Pop quiz: Toss a game in your system of choice and change the difficulty setting. What happens?
A) The game throws in more and more enemies, making your TV screen looks like a Japanese subway car at rush hour.
B) The game amps up the intelligence of those enemies, meaning they can spot you through walls and drop you from 500 feet with a pistol.
C) The game increases the amount of damage bad guys can take so that they can absorb more bullets than 50 Cent.
D) Or, conversely, the game reduces your own character’s health until you can be knocked flat by a fly swatter.
Most games answer you with some combination of A, B, C, or D. Trouble is, these artificial methods usually end up feeling cheap.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, a tactical first-person shooter due out October 6 on PC, 360, and PS3, ignores all of the above and instead proposes a new answer to the difficulty question. The game’s difficulty is based on one simple rule: the higher the setting, the more realistic the game is.
For example, play Operation Flashpoint on Normal and you’ll be treated to all the standard aids found in a shooter: health indicator, compass, and icons pointing the way to the next checkpoint. Visual indicators tell you if you’ve sighted a friend or shot a foe. At each checkpoint, any of your fallen squad mates will respawn.
Switch to Experienced and you’ll lose most of the crutches. No longer will in-game icons point you to the next objective. Checkpoints are spaced farther apart. And when a team member dies, he’s dead for the rest of the mission.
Crank it up all the way to Hardcore and you may as well as sign up with the military. The HUD disappears completely, checkpoints don’t exist, and when your team mates fall, they stay down. You’ve got to rely solely on your eyes, your ears, and your instincts to complete each mission.
But perhaps more significant than what does change with each difficulty level is what doesn’t. No matter which mode you play, you’re going to face the same intelligent enemies. Your head shots will knock off the same amount of damage. And a bullet ripping through your leg is going to hobble you whether you’re on Normal, Experienced, or Hardcore.
What this means is that the game always feels balanced. On Normal mode, you’re no bullet-sponge; you still have to work with your team and use cover if you want to survive. But grunts with superhuman vision and accuracy can’t cheaply pick you off with a pistol on Hardcore, either.
Instead, the difficulty levels break down like this: On Normal, I felt very aware that I was playing a game. On Hardcore? I felt totally immersed in the experience of war. I’ve never been in the military, but I found myself ordering my CPU squad mates to do things like, “Proceed on the double to whiskey-tango-foxtrot for rendezvous and extraction!” (I get all my military jargon from movies.)
Obviously this realistic approach to difficulty won’t work for all games — what does “realistic” mean in something like Gears of War? — but I hope other developers take note of it. Sure, I got my ass handed to me while playing on Hardcore, but none of my deaths felt cheap. Given proper training and practice, I know I could succeed.
And that’s a good feeling to get from a game.