Sunday, 22 May 2011

On "Difficult" and "Cheap"... (Part 3)

    In my last entry I tried to backup my statements about what makes a game difficult or cheap by giving a specific example from the realm of action games: The 3D Ninja Gaiden games. In this one I will try to complete my analysis on the matter at hand by presenting another specimen, this time taken from the genre of Western RPGs. Steel yourselves for the last section of my three-part and lets take a trip into the insanity of imba in the land of Thedas... time to sink our teeth in...

    Dragon Age...

    To be fair and accurate, there are not many issues of the kind related to the first game in the series, Dragon Age: Origins. The game was fairly balanced on all difficulty settings, offering ample challenge without sacrificing "fairness" towards the user or rewards/ demand. From beginning to end, even on "Nightmare," the player was faced with a plethora of tough combat scenarios but most of them required more thinking and strategy than brawn and stat abuse. It was exhilarating to get past these enemies and in the end of the session there was a sense of accomplishment to be found. One would have managed to get past something seemingly impossible by being a better tactician. It FELT right.

    Of course it was not all rainbows and lilies. In true "old-school" fashion the game would divide its enemies into categories: Normal, Lieutenants, Bosses and Elite Bosses. No matter the class of the enemy, since it was included in one of the above categories it would assimilate its characteristics - Boss Mages would have the HP of 100 Warriors combined and Normal Reavers (a specific, very resilient kind of fighter) would fall like paper towers. It was a situation of pure "this is the tough guy and these are the creeps" likeness that seemed totally obsolete and stupid in 2009... and only looks more morbid in 2011. It is old and tired. Baldur's Gate II did it the right way in 1998. Surely the company behind Mass Effect 2 can do better.

    But, for all its small setbacks DA:O was still a balanced, enjoyable title no matter which setting one was using. It left a sweet taste in the mouth after most encounters and backed-up its thesis about "making it hard without making it cheap" that was present in the options menu. We had to wait two years to get our hands on the sequel and, well, let's just say that two more would have been fine...

    It becomes painfully apparent from the get-go: Numerous enemies, of little individual worth, reinforced every 20" out of nowhere while the player is stripped of most useful tools and abilities. I have NOTHING against making the game more direct and fluid but in this case I felt like I had to fight an Ogre with nothing but a simple fireball spell and a cheap sword... wait, I actually HAD to!

    The message is still there, of course, taunting us. The developers claim the "Nightmare""  is not aimed at making the experience un-bearable, it's simply there to test the mettle of the best tactician. Yeah, right. I can name numerous occasions in which the player is simply overpowered, outmanned and faced with the grim reality of MORE ninja reinforcements. And when I say "ninja" I more or less mean it: Thugs and Templars jumping off the bloody roofs! I mean, is that even possible for a person wearing 50-60 kilos of solid steel armor?

    No, I did not forget, my dear reader of similar experiences. Of course I did not forget about the various Assassins, Hunters and what-ifs. Out of nowhere, on various occasions, some lout will cloak in plain sight, following the GENIUS plan by backstabbing a party member and causing tremendous damage (this is a reference to Hard and Nightmare, the "Diablo-clone" Normal mode is of no substance). In most cases this will mean instant death for most Rogues and Mages. It is imbalanced, infuriating and without real counter. The game states that an area attack will de-cloak any such enemies but in most cases this simply doesn't work, not to mention the fact that on Nightmare even melee skills will damage your own characters. Add to this mess the fact that the smallest, most insubstantial of foes sports more HP than your most hardened Warrior, and that simple prodding by any Archer in melee is enough to stagger you most resilient of combatants and you have in your hands a fine example of irredeemable, imbalanced and total FUBAR situation. No, I will not elaborate on what FUBAR means. Google it. 

    It is a cluster-phail of proportions epic enough to fit right next the game's excellent and original story. A real shame considering how the botched combat really takes most pleasure out of it on the higher levels. It is a simple test of patience until you grow too tired and decide that the best option is simply waiting for the next balancing patch that comes along. If ever...

This magnificent dragon looks like a foe worth combating. After all, the game is called Dragon Age, isn't it? A shame then that the ONLY available High Dragon is one summoning dozens of reinforcements, like any other lowly poop, making the battle drag on and on until you either tackle it successfully or come crushing down to the realization that you have to repeat the 20' encounter all over again. It gets old, really, REALLY fast...

    It is to go without saying that you do not have to agree with me. I believe though that I have delivered a solid argument, proving that cheap gameplay can fit in all genres and pollute even the most epic of experiences. At some point developers will have to realize that when a game is shipped, every and each of its aspects has to be balanced. A higher difficulty setting does not have to mean more HP for the enemies or handicapped player-characters. It should be more about tactics, patience and skill. Why do we have to empty whole clips on a single Locust Drone, repeatedly pummel a single Darkspawn or melee a lone Elite fifteen times when a single headshot should always do the trick, one petrified enemy should logically get smashed by a single blow? I mean, it happens to OUR characters, does it not? 
    The average player expects balance from his or her games. A dedicated one demands it. If it is impossible for the average developer to include balanced setting into their games it's better if there are none to be found at all. I will always remember the titles that offered fine-tuned experiences no matter the picked options with a smile. As for games like those mentioned in this article... I'd rather wait for some patch.



  1. Amazing, I don't want witcher 2, I want you, cause you are the WITCHER XD. Now ontopic, I agree with you in any means. I haven't played DA: Origins (yet) so I can't complain at all. As for DA II you can tell that in normal difficulty is enjoyable but easy in the majority of the game. But when you change the difficulty to hard the game becomes so annoying that you want to vomit, the "Smart Idea" of godlike rogues is just disgusting because 1 rogue can ruin your whole party just hitting each one from behind...
    Anyway DA II is a good game BUT the battle system and the difficulties are an UBER FAIL!

  2. Yup, a man after my own heart. Glad you liked this part as well mate and glad to know I am not the only one out there suffering from this game's imbalances! xD

  3. The major difference between Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 is their identity. ME 2 knows well what it represents but DA 2 is still confused. Old solid rpg mechanics are good and can have a place these modern times but today some things in RPGs need changes. Traditional stuff like stats,D&D mechanics, super characters stronger than bosses and loot like armor which can be found in the belly of the bear or behind my mom's garden shouldn't be existed.
    In any case Dragon Age IP and other future projects must ascend to the next level if BioWare members want to avoid generally having their games as a second choice behind Mass Effect 2 new approach.
    The Will of the Almighty is that purists should be condemned into exile.

  4. Exactly! Very well-stated. Lack of certain direction is one of the main reasons why the game suffers from its presented weaknesses. It's like we are talking about a completely experimental procedure - well, the devs acknowledge this to a degree - that wasn't meant to be solid itself but was created to prepare the ground for some sequel... let's hope there is more balancing in the works and that the third installment turns out to be the best of both worlds...