Apparently I Like It Hard

Balancing difficulty and ensuring a game provides as steady a learning curve as possible is a delicate process. The related testing has to be thorough and well-analysed, and the structure of that testing itself must be intelligently designed. This, as with anything else in development, costs time and resources.

The ideal, in most cases, is to provide a consistent challenge for the player that progresses along with the player’s skill development. This has to tie in with any notions of pacing or intensity that are also woven into progression through the game.

For me, two games that nail this idea to a skateboard and then confidently ride said skateboard up and down a half-pipe gracefully are Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and, more recently, Valve’s Portal. Each time the player’s understanding of their abilities within the game world improves the surrounding challenge steepens. The twists, turns, surprises and sudden challenges along the way are the little kickflips and grabs they pop as they air off the edges of the half-pipe.

A solid metaphor.
A solid metaphor.

Codemasters’ military shooter Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising takes the skateboard and smashes it into a million pieces with one stamp of its colossal military issue boot. Then when you try to pick up one of the pieces, the boot stamps on your hand and makes you bleed and cry.

If it sees you crying, it orders you to eat every piece of the skateboard whilst doing press-ups. Then it punches you in the groin and pushes you off the edge of the half-pipe.

For you see, games like Portal ease the player in, only lightly punish failure and offer the next chapter in a fascinating and vibrant world as the chief reward for success. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising rewards failure with misery and success only leads to more failure on a different part of a dank island from which there is no escape. Which is not dissimilar from living in Britain, so maybe the whole game is just a subtle social commentary. Probably not though.

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising finds misery where there was no misery before. Switching between weapons requires the holding down of one button, then scrolling down to your selection, then you must release the button. Only then does the relevant animation begin. Switching from one rifle to another only takes a few seconds. However, if you wish to switch to a rocket launcher, then you’re in for a wait. Your character has to first sign the relevant forms triggering the paper trail that will, all being well, lead to your being able to fire a rocket within 6-8 weeks. Sometimes enemy armor will wait patiently for you, but often it will straight up shoot you in the nipples with explosive shells as you carefully assemble the various pieces of your launcher. This leads to intense frustration, and not just in your nipples.

Normal reloading also takes an agonisingly long time.
Normal reloading also takes an agonisingly long time.

Should you wish to fire a special, “Javelin”, missile launcher, the wait is even longer. Once you’ve selected it in your inventory, your character effectively builds it from scratch. Whilst you sit and wait for him to fashion the targeting system from twigs and bits of exploded nipple, civilizations are liable to fall. Sitting in front of the TV and waiting for your Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising character to assemble his Javelin launcher will become the focus of your family’s life. As you age, you will pass the sacred task down to your first born child. They will pass it to their first born. And they to theirs. Finally, once it is assembled, your great grandchild will aim it at the enemy tank, wait for the nipple-based targeting system to lock on, take a deep breath, and pull the trigger. The missile will miss, because Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising sometimes just doesn’t work, and your great grandchild will have to reload the last checkpoint and begin the sacred task again.

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is not the most robustly coded game you’ll ever play. I’d imagine that in real-life warfare unexpected events can occur which you are forced to adapt to if you are to complete your mission. However, I doubt that in real-life warfare your allies will sometimes entirely forget who they are and what they’re doing though, or that they, on occasion, cause their vehicles to burst into flames for no apparent reason.

This sort of thing did work in my favour once though. The hardest mission (mission three, obviously) has you and your “squad” trying to defend a small village from an enemy assault on all sides. After trying it, let’s say, several times with varying degrees of horrific failure I eventually tried stealing an APC and then parking it behind a small bush. The small bush rendered my APC invisible to the enemy army and I completed the mission first try. I’m less than confident that strategy would work in an actual war, but I guess it would be worth a try.

The point is that even though Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is ridiculously and at times hatefully difficult, I was still compelled to beat it on the hardest setting. A setting on which death at any point during a mission results in your having to restart the entire mission from the start again. A setting on which you must constantly bring up the game map to see where your teammates, allies, enemies and objectives are because the HUD is disabled. A challenge that has to be met with the flaky teammate AI intact from the easier difficulties, assuming that you don’t have three friends that own the game and haven’t melted it in the microwave in anger.

Probably best to sit this one out until we can find a small bush to hide behind.
Probably best to sit this one out until we can find a small bush to hide behind.

I did it because I knew how satisfying it would be to beat it. The harder the game, the more satisfaction I get. Operation Flashpoint, for all its flaws and faults, is consistently tough and requires you to continually utilise a range of practised skills to beat it. Because of that, it’s one of the most satisfying games I’ve ever bested.

Plus: Achievements.







7 responses to “Apparently I Like It Hard”

  1. Kat avatar

    Is the skateboard metaphor a poignant nod to the happy days of you working through Skate 2? 😉

    This blog made me lol, hard but then I clearly get off on you struggling through these games as we both know.

    Congrats on completing it on hardest setting 🙂

  2. Celeste avatar

    Oh Simon, you have just started my day off beautifully. And your last paragraph – I couldn’t have put it better myself. I think there maybe a bit of masochism involved in this kind of enjoyment, but I’m with you all the way -man!

  3. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    I tend to go for the hardest difficulty setting on a second playthrough of a game. Sometimes trying to work out what to do, where to go or who the frick is shooting at you can be frustrating in itself so I work it out on the normal setting so I at least have a clue for the harder difficulty.

    The satisfaction is still there, I know I am joyous after beating any level on veteran in the COD series.

  4. Markatansky avatar

    Awesome article. Best line: “This leads to intense frustration, and not just in your nipples.” XD

  5. Michael avatar

    Operation Flashpoint was always hard, not to mention somewhat buggy on PC. Intense frustration then satisfaction? Yes, shooting Nazis that spawn from all over the place in Veteran CoD has that effect.

  6. James avatar

    Monster Hunter 2 has the steepest difficulty curve I’ve yet experienced. Its sheerness had a lot to do with factors like dodgy controls and stupid camera angles. It also had the ridiculously time-consuming item select feature you mention.

    They shouldn’t put games like that on handheld consoles. I had to tape the thing to my palms to stop my rage from propelling in into the nearest hard surface every 15 minutes.

    Kudos on completion and words.

  7. Jonny/IV DemonJ avatar
    Jonny/IV DemonJ

    I found a deeper meaning to your opening few paragraphs that really related to me. My past girlfriends. Except i never beat them. They beat me and now I live in a windowless padded room with my pet kraken called Meme for company.

    I think we can all say that you are my hero in the face of adversity.

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