot and still ran out of sufficient ammo by the time the big boys came in. I play a nerdy scientist. These three factors all contribute to the feeling that when you meet the inevitable “I can’t believe you survived!” character, you might actually agree with them.

Death Scene: 2/10 – Basically the same as HL2E2’s, which is to say “poor”. If I’m going to be electrocuted into the afterlife with such frequency, at the very least I expect to explode or something. The screen doesn’t even go red.

Conclusion

Did I enjoy playing the hardest difficulty on these games? Honestly, no. When you know that a single hit can kill you and there are more healthy enemies out there than you have bullets, it turns into a dark, almost claustrophobic experience. Maybe the feeling of triumph is greater when the challenge is harder, but if I can’t reach the point of victory without having to restart enough times for it to be a chore, I can’t see the appeal.

There is such a thing as games being too easy – I recall Call of Duty 4 was, on the lowest difficulty, like fighting an army of blind men with armour made of wet tissue paper, whilst you were armed with a fully-automatic rifle that shot explosive cyanide bullets. But the problem with multiple difficulties is that the lower ones condition you to play in a manner that will see you dead in the higher ones.

Take Crysis – it’s possible to pass through huge sections without being seen, heard or noticed, as long as you make good use of your suit’s different abilities. But playing on Easy mode, with its super-powered armour function, means that you’ll learn to stomp through enemies as bullets ricochet off you harmlessly. This simply won’t work on Delta – there’s a limit on how many enemies can be shooting at you at once. On Easy, it’s 5. On Delta, it’s 20.

Of course, I could probably have survived longer if I used my brain rather than relying on my (now useless) space-armour. But I’ve always been more of a ‘CHAAARGE’ sort of player, and old habits die hard – unlike me, it seems.

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